Nicholas Senn.

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ception, perhaps, of the Maoris, or New Zea-

The superstition of the taboo, the use of kava
as an intoxicating drink, cannibalism, infanticide,
offering of human sacrifices, tattooing, and cir-
cumcision, which were formerly prevalent in
Tahiti, have disappeared under the influence of

Much has been said about the beauty of some
of the women of the South Sea Islands, but I
am sure I do them no injustice if I say that these
descriptions are overdrawn by sentimental writers
and do not correspond, when put to the test of
comparison, with the reality. When young, there


is something fascinating about the women, im-
parted by the luxurious jet-black hair, the large
black eyes as they gaze at the strangers

With a smile that is childlike and bland.

Francis Bret Harte.

Beauty and youth among the Tahitian women
are of short duration, and in most of them
advanced age brings an undesirable degree of

Cook visited these people when they were in
their original physical and moral state. He
praises their openness and generosity. "Neither
does care ever seem to wrinkle their brow. On the
contrary, even the approach of death does not
appear to alter their usual vivacity. I have seen
them, when brought to the brink of the grave by
disease, and when preparing to go to battle ; but in
neither case, never observed their countenance
overclouded with melancholy, or serious reflec-
tion. Such a disposition leads them to direct
all their aims only to what can give them pleasure
and ease."

The whole countenance is a certain silent language
of the mind. Cicero.

These mental traits have been preserved up to
the present time. Melancholy and suicide are
almost unknown in Tahiti. The- people are
happy, contented and free from care and anxiety


Enjoy the pleasures of the passing hour, and bid
adieu for a time to grave pursuits. Horatius.

They seem to know that

Care and the desire for more
Attend the still increasing store.


Desire for great wealth does not exist among
the natives. Nature has supplied them with
nearly all they need, hence little remains for
them to do to meet their modest desires.

Religion has not done away entirely with super-
stition, and has improved their morals little, if
any. Old European residents of Papeete agree
that the morality of the natives has not improved
since they have been under the influence of
civilization, forced on them by the European
invaders. The greatest fault of the people is
their incurable laziness, a vice for which they
are not entirely responsible, as Nature has pro-
vided so bountifully for their needs. Robbery,
stealing and murder are almost unknown; petty
thefts, on the contrary, are quite common. The
people, young and old, are affable, extremely
courteous and hospitable to a fault; the family
ties strong, and extending to the remotest rela-

Man is a social animal, and born to live together so
as to regard the world as one house. Seneca.

Nowhere in the world are the people more
sociable than in Tahiti. This sociability was


perhaps more pronounced before the island was
discovered than it is now, but it remains to this
day as one of the prominent characteristics of
the Polynesian race. Respect and love for par-
ents, strong attachments to relatives and friends,
are striking virtues of the Tahitians. They love
social intercourse and have the highest regard
for friendship. Poverty and misfortunes do not
intercept friendships, on the contrary they
cement them more firmly.

The firmest friendships have been formed in mutual
adversity; as iron is most strongly united by the
fiercest flames. Colton.

Before European influence had made itself felt
in the island, each tribe constituted a large fam-
ily, and property lines were not sharply defined.
As long as there was anything to eat, no one
v/as left hungry. The Tahitians are extremely
fond of mingling with their relatives, friends,
micmbers of the same and other tribes. They
appreciate to the fullest extent that "we have
been born to unite with fellow-men, and to join
in community with the human race" (Cicero).
They treat old age with reverence and respect,
and take the very best care of the sick and poor.

Unity of feelings and affections is the strongest
relationship. Publius Syrus.

Under the teachings of the missionaries,
Protestant and Catholic, paganism has disap-


peared from the island. All are church-members
and attend service regularly. The denomina-
tions represented are the Episcopalians, Cath-
olics and Latter-day Saints in above numerical
order. Most of the priests and preachers are
natives. Christianity, has, however, failed to
suppress immorality and do away entirely with
the inborn superstition of the natives. The
former evil is firmly rooted, the latter difficult of
complete eradication.

Nothing has more power over the multitude than
superstition : in other respects powerless, ferocious,
fickle, when it is once captivated by superstitious
notions, it obeys its priests better than its leaders.


Wicked habits are productive of vice, and vice
follows long-standing- habits. The Tahitians are
by nature kind, affectionate, and their opinions
are easily moulded for good or bad, but many of
their customs and habits cling to them in spite of
civilization and Christianization, for ''how many
unjust and wicked things are done from mere
habit!" (Terentius) ; and "so much power has
custom over tender minds" (Virgilius).

The children of Tahiti are given excellent
opportunities for obtaining a good elementary
education. In all of the larger villages there is
a government school, usually two churches.
Catholic and Protestant, and their respective
parochial schools. The natives love their Ian-


guage and are averse to the French, hence, as a
rule, the parochial are better patronized than the
government schools. The literature in the
Tahitian language is limited to translations of
the Bible, catechisms, religious song books and a
few school books. Children of the better classes
who seek a higher education, go abroad, in pref-
erence to the United States. Few show any
ambition to enter any of the professions with the
exception of the clerical. The mass of the people
are content in leading an easy, dreamy life,
showing no disposition either to acquire wealth
or fame. Agriculture, manufacture and com-
merce have no attraction for them. They are
children from the cradle to the grave, have the
desires of children, and are pleased with what
pleases children. Their tastes are simple, their
desires few, and instead of in care and worry,
they live through their span of life in peace of
mind and contentment.

But if men would live according to reason's rules,
they would find the greatest riches to live content with
little, for there is never want where the mind is
satisfied. Lucretius.

In contrast to the Westerner, the favored
Tahitian can say:

I have everything, yet have nothing ; and although I
possess nothing, still of nothing am I in want.


The natives are temperate in drinking, and
frugal in eating. Fish and fruit are their prin-


cipal articles of diet. Their habits in this direc-
tion have not undergone much change since
.Captain Cook wrote :

Their common diet is made up of at least nine-
tenths vegetable food ; and, I believe, more particularly,
the mahee, or fermented breadfruit, which enters
almost every meal, has a remarkable effect upon them,
preventing a costive habit, and producing a very
sensible coolness about them, which could not be
perceived in us who fed on animal food. And it is,
perhaps, owing to this temperate course of life that
they have so few diseases among them.

Smoking is indulged in only to a moderate
extent, cigarettes and pipe being the favorite
methods of consuming the weed.

Art has never had a place in the minds of
the Tahitians. All attempts in this direction in
design, carving and sculpture, are rude. Like
all primitive peoples, they are fond of music.
Their voices are sweet, but the airs of their
music are monotonous. The primitive drum, and
a little crude instrument made of bamboo, some-
thing like a flute, placed in one of the nostrils
when played, are the instruments in most com-
mon use. The national dance, formerly the
principal amusement of the people, is discouraged
by the government, but is allowed once a year
as a special favor to the natives.


Most of the foreigners who remain perma-
nently in Tahiti become attached to the island
by marriage, the strongest possible incentive to
make it their permanent home. Many of these
men are adventurers. Some of them have honest
intentions to make this beautiful island their per-
manent home. Far away from their place of
birth and relatives, charmed by the beauties of
the island, they conclude:

I will take some savage woman; she shall rear my
dusky race. Tennyson.

In many instances such unions have resulted
very happily. On the voyage from San Fran-
cisco to Tahiti, I met Mr. George R. Richardson,
a native of Springfield, Mass., who had lived for
the last thirty years, with his native wife on the
little atoll island, Kaukuaia of the Tuamotu group,
one hundred and sixty-eight miles from Tahiti.
He was suffering from carcinoma of the
esophagus, and was returning from San Fran-
cisco, whither he had gone for medical advice.
His parents were still living, but he had no
desire to visit the place of his birth, so fully had
he become acclimated to the climatic and native
conditions of the Society Islands. He was then
fifty-five years of age. He left the United States




March 4, 1874, on a sailing vessel, and six months
later landed at Tahxa. In six months he had ob-
tained a fair knowledge of the native language,
and married in Kaukuaia a woman who could not
speak a word of English. This union resulted in
sixteen children, three of whom died, six girls
and seven boys living at the present time, and of
these, three girls and two boys are married.
Through his wife he inherited from her mother
five acres of land with three thousand cocoanut-
palms. To this land he obtained a legal owner-
ship eight years ago by virtue of a law of legal
registration passed by the government. The
island on which he lives contains only one hun-
dred and fifty inhabitants and the only income is
obtained from copra and mother-of-pearl.

The inhabitants of this island are Catholics and
Mormons. A Catholic priest comes once a month
to minister to the spiritual needs of the adher-
ents to the faith of his church. The services of
both denominations are conducted in the native
language. He and a Frenchman are the only
white inhabitants of the island.

On February 16, 1878, a great storm over-
flooded the island and our x\merican, who spent
a whole night in the crown of a cocoanut tree,
lost everything. Only five thousand cocoanut
trees were left on the whole island. A man-of-
war came from Tahiti three days later and min-
istered to the urgent needs of the survivors.


The inhabitants of this little island suffer
frequently from malaria and grippe. The
latter disease returns regularly almost every
year. Of the remaining diseases, diarrhea
and dysentery are the most common. Tuber-
culosis is prevalent and claims many victims.
This island has now a population of one hun-
dred and fifty, and during his residence he
has never seen a physician, although the in-
habitants were frequently in need of medical
services. He was obliged to render his wife
assistance at the birth of all of his children, and
strangely, each time without any mishap, either
to mother or child. What happened on that
island must have happened on the many other dis-
tant islands under similar circumstances. Here,
like elsewhere, in the South Sea Islands, are
medicine-men who attend to tooth-pulling, and,
when any cutting is to be done, a scalpel is made
of a piece of glass. In case of sickness they make
use of roots and herbs of their own gathering.


The Tahitian is not a business man. What Httle
business is transacted in the island is done by
foreigners. The larger stores in Papeete are
owned and managed by French, Germans and
Americans. The smaller stores in the city, and
nearly all small shops in the villages, are in the
hands of Chinamen.

The fertile soil of Tahiti is not made use of to
any considerable extent. The sugar industry has
been tried but has been entirely abandoned, owing
to high wages for labor and exorbitant freight
rates. The principal articles of export are copra,
cocoanuts, vanilla-beans and mother-of-pearl
shells. Copra (dried meat of cocoanut), brings
three cents a kilo and cocoanuts are sold at a
cent apiece. The raising of vanilla-beans was a
paying industry five years ago, when they com-
manded a price of seventeen dollars a pound, and
were then eagerly sought for in the market, as
they were considered superior in flavor to those
of any other country. The Chinamen have ruined
this source of income as well as the reputation of
the product. These shrewd business men control
the local market completely and go from place
to place long before harvest-time, buy the whole
crop for the year for cash, and have the beans
picked before they are ripe and mature them arti-



ficially. The result of such dishonest trans-
actions has been that, owing to the poor quaUty
of the beans thus treated, the price of the article
has been reduced to three or four dollars per

The vanilla-bean grows best in the shady
forests, and requires but little attention except
artificial fertilization of the flowers and picking
of the beans. In the West Indies the numerous
insects fertilize the monogamous flowers; in this
island, this has to be done largely by artificial
fecundation. Women and children do this work.
With a sharp little stick, the pollen is taken from
the anthers and rubbed over the stigma of the
pistil. A child who is active can fertilize fifteen
hundred flowers a day. It is a great pity that
this industry has been cheapened by the avari-
cious Chinamen, as it is an industry that requires
very little labor and should be remunerative, as
the soil and climate are peculiarly well adapted
for the cultivation of this valuable aromatic.

Most of the fruit which grows in Tahiti is too
perishable for transportation and is consequently
very cheap. The largest and most luscious pine-
apples can be bought for three cents apiece,
oranges one-fourth of a cent. Alligator pears,
the finest fruit grown anywhere, are sold at the
market for two and three cents apiece. At the
time of my visit, eggs were sold at forty cents a
dozen. Meat, with the exception of pork, is im-


ported from New Zealand and the United States.
Most of the native families raise hogs, and this
animal is found also in a wild state in the jungles
of the forests.

The wages, for this island, are rather high. An
ordinary laborer is paid seventy-five cents a
day, and the women who are willing to work can
earn fifty cents a day. The average Tahitian
v/orks only long enough to procure the neces-
sities of life, and, as these are few, it is difficult
to find men and women for ordinary labor and

The fact that there is no bank in the whole
island shows that the amount of money which
circulates among the people is very small. Some
enterprising American attempted to establish a
telephone line encircling the island, but lack of
patronage soon paralyzed the undertaking. The
island is a place for a dreamy, easy existence, and
not for business.

The communication with the outside world is
carried on by two regular steamer lines, one
from San Francisco, the other from Auckland,
but both of these lines are supported by liberal
government subsidies to make them remunerative,
as the passenger traffic and the exports and im-
ports of the island would not suffice to make them
independent of government aid.


What will not length of time be able to change?


Tahiti is exceedingly interesting to-day, but
how much more so must it have been to Captain
Wallis and his crew, who first set their eyes on
this gem of the Pacific! When the Dolphin
came in sight of this beautiful island that never
before had been seen by a white man, we can
readily imagine officers and crew straining their
eyes to see first its rugged outlines, and later the
details of the wonderful landscapes. Under the
blue sky and lighted up by the vigorous rays of
the tropic sun, they could see the mountain-peaks
clothed in the verdure of a tropic forest, the
little island set like a gem in the ocean, and, as
they beheld these mountains and turned their
eyes upward they could also see

They were canopied by the blue sky, so cloudless,
clear, and purely beautiful that God alone was to be
seen in heaven. Byron.

As they approached nearer and saw the natural
wealth of the island and its happy inhabitants
basking in the sunshine, eating what Nature had
provided for them without care or toil on their
part, they must have come to the unavoidable
conclusion that they at last had found a land




There was a never-ending spring, and flowers unsown
were kissed by the warm western breeze. Then the
unploughed land gave forth corn, and the ground, year
after year, was white with full ears of grain. Rivers
of milk, rivers of nectar ran, and the yellow honey
continued to pour from the ever-green oak.


On landing, having overcome the animosity of
the natives and ascertained the boundless
resources of the island, they could not escape
the conviction that they in their wanderings
over the limitless sea, had at last found "a heaven
on earth" (Milton).

What wonderful stories those men must have
brought to Eiirope on their return after the long
and hazardous voyage, when they related what
they had seen in Tahiti, then in its primitive
native state! Captain Cook made a longer stay
in the island on his first visit and had therefore
a better opportunity to study the island, its
resources and its interesting inhabitants. It is on
his descriptions we will rely in giving an account
of some of the traits, customs and habits of the
people as they existed at that time.


Every one is, in a small degree, the image of God. .


The most primitive of all races have some con-
ception of a divinity and a Hfe hereafter, for

A god has his abode within our breast; when he
rouses us, the glow of inspiration warms us ; this
holy rapture springs from the seeds of the divine mind
sown in man. Ovidius.

Let us listen to Captain Cook concerning the
religion of the Tahitians before they knew the
name of God and the story of the Saviour while
on earth :

The common people have only a very vague idea of
the religious sentiments of the race, but the priests,
who are quite numerous, have established quite an
extensive and somewhat complicated system. They
do not worship one God, as possessing preeminence;
but believe in a plurality of divinities, who are all
supposed to be very powerful, and, as different parts
of the island, and the other islands in the neighbor-
hood, have different ones, the inhabitants of such,
no doubt, think that they have chosen the most potent
and considerate one. Their devotion in serving their
gods is remarkably conspicuous. Not only the whattas
or offering-places of the morals are commonly loaded
with fruits and animals, but there are few houses
lacking a small place of the same sort. Many of them
are so impressed with their obligations to their divinity


that they will not begin a meal without first laying
aside a morsel for their Eatooa (their god).

Their prayers are also very frequent, which they
chant, much after the manner of songs, in their festive
entertainments. They also believe in an evil spirit,
they call Etee, who sometimes does them mischief,
and to whom, as well as to their god, they make

But the mischiefs they fear from any superior invisi-
ble beings are confined only to temporal things. They
believe the soul to be both immaterial and immortal.
They say that it keeps fluttering about the lips dur-
ing the pangs of death, and that then it ascends and
mixes with, or, as they express it, is eaten by the
deity. In this state it remains for some time; after
which it departs to a certain place destined for the
reception of the souls of men, where it exists in eternal
night, or, as they sometimes say, in twilight or dawn.
They have no idea of any permanent punishment after
death for crimes that they have committed on earth.
They believe in the recognition of relatives and friends
after death and in resuming the same relations as on
earth. If the husband dies first, the soul of his wife is
known to him on its arrival in the land of spirits. They
resume their former acquaintance, in a spacious house,
where the souls of the deceased assemble to recreate
themselves with the gods. From here man and wife
retire to their own habitation, where they remain

The most singular part of their faith consists in
claiming that not only man, but all other animals, trees,
fruit and even stones are endowed with a soul, which
at death, or upon being consumed or broken, ascends
to the divinity, with whom they first mix, and after-
ward pass into the mansion allotted to each.


The temples of the Tahitians were the maraes,
enclosures of stones, where the offerings were
rendered, and on certain occasions human beings
were sacrificed. The largest marae ever built in
Tahiti is located at Papara and the ruins of
it remain to-day. At the time of Captain
Cook's visit there were numerous maraes all over
the island, w^hich served as places of worship,
sacrifice and burial. The supreme chief of the
whole island was always housed in a marae and
after his death the marae was appropriated to
his family and some of the principal people. Such
a marae differed little from the common ones,
except in extent. Its principal part is a large,
oblong pile of stones, lying loosely upon each
other, about twelve or fourteen feet high, con-
tracted towards the top, with a square area on
each side, loosely packed with pebble stones,
under which the bones of the chiefs are buried.
At a little distance from the end nearest the sea is
the place where the sacrifices are offered, which,
for a considerable extent, is also loosely paved.
There is here a very large scaffold, or whatta, on
which the offerings, and other vegetables, are
laid. But the animals are deposited on a smaller
one, already mentioned, and the human sacri-
fices are buried under different parts of the pave-
ment. The marae is the altar of other nations.
The skulls of the human sacrifices, after a few
months, are exhumed and preserved in the marae.


Captain Cook counted forty-nine such skulls in
the marae in which he witnessed the human sac-

Cannibalism did not exist in Tahiti when the
island was discovered, but human sacrifices were
quite frequently offered as a kind of religious
ceremony to appease the anger or displeasure of
some offended god. The victims were tramps
and persons of no vocation. They were either
clubbed or stoned to death by persons designated
for this purpose by the priests. On Saturday,
August 30, 1777, while Captain Cook was
stationed at Matavai for the purpose of observing
the transit of Venus, he received a message that
on the following day a human sacrifice would be
made at Attahura, to Eatooa, to implore the
assistance of the deity against the inhabitants of
the island of Moorea, who were then in a state
of war with Tahiti. Towha, a chief and relative
of the then reigning king, had killed a man for
the sacrifice. Captain Cook, with several friends,
accompanied King Otoo to witness the ceremony,
and describes the event in detail :

On our way we landed upon a little island, which
lies off Tettaha, where we found Towha and his retinue.
After some little conversation between the two chiefs,
on the subject of the war, Towha addressed himself
to me, asking my assistance. When I excused myself,

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Online LibraryNicholas SennTahiti; the island paradise → online text (page 6 of 14)