Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/April 1915/A History of Tahiti II

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1581103Popular Science Monthly Volume 86 April 1915 — A History of Tahiti II1915Alfred Goldsborough Mayer




BUT now an era of greed and hate had come, and as traders scattered firearms among the chiefs, war degenerated into murder, and in an orgie of viciousness inspired by drink, degraded by vile whites, and depleted by introduced disease, the natives dwindled rapidly. The vast numbers seen by Cook and Wallis were no more. In 1798 William Wilson estimated the population at only 16,000, but in 1802 according to Jefferson and Scott, it was not greater than 7,000 and, Ellis says the death rate exceeded the births until 1820 when other influences developed which tended to stem the tide of extinction. But Admiral Wilkes states that up to 1839 the births and deaths were almost exactly equal in numbers, and even to-day there are not more than 7,000 natives on the Island of Tahiti.

This fixity of population after an initial period of decline has been observed elsewhere in the South Seas. In Tahiti it was due mainly to the introduction of Christianity, which prohibited infanticide and human sacrifices, and checked native warfare. At the same time, however, the adoption of Christianity contributed to the increase of certain fatal diseases, notably tuberculosis, through the enforced wearing of dirty European clothing, and the too hastily effected efforts of European teachers to develop "the family ties" thus causing the natives to huddle together in unsanitary, ill-ventilated "shanties" of European pattern. The listlessness and loss of interest in life resulting from the prohibition or disuse of old games, arts and crafts, also led to the development of clandestine immoralities and drunkenness, and in many groups the population has decreased steadily and is still declining. Thus in the Marquesas the decline has been from about 20,000 in 18-12 to about 3,400 in 1911; in Hawaii from 130,300 in 1832 to 29,800 in 1900; in Tonga from 30,000 in 1880 to 17,500 in 1900; in Samoa from 37,000 in 1849 to 31,300 in 1882; in Fiji from about 140,000 in 1871 to 87,000 in 1911; and in New Zealand from 44,000 in 1881 to 40,000 in 1891.

As the Tahitian proverb said: "The hibiscus shall grow and the coral shall spread out its branches, but man shall cease."

The truth appears to be that after generations of repeated infection, the native blood has developed a partial immunity, although in comparison with the Caucasian, the South Sea Islander still remains deficient in ability to resist disease.

All through the hideous period initiated by the coming of the white adventurer, the decimation due to disease was even greater than that caused by war; for savage warfare consists mainly in ambushing solitary

The Shore at Faaa, Tahiti, with Moorea Island in the Distance.

stragglers, rarely in extended frontal attacks, or sieges of fortified positions. Thus in the two years 1864-'65, due to smallpox, the population of Happoa and Taipi valleys in the Marquesas Islands sank from 2,000 to 150. Well might the Samoan father pray to Tangaloa "drive away from us sailing gods [white men] who bring disease and death."

Infinite mischief was wrought during this early chaotic period when every evil invention of civilization was placed in the hands of the natives

Caladiums in A Tahitian Valley.

without check or hindrance to its abuse. The most degraded of our race exerted their demoralizing influence to satiety upon the defenceless natives, and accounts of old voyages bristle with disgusting narratives of debauchery. It became a common thing to kidnap the natives of the New Hebrides and carry them to Australia to work as "indentured laborers" upon plantations. Thus did Chile practically exterminate the population of Eastern Island for the development of her nitrate deposits.

Then in March, 1797, when things were at their worst, a ship whose
Peak in Fautaua Valley, Tahiti.

mission was designed to be one of mercy came to sorrowing Tahiti. She was the Duff, under Captain James Wilson, and she brought eighteen English missionaries whom the London Missionary Society had sent into the Pacific with the avowed purpose of converting the natives to Christianity. It is true that in 1772 two vessels from Peru had visited Tahiti and in 1774 Spanish priests were landed, but in the course of a year they had left without making converts.

Pomare and Idia his consort received the strangers kindly and presented them with a large house which had been built for Captain Bligh by the side of the Vaipopoo river near Point Venus. These missionaries were chiefly mechanics, artisans and small tradesmen of nonconformist turn of mind, and the natives were quick to appreciate the advantage

Valley of Tae-o-hae Nukahwa Island, Marquesas.

which might accrue to them through the maintenance of a forge and a well-equipped carpenter shop; but official enthusiasm cooled when the visitors refused to fashion weapons of war. Still they were more than tolerated for their gifts of axes, knives and cloth, although the chiefs politely requested them to refrain from "parau" (exhortation).

The time was not propitious for the immediate acceptance of Christianity. Diseases of European origin were ravaging the land, affecting almost every family, and the natives were convinced that the white man's god had brought the evils which were destroying them; so when the missionaries prayed, the natives dragged the diseased and the deformed out upon the village green, and exposing them to view, cried, "See what your god has wrought!"

During these early years when many a grave error might have been avoided, the missionaries appear to have lacked a leader whose heart was great with human sympathy, and who, as Ellis says, would have perceived that

when the spirit is softened or subdued under the influence of suffering, it is often most susceptible of salutary impression; and the exercise of christian sympathy and kindness in such a season will seldom fail to produce even among the most barbarous tribes highly favorable results.

In place of words of love, these missionaries preached the horrors of hell, in place of poverty they displayed that which was to the natives unbounded wealth; and friendship they sought to win through gifts rather than sympathy.

Before passing judgment upon them, however, it is but fair to pause to consider the probable results had they attempted to pursue the less worldly course. Demon worship was and is the religion of the Polynesian, and even to-day, despite the efforts of generations of high-minded and enlightened whites, the natives cling tenaciously to their god of hate and delight above all in sermons treating of his infinite power for vengeance. Moreover, steeped as they have always been in communistic socialism, personal poverty is unknown and can thus make no appeal upon the side of virtue. Where wealth is naught, power is everything, and it is doubtful whether any considerable number of the natives could have been converted to Christianity even in a century had the missionaries not first won over, or forced, the chiefs to accept their faith.

Moreover, Pomare and all the chiefs realized that this white man's religion would never acknowledge the divinity of their descent, in default of which their authority to enforce the tabu, the keynote of their power, was lost.

Foiled thus in their direct effort to Christianize Tahiti, the

Pisonia Tree, Fakarava Atoll, Paunotus Groups.
Woods in Hamuta Valley, Tahiti.

missionaries, as elsewhere in the Pacific, south to strengthen their position through diplomacy and political activity, hoping thereby to gain the ascendency of power and thus cause their doctrines to become more acceptable to the natives.

Many things have been said and will be said both for and against the missionary, and we must grant that he has done both good and evil, or, perhaps better, we may say out of the evident good he has accomplished some harm has come, for the missionary must needs have had the sympathy of a St. Augustine, the political wisdom of a Pitt, the leadership of a Bismarck, and the Christian spirit of the old bishop in "Les Miserables" to check the reign of death he found around him. What wonder, then, that, being in general but an ordinary man of good intentions, he in some measure failed. There have, indeed, been grand men among the missionaries—such were William Ellis of Tahiti, the Gulicks of Hawaii, and the great John Williams who after twenty-three years of wandering and privation was martyred upon the New Hebrides in 1839. Certainly before they came all was ripening to ruin, and if ruin has come despite their zealous efforts it indicates only that the problem was too complex perhaps for the mastery of any man however good or wise.

Be these things as they may, the nobler and in the end the wiser course would have been attained had these early Tahitian missionaries labored on for years simply to help and to win the respect and love of those around them; and through kindness to gain the hearts of willing, converts to their faith.

But reports must be written and sent to London, and upon the impression these accounts would make the continued existence of the mission might depend. The christianization of Tahiti tended in a sense to degenerate into a "business," and as such its success might be measured in terms of time and number. It is only in the sad stern school of experience that we learn in things of charity between man and man, and these pioneer missionaries lacked the advantage of an historic past to point the way to slower but truer betterment of those for whose welfare they labored so zealously.

Moderation, charity and intelligent sympathy are all things of these later years in religion, when as the trappings of the priestly autocrat have fallen away the spiritual leader stands revealed. Expediency suggested the worldly course, and the Tahitian missionaries who at first had declined to take sides in native wars or fashion weapons now gave guns to Pomare, aiding him in his bloody quarrels.

As we read in the "Memoirs of Ariitaimai" a Chiefess of Tahiti, Pomare determined to destroy his rivals and

knew that what he was trying to do could be done only by wholesale destruction, and that in order to do it he must depend on outsiders; white men, or Raiatians, or savages from the Paumotos. The missionaries knew it also, for Pomare made no secret of it, and yet they recorded it as though it did not concern them.

From this time onward until the French annexed Tahiti the missionaries were the leaders of a party in the State, and the history of the mission is an unwholesome commingling of religious zeal with political aspiration.

Friends they doubtless won, for they were brave and earnest men, but enemies they certainly aroused. Their patron Pomare I. did not take kindly to their doctrines, but he was enough of a diplomat to properly appraise their value to him as aids on his raids of murder. According to the "Memoirs of Ariitaimai" the action of the missionaries is summarized as follows:

Alternately praying for peace and helping Pomare and Tu (Pomare II.) to make war, the missionaries innocently hastened the destruction of the natives and encouraged the establishment of a tyranny impossible for me to describe. Pomare was vicious and cruel, treacherous and violent beyond the code of chiefly morals but Pomare was an angel compared with his son.

Pomare II. reveals this policy in a naïve letter which he wrote in 1807 to the Directors of the London Missionary Society and which appears in their "Narrative of the Mission at Otaheiti" published in 1818. In this labored epistle he asserts his firm faith and deep love in Jehovah (he was then indulging in every practise of the Tahitian religion), and after calling attention to the fact that he is beset with enemies, and is the only powerful friend the missionaries have, and that should he die the lives of his dear friends would be imperilled, he ends by expressing his desire for guns and ammunition.

(To he concluded)