Nicholas Senn.

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he seemed angry ; thinking it strange I, who had always
declared myself to be the friend of their island, should
not go and fight against its enemies. Before we parted


he gave to Otoo two or three red feathers, tied up in
a tuft; and a lean, half-starved dog was put in a canoe
that was to accompany us. We then embarked again,
taking on board a priest who was to assist at the
solemnity. As soon as we landed at Attahura, which
was about two o'clock in the afternoon, Otoo expressed
his desire that the seamen might be ordered to remain
in the boat, and that Mr. Anderson, Mr. Webber and
myself might take off our hats as soon as we should
come to the marai, to which we immediately proceeded,
attended by a great many men, and some boys, but not
one woman. We found four priests and their attend-
ants, or assistants, waiting for us.

The dead body, or sacrifice, was in a small canoe
that lay on the beach^ and partly in the water of the
sea, fronting the marai. Two of the priests, with
some of the attendants, were sitting by the canoe, the
others at the marai. Our company stopped about
twenty or thirty paces from the priests. Here Otoo
placed himself; we, and a few others standing by him,
while the bulk of the people lemained at a greater
distance. The ceremony now began. One of the
priest's attendants brought a young plantain tree, and
laid it down before Otoo. Another approached with
a small tuft of red feathers, twisted on some fibres of
the cocoanut husk, with which he touched one of the
King's, feet and then retired with it to his companions.
One of the priests, seated at the marai, facing those
who were upon the beach, now began a long prayer;
and, at certain times, sent down young plantain trees,
which were laid upon the sacrifice. During this prayer,
a man, who stood by the officiating priest, held in his
hands two bundles, seemingly of cloth. One of them, as
we afterward found, was the royal Maro; and the
other, if I may be allowed the expression, was the
ark of the Eatooa. As soon as the prayer was ended,


the priests at the marai, with their attendants, went
and sat down by those upon the beach, carrying with
them the two bundles. Here they renewed their
prayers, during which the plantain trees were taken,
one by one, at different times, from off the sacrifice,
which was partly wrapped up in cocoa-leaves and small

It was now taken out of the canoe^ and laid upon
the beach, with the feet to the sea. The priests placed
themselves around it, some sitting and others standing;
and one, or more of them, repeated sentences for about
ten minutes. The dead body was now uncovered,
by removing the leaves and branches, and laid in a
parallel direction with the seashore. One of the priests
then, standing at the feet of it, pronounced a long
prayer, in which he was, at times, joined by the others,
each holding in his hand a tuft of red feathers. In
the course of this prayer, some hair was pulled off the
head of the sacrifice, and the left eye taken out; both
of which were presented to Otoo, and wrapped up in
a green leaf. He did not, however, touch it; but gave,
to the man who presented it, the tuft of feathers, which
he had received from Towha. This, with the hair and
the eye, wa? carried back to the priests. Soon after,
Otoo sent to them another piece of feathers, which he
had given me in the morning to keep in my pocket.
During some part of this last ceremony, a kingfisher
making a noise in the trees, Otoo turned to me saying,
"That is the Eatooa;" and seemed to look upon it to
be a good omen.

The body was then carried a little way, with its head
toward the marai, and laid under a tree, near which
were fixed three broad, thin pieces of wood, differently
but rudely carved. The bundles of cloth were laid on
a part of the marai, and the tufts of red feathers were
placed at the feet of the sacrifice, round which the


priests took their stations, and we were now allowed
to go as near as we pleased. He seemed to be the
chief priest who sat at a small distance, and spoke for
a quarter of an hour, but with different tones and
gestures; so that he seemed often to expostulate with
the dead person, to whom he constantly addressed him-
self, and sometimes asked several questions, seemingly
with respect to the propriety of his having been
killed. At other times, he made several demands, as
if the deceased either now had power himself, or
interest with the divinity, to engage him to comply
with such requests. Among the petitions we understood,
he asked him to deliver Eimeo (Moorea), Maheine its
chief, the hogs, women and other things of the island
into their hands; which was, indeed, the express inten-
tion of the sacrifice. He then chanted a prayer, which
lasted nearly half an hour, in whining, melancholy tone,
accompanied by two other priests, and in which Potatou
and some others joined. In the course of this prayer,
some more hair was plucked by a priest from the head
of the corpse, and put upon one of the bundles. After
this, the chief priest prayed alone, holding in his hand
the feathers which came from Towha. When he had
finished, he gave them to another, who prayed in like
manner. Then all the tufts of the feathers were laid
upon the bundles of cloth, which closed the ceremony
at this place.

The corpse was then carried up to the most conspic-
uous part of the marai, with the feathers, the two
bundles of cloth, and the drums^ the last of which beat
slowly. The feathers and bundles were laid against
the pile of stones, and the corpse at the foot of them.
The priests having again seated themselves round it,
renewed their prayers, while some of their attendants
dug a hole about two feet deep, into which they threw
the unhappy victim, and covered it over with earth and


stones. While they were puttmg him into the grave,
a boy squeaked aloud and Omai (Captain Cook's inter-
preter) said that it was the Eatooa.

The human sacrifice was followed by the offering of
dogs and pigs. The many prayers and complicated
ceremonies attending human sacrifice stamp it as a
religious rite which has undoubtedly been practiced for
centuries. In this particular instance it meant a message
through the instrumentality of the unfortunate victim
to implore Eatooa for assistance in the impending war
with Moorea.

It is very interesting indeed to have an
account of this ceremony preserved by an eye-
witness like Captain Cook, and no apology is
necessary here to have it reappear in all its
minute details. Another religious ceremony of
lesser import is circumcision. How this custom
was introduced into Tahiti no one knows. It is
more than probable that, in some way it came
from the distant Orient in a modified form. It
differs from the Jewish rite in that it is not per-
formed on infants, but on boys approaching the
age of puberty. Captain Cook gives the follow-
ing description of the operation as he observed it :

When there are five or six lads pretty well grown
up in a neighborhood the father of one of them goes
to a Tahoua, or man of knowledge, and lets him know.
He goes with the lads to the top of the hills, attended
by a servant; and, seating one of them properly, intro-
duces a piece of wood underneath the foreskin, and
desires him to look aside at something he pretends is
coming. Having thus engaged the young man's atten-


tion to another object, he cuts through the skin upon
the wood, with a shark's tooth, generally at one stroke.
He then separates, or rather turns back, the divided
parts; and, having put on a bandage, proceeds to per-
form the same operation on the other lads. At the
end of five days they bathe, and the bandages being
taken off, the matter is cleaned away. At the end of
five days more they bathe again, and are well; but a
thickness of the prepuce, where it was cut, remaining,
they go again to the mountains with the Tahoua and
servant; and a fire being prepared, and some stones
heated, the Tahoua puts the prepuce between two of
them, and squeezes it gently, which removes the thick-
ness. They then return home, having their heads and
other parts of their bodies, adorned with odoriferous
flowers, and the Tahoua is rewarded for his services
by their fathers, in proportion to their several abilities,
with presents of hogs and cloth; and if they be poor,
their relations are liberal on the occasion.

How the wise man managed to keep the boys
together during two such painful ordeals is not
easy to understand, but as they remained at their
posts until all had passed through it speaks vol-
umes for their good behavior and manly courage.
That the Tahitians possessed many admirable
virtues during their paganism proves only too
clearly that

Virtue is shut out from no one; she is open to all,
accepts aH, invites all, gentlemen, freedmen, slaves,
kings and exiles ; she selects neither house nor fortune ;
she is satisfied with a huinan without adjuncts.



These virtues, the prayers, the sacrifices, the
behef in a supreme being and eternity, show
that the Tahitians were imbued with a natural
reHgion, for

The existence of God is so many ways manifest and
the obedience we owe Him so congruous to the light
of reason, that a great part of mankind give testimony
to the law of nature. Locke.

The natives had no literature nor any com-
munication with the outside world farther than
the neighboring island groups. Their only book
was nature, and this was read and studied with
eagerness and intelligence. Their ancient history
consisted of legendary lore handed down from
generation to generation. But

There are books extant which they must needs allow
oi as proper evidence; even the mighty volumes of
visible nature, and the everlasting tables of right reason.


From century to century, from generation to
generation, these people, without leaving a
permanent record of what had happened and
without being conscious of art or science, lived
and died in a state of happiness and contentment.

For he had no catechism but the creation, needed no
study but reOection, and read no book but the volume
of the world. South.

That ignorance and vice should have existed
among this primitive people, so completely iso-
lated from the progressive part of the world, is


not Strange, as they lived in a land of plenty, fed
and clothed, as it were, by the almost unaided
resources of nature, conditions largely respon-
sible for their inborn laziness. Ignorance and
superstition go hand in hand. The Tahitians have
always been extremely superstitious and both
civilization and Christianization have been power-
less in eradicating this national evil. We must,
however, judge them not too severely in this
matter, as superstition is by no means uncommon
amongst us at the present day. Our best poets
are not exempt from it.

I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this wondrous apparition:
It comes upon me! Shakespeare.

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen,
both when we wake and when we sleep.


A person terrified with the imagination of spectres is
more reasonable than one who thinks the appearance
of spirits fabulous and groundless. Addison.

With the progress and spread of education of
the masses, superstition will gradually be starved
out here as elsewhere. The greatest vice of the
Tahitians is licentiousness, which remains as when
Captain Cook visited the island. In speaking of
the looseness of the marital relations, he says :

And so agreeable is this licentious plan of life to
their disposition, that the most beautiful of both sexes
thus commonly spend their youthful days, habituated


to the practice of enormities which would disgrace the
most savage tribes, but are peculiarly shocking amongst
a people whose general character in other respects has
evident traces of the prevalence of humane and tender

The Tahitians have reason to claim that

The vices collected through so many ages for a long
time past flow in upon us. Seneca.

Intemperance among the natives has never had
a firm foothold in the island and tobacco is used
with moderation. Gambling, such a common vice
among the peoples of the Orient, has never been
cultivat«d and practiced to any extent in Tahiti.
These ocean-bound people, living in happy and
contented isolation, had no desire for national or
personal wealth or fame, neither had they any
inclination or desire for art or the sciences. They
believed in the mottoes:

If you are but content, you have enough to live upon
with comfort. Plautus.


Ambition breaks the ties of blood, and forgets the
obligations of gratitude. Sir Walter Scott.

They lived a restful, unselfish life, happy in the
companionship of their families, relatives and
friends, with no morbid desires to distract them
from the full enjoyment of what Nature showered
upon them with bountiful never-failing liberality.
Their customs are by Nature wrought;
But we, by art, unteach what Nature taught.



Tahltian royalty was hereditary, and women
were not excluded. There were chiefs and chief-
esses governing tribes, and head chiefs and
head chiefesses ruling over several tribes or the
whole island. There were no crowns and no
sceptres. The insignia of royalty was a belt
ornamented with feathers. The red feathers
were what the diamonds and other precious
stones are in ancient and modern crowns. This
belt was called Maro. Captain Cook gives the
following description of a maro :

It is a girdle, about five yards long, and fifteen
inches broad ; and, from its name, seems to be put on
in the same manner as is the common maro, or piece
of cloth used by these people to wrap round the waist.
It was ornamented with red and yellow feathers; but
mostly with the latter, taken from a dove found upon
the island. The one end was bordered with eight
pieces, each about the size and shape of a horseshoe,
having their edges fringed with black feathers. The
other end was forked, and the points were of different
lengths. The feathers were in square compartments,
ranged in two rows, and otherwise so disposed to
produce a pleasing effect. They had been first pasted
or fixed upon some of their own cloth, and then sewed
to the upper end of the pendant which Captain Wallis
had displayed, and left flying ashore, the first time that
he landed at Matavai.



This insignia of office was highly respected by
the natives and was handed down from one gen-
eration of rulers to the other, carrying with it
the sovereignty of the office. One of the civil
wars in the island was caused by a failure on
the part of one of the chief esses (Purea) to
deliver the maro to her legitimate successor.


Before the Europeans came to Tahiti, the beau-
tiful little island was a sanatorium. The natives
were temperate, frugal in their habits, subsist-
ing almost exclusively on fish, fruit and vege-
tables, and lived practically an outdoor life even
in their bamboo huts. They were unencum-
bered by useless clothing and spent, as they do
now, much of their time in sea and fresh-water
bathing. They were almost exempt from acute
destructive diseases. They were free from the
most fatal of acute contagious and infectious
diseases, such as smallpox, measles, scarlatina,
cholera, etc. Tuberculosis and venereal diseases
were unknown before the white man invaded the
island. The immediate effect of the European
civilization on the health and lives of the natives
was frightful. On this subject I will let Arii-
taimai speak:

When England and France began to show us the
advantages of their civilization, we were, as races then
went, a great people. Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas,
Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand made a respectable
figure on the earth's surface, and contained a population
of no small size, better fitted than any other possible
community for the condition in which they lived. Tahiti,
being the first to come in close contact with the for-
eigners, was first to suffer. The people, who numbered,
according to Cook, two hundred thousand in 1767,



numbered less than twenty thousand in 1797, according
to the missionaries, and only about five thousand in
1803. This frightful mortality has been often doubted,
because Europeans have naturally shrunk from admit-
ting the horrors of their own work, but no one doubts
it who belongs to the native race. Tahiti did not
stand alone in misery; what happened there happened
everywhere, not only in the great groups of high islands,
like Hawaii with three or four hundred thousand peo-
ple, but in little coral atolls which could only support
a few score.

Moerenhout, who was the most familiar of all trav-
elers with the islands in our part of the ocean, told the
same story about all. He was in the Austral group
in 1834. At Raivave he found ninety or one hundred
native rapidly dying, where fully twelve hundred had
been living only twelve or fourteen years before. At
Tubuai he found less than two hundred people among
the ruins of houses, temples and tombs. At Rurutu
and Rimitava, where a thousand or twelve hundred
people had occupied each, hardly two hundred were
left, while nearly all the women had been swept away
at Rurutu. Tlie story of the Easter Islanders is
famous. That of the Marquesas is about as pathetic
as that of Tahiti or Hawaii. Everywhere the Polyne-
sian perished, and to him it mattered little whether he
died of some new disease or from some new weapon,
like the musket, or from misgovernment, caused by the
foreign intervention.

No doubt the new diseases were most fatal. Almost
all of them took some form of fever, and comparatively
harmless epidemics, like measles, became frightfully
fatal when the native, to allay the fever, insisted on
bathing in cold water. Dysentery and ordinary colds,
which the people were too ignorant and too indolent
to nurse, took the proportions of plagues. For forty


generations these people had been isolated in this ocean,
as though they were in a modern sanatorium, protected
from contact with new forms of disease, and living on
vegetables and fish. The virulent diseases which had
been developed among the struggling masses of x\sia
and Europe found a rich field for destruction when
they were brought to the South Seas. Just as such
pests as lantana, the mimosa or sensitive plant, and the
guava have overrun many of the islands, where the
field for them was open, so diseases ran through the
people. For this, perhaps, the foreigners were not
wholly responsible, although their civilization certainly
was; but for the political misery the foreigner was
wholly to blame, and for the social and moral degrada-
tion he was the active cause. No doubt the ancient
society of Tahiti had plenty of vices and was a sort
of Paris in its refinements of wickedness, but these
had not prevented the islanders from leading as happy
lives as had ever been known among men.

These are strong words, but they are neverthe-
less only too true. Civilization brings to savage
races curses as well as blessings. The primitive
people are more receptive of new vices than
new virtues.

In 1880 the number of inhabitants had again
increased to thirteen thousand five hundred, but
since that time it has been reduced to eleven
thousand, as shown by the last census. When
Captain Cook visited the island he emphasized
particularly the absence of acute diseases. In
speaking of chronic diseases he remarks:

They only reckon five or six which might be called
chronic, or national disorders, amongst which are the


dropsy and the fefai^ or indolent swellings before men-
tioned as frequent ft Tongataboo.

The fearfui, swift depopiilation of the island
was caused by the introduction of new acute
infectious and contagious diseases, such as small-
pox, measles, whooping-cough, la grippe, etc.,
which among these people was attended by a
frightful mortality. It was only three years ago
that an epidemic of measles, a trifling" disease
with us, claimed several hundred lives, includ-
ing many adults, and extended to nearly all of
the islands of the entire group. The disease that
is now threatening the extinction of the race
in a short time is pulmonary tuberculosis. The
natives are extremely susceptible to this disease,
and the small native houses, crowded with large
families, are the breeding stations for infection.

The French government has at last recognized
the need of taking active micasures to improve
the sanitary conditions of their colony and pro-
tect the natives against the spread of infectious
diseases. A corps of three physicians, sent by the
French government on this mission, made the
voyage from San Francisco to the island on the
steamer Mariposa with me. The names of these
physicians are : Dr. Grosfillez, surgeon-major of
the first class of the colonial troops; Dr. H.
Rowan, a graduate of the Pasteur Institute, and
Dr. F. Cassiau, of the clinic of Marseilles. The
military surgeon receives an annual salary of


fifteen hundred dollars, the two civil doctors
twelve hundred dollars each. They are under
contract for five years. They have been given
judicial power to enforce all sanitary regulations
they see fit to institute. They will be stationed at
different points and will establish a requisite
number of lazarettos, something which will fill
a long-felt and pressing need.





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The average temperature of the inhabited part
of the island, which can not be less than 78 to
80 degrees Fahrenheit, has a relaxing influence
on the natives and much more so on the small
contingent of whites. The Europeans and Amer-
icans find it necessary every three to five years
to seek for a few months a cooler climate to
restore their energies and vigor. The govern-
ment officials and officers of the small garrison
are not obliged to serve for more than the same
time consecutively, when they are relieved from
their posts and commands. It is this relaxation
which, to a certain extent, at least, is responsible
for the great mortality of comparatively mild,
acute, infectious diseases, and the severity of
pulmonary tuberculosis among the natives. Tu-
berculosis of the lymphatic glands, skin, bones
and joints appears to be extremely rare. The
moisture-laden atmosphere and the suddenness
with which the cool land and ocean breezes set
in after the heat of the day, are conducive to the
development of rheumatic affections, which are
prevalent in all parts of the island, more espe-
cially during the rainy season in midwinter. The
same can be said of bronchial affections and pneu-
monia. The free and " unrestrained intercourse
among natives accounts for the rapid spread of

9 129


tuberculosis and acute infectious diseases among
the entire population and from island to island.

The sanitary commission now engaged, in
efforts to reduce the mortality of the natives will
establish rules and regulations which will have
for their object the prevention of dissemination
of acute as well as chronic infectious diseases,
and will undoubtedly accomplish much toward
the preservation of the race; but these officers
will meet with stubborn opposition on the part
of the natives when attempts are made, in their
interest, to curtail their personal liberties. The
ties of relationship and friendship among the
natives are very strong, and become most appar-
ent in case of misfortunes and sickness. Small-
pox breaks out almost every year, and claims its
share of victims. Vaccination is supposed to be
compulsory, but the natives are inclined to escape
it. Vaccination is done gratuitously at the Mili-
tary Hospital for all natives who can be induced
to submit to it. Under present conditions it is
almost impossible to reach the inhabitants of the
small atoll islands.

Like in all tropic countries, tetanus is of
quite frequent occurrence. The small native
pony is found everywhere, and as the rural natives
are all barefooted and spend much of their time in

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Online LibraryNicholas SennTahiti; the island paradise → online text (page 7 of 14)