Book of the week: Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti

Katrina Schlunke finds exotic tales of Pacific island encounters to be most revealing

March 11, 2010

Perhaps there should be a small addition to the subtitle of this book - The European Discovery of Tahiti and the Tahitian Management of those Europeans. For one of the central achievements of Anne Salmond's impressive work is its intricate genealogy of the continuing efforts of indigenous Tahitians to connect with and use the visits to their land by Europeans from the 18th century onwards.

Expeditions to the Pacific island that were seen by competing European powers as bids for political primacy were, for the Tahitians, one more negotiation with the forces that they themselves had unleashed through their behaviours, their breaching of the "everyday world of the light" and the "dark world of the ancestors". And so Tahiti's multiple "discoveries" by Westerners presented an ongoing working-out of the powers of particular families, their struggles for land and recognition and the unpredictable forces of their gods. Meanwhile, the Europeans came and went in their God-driven and ideological fashion, finding proof of emerging philosophies of innocence, slowly losing the dream of a great south land and bringing the Enlightenment into existence through a mixture of curiosity, diplomacy, trade and violence.

There is awe to be had in reading this blockbuster of a book. Salmond offers us the satisfying, readerly pleasure of realising a particular place and time, as one carefully explored event after another is interwoven with fascinating detail and accounts of complex cross-cultural encounters. It is a complex pleasure, too, with the recounting of a profound historical record enlivened by exotic tales of the Pacific and the postcolonial twist of hearing at least something of both sides, European and Tahitian. Although I use the word "blockbuster" to express the impressive extent of the research, there are no authorial garnishes and there is no cliched salaciousness, just assured guidance through diverse sources and a narrative that glides effortlessly through hundreds of pages.

To read Aphrodite's Island is to read about the ways in which the West fell in love with, exoticised and tried to claim and reshape Tahiti. That mix of desire and destruction wends its way into our reading practices so that what we may identify as either extraordinary or typical can end up showing us much about ourselves. It seems that never so clearly was the complex desire for "the other" also a complicated set of explicitly sexual practices.

Sex, now so very normativised and disciplined, becomes strange in these pages - and distinctly odd in its British and its Tahitian forms. Salmond recounts the moment the trade of sex for nails began in 1767 via the landing of a food-gathering party from Captain Samuel Wallis' ship HMS Dolphin, with "a Dear Irish boy, one of our Marins" having sex with a Tahitian woman in front of his companions. He got a thrashing from his fellow sailors for his lack of decency in not going behind a bush; his excuse was that he was afraid of losing the honour of being the first.

The watching Tahitians may have made a different sense of this public display. Their arioi (a largely male religious and aristocratic society, to grossly simplify their multiple roles in Tahitian society) would occasionally perform ceremonial public sex in their symbolic negotiations with 'Oro, a god associated with thunder, power and consequently sex.

In another of the Tahitians' efforts to manage the assumed ancestral power of the arriving strangers, women of the islands would circle the Westerners' boats, stamping their feet, grimacing, exposing their genitals and yelling. This potent display of unrestricted feminine power was meant to demean and work upon the restricted power of men, but the sailors seem largely to have interpreted it as a simple offer of sex. And so one of the first moments of Tahitian/English body contact was that of public sex on a beach. If the seemingly available woman led a sailor to behave as we guess he normally would in a brothel, what does this tell us of the intensely sexed nature of "discovery" in general? And how do we read the account of that sailor's actions next to Salmond's descriptions of a young Tahitian warrior and a female child being encouraged to have sex in front of all?

These are simply some of the instances of the compressed detail in these pages. In what is doubtless an effort to keep the context large and the stories developmental, many are not fully explored. But it also reminds us that even such careful scholarship cannot explain everything. The emphasis on the big picture must be diligently pursued, and yet I longed now and then for some small sections of calculated imagining or forensic contextualising that would help us reconnect small events to the larger scenario.

As in any cross-cultural exploration, Aphrodite's Island offers a particular delight in having our own assumptions laid bare. Vehiatua, a Tahitian ari'i, visits a Spanish ship whose crew have been forbidden to have sex and whose ceremonial cross has already been planted on shore, and he proceeds to have oral sex with his "servant" (possibly a mahu, a man who lived as a woman) in the sergeants' mess. The pair are discovered and roundly thrashed by a common sailor, setting in motion orders and counter-orders of offence. The Tahitians' dignity is assaulted by their leader being beaten by a sailor; the sailor's dignity is assaulted by a male-to-male exchange so differently managed in ship-board life.

And there is something even more delightful in the Tahitians' description of Captain James Cook to the Spaniards - he had a big nose, they said, and ate with a two-pronged fork. Why noses and forks? This account also leaves you wondering: what if these encounters had begun well after the development of the West's sexual-repression hypothesis and when a European imagining of what sexual release and power could produce or stop was in full swing? What if the Tahitians had voyaged first to Australia and led that continent into the Polynesian world?

Salmond is interested, I think, in finding a style of understanding that is large, supple and flexible enough to provide an imaginative frame that lets us adequately experience the breadth of these encounters. This includes the provincial politics of particular Tahitian regions meshing with family politics and the followers of particular gods, and for the European adventurers, the mix of Protestant and Catholic values informing their activities amid national jealousies and anxieties about increasingly international colonial control. These beliefs and desires are then enacted through individual encounters that each side had already partially predicted. In this strange way, neither side was simply "making" history, but fulfilling prophecies and destinies.

Although there is an apocalyptic frisson to Salmond's recounting of the priest Vaita's prophecy that Tahitians' lands would be taken by the glorious children of Tetumu - "They are coming on a canoe without any outrigger" - the force of myth to create time, make nations and fuel desire is seen everywhere in this stunning account. And nowhere, it seems, were European myths stronger than when connected to what seemed to be a world of beauty, sexual freedom and absence from want.


Anne Salmond, distinguished professor of Maori studies and anthropology at the University of Auckland, hails from a family with close involvement to the Maori in New Zealand.

Her great-grandfather produced early ethnographic films of Maori life and became an expert Maori carver.

Following in his footsteps, Salmond's daughter, who until recently was senior curator at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, is also an authority on Maori and Pacific artefacts and exchanges.

As a teenager Salmond began to learn Maori and was "adopted" by two Maori elders. Until recently, her research focused on Maori history and traditions. Her latest work into the Pacific Ocean and the voyages of Captain Cook sparked an interest in the discovery of Tahiti, a Maori homeland.

Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti

By Anne Salmond

University of California Press 544pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780520261143

Published 22 December 2009

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