Tattoos Are Hot, Real Estate Opportunities, and Fine Dining in Tahiti (1769)
[Ed. Note: After spending some time in Tahiti, our South Seas Correspondent J. Cook has decided to offer us a broad overview of the island and its people.]
DESCRIPTION OF KING GEORGE’S ISLAND.
This Island is called by the Natives Otaheite, and was first discovered by Captain Wallis, in His Majesty’s ship Dolphin, on June 19th, 1767, and to the Credit of him and his Officers, the Longitude of Royal Bay was by them settled to within half a degree of the Truth, and the whole figure of the Island not ill described. It is situated between the Latitude of 17 degrees 29 minutes and 17 degrees 53 minutes South, and between the Longitude of 149 degrees 10 minutes and 149 degrees 39 minutes West from the Meridian of Greenwich.* (* These latitudes are exact. The modern limits of longitude are 149 degrees 7 minutes to 149 degrees 36 minutes 30 seconds.) Point Venus, so called from the Observation being made there, is the Northern extremity of the Island, and lies in the Longitude of 149 degrees 30 minutes,* (* Now considered to be 149 degrees 29 minutes.) being the mean result of a Great number of Observations made upon the Spot. The Shores of this Island are mostly guarded from the Sea by reefs of coral rocks, and these form several excellent Bays and Harbours, wherein are room and depth of Water sufficient for the largest Ships.
Royal Bay, called by the Natives Matavie,* (* Matavai.) in which we lay, and the Dolphin before us, is not inferior to any on the Island, both in Point of conveniency and Situation. It may easily be known by a Prodigious high Mountain in the middle of the Island, which bears due south from Point Venus, which is the Eastern point of the Bay. To sail into it either keep the West point of the Reefs which lies before Point Venus close on board, or give it a berth of near half a Mile in order to avoid a small Shoal of Coral Rocks, whereon is but 2 1/2 fathoms of water. The best Anchoring is on the Eastern side of the Bay in 16 or 14 fathoms of water, owsey bottom. The Shore of the bay is all a fine sandy beach, behind which runs a river of Fresh Water, so that any Number of Ships might Water here without discommoding one another. The only wood for fuel upon the whole Island is fruit Trees, and these must be purchased of the Natives, if you mean to keep on good Terms with them. There are some Harbours to the Westward of this bay that have not been mentioned, but as they lay Contiguous to it, and are to be found in the plan, the description of them is unnecessary.
The land of this Island, except what is immediately bordering upon the Sea coast, is of a very uneven Surface, and rises in ridges which run up into the middle of the Island, and there form mountains, that are of a height Sufficient to be seen at the distance of 20 leagues. Between the foot of the ridges and the Sea is a border of low Land surrounding the whole Island, except in a few places where the ridge rises directly from the Sea. This low land is of Various Breadths, but nowhere exceeds a Mile and a half. The Soil is rich and fertile, being for the most part well stock’d with fruit Trees and small Plantations. and well water’d by a number of small Rivulets of Excellent Water which come from the adjacent hills. It is upon this low Land that the greatest part of the inhabitants live, not in Towns or Vilages, but dispersed everywhere round the whole Island; the Tops of most of the ridges and mountains are Barren and, as it were, burnt up with the sun, yet many parts of some of them are not without their produce, and many of the Valleys are fertile and inhabited.
[Produce of Tahiti.]
OF THE PRODUCE.
The produce of this Island is Bread Fruit, Cocoa Nuts, Bonanoes, Plantains, a fruit like an Apple, sweet Potatoes, Yams, a Fruit known by the name of Eag Melloa, and reck’ned most delicious; Sugar Cane which the inhabitants eat raw; a root of the Salop kind, called by the inhabitants Pea; the root also of a plant called Ether; and a fruit in a pod like a Kidney bean, which when roasted eats like a Chestnut, and is called Ahee; the fruit of a Tree which they call Wharra, something like a Pine Apple; the fruit of a Tree called by them Nano; the roots of a Fern and the roots of a plant called Thive. All these Articles the Earth almost Spontaniously produces, or, at least, they are raised with very little Labour. In the Article of food these people may almost be said to be exempt from the Curse of our Forefathers, scarcely can it be said that they Earn their bread with the sweat of their brow; benevolent Nature hath not only Supply’d them with necessarys, but with abundance of Superfluities. The Sea coast supplies them with vast Variety of most Excellent fish, but these they get not without some Trouble and Perseverance. Fish seems to be one of their greatest Luxuries, and they Eat it either raw or Dressed and seem to relish it one way as well as the other. Not only fish but almost everything that comes out of the Sea is Eat and Esteem’d by these People; Shell Fish, Lobsters, Crabs, and even sea insects, and what is commonly called blubbers of many kinds, conduce to their support.
For tame Animals they have Hogs, Fowls, and Dogs, the latter of which we learned to Eat from them, and few were there of us but what allow’d that a South Sea dog was next to an English Lamb. One thing in their favour is that they live intirely upon Vegetables; probably our Dogs would not Eat half so well. Little can be said in favour of their Fowles, but their pork is most Excellent, they have no beasts of Prey of any Sort, and Wild Fowls are scarce and confin’d to a few Species. When any of the Chiefs kill a Hog it seems to be almost equally divided among all his Dependents, and as these are generally very numerous, it is but a little that come to each person’s share, so that their chief food is Vegetables, and of these they eat a large quantity.
Cookery seems to have been but little studied here; they have only 2 Methods of applying Fire–broiling and Baking, as we called it; the method this is done I have before described, and I am of Opinion that Victuals dressed this way are more juicy and more equally done than by any of our Methods, large Fish in particular, Bread Fruit, Bananoes. Plantains Cooked this way eat like boil’d Potatoes, and was much used by us by way of bread whenever we could get them. Of bread Fruit they make 2 or 3 dishes by beating it with a Stone Pestle till it makes a Paste, mixing Water or Cocoa Nut Liquor, or both, with it, and adding ripe Plantains, Bananoes, Sour Paste, etc.
This last is made from bread Fruit in the following manner. This fruit, from what I can find, remains in Season only 8 or 9 months in the year, and as it is the Chief support of the inhabitants a reserve of food must be made for those months when they are without it. To do this the Fruit is gathered when upon the point of ripening; after the rinde is scraped off it is laid in heaps and coverd close with leaves, where it undergoes a fermentation, and becomes soft and disagreeably sweet. The Core is then taken out, and the rest of the fruit thrown into a Hole dug for that purpose, the sides and bottom of which are neatly laid with grass. The whole is covered with leaves and heavy stones laid upon them; here it undergoes a second Fermentation and becomes sourish, in which condition they say it will keep good 10 or 12 months. As they want to use it they make it into balls, which they wrap up in leaves and bake in the same manner as they do the Fruit from the Tree; it is then ready for eating either hot or cold, and hath a sour and disagreeable taste. In this last State it will keep good a Month or 6 Weeks; it is called by them Mahai, and they seldom make a Meal without some of it, one way or another. To this plain diet Salt Water is the universal sauce, hardly any one sets down to a meal without a Cocoa Nut shell full of it standing by them, into which they dip most of what they Eat, especially Fish, drinking at Intervals large sops of it out of their Hands, so that a man may use half a Pint at a Meal.
It is not common for any 2 to eat together, the better sort hardly ever; and the women never upon any account eat with the Men, but always by themselves. What can be the reason of so unusual a custom it is hard to say; especially as they are a people, in every other instance, fond of Society and much so of their Women. They were often Asked the reason, but they never gave no other Answer, but that they did it because it was right, and Express’d much dislike at the Custom of Men and Women Eating together of the same Victuals. We have often used all the intreatys we were Masters of to invite the Women to partake of our Victuals at our Tables, but there never was an instance of one of them doing it publick, but they would Often goe 5 or 6 together into the Servants apartments, and there eat very heartily of whatever they could find, nor were they the least disturbed if any of us came in while they were dining; and it hath sometimes hapned that when a woman was alone in our company she would eat with us, but always took care that her own people should not know what she had don, so that whatever may be the reasons for this custom, it certainly affects their outward manners more than their Principle.
[Natives of Tahiti.]
PERSON OF THE NATIVES.
With respect to their persons the Men in general are tall, strong-limb’d, and well shaped. One of the tallest we saw measured 6 feet 3 inches and a half. The superior women are in every respect as large as Europeans, but the inferior sort are in General small, owing possibly to their early Amours, which they are more addicted to than their superiors. They are of various Colours: those of the inferior sort, who are obliged to be much exposed to the Sun and air, are of a very Dark brown; the superiors again, who spend most of their Time in their Houses under Shelter, are not browner than people who are born or reside longer in the West Indies; nay, some of the Women are almost as fair as Europeans. Their hair is almost universally black, thick, and Strong; this the Women wear short Cropt Round their Ears. The Men, on the other hand, wear it different ways: the better sort let it grow long, and sometimes tying it up on the Top of their Heads, or letting it hang loose over their Shoulders; but many of the inferiors, and such who, in the exercise of their professions, fishing, etc., are obliged to be much upon or in the Water, wear it cropt short like the women. They always pluck out a part of their beards, and keep what remains neat and Clean. Both Sexes eradicate every hair from under their Armpits, and look upon it as a mark of uncleanliness in us that we do not do the Same.
They have all fine white Teeth, and for the most part short flat Noses and thick lips; yet their features are agreeable, and their gaite graceful, and their behavior to strangers and to each other is open, affable, and Courteous, and, from all I could see, free from treachery, only that they are thieves to a man, and would steal but everything that came in their way, and that with such dexterity as would shame the most noted Pickpocket in Europe. They are very cleanly people, both in their persons and diet, always washing their hands and Mouth immediately before and after their Meals, and wash or Bathe themselves in fresh Water 3 times a day, morning, Noon, and Night.
The only disagreeable thing about them is the Oil with which they anoint their heads, Monoe, as they call it; this is made of Cocoanutt Oil, in which some sweet Herbs or Flowers are infused. The Oil is generally very rancid, which makes the wearer of it smell not very agreeable.* (* Other voyagers have, on the contrary, described the odour of this sweetened oil as agreeable.) Another custom they have that is disagreeable to Europeans, which is eating lice, a pretty good stock of which they generally carry about them. However, this custom is not universal; for I seldom saw it done but among Children and Common People, and I am perswaided that had they the means they would keep themselves as free from lice as we do; but the want of Combs in a Hot climate makes this hardly possible. There are some very fine men upon this Island whose skins are whiter than any European’s, but of a Dead Colour, like that of the Nose of a White Horse; their Eyes, eyebrows, hair and beards are also White. Their bodys were cover’d, more or less, with a kind of White down. Their skins are spotted, some parts being much whiter than others. They are short-sighted, with their eyes oftimes full of rheum, and always look’d unwholesome, and have neither the Spirit nor the activity of the other Natives. I did not see above 3 or 4 upon the whole Island, and these were old men; so that I concluded that this difference of colour, etc., was accidental, and did not run in families, for if it did they must have been more Numerous. The inhabitants of this Island are Troubled with a sort of Leprosy, or Scab all over their bodys. I have seen Men, Women, and Children, but not many, who have had this distemper to that degree as not to be able to walk. This distemper, I believe, runs in familys, because I have seen both mother and Child have it.
Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible. Some have ill-design’d figures of men, birds, or dogs; the women generally have this figure Z simply on every joint of their fingers and Toes; the men have it likewise, and both have other differant figures, such as Circles, Crescents, etc., which they have on their Arms and Legs; in short, they are so various in the application of these figures that both the quantity and Situation of them seem to depend intirely upon the humour of each individual, yet all agree in having their buttocks covered with a Deep black. Over this Most have Arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribs, which are near a Quarter of an inch broad. These Arches seem to be their great pride, as both men and Women show them with great pleasure.
Their method of Tattowing I shall now describe. The colour they use is lamp black, prepar’d from the Smoak of a Kind of Oily nut, used by them instead of Candles. The instrument for pricking it under the Skin is made of very thin flatt pieces of bone or Shell, from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half broad, according to the purpose it is to be used for, and about an inch and a half long. One end is cut into sharp teeth, and the other fastened to a handle. The teeth are dipped into black Liquor, and then drove, by quick, sharp blows struck upon the handle with a Stick for that purpose, into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed with a small quantity of Blood. The part so marked remains sore for some days before it heals. As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing their Buttocks, it is perform’d but once in their Life times; it is never done until they are 12 or 14 years of Age.
[Clothing of Tahitians.]
Their Cloathing is either of Cloth or Matting of several different sorts; the dress of both Men and Women are much the same, which is a Piece of Cloth or Matting wrapp’d 2 or 3 times round their waist, and hangs down below their Knees, both behind and before, like a Pettycoat; another piece, or sometimes 2 or 3, about 2 yards or 2 1/2 yards long, with a hole in the Middle, through which they put their heads. This hangs over their Shoulders down behind and before, and is tied round their waist with a long piece of thin Cloth, and being open at the sides gives free liberty to their arms. This is the common dress of all ranks of people, and there are few without such a one except the Children, who go quite naked, the Boys until they are 6 or 7 years of Age, and the girls until 3 or 4. At these Ages they begin to cover what nature teaches them to hide. Besides the dress I have mentioned some of the better sort, such as can afford it, but more especially the Women, will one way or other wrap round them several pieces of Cloth, each 8 or 10 Yards long and 2 or 3 broad, so much that I have often wondered how they could bear it in so hot a climate. Again, on the other hand, many of the inferior sort during the heat of the Day, go almost naked, the women wearing nothing but the Petticoat aforementioned, and sometimes hardly that. The men wear a piece of Cloth like a Sack, which goes between their thighs, and brought up before and behind, and then wrapped round their waist. This every man wears always without exception, and it is no uncommon thing to see many of the better sort have nothing else on, as it is reckoned no shame for any part of the body to be exposed to View, except those which all mankind hide.
Both sexes sometimes shade their faces from the Sun with little Bonnets made of Cocoa-Nut leaves. Some have them of fine Matting, but this is less common. They sometimes wear Turbands, but their Chief Headdress is what they call Tomou, which is human Hair plaited scarce thicker than common thread. Of this I can safely affirm that I have seen pieces near a mile in length worked upon one end without a Knott. These are made and worn only by the women, 5 or 6 such pieces of which they will sometimes wind round their Heads, the effect of which, if done with taste, is very becoming. They have Earings by way of Ornament, but wear them only at one Ear. These are made of Shells, Stones, Berries, red pease, and some small pearls which they wear 3 tied together; but our Beads, Buttons, etc., very soon supply’d their places.
[Customs of Tahiti.]
MANNERS AND CUSTOMS.
After their meals in the Heat of the day they often Sleep, middle Aged people especially, the better sort of whom seem to spend most of their time in eating and Sleeping. Diversions they have but few, shooting with the Bow and Wrestling are the Chief; the first of which is confin’d almost wholy to the Chiefs; they shoot for distance only, kneeling upon one knee and dropping the Bow the instant of the Arrows parting from it. I have seen one of them shoot an Arrow 274 yards, yet he looked upon it as no Great Shotte.
Musick is little known to them, yet they are very fond of it; they have only 2 Instruments–the flute and the Drum. The former is made of hollow Bamboo about 15 inches long, in which are 3 Holes; into one of them they blow with one Nostril, stopping the other with the thumb of the left hand, the other 2 Holes they stop and unstop with their fingers, and by this means produce 4 Notes, of which they have made one Tune, which serves them upon all Occasions, to which they sing a number of songs generally consisting of 2 lines and generally in rhime. At any time of the day when they are Lazy they amuse themselves by singing these Couplets, but especially after dark when their candles are lighted, which are made of the Kernels of a Nutt abounding much in oil; these are stuck upon a Skewer of Wood one upon another, and give a very Tolerable light, which they often keep burning an hour after dark, and if they have strangers in the House much longer. Their drums are made of a hollow block of wood covered with Shark’s Skin, and instead of Drumsticks they use their hands. Of these they make out 5 or 6 tunes and accompany the flutes.
The drums are Chiefly used at their Heivas, which are a set of Musicians, 2 or 3 Drums for instance, as many flutes and singers, which go about from House to House and play, and are always received and rewarded by the Master of the family, who gives them a Piece of Cloth or whatever he can spare, for which they will stay 3 or 4 hours, during which time his house will be crowded full, for the people are extravagantly fond of this diversion. The Young Girls whenever they can collect 8 or 10 Together dance a very indecent Dance, which they call Timorodee, singing most indecent songs and using most indecent actions, in the practice of which they are brought up from their earliest childhood; in doing this they keep time to a great nicety. This exercise is generally left off as soon as they arrive at Years of Maturity, for as soon as they have form’d a connection with man they are expected to leave off dancing Timorodee.
One amusement or custom more I must mention, though I confess I do not expect to be believed, it is founded upon a Custom so inhuman and contrary to the Principles of human nature. It is this: that more than one half of the better sort of the inhabitants have enter’d into a resolution of injoying free liberty in Love, without being Troubled or disturbed by its consequences. These mix and Cohabit together with the utmost freedom, and the Chilldren who are so unfortunate as to be thus begot are smother’d at the Moment of their Birth; many of these People contract intimacies and live together as man and wife for years, in the course of which the Children that are born are destroy’d. They are so far from concealing it that they look upon it as a branch of freedom upon which they Value themselves. They are called Arreoys, and have meetings among themselves, where the men amuse themselves with Wrestling, etc., and the Women in dancing the indecent dance before-mentioned, in the course of which they give full Liberty to their desires, but I believe keep up to the appearance of decency. I never see one of these meetings; Dr. Monkhouse saw part of one, enough to make him give Credit to what we had been told.
Both sexes express the most indecent ideas in conversation without the least emotion, and they delight in such conversation beyond any other. Chastity, indeed, is but little valued, especially among the middle people–if a Wife is found guilty of a breach of it her only punishment is a beating from her husband. The Men will very readily offer the Young Women to Strangers, even their own Daughters, and think it very strange if you refuse them; but this is done merely for the sake of gain.
The Houses or dwellings of these People are admirably calculated for the continual warmth of the Climate; they do not build them in Towns or Villages, but seperate each from the other, and always in the Woods, and are without walls, so that the air, cooled by the shade of the Trees, has free access in whatever direction it hapens to blow. No country can boast of more delightful walks than this; the whole Plains where the Natives reside are covered with groves of Bread Fruit and Cocoa Nut Trees, without underwood, and intersected in all directions by the Paths which go from House to House, so that nothing can be more grateful in a Climate where the sun hath so powerful an influence. They are generally built in form of an Oblong square, the Roofs are supported by 3 Rows of Pillars or posts, and neatly covered with Thatch made of Palm leaves. A middle-siz’d house is about 24 feet by 12, extream heigth about 8 or 9, and heigth of the Eves 3 1/2 or 4. The floors are cover’d some inches deep with Hay, upon which, here and there, lay matts for the conveniency of sitting down; few houses has more than one Stool, which is only used by the Master of the family.
In their houses are no rooms or Partitions, but they all huddle and Sleep together; yet in this they generally observe some order, the Married people laying by themselves, and the unmarried each sex by themselves, at some small distance from each other. Many of the Eares or Chiefs are more private, having small movable houses in which they Sleep, man and Wife, which, when they go by Water from place to place, are tied upon their Canoes; these have walls made of Cocoa-Nut leaves, etc. I have said that the houses are without walls, but this is only to be understood in general, for many of them are walled with wickering, but not so close but to admit a free circulation of Air. The matts which serve them to sit upon in the daytime are also their beds in the night, and the Cloathes they wear in the day serve for covering, a little wood Stool, block of wood, or bundle of Cloth for a Pillow. Besides these common houses there are others much larger, 200 feet long and upwards, 30 broad, and 20 in heigth. There are generally 2 or 3 of these in every district, and seem’d not only built for the accommodation of the principal people, but common to all the inhabitants of that district, and raised and kept up by their joint Labour; these are always without walls, and have generally a large Area on one side neatly inclosed with low pallisades, etc.
*See my previous posts from this year’s Tahiti trip:
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