Possessing Tahiti


There is a ceremony performed nowadays at Tahiti each year in the Bastille Day holidays. At the marae Aahu Rahu, reconstructed for tourists and 'folkloric' celebrations, the 'King' and 'Queen' of Tahiti are invested with a maro ura, a wrap or girdle of red feathers. It is a symbol, like a crown and sceptre, of their sovereignty for the time of the celebrations. Thousands are there to see the ceremony. The royal couple 'fly' on the shoulders of attendants, as the high chiefs of old 'flew', lest their sacred feet touch the ground. 'Priests' are there, flecked out in fantasies and improvisations of what priests used to wear. Sacrificial offerings of food and cloth are made. All process to the sacred stones before the altar for the investment. It is a carnival of monarchy in republican days. it is not peculiar for that, of course. If downs might be kings in the topsy-turvy world of carnival, then native citizens might well be kings in republics on holiday remembering the overthrow of stranger monarchies ten thousand miles away.
These ceremonies in Tahiti have the familiar quality that we sometimes stress in our weariness with the ritualistic. They seem meaningless empty actions, distanced from the realities of living, forms without structures. Ritual robes become fancy dress, symbols become decoration. it is a syncretism of a make-believe past and a fatuous present. We are familiar with it: Mickey Mouse as King of Disneyland, 'Dale Carnegie' as Sincere Man, the blank face of Homo touristicus, Advertising Man, Plastic Man. Life seems filled with its emptiness. Who can make sense of signs that do not signify, of symbols that crush with their weightlessness, of sacraments that leave no mark?
In a culture such as ours in which the student is likely to know our mythic nature in order to sell us soap and underwear, it is difficult not to be sceptical about the appearances of things. We see the manipulation and declare the manipulation to be the reality. One could imagine, for example, the organising committee of the Tahiti Bastille Day celebrations wanting a 'divertissement' in the 'folkloric' mode. To choreograph the ceremony they call on the cultural memory of 'experts' who, by all the complex modes of the transmission of historical consciousness, have their translations of 'how things used to be done'. One could not now describe the syncretism and translations, the extensions and changes in Tahitian cultural perceptions of the maro ura, of 'flying', of investitures and sacrifices. These signs and symbolic actions enjoy some continuity with past, they have some cultural presence, yet they establish different realities. They are 'Tahitian' in character, but present distinct expressions of what being 'Tahitian' might be. In a metaphor of the Pacific, the symbols of the past are 'cargo' to the present. The present possesses the relics of its past with all the inventions and conservation with which cultural artefacts out of time and out of place are received across a beach. How does one write history as if that were true?
The Politics of a Feather Girdle
For that, the maro ura is very pertinent. If young George III of England needed a crown to be king in 1760 and to sit on the Coronation tone of Scotland and Ireland, then a 12-year-old Pomare of Tahiti needed the maro ura to be ari'i nui, chief, in 1791, and to stand on the robing stone of his marae, that sacred preserve of his titles. His maro ura was a feather wrap, five yards long and fifteen inches broad. The brilliant red head-feathers of the parakeet and the whitish-yellow feathers of the dove were sewn to a woven backing. The black feathers of the man-of-war bird bordered the wrap top and bottom. The maro ura has come to be called the 'feather girdle' in the way archaic words get some establishment in the history of things. The girdle was always unfinished. The bone to sew it was left in the weave. The social moments of chieftaincy, sacrifices, wars and peace all found their register on the girdle with added feathers and folds. In the feathers was a history of sovereignty, more mnemonic than hieroglyphic, capable of being ready by priests who had the custody of the past (Rose 1978; Oliver 1974: 763).

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Tahitian politics turned around the feather girdle. There are uncertainties about the girdle. There were two of them; maybe Pomare's was a third; maybe there were more. The two we know from legend and myth were the maro tea and the maro ura, the yellow and the red girdle. Pomare's girdle we know from a number of descriptions of European visitors who saw it and from William Bligh who drew it. The descriptions are all agreed that Pomare's girdle was made of both yellow and red feathers. That Pomare's girdle might be a third sacred maro and in concept be syncretic of both maro tea and maro ura belongs to our later story. There were more syncretisms more immediately important. Its distinction from the traditional sacred maro of Tahitian policy did not put it outside the paradigm of Tahitian politics. That paradigm allowed a distinction between power and authority. Power was recognised to rise and fall independently of authority. The feather girdles were the currency of authority. They conferred title and rank which it was the consensus of powerful and weak alike to recognise.
If the feather girdles were the sacraments of authority - in that hey signified authority and established it at the same time - it was because they were the sign of the god 'Oro. 'Oro, the god of sacrifice, had always been part of the Polynesian pantheon, but in the eighteenth century 'Oro had begun to play a special part in Tahitian politics. He had begun to emerge from his island of Raiatea, first to Porapora, then to Tahiti.
There was an element of mission or colony in 'Oro's expansion. His priests would establish a new sacred place with some stone transported from an original temple. These places sacred to 'Oro all shared a common name, Taputapuatea, 'Sacrifices from Abroad'. They wee all close to the sea and stood opposite some passage through the reef to the open sea. The rituals at Taputaputatea always focused on canoes and their arrival with sacrificial victims. Tahitians, like all Polynesian peoples, had some preoccupation with the origins and voyages of their ancestors and with strangers who came from beyond the sky. In their legendary memory of Taputapuatea they told of grander days when the 'Friendly Alliance' of the islands would send processions of canoes in double file through the sacred passage to the beach of the temple. Each canoe would have on its prow the paired sacrifices of man and fish and they would beach the canoe at Taputapuatea on the rollers of the victims' bodies. They remembered the names of 'Oro's priests in phrases like 'Persistent Growth', 'Steady Growth', 'Extension of Power'. 'Oro himself was incarnated in a log or a club-like basket of sennit covered in feathers, more abstract in his representation than anthropomorphic. He himself was a voyager around their islands in an ark or feather basket coffer set on a canoe called 'Rainbow'. He had first come to the Tahitian islands on a rainbow that joined sky and land. As the Maohi, the native islanders of the whole Society Group, saw it, the great celebration of 'Oro at his birthplace of Opoa on Raiatea was a time of commitment to alliances that stretched beyond the bounds of their individual islands.
Under 'Oro's patronage functioned the only group on the islands who called on loyalties wider than tribal and local divisions. They were called arioi, a privileged group who travelled and played. 'Comedians' was an old missionary word for them that caught the topsy-curvy carnival that was structured in their role. They would play the clown to established authority; they overturned the rules of proper behaviour, and danced and played without responsibility. The masters of the different arioi lodges wore their own maro ura of red-tinted tapa cloth. They travelled with 'Oro in his canoe. 'Oro, present in his stick and feathered basket, would travel with his priests and his court of arioi. The grand sight of their largest canoes decked with streamers, beautiful with their every valued decoration and transporting 'Oro, belonged to the annual cycle of Tahitian experiences. 
The Taputapuatea were places of sacrifice. They were also treasure houses of the sacred paraphernalia of 'Oro. The representations of 'Oro were kept there in special feathered containers, as were the sacred maro and the other accountrements of priests and chiefs. Pomare kept his maro in a sacred spot to the south-east of Matavai. Pomare's maro had been brought there in 1791. It had come from other sacred places, firstly the marae Mahaiatea in the district of Papara and then marae Utu'aihamurau in district of Paea. In the maro's voyages of twenty-five years is a whole history of Tahitian politics. In 1792 William Bligh saw Pomare's maro at Tarahoi near Matavai. When he saw it, he drew it, and in that drawing we have our only relic of it. (The London Missionary Society 'collected' one, but lost it.) Bligh also drew 'Oro's canoe, 'Rainbow', with its ark. Joined to the huge streamer of bark cloth that flew from the canoe's stern was a Union Jack.
Bligh also commented that the Tahitians had sewn into the feather girdle a thatch of auburn hair belonging to Richard Skinner, on of the Bounty mutineers who had elected to stay at Tahiti when Christian went on to Pitcairn. Bligh, he was always sensitive to his relations with the socially elite. He was mystified why somebody as insignificant as Skinner should be remembered in so sacred an object as the girdle: 'an ostentatious mark of their connection with the English and not of respect to the Person it belonged to', he remarked. Skinner was the ship's barber. He had astounded the Tahitians on the arrival of the Bounty by producing a barber's model head with its latest hair fashions from London. In Tahitian eyes. Skinner was somebody special. As barber, he had a special power to touch tapu places. And his own head was tapu red, as special as a feather. One could wave it to catch 'Oro's attention in prayer: one could sacrifice it to Pomare's sovereignty. 
Collected in this sacred place of 'Oro where Bligh saw the girdle was other cargo. There were the skulls of two Bounty mutineers. One of them, Coleman, had been raised to be chief at Taiarapu. The other skull was that of Thompson, Coleman's murderer, who had been killed in his turn. Pomare's family had conquered Taiarapu, won the skulls and, temporarily, sovereignty over all of Tahiti. At the marae at Tarahoi were also drums and carved statues of gods which the mutineers had brought back from Tubuai. There was also a portrait of Captain James cook painted by John Webber. Like the maro ura, the portrait was an unfinished document. The Tahitians would take it to each ship that visited the island for the captain to sign a message on the back. The portrait was wrapped in red cloth and all made bare-shouldered deferences to it when it was uncovered. For years after cook had given them the portrait and a huge box with lock and key to keep it in, the Pomares, father and son, took it with them on important expeditions, unveiled it on special ritual occasions, had it present whenever they offered formal hospitality to Stranger captains. 
Bligh saw something else in the maro ura besides Skinner's auburn hair. it was the most famous thing of all. He saw a British red pennant sewn into the body of the girdle, as a lappet or fold of its own. 'Red Buntin' he calls it on his drawing. It was the pennant that Samuel Wallis, captain of HMS Dolphin, had erected on a pole on 26 June 1767 when he took possession of Tahiti for King George III. The Tahitians had taken down the symbol of sovereignty and incorporated it into a symbol of sovereignty of their own. Tarahoi was a Tahitian museum of their contact with the European Stranger. The hair, the skulls, Cook's portrait, the red bunting were cargo. They were Strangers' things remade to Tahitian meanings and kept, as in some archive, as documents of past experiences that were repeatedly read for their meaning in ritual action that displayed them and preserved them.
Pomare's maro ura was a parable in feathers and red bunting of the translating process. Its expression was Tahitian, in the language of 'Oro, of sacrifice. Pomare was a boy of ten when the feather girdle was wrapped about him for the first time in 1791, a year before Bligh saw it. He took title at that moment to a status his father never had and could never teach/ His father with all the others became bound to all the deferences owed Tahiti's most sacred person - his son. The father even lost his name and all the extravagant dignity the name was owed. The boy - Pomare II in our translation of who he was - in his investiture took the left eye of the sacrificial victims and made as if to eat it, read the signs in the cries of the sacred birds in the trees around. He listened (because the Strangers, the English, were now there) to a volley of muskets which the Bounty mutineers were invited to fire (a translation in itself in mimicry of the thunder of 'Oro that auspiciously would be heard in the ceremony). At the end, after being raised to extraordinary heights of dignity, Pomare stood in the marae, and his people, who were all about or were in the trees like some incarnation of 'Oro's birds, turned their deferences around. What they did we do not altogether know. Those who saw it were always reluctant to describe the obscenities. What we think they did was to pour, or to make as if to pour, as Pomare had made as if to eat the eye, of the sacrifice, their semen and excrement over him. They danced naked uninhibitedly around him. When it was over he was ari'i nui, 'king'. He was ari'i nui, because what he wore, his maro ura, took him back to 'Oro and the beginning of title, but what he wore as well, the red bunting took him back to the beginning of a new time. This new time, the coming of the Stranger, was enclosed in the old time, the coming of 'Oro. The feather girdle was as much an invention of culture as an invention of the past.  
The next investiture in the Pomare kingly line occurred thirty three years later. Pomare III, Pomare II's only son, had been born with a missionary for a midwife. He was an infant of three years when he was crowned king of Tahiti. Missionaries were midwives to his kingly power as well. He fame to his coronation in the royal chapel near Papeete under a canopy, behind a procession of girls strewing flowers. There were newly appointed judges of the realm and governors and magistrates to act to witnesses. The Protestant missionaries, more interested in sacraments of the Word than sacraments of sacrifice, nonetheless had an eye to ceremony. The Reverend Henry anointed him; the Reverend Nott crowned him; the Reverend Tyerman gave him a Bible and the Reverend Darling preached to him. They all shouted 'Long live the King' when  it was finished and the day ended with a proclamation of amnesty and a coronation dinner.
A phial of oil, a code of laws, a bible, a crown and a sceptre, these were the sacred things that made Pomare III king, they were the cargo that made him 'king'. 'Regents', 'governors', 'judges', 'church', 'people', these were the personifications of his 'kingdom' and the extension of his sovereignty. From this distance they have the littered look of beached civilisation. Ine wonders what would turn their empty symbols into signs, what would make their metaphors into metonyms, what would make their rituals work. In these borrowed services of the civilising process, did they see themselves or did they see the Stranger?
Mythical Encounters

Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin was in bed when he took possession of what he was pleased to call King George's Island in honour of His Britannic Majesty. Wallis and many of his men were sick - they thought deadly sick - of scurvy and its many complications. In the scurvy's painful lethargy, the island they stood off taunted them. Its sweet smells wafted to them and they knew it to be more beautiful than any island they had ever seen. For five days they had slowly moved along its northern shore, probing the reefs for an entry and an anchorage, looking for a beach where they might land without wetting their muskets. Their contact with the islanders had been good and bad. The islanders who had come to the ship were full of antics, made speeches at the sailors, threw plantain branches into the sea, made small gifts of food. But when the ship's cutter went closer to survey the bottom, the canoes crowded in threateningly. Already the 'Dolphins' had killed and wounded some islanders to show the force of the musket and to drive off the great double-hulled vessels that could easily overwhelm their cutter. In the wardroom the officers deliberated whether they should risk a landing or hurry on to Tinian, four thousand miles away, and let the Pacific do its worst to them in the shortest possible time.  

They really had no choice. Their bruised bodies, their suppurating gums, their swollen faces told them that. They had to stop their own rot with fresh food and get water in quantity before they went on. Matavai was their saving. The bay lay calm and deep behind the reef. A river curved behind the bend of the black sand beach. 'Port royal' they called it, with half a dream for a British rather than Spanish Main that never was to be, but Matavai, its native name, in the end held the day. They had a scare as they ran aground on a reef inside the bay. Once off they wee soon at anchor, undamaged except for a scrape on the Dolphin's new and experimental copper sheathing. Around them stretched a panorama engraved forever as paradise on the European mind. The 'Dolphin' saw the panorama more pragmatically. Their cannon could sweep it all, from off the port bow at what was to be later known as 'Point Venus', for the planet observed there, to 'Skirmish' or 'One Tree Hill' or Tahaaara, two miles around on the starboard side.

At Matavai the score of the first meeting of European Stranger and Tahitian Native came to its counterpoint. The bits and pieces of contact became dramatised, staged for the understanding it gave them of one another. In the calm of the bay, the ship's people and the land's people could organise their confrontation and in that sense make a meaningful. Captain Wallis could have simply fed his men and watered his ship, and gone on. But he needed to 'make history' by 'taking possession' of the island he had 'discovered'. For that, proprieties needed some play. The Tahitian, to believe their later legendary memory, saw their prophecies of being visited by canoes without outriggers fulfilled, but they also began to collect themselves in Matavai for a more dramatic reception that made more mythical sense to them.

The 'Dolphins' prepared their ship with the suspicion that they might be attacked and the expectancy that if they were to get food and water they must discover a trade. Their preparations for fighting were well practised. They divided into four watches, loaded the great guns with shot and grape, armed every man with pistol and cutlass. They varied in their count of the canoes around them, but they were agreed these numbered between four and six hundred. Perhaps four thousand natives manned them. No doubt the 'Dolphins; were apprehensive, but they had also smarted a little under the captain's instructions to 'test the temper' of the natives in the days before. They had suffered the indignity of cuffs and rough treatment and uncomprehending exchanges and now were not averse to teaching the natives a lesson. There was, as well an ambiguity in the situation. The 'Dolphins' had an etiquette for killing when they fought. They fought with rules, about prisoners and prizes, about surrender and the niceties of chivalry. But on the edge of this battle, the Natives were other. Their ortherness was nowhere so marked as in the wanton antics of the women who stood on the prows of most of the canoes. The women lifted their wraps and flaunted their nakedness. They made unmistakable gestures and responded to ribaldry of the seamen as if sex had its own universal language of natural signs.

In the middle of this sea of sexuality, and in a canoe that everybody noted for its magnificence and for the 'awning' over the platforms that joined its double hull, was some sort of native director. The 'Dolphins' guessed he was one of the 'principal inhabitance'. He was wrapped in red-stained tapa cloth. He offered bunches of red and yellow feathers. It was he, someone said, who gave the signal with the wand in his hand. Thousands pulled pebbles from the ballast of their canoes and showered the Dolphin with painful accuracy. The Dolphin responded with awful effect. 'It would require Milton to describe', her master wrote. The canoes were smashed with round shot. When the natives rallied after the first shock and seemed to be returning, the three-pounders were loaded with seventy musket balls apiece and when the canoes we within three or four hundred yards they were sprayed, with 'considerable loss'. The great guns concentrated on the large canoe. It was the 'King of the Island', the 'Dolphins' thought. They admired the courage of those in the five or six canoes who stayed with the king even though he became the target of their firing. They will think us gods. Some of the crew said. and others worried what revenge the natives might take if they came with firebrands. By nightfall the powder-smoke had gone and the officers discussed whether it was spices they now smelled on the warm heavy air. They would marvel later how little effect all this killing seemed to have on the natives. It seemed to justify their own carelessness. The real politik of discovery and possession meant the native was not owed the ordinary etiquettes of war. The 'Dolphins' could think of nothing better to do in the aftermath of the slaughter than to 'act haughty' to the natives and teach them to trade more sensibly.

How the natives saw the Strangers is, by any standard of objective discourse, nothing more than informed guess. Yet to say that the meeting on the part of the natives was a co-ordinated and dramatised reception seems certain. That it was invented for the novelty of the conditions also seems certain. Their invention was suffused with their own old cosmological familiarities. it was not a "natural" scene just because the Strangers saw it suffused with their own familiarities. The co-ordination of the natives' attack was not at the hands of the 'king of the island'. There was no 'king of the island', and later there was a strange silence about this incident of violence among those who had ambitions to be 'king of the island' when the European visits became more frequent.

It made no sense in the Tahitian way of things to see the 'king of the island' as a chief performing a political or territorial role, no matter how natural it seems that they should have been defensive against an invading 'other'. The 'other' of their wars and battles was always territorially specific - other alliances, other islands. The 'other' of this encounter was much more genetic to their categories of identity. The women performing 'wanton tricks' in the canoes were a clue that something other than battle or ambush was in their minds. We know something of Tahitian war at sea. They had their etiquettes of killing too. They had their ceremonies of engagement and disengagement. In one of these were women performing 'wanton antics'. But in other circumstances, especially in the rituals of 'Oro, women's dancing was sacramental to the presence of the god. Like the tufts of red and yellow feathers, women caught the eye of the divine to focus it on prayer or an offering. Indeed, failing these, abuse of and aggression towards he gods were now unknown. Tahitian gods were not so distantly divine, even 'Oro, that they could not be tested and contested. There was no great contradiction seen in raising he attention of the gods by arousing their lust or making them angry.

No doubt it is commonsensical on our part to read the hurled pebbles and signalled attack as ordinary ambush. A keen perception by the Tahitians of the lust in the seamen's eyes might have led to a strategy of subterfuge in staging the women's dancing. The Tahitian had no experience of cannon and were not necessarily convinced of the power of the musket. Native greed. Strangers' callousness, misread signs are thus the commonsensical history of the event. But they are not, and it is common sense that is the deceiver. Greed, callousness and misread signs have their play, but the 'king of the island' was likely to have been an arioi master of a lodge or a priest of 'Oro. His double canoe was no battleship. it was likely to have been 'Rainbow'. The awning he stood on was likely to have covered the ark of 'Oro's accountrements, and who knows, the maro ura. What the Tahitians saw on the Dolphin was Tahitian gods, divine in the Tahitian way. Their agnosticism, their relativism was a long way off, long after the Dolphin's going, long after the supposedly humanising effect of the 'Dolphins' very ordinary behaviour. Tahitians were adept at seeing h divine in the human, whatever out. Tahitians were adept at seeing the divine in the human, whatever the contradictions. It is a Stranger's view, not a Native's, that thee is a necessary contradiction between common-sense realism and mythical understanding. Missionaries would later be scandilised at idolaters' irreverences to their idols, as if reverential piety were a measure of belief. Cook, and later Bligh, was cynically convinced of the superficiality of Native beliefs because each had seen the natives' distracted, formalistic behaviour in rituals. Natives as well as Strangers, ourselves as well as others, easily bridge apparent contradictions between myth and common sense. The insider knows that myth and common sense answer different questions.     

What always embarrasses the Stanger's effort to understand the Native is the Stranger's insistence that the Native perceptions should be literal, while the Stranger's own perception are allowed to be metaphoric. So the Tahitian natives' supposed belief that the European Strangers were gods, 'from beyond the sky', is seen as a belief of literal equivalence between man and god, easily dispelled by the very ordinary behaviour of lusty, cantankerous seamen. Whereas the Strangers' more typical understanding of themselves is that they hold things in their varied meaning, so that there is for the Stranger no difficulty in taking 'he is a god' into any number of metaphors about perfection in physical beauty or intelligence or morality, without any necessary incarnational literalness. So that if one argues that the Native Tahitians received the Dolphin in a dramatic play that made sense to them out of their cosmology of 'Oro, there is a half expectancy that the illogicality or contradiction in the experience should have destroyed the literalness of their understanding. Their consequent make-believe in the face of contradiction is seen as either a sign of native simplicity, or as evidence that they were by this forced into a cultural agnosticism that was the seed of change.

History, myth, sacrament, ritual do not work that way. They all colligate the past and make understandings that bring order to the present. They do not prophesy what will happen or give a rubric for future behaviour. They make sense of what has happened by economising the wealth of possible causes of events down to principal determinants that really matte. This, from another perspective, is the issue that Marshall Sahlins addressed in Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities. The Hawaiians had a mythic understanding of Cook as the god Lono. They did not, because of that, act out the narrative of their legends with predictable literalness. Non-mythic factors in the event - fear, anger, imprudence, pride - had their impact. But these factors, like all the other inconsistencies and contradictions and novelties surrounding the events did not matter beside the simplicities that came from a few recognisable clues. To suggest, as I do, that the Tahitian Natives put the arrival of the European Strangers into the context of their beliefs about 'Oro with all the resonances those beliefs had in politics, religion and society, is not to write the history of their contact. What 'actually happened' is inevitably reduced in the story of it to a finite mixture of infinite actions and meanings. What significantly happened for the Tahitian natives was much simpler. The arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another 'Oro incarnation or materialisation and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from 'beyond the sky', of alliance and title, were at work. it did not matter that the Tahitians were soon to discover that the 'Dolphins' were very much flesh and blood qualities of deified chiefs and the man-made quality of deified things. Their transformations of their past and present experience wee about a much more real and immediate world beneath the appearances of things.

The Dolphin sailed into Matavai by what might always have been but certainly by her entry became, a sacred passage off the marae Tarahoi. She was, by any measure the Tahitians had, a special ship, of the quality of 'Rainbow', even perhaps of the quality prophesised when news of similar vessels that had visited other islands reached Tahiti. She screamed with the magnificent decoration of white sail and bunting and flag. The Tahitians offered her, from the moment they saw her, 'Oro's token human sacrifice. The plantain branches they offered her, the inducement of naked dance and sexual gesture by which 'Oro's presence was attracted to his sacred marae, spoke the metaphors by which they grasped the novelty of her arrival. Slain pigs, the bunched red and yellow feathers, which no doubt meant that at some Taputapuatea a human sacrifice was lying, made the novelty familiar. If the tone and direction of myths of 'Oro collected later are any indication, the Dolphin came like the marvellous canoes of old from afar and Tahitian expectancy, be the occasion for re-instatement and investiture of the ari'i rahi, be the circumstance for alliance and treaty, and the establishment in them of some hegemony. The arrival at Matavai was true to the myth of how 'Oro would arrive to colonise a new place. it had happened at Taiarapu long ago and more recently at Ata-Huru. The novelties did not matter, nor even the contradictions. The Tahitians were entertained by its simple meaning.

Social Actions Of A Symbolic Kind

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