James Morrison’s ‘Account of the Island of Tahiti & the Customs of the Island’

Boatswain’s mate on the Bounty, James Morrrison (1760–1807) lived on Tahiti for two years from 1789 to 1771, quickly learning the language and gaining an insightful understanding of Tahitian life and culture before the arrival of Protestant missionaries. His ethnography of funeral ritual and mourning ceremonies shows both keen observation and a lively sympathy for the people. The excerpted passages below are from an electronic text version of Morrison’s Account of the Island of Tahiti & the Customs of the Island. It can be found online in the Indigenous histories section of the digital humanities resource, South Seas: Voyaging and Cross Cultural Encouters in the Pacific (1760–1800),and is, in turn, derived from Owen Rutter’s edition of the Journal of James Morrison, Boatswain’s Mate of the Bounty, describing the Mutiny and subsequent Misfortunes of the Mutineers together with an account of the Island of Tahiti (London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1935).

A scholarly edition, edited by Vanessa Smith and Nicholas Thomas, Mutiny and Aftermath: James Morrison’s Account of the Mutiny on the Bounty and the Island of Tahiti, is also available, recently published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2013.

When any person dies the relations flock to the House in numbers making much lamentation and the Weomen cut their heads with sharks teeth; both sexes cut their hair off different parts of their heads, somtimes Cutting all of but a lock over one Ear, somtimes over both & the rest Close cut or shaven. The Weomen often Cut themselves on these occasions till they bring on a fever and I have known a Woman Cut herself for the loss of a Child till a delirium was brought on which ended in the total loss other reason.

For the loss of a relation they Cut a square place bare on the fore part of their head which they keep bare for 6 Moons or longer, according to the love they bear the deceased; but for a favourite Child they wear it so for two or 3 Years and all the hair they Cut off is either thrown into the Sacred Ground or Carried to the Morai.

If any Person dies of a Disorder they are Buried in their own Ground and a Priest always puts a Plantain tree into the Grave with them and some of the relations put them in the Grave, praying them to keep their disorder in the Grave with them and not afflict any person with [it]. When their Soul is Sent on that Business, they also bury or burn evry thing belonging to them, or that has been used by them while in their Sickness, house and furniture to prevent the disorder from spreading or Communicating to others — these are the only people that have any funeral Prayers — thosewho die without disease are either laid on a beir or embalmd. Their Method of embalming is by taking the Bowells out and Stuffing the Body with Cloth and grated Sandal wood, anointing the skin with Cocoa Nut oil scented with the Same wood; the Body is laid on a Beir in a house by itself & Covered with Cloth which the relations present as they Come to the Place, which they all do if they are in the Island. The body is often dressd in the same Manner as it used to do while alive, the Head Ornamented with Flowers, the house is fenced in and hung round with Cloth finely scented and the beir is ornamented with Garlands of Palm Nuts which having an agreeable Smell keep off any foul one — The Tears Shed on these Occasions are saved on peices of Cloth together with the Blood from their heads, and thrown within the rail of the Sacred house, all which they suppose gives satisfaction to the departed soul, who [is] hovering about the Body while it remains without Moldering — Others are hung up on a Beir under a thatchd Covering Covered and dressd with Cloth; they are also ornamented with Palm Nuts, Cocoa Nut leaves platted in a Curious Manner and raild in with reeds which the Man that is appointed to take Care of the Body keeps in repair, and he is obliged to have a Man to feed him as he must not toutch any sort of food for one Month, after he has toutchd a dead body or any of the things which belong to it — they also offer Provisions &c. near the Corps not for it but the Deity who presides over it.

The body is Calld Toopapow, the Beir Fwhatta and the House wherein it is Containd Farre Toopapow — those who are embalmed are Calld Toopapow Meere — They are kept each on their own land and Not Carryd to the Moral where none are interrd, but those Killd in War, or for Sacrafice or the Children of Chiefs who have been Strangled at their birth.

When Chiefs or People of rank die their bodys are Embalmed and they are Carried round the Island to evry part where they have any Posessions, in each of which the Tyehaa or Weeping Ceremony is renewd; and after a Journey of 6 or 8 Months returns to their own estate where they are kept till the Body decays when the bones are interd. Some who have a great Veneration for the deceased wrap up the Scull and Hang it up in their house in token of their love and in this Manner is the Sculls of several kept — these bodys, while they are whole, are liable to be taken in War and the Man who takes one of them gets the Name and honors as if He had killd a Warrior, and should the body of a Chief be Carried off in this Manner before an other was Named the District would fall to the Conqueror as if he had killd him; for this reason they are always removed, having each a Steady Man to Carry them away into the Mountains if they should be in War, in this Manner Captain Cooks picture is also removed lest it should be taken — While the Body remains they keep the Beir well supplyd with Cloth & new is always substituted in lieu of that which is decayd and the Cloth is in general good and neatly painted.

Besides the Weeping and Cutting their Heads they have another Mourning Ceremony wherin they wear the Pari or Mourning Dress described by Captain Cook. — This is Mostly worn by two or three of the Nearest Male relations each of which are Armd with a Weapon Calld Paaeho, edged with a row of sharks teeth for three feet or four of its length, the Upper part forming a blade like that of a Gardners knife. They are attended by forty or fifty Young Men & Weomen who disguise themselves by blacking their bodys and faces with Charcoal, and spotting them with pipe Clay; these seldom wear any other Cloths but a Marro and each is armd with a Spear or Club and parade about the district like Madmen and will beat Cut or even kill any person who offers to stand in their Way — therefore when any one sees them Coming they fly to the Morai, it being the only place where they can be safe, or Get refuge from the rage of the Mourners who persue all that they see. The Morai alone they must [not] enter, and while this Ceremony lasts, which is somtimes 3 weeks or a month, they pay no respect to persons nor are the Chiefs safe from their fury unless they take sanctuary in the Morai; the Weomen and Children are forced to quit the place as they Cannot take refuge in the Morai.

Should any person be stubborn or foolish enough to stop one of the Mourners or Not get out of their way and they should be killd no law can be obtaind nor any blamed but himself, as the Mourners are look’d on as lunaticks, driven Mad through Grief for the Death of their relations therefore none attempt to obstruct them but fly at their approach. This Ceremony is also Calld Tyehaa or Mourning, the Performers are Calld Naynevva, Madmen Hevva tyehaa — Mourning Spirits, Gosts, or Spectres.

These are the whole of their Mourning rites and are of longer or shorter duration according to the circumstances of the Family who have lost their relation. They are more particularly observed for Children then Grown persons.

Page 107page 108


Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811)


Aristocrat, soldier, scientist and diplomat, Louis Antoine de Bougainville  (1729-1811), lead the first French circumnavigation voyage, arriving in Tahiti in April 1769. He named the island NouvelleCythère after Cytherea, birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite, encouraging a vision of eroticised (and classicised) utopia. The idea of the uninhibited sexuality and promiscuity of Tahitian women was a dominant one in European discovery narratives and principally influenced by  Bougainville’s total misunderstanding of the sexual presentations of young girls to Europeans during their first encounters.* In the short extract below it is apparent how his French masculism colours even his account of mourning ceremonies.

*On the question of the Polynesian idea and practice of theogamy, see Tcherkézoff  A Reconsideration of the Role of Polynesian Women in Early Encounters with Europeans in Margaret Jolly, Serge Tcherkezoff, Darrell Tryon (ed.), Oceanic encounters: exchange, desire, violence, ANU ePress, Canberra Australia, pp. 113-159.

Custom of going into mourning.

At Taiti they wear mourning regularly, and call it Ceva. The whole nation wear mourning for their kings. The mourning for the fathers is very long. The women mourn for their husbands; but the latter do not do the same for them. The marks of mourning, are a head-dress of feathers; the colour of which is consecrated to death, and a veil over the face. When the people in mourning go out of their houses, they are preceded by several slaves, who beat the castanets in a certain cadence; their doleful sound gives every body notice to clear the way, whether out of respect for the grief of the persons in mourning, or because meeting them is feared as an unlucky and ominous accident. However at Taiti, as in every other part of the world, the most respectable customs are abused; Aotourou told me, that this practice of mourning was favourable to the private meetings; doubtless, as I believe, of lovers with wives, whose husbands are not very complaisant. The instrument, whose sound disperses every body, and the veil which covers the face, secure to the lovers both, secrecy and impunity.

page 270 – page 271

Bougainville, Louis Antoine de, (1772) A voyage round the world performed by order of His Most Christian Majesty, in the years 1766, 1767, 1768, and 1769. Translated by John Reinhold Forster. London: J. Nourse and T. Davies.

The transcribed and fully-searchable text is available online at the Beagle Library project at the Charles Darwin University, Northern Territory Australia: http://darwin-online.org.uk/converted/Ancillary/BeagleLibrary/1772_Bougainville_A745.html


Hawkesworth’s Voyages, part 2

An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty: for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, … By John Hawkesworth, LL.D. In three volumes. … [pt.2]

London: printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, 1773. Electronic text transcribed and encoded by ECCO-TCP (Eighteenth Century Collections Online — Text Creation Partnership).

English ‘man of letters’, John Hawksworth (1715-1773) was commissioned by the British Admiralty to edit Cook’s papers.  In J.C. Beaglehole’s assessment, he was a ‘miscellaneous writer’, who ‘not content with drawing on both Cook and Banks without distinguishing between the two, also added a polish for public consumption to the unpolished seaman’s journal, losing its matter-of-fact vividness, and contributed his own sententious observations.’

The sources for the descriptions in Chapter XIV below are Banks and the Forsters.

Page 142 — Page 147

CHAP. XIV. The Ceremonies of an Indian Funeral particularly described: General Observations on the Subject…

ON the 5th, we kept his Majesty’s birth-day; for though it is the 4th, we were unwilling to celebrate it during the absence of the two parties who had been sent out to observe the Transit. We had several of the Indian Chiefs at our entertainment, who drank his Majesty’s health by the name of Kihiargo, which was the nearest imitation they could produce of King George.

About this time died an old woman of some rank, who was related to Tomio, which gave us an opportunity to see how they disposed of the body, and confirmed us in our opinion that these people, contrary to the present custom of all other nations now known, never bury their dead. In the middle of a small square, neatly railed in with bamboo, the awning of a canoe was raised upon two posts, and under this the body was deposited upon such a frame as has before been described: it was covered with fine cloth, and near it was placed bread-fruit, fish, and other provisions: we supposed that the food was placed there for the spirit of the deceased, and consequently, that these Indians had some confused notion of a separate state; but upon our applying for further information to Tubourai Tamaide, he told us, that the food was placed there as an offering to their gods. They do not, however, suppose, that the gods eat, any more than the Jews supposed that Jehovah could dwell in a house: the offering is made here upon the same principle as the Temple was built at Jerusalem, as an expression of reverence and gratitude, and a solicitation of the more immediate presence of the Deity. In the front of the area was a kind of stile, where the relations of the deceased stood to pay the tribute of their sorrow; and under the awning were innumerable small pieces of cloth, on which the tears and blood of the mourners had been shed; for in their paroxysms of grief it is a universal custom to wound themselves with the shark’s tooth. Within a few yards two occasional houses were set up, in one of which some relations of the deceased constantly resided, and in the other the chief mourner, who is always a man, and who keeps there a very singular dress in which a ceremony is performed that will be described in its turn. Near the place where the dead are thus set up to rot, the bones are afterwards buried.

What can have introduced among these people the custom of exposing their dead above ground, till the flesh is consumed by putrefaction, and then burying the bones, it is perhaps impossible to guess; but it is remarkable, that Ælian and Apollonius Rhodius impute a similar practice to the ancient inhabitants of Colchis, a country near Pontus in Asia, now called Mingrelia; except that among them this manner of disposing of the dead did not extend to both sexes: the women they buried; but the men they wrapped in a hide, and hung up in the air by a chain. This practice among the Colchians is referred to a religious cause. The principal objects of their worship were the Earth and the Air; and it is supposed that, in consequence of some superstitious notion, they devoted their dead to both. Whether the natives of Otaheite had any notion of the same kind we were never able certainly to determine; but we soon discovered, that the repositories of their dead were also places of worship. Upon this occasion it may be observed, that nothing can be more absurd than the notion that the happiness or misery of a future life depends, in any degree, upon the disposition of the body when the state of probation is past; yet that nothing is more general than a solicitude about it. However cheap we may hold any funereal rites which custom has not familiarized, or superstition rendered sacred, most men gravely deliberate how to prevent their body from being broken by the mattock and devoured by the worm, when it is no longer capable of sensation; and purchase a place for it in holy ground, when they believe the lot of its future existence to be irrevocably determined. So strong is the association of pleasing or painful ideas with certain opinions and actions which affect us while we live, that we involuntarily act as if it was equally certain that they would affect us in the same manner when we are dead, though this is an opinion that nobody will maintain. Thus it happens, that the desire of preserving from reproach even the name that we leave behind us, or of procuring it honour, is one of the most powerful principles of action, among the inhabitants of the most speculative and enlightened nations. Posthumous reputation, upon every principle, must be acknowledged to have no influence upon the dead; yet the desire of obtaining and securing it, no force of reason, no habits of thinking can subdue, except in those whom habitual baseness and guilt have rendered indifferent to honour and shame while they lived. This indeed seems to be among the happy imperfections of our nature, upon which the general good of society in a certain measure depends; for as some crimes are supposed to be prevented by hanging the body of the criminal in chains after he is dead, so in consequence of the same association of ideas, much good is procured to society, and, much evil prevented, by a desire of preventing disgrace or procuring honour to a name, when nothing but a name remains.

Perhaps no better use can be made of reading an account of manners altogether new, by which the follies and absurdities of mankind are taken out of that particular connection in which habit has reconciled them to us, than to consider in how many instances they are essentially the same. When an honest devotee of the Church of Rome reads, that there are Indians on the banks of the Ganges, who believe that they shall secure the happiness of a future state by dying with a cow’s tail in their hands, he laughs at their folly and superstition; and if these Indians were to be told, that there are people upon the continent of Europe, who imagine that they shall derive the same advantage from dying with the slipper of a St. Francis upon their foot, they would laugh in their turn. But if, when the Indian heard the account of the Catholic, and the Catholic that of the Indian, each was to reflect, that there was no difference between the absurdity of the slipper and of the tail; but that the veil of prejudice and custom, which covered it in their own case, was withdrawn in the other, they would turn their knowledge to a profitable purpose.

 On the 10th, the ceremony was to be performed, in honour of the old woman whose sepulchral tabernacle has just been described, by the chief mourner; and Mr. Banks had so great a curiosity to see all the mysteries of the solemnity, that he determined to take a part in it, being told, that he could be present upon no other condition. In the evening, therefore, he repaired to the place where the body lay, and was received by the daughter of the deceased, and several other persons, among whom was a boy about fourteen years old, who were to assist in the ceremony. Tubourai Tamaide was to be the principal mourner; and his dress, which was ex|tremely fantastical, though not unbecoming, is represented by a figure in one of the plates. Mr. Banks was stripped of his European clothes, and a small piece of cloth being tied round his middle, his body was smeared with charcoal and water, as low as the shoulders, till it was as black as that of a negroe: the same operation was performed upon several others, among whom were some women, who were reduced to a state as near to nakedness as himself; the boy was blacked all over, and then the procession set forward. Tubourai Tamaide uttered something, which was supposed to be a prayer, near the body; and did the same when he came up to his own house: when this was done, the procession was continued towards the fort, permission having been obtained to approach it upon this occasion. It is the custom of the Indians to fly from these processions with the utmost precipitation, so that as soon as those who were about the fort, saw it at a distance, they hid themselves in the woods. It proceeded from the fort along the shore, and put to flight another body of Indians, consisting of more than an hundred, every one hiding himself under the first shelter that he could find: it then crossed the river, and entered the woods, passing several houses, all which were deserted, and not a single Indian could be seen during the rest of the procession, which continued more than half an hour. The office that Mr. Banks performed, was called that of the Nineveh, of which there were two besides himself; and the natives having all disappeared, they came to the chief mourner, and said imatata, there are no people, after which the company was dismissed to wash themselves in the river, and put on their customary apparel.

Georg Forster’s contemporary description of a Tahitian Chief mourner’s dress

The German-born author (and, later, revolutionary) Georg Forster (1754-1794) accompanied his father, the naturalist, Johann Reinhold Forster, on Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas (1772–5). His account, A Voyage Round the World, 2 Vols., published in 1777, is an important source on Oceanic cultures and societies even if the internal values and dynamics of these cultures were inaccessible, remaining, in a sense ‘beyond vision’.

In their introduction to the critical edition of the text, the editors, Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof describe Forster’s ethnographical observations as ‘extensive, rich, and particular; it also features the summary distillations and sweeping judgments endemic to travel writing, although these tend to be advanced at one moment and qualified or contradicted at the next’. [xxxiii]

Thomas made an electronic transcription of their work available to Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures, a digital humanities project at the University of Pittsburgh which provides open access to ‘early and rare texts on Pacific encounters’. The digital resource offered by Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures features an online edition of A Voyage Round the World made using TEI mark up and contextual encoding which facilitates graphical visualizations and other experiments with digital text analysis. Forster’s own translation into German, Reise um die Welt, 2 Bänder, was published in 1778 and 1780. Digital facsimiles of the first editions with electronic transcriptions are available online at the Deutsches Text Archiv.

The extract below is taken from the journal entry for Thursday 28 April 1774 (Chapter VI, Book II) with annotations taken Thomas & Berghof’s print edition (2000).

Occasion and circumstances of exchange:

My father, with Dr. Sparrman, a sailor and a marine, went on shore the next day in the afternoon, with an intent to go up to the summit of the mountains. We had a great number of canoes about us all this time, and in them there were always some chiefs of different districts, who brought on board their hogs, and their most valuable possessions, in order to exchange them for red feathers, on which they placed an extravagant value. These feathers produced a great revolution in the connections which the women had formed with our sailors; and happy was he who had laid in a sufficient stock of this useful and precious merchandize at the Friendly Islands; the women crouded about him, and he had the choice of the fairest. That our red feathers had infused a general and irresistible longing into the minds of all the people, will appear from the following circumstance. I have observed, in the former part of this narrative, that the women of the families of chiefs never admitted the visits of Europeans; and also that whatever liberties some unmarried girls might with impunity allow themselves, the married state had always been held sacred and unspotted at Taheitee. But such was the force of the temptation, that a chief actually offered his wife to captain Cook, and the lady, by her husband’s order, attempted to captivate him, by an artful display of all her charms, seemingly in such a careless manner, as many a woman would be at a loss to imitate. I was sorry, for the sake of human nature, that this proposal came from a man, whose general character was in other respects very fair. It was Potatow who could descend to this meanness, from the high spirit of grandeur which he had formerly shewn. We expressed great indignation at his conduct, and rebuked him for his frailty. It was very fortunate for us, that a considerable quantity of this red plumage had been disposed of by our sailors at the Marquesas, in exchange for artificial curiosities, before they knew the high value which it bore at Taheitee. Had all these riches been brought to this island, the price of provisions would in all likelihood have been raised to such an unreasonable height, that we might have fared even worse than during our first visit. A single little feather was a valuable present, much superior to a bead or a nail, and a very small bit of cloth, closely covered with them, produced such extatic joy in him who received it, as we might suppose in an European, who should unexpectedly find the diamond of the Great Mogol. Potatow brought on board his monstrous helmet of war of five feet high, and sold it for red feathers; some others followed his example, and targets without number were bought by almost every sailor. But much more surprising than this, was their offering for sale those curious and singular mourning dresses, which are mentioned in captain Cook’s first voyage, and which they would not part with on any account at that time. These dresses being made of the rarest productions of their island, and of the surrounding sea, and being wrought with the greatest care and ingenuity, must of course bear a very considerable value among them. A number of complete mourning dresses, not less than ten, were purchased by different persons on board, and brought to England. Captain Cook has given one to the British Museum, and my father has had the honour of presenting another to the University of Oxford, now deposited in the Ashmolean Museum.

Detailed contemporary description of Heva dress:

This remarkable dress consists of a thin flat board of semi-circular form, about two feet long and four or five inches broad. Upon this are fixed four or five chosen mother of pearly shells, by means of strings of coco-nut core passed through several holes which are pierced in the wood and in the edges of the shells. A larger shell of the same kind fringed with bluish-green pigeons’ feathers, is fixed to each end of this board, of which the concave margin is placed upwards. Upon the middle of the concave margin there are two shells, which together form nearly a circle about six inches in diameter; and on top of these a very large piece of mother of pearl, commonly with its purple coating on is placed upright. It is of an oblong shape enlarging rather towards the upper end, and its height is nine or ten inches. A great number of long, white feathers from the tropic bird’s tail, form a radiant circle around it. From the convex margin of the board hangs down a tissue of small pieces of mother of pearl, in size and shape something like an apron. This consists of ten or fifteen rows of pieces about an inch and a half long, and one-tenth of an inch in breadth, each piece being perforated at both ends, in order to be fixed to the other rows. These rows are made perfectly streight and parallel to each other, therefore the uppermost are divided and extremely short, on account of the semicircular shape of the board. The lower rows are likewise commonly narrower, and from the ends of each row a string hangs down, ornamented with an opercula of shells, and sometimes with European beads. A tassel or round tail of green and yellow feathers hangs down from the upper ends of the board on the side of the apron, which is the most shewy part of the whole dress. A strong rope is fixed on each side of that pair of shells which rests immediately upon the concave margin of the board, and this string is tied about the head of the person who wears the dress. The whole piece hangs down perpendicularly before him, the apron hides his breast and stomach, the board covers his neck and shoulders, and the first pair of shells comes before his face. In one of these shells there is a small hole cut out through which the wearer must look in order to find his way. The uppermost shell, and the long feathers round it, extend at least two feet beyond the natural height of the man. The other parts of the dress are not less remarkable. He puts on a mat or a piece of cloth with a hole in the middle, like the usual dress of the country. Over this he places another of the same sort, but of which the fore part hangs down almost to the feet and is beset with many rows of buttons made of pieces of coco-nut shell. The belt consisting of a twisted rope of brown and white cloth is tied over this dress round the waist; a large cloak of net-work, closely beset with great bluish feathers covers the whole back; and a turban of brown and yellow cloth, bound with a great quantity of small twisted ropes of brown and white cloth, is placed on the head. An ample hood of alternate parallel stripes of brown, yellow and white cloth descends from the turban to cover the neck and shoulders, in order that as little as possible of the human figure may appear. Commonly the nearest relation of the deceased wears this whimsical dress, and carries in one hand a pair of large pearl shells, which are clapped or beated together continually, and in the other a stick armed with sharks’ teeth, with which he wounds any of the natives who chance to come near him.

Philosophical remarks on customs and manners:

What may have been the origin of this singular custom we cannot determine; but to me it seem to be calculated to inspire horror; and the fantastical dress in which it is performed, has so much of the strange and terrify-ing shape which our nurses ascribe to ghosts and goblins, that I am almost tempted to believe some ridiculous superstition lurks under this funeral rite. The spirit of the deceased, exacting a tribute of grief and tears from its survivors, and therefore wounding them with the shark’s teeth, would not be too extravagant for men to have adopted. Whatever it might be, we never could obtain any intelligence from the natives on the subject; they gave us an account of the ceremony, and if the dress, telling us the names of every part; but it was impossible to make ourselves understood, as soon as we wanted to know why it is so? The most singular act with which Mahine acquaint us, relative to the mourning rite, was, that at the death of a man, a woman performs the ceremony; but when a woman dies, a man must go the rounds with the scare-cross dress. In England the curiosity has been so great, that a Tahetian mourning-dress, which a sailor brought over, has been sold for five and twenty guineas. But in this respect the Tahetians are in no way inferior to civilized nations. In consequence of Mahine’s relation of his adventures, the chiefs continually importuned us to give them curiosities from Tonga-Tabboo, Waïhoo, and Waitahoo, instead of English goods, in exchange for their provisions and curiosities. The feathered head-dresses of the last two islands, and the baskets, clubs, and painted cloths of the former, pleased them excessively; nay they were eager to possess the mats of the Tonga-Tabboo, though in general they perfectly resembled their own manufacture. Our sailors frequently took advantage of their disposition, and gave them the same mats under another name, which they had formerly purchase in their own island, or in the Society Islands. Thus there is a similarity in the general inclinations of human nature, and particularly in the desires of all nations who are not in a state of savage barbarism, but have the advantage of civilisation.

George Forster, ‘A Voyage Round the World’, 2 vols., Thomas, Nicholas; Berghof, Oliver (eds.); Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, Vol. 1 , pp.360-3.

The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, 25 August 1768 – 12 July 1771

An online edition of Beaglehole’s 1962 edition of The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks : 1768-1771 is available from the New Zealand Electronic Text CollectionTe Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa, hosted by the Victoria University of Wellington. I include below three entries from Bank’s daily journal signalling his interest and detailing his enthusastic participation in a Tahitian mourning ceremony plus a more extended descriptions of Tahitian funerary practices in an excerpt from the section Manners & customs of S. Sea Islands. It is apparent that the mourning ceremonies (and the mourning dress itself)  held a particular fascination for Banks, although, with the characteristic ambivalence inherent in eighteenth-century  ‘curiosity’, even as he writes how ‘very desirous’  he is to see them, it is because of his desire for novelty rather than  deeper understanding or insight:

 ‘as the singular taste of those promise much novelty at least if not something worth imitation in whatever they take pains with.

5 June 1769

During our absence at Imao an old woman of some consequence, a relation of Tamio, was dead and was plac’d not far from the fort to rot above ground as is the custom of the Island. I went this morn to see her. A small square was neatly raild in with Bamboe and in the midst of it a Canoe awning set up upon two posts, in this the body was laid coverd with fine cloth. Near this was laid fish &c. meat for the gods not for the deceasd, but to satisfie the hunger of the deitys least they shoud eat the body, which Tubourai told us they would certainly do if this ceremony was neglected. In the front of the square was a kind of stile or place lower than the rest, where the relations of the deceasd stood when they cry’d or bled themselves, and under the awning were numberless rags containing the blood and tears they had shed. Within a few yards were two occasional houses; in one of them some of the relations constantly remaind generaly a good many; in the other the cheif male mourner resided and kept a very remarkable Dress in which he performd a ceremony, both which I shall describe when I have an opportunity of seeing it in perfection which Tubourai promises me I shall soon have.

This day we kept the Kings birthday which had been delayd on account of the absence of the two observing parties; several of the Indians dind with us and drank his majesties health by the name of Kihiargo, for we could not teach them to pronounce a word more like King George. Tupia however to shew his Loyalty got most enormously drunk.

9 June 1769

Yesterday and today the Heiva no Meduah or funeral ceremony walkd. My curiosity was raisd by his most singular dress. I was desirous of knowing what he did during his walk; I askd Tubourai, at the same time desird leave to atend him tomorrow which upon my consenting to perform a character was readily granted. Tomorrow therefore I am to be smutted from head to foot and to do whatever they desire me to do. Bread fruit has for some time been scarce with us; about 10 days ago the trees were thinnd all at once from their being a great shew of fruit; every one was employd in making Mahie for about a week. Where the breadfruit we now have comes from we cannot tell, but we have more than the woods in our neighbourhood can supply us with. Probably our consumption has thinnd the trees in this neighbourhood, as the Dolphins who came here about this time saw great plenty all the time they stayd; if this is the case what we now get may be brought from some neig[h]bouring place where the trees are not yet exhausted.

10 June 1769

This evening according to my yesterdays engagement I went to the place where the medua lay, where I found Tubourai, Tamio, Hoona the Meduas daughter and a young Indian prepard to receive me. Tubourai was the Heiva, the three others and myself were to Nineveh. He put on his dress, most Fantastical tho not unbecoming, the figure annexd will explain it far better than words can. I was next prepard by stripping off my European cloths and putting me on a small strip of cloth round my waist, the only garment I was allowd to have, but I had no pretensions to be ashamd of my nakedness for neither of the women were a bit more coverd than myself. They then began to smut me and themselves with charcoal and water, the Indian boy was compleatly black, the women and myself as low as our shoulders. We then set out. Tubourai began by praying twice, one near the Corps again near his own house. We then proceeded towards the fort: it was nesscessary it seems that the procession should visit that place but they dare not to do it without the sanction of some of us, indeed it was not till many assurances of our consent that they venturd to perform any part of their ceremonies. To the fort then we went to the surprize of our freinds and affright of the Indians who were there, for they every where fly before the Heiva like sheep before a wolf. We soon left it and proceeded along shore towards a place where above 100 Indians were collected together. We the Ninevehs had orders from the Heiva to disperse them, we ran towards them but before we cam[e] within 100 yards of them they dispers’d every way, running to the first shelter, hiding themselves under grass or whatever else would conceal them. We now crossd the river into the woods and passd several houses, all were deserted, not another Indian did we see for about _ an hour that we sepnt in walking about. We the Ninevehs then came to the Heiva and said imatata, there are no people; after which we repaird home, the Heiva undressd and we went into the river and scrubbd one another till it was dark before the blacking would come off.

Manners & customs of S. Sea Islands. 1769

[inserted in Banks’s Journal from after 14 August 1769]

Their Manner of Disposing of their dead as well as the ceremonies relating to their mourning for them are so remarkable that they deserve a very particular description. As soon as any one is dead the House is immediately filld with their relations who bewail their Loss with Loud lamentations, especialy those who are the farthest removd in blood from or who profess the least greif for the deceasd; the nearer relations and those who are realy affected spend their time in more silent sorrow, while the rest join in Chorus’s of Greif at certain intervals between which they laugh, talk and gossip as if totaly unconcernd; this lasts till day light on the Morn after their meeting, when the body being shrowded in their cloth is laid upon a kind of Bier on which it can conveniently be carried upon mens shoulders. The priests office now begins; he prays over the body, repeating his sentences, and orders it to be carried down to the sea side; here his prayers are renewd, the Corps is brought down near the waters edge and he sprinkles water towards but not upon it, it is then removd 40 or 50 yards from the sea and soon after brought back and this ceremony repeated which is done several times. In the mean time a house has been built and a small space of ground round it raild in; in the center of this house are posts set up for the supporting of the bier which as soon as the ceremonies are finishd is brought here and set upon them, where the Corps is to remain and putrifie in state to the no small disgust of every one whose business requires them to pass near it.

These houses of corruption, Tu papow as they are calld here, are of a size proportionate to the rank of the Person containd in them; if he is poor they merely cover the bier and these generaly have no railing round them, the largest I ever saw was 11 yards in lengh. They are ornamented according to the abilities and inclinations of the surviving relations, who never fail to lay a profusion of Good Cloth about the body and often almost cover the outside of the house; the two ends which are open are also hung with kind of garlands of the Fruits of the Palm nut (Pandanus) Cocoa nut leaves knotted by the Preists in kind of Mystick knots, and a plant calld by them Ethee no ta Marai (terminalia) which is particularly consecrated to funerals. Near the House is also laid fish, fruits and cocoa nut or Common water or such provisions as can well be spard, not that they suppose the dead any way capable of eating this provision, but think that if any of their gods should descend upon that place and being hungry find that these preparations had been neglected he would infalibly satisfy his appetite with the flesh of the dead corps.

No sooner is the corps fixd up within the House or ewhatta as they call it than the ceremony of mourning begins again. The women (for the men seem to think lamentations below their dignity) assemble Led on by the nearest relation, who walking up to the door of the House swimming almost in tears strikes a sharks tooth several times into the crown of her head, on which a large effusion of blood flows, which is carefully caught in their linnen and thrown under the Bier. Her example is imitated by the rest of the women and this ceremony is repeated at the interval of 2 or 3 days as long as the women chuse or can keep it up, the nearest relation thinking it her duty to Continue it longer than any one else. Besides the blood which they beleive to be an acceptable present to the deceasd, whose soule they beleive to exist and hover about the place where the body lays observing the actions of the survivors, they throw in Cloths wet with tears, of which all that are shed are carefully preservd for that purpose, and the younger people cut off their hair either all or in part and throw that also under the Bier.

When these ceremonies have been performd for two or three days the men, who till now seemd to be intirely insensible of their loss, begin their part which the Nearest relations take in turns. They dress themselves in a dress so extrordinary that I question whether words can give a tolerable Idea of it, I therefore refer intirely to the annexd figure. In this dress they patrole the woods early in the morn and late at night, preceeded by 2 or 3 boys who have nothing upon them but a small peice of Cloth round their wrists and are smutted all over with Charcoal; these sable emissaries run about their principal in all directions as if in pursuit of people on whoom he may vent the rage inspird by his sorrow, which he does most unmercifully if he catches any body, cutting them with his stick the edge of which is set with sharks teeth, but this rarely or never happens for no sooner does this figure appear than every one who see either him or his emissaries fly inspird with a sort of religious awe, fly with the utmost speed, hiding wherever they think themselves the most safe but by all means quitting their Houses if they lie even near the path of this dreadfull apparition.

These ceremonies continue for 5 moons decreasing however in frequency very much towards the latter part of that time. The body is then taken down from the ewhatta, the bones washd and scrapd very clean, and burried according to the rank of the person either within or without some one of their Marais or places of publick worship; and if it is one of their Earees or cheifs his Scull is preservd and being wrappd up in fine Cloth is plac’d in a kind of case made for that purpose which stands in the marai. The mourning then ceases unless some of the women who find themselves more than commonly afflicted by the Loss repeat the ceremony of Poopooing or bleeding themselves in the head, which they do at any time or in any place where they happen to be when the whim takes them. The ceremonies however are far from Ceasing at this time. Frequent prayers are to be said by the preist and frequent offerings made for the benefit of the deceasd, or more properly for that of the Preists who are well paid for their prayers by the surviving relations. During this ceremony Emblematical devices are made use of: a young plantain tree signifies the Deceased and a bunch of feathers the Deity invokd; opposite to this the preist places himself often attended by relations of the deceasd and always furnish’d with a small offering of some kind of Eatables intended for the God; he begins by adressing the God by a set form of sentences and during the time he repeats them employs himself in weaving Cocoa nut leaves into different forms, all which he disposes upon the Grave where the bones have been deposited; the Deity is then adressed by a shrill scritch usd only on that occasion and the offering presented to his representative, the little tuft of feathers, which after this is removd and every thing else left in statu quo, to the no small Emolument of the Rats who quickly devour the offering.

Religion has been in ages, is still in all Countreys Cloak’d in mysteries unexplicable to human understanding. In the South Sea Islands it has still another disadvantage to present to any one who has a desire to investigate it–the Language in which it is conveyd, at least many words of it, are different from those usd in common conversation, so that tho Tupia often shewd the greatest desire to instruct us in it he found it almost impossible; in short it is only needfull to remember how dificult it would be to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies of our own religion to the faith of an infidel, and to recolect how many excellent discourses are daily read to instruct even us in the faith which we profess, as articles of excuse in my favour when I declare that I know less of the religion of these people than of any other part of their policy. What I do know however I shall here write down wishing that inconsistencies may not appear to the eye of the candid reader as absurdities.

J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks : 1768-1771,  Sydney : Angus and Robertson, 1962, pp.376-9. 

The Art of the Pacific

The Art of the Pacific is an introductory essay by George Dawson, published in 1978 in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name held in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College, Dublin.

In the 20th century, for almost the first time, it is hardly possible to understand much of the development of European art without an awareness of art of other continents. No account of Picasso’s work is possible without an extensive knowledge of both African and Pacific art; of Henry Moore’s sculptures without a wide knowledge of the sculpture of other traditions, especially that of pre-Colombian Mexico. Matisse and Braque, like Picasso and many other other artists in Paris at the beginning of this century, were familiar with the collections in the Musée de L’Homme. An awareness, and often considerable scholarly knowledge, of other traditions, is an underlying feature of the achievements of many major European artists of this century.

Parallel with this creative impact has become a rapid increase in the volume of studies of the arts of other continents. Scholars have long been attracted to study those traditions in which the interest lies primarily in ancient, rather than in current, work. There is a considerable literature, for example, on Egyptian, Chinese and Indian art. The study of Pacific and African art, of which few examples survive which are older than 100 or 200 years, is more recent. The former derives partly from interest in the United States, partly from the development of Pacific studies in Australia and New Zealand; the latter partly from the growth of universities and museums in African countries, and partly from the development of African studies in American universities in response to the needs of Americans of African descent. In both areas the early interest of European universities and museums, especially those on the continent, has been maintained.

The respect which has been accorded to the art of topical regions by some of the leading European artists of this century has effectively disposed of its being described pejoratively as ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ art, in most museums it is no longer included in ethnographical sections but has become part of the mains collections of art. There is an increasing appreciation of the stylistic qualities of African and Pacific art; an evaluation which is slowly being reflected in the content of visual arts courses in colleges and universities.

Much of this increasing recognition is based on criteria of art description and criticism which have been developed over may centuries in Europe. These are not necessarily the most appropriate for the appreciation of African and Pacific art. As European and tropical societies are different so the role of their art is different and each had to be considered in its own context. We need to consider each in a balanced perspective, as if European art were emerging from ethnographical collections in the Pacific as Pacific art is emerging from ethnographical collections in Europe.

There are many differences between European and Pacific art about which an exhibition such as this encourages us to be be explicit. One of the more important is the European, unlike the Pacific, tradition is associated with literacy, both literary and archival. The bible and church history, classical and later literature, the development of psychology and other sciences, and the record of historical events have been the origins of much European art. The translation of such themes into visual terms, rather than their mere illustration, has been part of the European tradition. Literacy has also provided a continuing commentary on the development of art, embracing records of patronage, biography, appreciation and criticism. European art has developed in the context of being explicit about art. Pacific art has developed in societies without literacy, without being explicit about its meaning and form. except at the less coherent level of oral tradition. Pacific art is therefore less thoughtful than European art.

A second difference follows from the first. Pacific art, less influenced by commentary, has essentially visual and craft traditions. These are conservative, being limited by the structures of the various societies, and imaginative and expressive, not being limited by having to be explicit about stylistic values. In the context of the the hundreds of islands in the Pacific this has resulted in a wide range of artistic form resulting from the interplay between expressionism, craft traditions and diverse social structures.

A third difference relates to the community role of Pacific art, in festivals of ritual and initiation, and in buildings associated with social structures. In Europe, art has changed from an aesthetic pagan role in classical times, to serve the church in icons, frescoes and splendid architectures and carvings, to the patronage of civil authorities and merchants, to satisfying the desire of individuals for possessions which society judges to be of artistic and commercial value. The framed pictures, the unique carving and the bronze or print of a limited edition becomes a desired possession. This acquisitiveness, and loneliness, of European man contrasts sharply with the sense of community, and personal relationships of Pacific communities.

A fourth difference is in the materials of European and Pacific art. The works of the former in carvings, buildings, bronzes and paintings have survived over many centuries to provide a record of visual achievement and development which is part of the experience of artists today. In the Pacific, where metal was unknown and stone scarce, the works of wood and basketry seldom survive more than 50 or 100 years; the visual awareness of present societies not having around them the achievements of their more distant past, is the the more free to continue recent developments.

The present exhibition consists of works collected at a time when the various social structures in the numerous islands were relatively undisturbed by Europeans. It does not represent the art of the Pacific today; only in the remoter parts of the Sepic Valley of New Guinea is work still being produced in the the context of indigenous social structures. Elsewhere the traditions have either died or, in parts of New Guinea, craftsmen produce similar but much inferior works for missionaries and other groups to sell on the international market. this is the context in which the collection of the National Museum is of immense importance. The art of the Pacific is known almost exclusively from collections made from the time of Captain Cook’s voyages to the earlier part of this century, a span of a mere 150 years. The collection of the National Museum is one of the finest in the world. It must rank after the extensive collections in London, Paris, New York, Basel, Leningrad and Budapest, as one of the next important collections and in some fields is more important than some of these. The collection is especially rich in works from the Papua region of New Guinea, has major carvings from New Zealand, fine inlay work from the Solomon Islands, some rare high quality carvings from Easter Island and good representative works from the Maori culture of New Zealand.

The material collected in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is particularly important. These works show achievements of the Pacific art in the past, most of which are not continued in the present day.*

The art of the Pacific, neither refined nor limited by continuous commentary, is one of the the great expressive achievements of man. It is now almost extinct and, as most examples of its works were perishable, all we have are examples executed over a relatively short period of time. Nevertheless, these works are more sufficient to show the diversity of imagination and craftsmanship of peoples in the Pacific and their very high quality. While much still needs to be understood about the relationship between the visual motifs and the social, ritual and religious concepts, we can at least admire the combination of imagination and craftsmanship which is such a conspicuous feature of New Ireland carvings, the colourful virtuosity which characterises so many works from New Guinea, the elegance of the shell-inlay carvings from the Solomon Islands, the stylisation of Maori art and the many other achievements of Pacific peoples in the visual arts.

This exhibition is to enhance, on the bicentenary of Captain Cook’s death, our awareness of Pacific art, and to enable us to appreciate some of the splendid examples which are included in our national collection. If it achieves these aims, this exhibition will have served its purpose.

[*Editorial note: Dawson’s essay goes on to outline some of the contexts and techniques of the works on display in the exhibition; while not as detailed as the visual descriptions in the individual entries in the notes to the catalogue (to which he directs readers), this section of the essay is not included here because of the unavailablity of supporting visual references. The larger point Dawson wishes to make is that, even if one leave the ‘Cook Collection’ apart, the National Museum’s collection of Pacific art (from later periods in the 19th century) is ‘especially rich’ and contains several ‘exceptionally fine examples’. The excerpted passages can be read here: The National Museum’s collection of 19th century Pacific art]

‘Embodied inter-cultural dialogues’

In his article, Embodied inter-cultural dialogues: the biography of a Samoan necklace in Cologne, Tobias Sperlich gives a clear summary of theoretical perspectives drawn from the anthropology of art (namely, object biographies and material agency) which he links to the idea of ‘inter-cultural dialogues’ and applies to the study of the art and material culture of the Pacific. People continuously move, exchanging ideas and materials, cross-fertilising cultures in the process. The levels of meaning of an object can only be appreciated, Sperlich suggests, by exploring the various aspects of material, personal and ideational interplay through which cultural significance is attributed.

Since Adrienne Kaeppler’s major publication [Artificial Curiosities (1978)] on objects associated with the voyages of James Cook, in which she traced the history of individual objects in order to document their attribution to Cook and his voyages, many similar studies have been done on ethnographic collections in museums around the world. This body of work has evolved into an approach that regards objects and collections as having lives of their own and, in particular for the Pacific, assigns them agency and thereby multi-layered and non-linear biographies similar to those of humans. The approach thus differs markedly from traditional art-historical and anthropological approaches to objects that see them as innate, passive entities, as possessing meaning but not actively creating and shaping it.

More recently, Kaeppler introduced the concept of “inter-cultural dialogues” to the study of material culture. This idea has stimulated theorising against some rigid art-historical distinctions that deny objects active agency and encouraged studies that focus on the interplay of ideas and objects. The notion of inter-cultural dialogues as employed by Kaeppler assumes that there are, and have long been, interactions between people in different parts of the Pacific and, for at least three centuries, between the Pacific and the West. These interactions have led to the interchange of ideas and technologies, the adaption of innovations and the blending of cultural and artistic forms. This approach rightly assumes that artistic styles and conventions, just like any other aspect of a given culture, are in a constant state of flux and change, and that judgements about an object’s authenticity should not rest solely on art-historical typologies and values. Such conventional notions of authenticity continue to influence understandings of historic and present Polynesian art and material culture. They deny those objects authenticity and thereby significant value because of the incorporation of new, Western or simply different materials or styles.

Studying an object from a biographical perspective and incorporating the idea of inter-cultural dialogues showcases diverse levels of meaning and value associated with an object and illustrates how both original and acquired meanings are an essential, constituent part of an object’s biography. It is the necklace’s multi-layered meaning that ought to be recognised as vital and valuable facets of its history and ongoing “life”, when it is studied abstractly as an artistic expression, and within its present context, the museum.

Sperlich, Tobias, 2006. ‘Embodied inter-cultural dialogues: the biography of a Samoan necklace in Cologne’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 115, No. 2, pp. 119-144.

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