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Polynesian Researches


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Interesting state of the people—Extensive prevalence of a severe epidemic—Former diseases in the islands comparatively few and mild—Priests the general physicians—Native practice of physic—Its intimate connexion with sorcery—Gods of the healing art—The tuabu, or broken back—Insanity—Native warm bath—Occulists—Surgery—Setting a broken neck or back—The operation of trepan—Native remedies superseded by European medicine—Need of a more abundant supply—Former cruelty towards the sick—Parricide—Present treatment of invalids—Death of Messrs. Tessier and Bicknell—Dying charge to the people—Missionary responsibility.

The same interesting state of the people by which the close of 1819 had been distinguished, marked the commencement of 1820. Never were our direct Missionary labours more arduous and incessant; and yet, during no period of our residence there, were they more delightful. We beheld indeed the isles waiting for the laws and institutions of Messiah, and felt that we had been sent to a people emphatically prepared of the Lord, made willing in the day of his power.

The inhabitants of the remote districts which we had periodically visited, were many of them no longer satisfied with an opportunity for conversation on religious subjects once a week, but came and built their houses in the neighbourhood of Fare. We recommended those who remained, to page 35 do the same; and soon after the annual meetings in May, they so far complied as to render it unnecessary for us to visit these stations.

One spacious chapel was opened in the latter end of April, on which occasion I read a translation of the sixth chapter of the second book of Chronicles, and afterwards preached from the sixth verse. Our Missionary meeting was remarkably well attended, and the subscriptions proportionably liberal; they amounted to between three and four thousand gallons of oil, besides cotton, and other trifling articles.

In the midst of this delightful state of things, the stations were visited with a distressing epidemic, which spread through the whole group of islands, and proved fatal to many of the people. It was a kind of influenza, affecting the lungs and throat; many attacked with it lost their voice. We suffered in common with the people, and I was obliged to relinquish all public duty for some weeks. This kind of calamity has been frequently experienced in the islands since they have been the resort of foreign shipping, though we are not aware that it prevailed before. A kind of dysentery appeared after the visit of Vancouver's ship, which called at the islands in 1790: this proved fatal to a vast portion of the population. In the year 1800, the Britannia, a London vessel, anchored at Taiarabu. Two seamen absconded, and a disease followed, less fatal, but very distressing, and more extensive, as scarcely an individual escaped.

These diseases have generally passed through the islands from the east to the west, in the direction of the trade winds. After the above appeared among the people, it was for some months page 36 confined to the Windward Islands; and so general was its prevalence, that Pomare one day said to Mr. Nott, “If this had been a fatal or killing disease, like that from Vancouver's ship, no individual would have survived.”

As it began to subside, a canoe, called Hareaino, arrived from the Leeward Islands, and after remaining a week or two at Tahiti, returned to Huahine. Shortly after this, the people who had been in the canoe were attacked, and the disease ultimately spread as completely through this group, as it had through that at which the foreign vessel touched. Within the last two years, a disorder, in many respects similar to that left by the crew of Vancouver's vessel, has again swept through the islands, and carried off numbers of the people.

The diseases formerly prevailing among the South Sea Islanders were comparatively few; those from which they now suffer are principally pulmonary, intermittent, and cutaneous. The most fatal are, according to their account, of recent origin. While idolaters, they were accustomed to consider every bodily afflication as the result of the anger of their gods; and the priest was a more important personage, in time of sickness, than the physician. Native practitioners, who were almost invariably priests or sorcerers, were accustomed to apply such healing remedies as the islands afforded; and an invocation to some spirit or god attended the administration of every medicine. Tama, Taaroatuihono, Eteate, and Rearea, were the principal gods of physic and surgery. The former, in particular, was invoked for the cure of fractures and bruises.

From the gods the priests pretended to have page 37 received the knowledge of the healing art, and to them a part of the physician's fee was considered to belong. No animal or mineral substances were admitted into their pharmacopoeia; vegetable productions alone were used, and these simply pulverized, infused, heated on the fire, or with red-hot stones, and often fermented. Many of their applications, however, were powerful, especially a species of gourd, or wild cucumber. A preparation, in which milk from the pulp of the cocoa-nut formed a principal ingredient, was sometimes followed by almost instant death. Mr. Barff once took this preparation, at the earnest recommendation of the people; but it nearly cost him his life, although he had not drunk more than half the quantity prepared.

Frequently, when some medicines were about to be administered, the friends and relatives of the patient were sent for, that they might be at hand, should the effect be unfavourable. They often expected it would either save or destroy the patient. Numerous ceremonies were connected with every remedy applied; and much greater dependence was placed on the efficacy of the prayers, than on the effect of the medicine.

When a person was taken ill, the priest or physician was sent for; as soon as he arrived, a young plantain-tree, procured by some members of the family, was handed to him, as an offering to the god; a present of cloth was also furnished, as his own fee. He began by calling upon the name of his god, beseeching him to abate his anger towards the sufferer, to say what would propitiate him, or what applications would afford relief. Sometimes remedies were applied at the same time, or the relatives sent to fetch certain herbs or roots, page 38 but the priest usually went himself to compound the raau or medicine: a considerable degree of mystery was attached to this proceeding, and the physicians appeared unwilling that others should know of what their preparations consisted. They pretended to be instructed by their god, as to the herbs they should select, and the manner of combining them. Different raaus, or medicines, were used for different diseases; and although they kept the composition of their nostrums a secret, they were not unwilling that the report of their efficacy might spread, in order to their obtaining celebrity and extended practice. Hence, when a person was afflicted with any particular disease, and the inquiry made as to who should be sent for, it was not unusual to hear it said—“O ta mea te raau maitai no ia mai,”—such a one has a good medicine for this disease.

The small-pox, measles, hooping-cough, and a variety of other diseases, to which most European children are subject, are unknown; yet they have a disease called oniho, which in its progress, and the effects on the face, corresponds with the smallpox, excepting that it is milder, and the inequalities it leaves on the skin soon disappear. There is another disease, somewhat analogous to this, resembling the species of erysipelas called shingles, for the cure of which the natives apply a mixture of bruised herbs and pulverized charcoal. Inflammatory tumors are prevalent; and the only remedy they apply, is a mixture of herbs bruised with a stone. Asthmatic and other pulmonary affections also occur, and, with persons about the age of twenty, generally prove fatal.

Among the most prevalent and obstinate diseases to which, as a nation, they are exposed, is one page 39 which terminates in a permanent affection of the spine; it usually appears in early life, commencing in the form of an intermittent of remittent. The body is reduced almost to a skeleton; and the disease terminates in death, or a large curvature of the spine, so as considerably to diminish the height of the individual, and cause a very unsightly protrusion of the spine between the shoulders, or a curvature inwards, causing the breast-bones to appear unusually prominent. Multitudes in every one of the Society Islands are to be seen deformed by this disease, which the natives call tuapu, literally, projecting; or, as we should say, humped-back.

After this curvature has occurred, the patient usually recovers, and, although greatly deformed, does not appear more predisposed to disease than others. Those individuals are often among the most active, intelligent, and ingenious of the people.

Connected with this disease, there are two remarkable circumstances. I am not prepared to say that it is hereditary, but the children of such persons are more frequently the subjects of it than others. It is also singular that it should prevail principally among the lower classes of society, the farmers and the mechanics. I know of no principal chief, and I cannot recollect any one even of secondary rank, thus afflicted: yet their rank and station are hereditary. This single fact renders more striking than it otherwise would be, the difference in appearance between the chiefs and people, and it may certainly warrant the inference, that the meagre living of the latter exposes them to maladies, from which more generous diet and comfortable modes of life exempt their superiors.

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Some say this singular complaint, which was unknown to their ancestors, has only prevailed since they have been visited by foreign shipping. It does not prevail among the inhabitants of the surrounding islands; but whether it be of recent origin or not, in Tahiti it is very affecting to witness the numbers that have suffered; and we cannot but hope that as industry and civilization advance, and their mode of living improves, it will in an equal ratio disappear from among them.

Blindness is frequently induced by the same disease that precedes the spinal curvature. The condition of the blind, when suffered to live, must, under the reign of idolatry, have been truly lamenbtable—they were generally objects of derision and neglect, if not wanton cruelty.

Insanity prevailed in a slight degree, but individuals under its influence met with a very different kind of treatment. They were supposed to be inspired or possessed by some god, who, the natives imagined, had entered every one suffering under mental aberrations. On this account no control was exercised, but the highest respect was shewn them. They were, however, generally avoided, and their actions were considered as the deeds of the god, rather than the man. Under these circumstances, when the poor wretch became his own destroyer, it was not regarded as an event to be deplored. Deafness was sometimes experienced; and there are a few persons in the islands who can neither speak nor hear distinctly.

In their application to particular diseases, the priests manifested considerable acquaintance with the medicinal properties of the herbs, and their adaptation to the complaint, to relieve which they were employed; but their practice must have been page 41 very uncertain and ineffectual, though they were held in high esteem by all ranks. Convulsions being sometimes experienced, were considered to result from the direct power of the god. Sudden death was also attributed to the same cause—and an attack so terminating, was called rima atua, “hand of god.” Those who died suddenly were also said to be haruhia e te atua, or uumehia e te atua: “seized by the god, or strangled by the god.” Indeed, the gods were supposed to send all the diseases with which they were afflicted.

Whatever mystery they might attach to the preparation and use of medicine, their practice of surgery, and application of external remedies, were more simple and straightforward. They did not apply friction in the same manner as the Sandwich Islanders sometimes do, viz. by placing the patient flat on the ground, and rolling a twelve or fourteen pound shot backwards and forwards along the back; but in a far more gentle manner, by rubbing with the hands the muscles of the limbs, and pressing them in the same way as the Indians practise shampooing.

The natives had no method of using the warmbath, but often seated their patients on a pile of heated stones strewed over with green herbs or leaves, and kept them coverd with a green herbs or leaves, and kept them covered with a thick cloth till the most profuse perspiration was induced; something like that produced by the fashionable vapour bath. In this state, to our great astonishment, at the most critical seasons of illness, the patient would leave the heap of stones, and plunge into the sea, near which the oven was generally heated. Though the shock must have been very great, they appeared to sustain no injury from this transition.

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There were persons among them celebrated as oculists, but their skill principally consisted in removing foreign substances from the eye; and when applied to for this purpose, they, as well as others, received the payment or fee before they commenced their operations; but if the present did not please them, they, to satisfy their employers, sometimes took one splinter, &c. out of the eye, and left another in, that they might be sent for again. Their surgeons were remarkably dexterous in closing a cut or thrust, by drawing the edges carefully together, and applying the pungent juice of the ape, arum costatum, to the surface. This, acting like caustic, must have caused great pain.

A fractured limb they set without much trouble; applying splinters of bamboo-cane to the sides, and keeping it bound up till healed. A dislocation they usually succeeded in reducing; but the other parts of their surgical practice were marked by a rude promptness, temerity, and barbarism, almost incredible. A man one day fell from a tree, and dislocated some part of his neck. His companions, on perceiving it, instantly took him up: one of them placed his head between his own knees, and held it firmly; while the others, taking hold of his body, twisted the joint into its proper place.

On another occasion, a number of young men, in the district of Fare, were carrying large stones, suspended from each end of a pole across their shoulders, their usual mode of carrying a burden: one of them so injured the vertebræ, as to be almost unable to move; he had, as they expressed it, fati te tua, broken the back. His fellow-workmen laid him flat on his face on the grass; one grasped and pulled his shoulders, and the other his page 43 legs, while a third actually pressed with both knees his whole weight upon the back, where the bones appeared displaced. It was not far from Mr. Barff's house where the accident occurred, and, observing the people assembled, he went to inquire the cause, and saw them thus engaged. On his asking what they were doing, they coolly replied, that they were only straightening the man's back, which had been broken with carrying stones. The vertebræ appeared to be replaced; they bound a long girdle repeatedly round his body, led him home, and, without any other treatment, he was in a short time able to resume his employment.

The operation of trepanning they sometimes attempted, and say they have practised it with success. It is reported that there are persons living in the island of Borabora on whom it has been performed, or at least an operation very much resembling it: the bones of the skull having been fractured in battle, they have cleared away the skin and coverings, and, having removed the fractured piece of bone, have carefully fitted in a piece of cocoa-nut shell, and replaced the covering and skin; on the healing of which, the man has recovered. I never saw any individual who had undergone this operation, but, from the concurrent testimony of the people, I have no doubt they have performed it.

It is also related, although I confess I can scarcely believe it, that on some occasions, when the brain has been injured as well as the bone, they have opened the skull, taken out the injured portion of the brain, and, having a pig ready, have killed it, taken out the pig's brains, put them in the man's head, and covered them up. They persist in stating that this has been done; but page 44 add, that the persons always became furious with madness, and died. They had no idea of phlebotomy as a remedy for disease, but were clever at lancing an abscess, which was generally effected with the thorn from a kind of bramble, or a shark's tooth.

However great the influence of those persons who administered medicine, or practised surgery, might formerly have been, it has entirely ceased since the people have ben acquainted with the more certain and efficacious application of English remedies. Like the priests in their temples formerly, the minister of their religion, at every station, is now sought in all cases of sickness, as their physician; and no small portion of our time was occupied in administering medicine, so far as our scanty means would admit.

This is a task necessarily devolving upon the Missionaries, as the only Europeans residing amongst them, either possessing medicine, or knowing how to use it; and it is a claim which we never desired to refuse. It is perfectly compatible with the higher duties of our station—the cure of their spiritual maladies. We have only to regret that we have not possessed better qualifications, and more ample means for its efficient discharge. So long as our family medicine has lasted, we have been ready to share it with those who were in need, and have often been thankful (when afflicted ourselves, and destitute) to receive the simple remedies they were able to supply.

The Missionary Society has readily furnished us with medical books and instruments; and for our own use, a liberal supply of medicines: but it has generally been inadequate to the wants of the people. Medicine is expensive, and perhaps it page 45 would not be considered a just appropriation of the Society's funds, to expend them in providing medicine for those among whom its agents labour; yet it is one of the most affecting sights a Missionary can witness, when visiting his people, to behold them enduring the most painful suffering, pining under the influence of disease, and perhaps sinking into a premature grave, and to know that, if he had the means within his reach, he could at least relieve them.

The occurrences are not unfrequent, wherein an anxious mother brings a poor sickly child to his house, with which she is obliged to return unrelieved, not because the disease is remediless, but because the Missionary has not, it may be, a cheap and simple remedy to bestow. The natives would cheerfully purchase so valuable an article as medicine, by bartering in the islands the produce of their labour, but they have no means of so doing. If they send it to England, the return is distant and uncertain; and mistakes, embarrassing to them, are likely to occur. It is to be hoped, however, that as the means of intercommunication become more frequent and regular, these difficulties will be removed. Several generous individuals have laid the people of some of the islands under great obligations, of which they are duly sensible, by sending them out, gratuitously, a liberal supply of the most useful medicines.

It may not be necessary for a Missionary in a civilized nation, where the healing art is cultivated, or going to a country where European colonies are settled, or commercial establishements are formed, to be acquainted with the practice of physic. It is, however, important, and ought to be borne in mind by those who are looking forward to Missionary page 46 work, and by those who patronize them, that it would be of the highest advantage for one going to an uncivilized people, to be acquainted with the qualities and use of medicine.

A degree of proficiency that would qualify him to practise in his native country, is not necessary. But so much knowledge as would enable him to be exceedingly serviceable to the people, to win their confidence and affection, and to confer on him an influence the most important and advantageous, in accomplishing the great objects of his mission, might be acquired prior to his departure from England, without in an injurious degree diverting his attention from other pursuits. I speak from painful experience of deficiency in the means for meeting the necessities of my own family, as well as those of the people among whom I have resided. I know they still exist, and therefore express myself more strongly than I should otherwise feel warranted to do.

The introduction of Christianity has been followed by a greater alteration in the general circumstances of the people, than even the medical treatment of the sick. The change has been highly advantageous to the sufferers, who formerly experienced the greatest neglect, and often the most brutal cruelty. As soon as an individual was affected with any disorder, he was considered as under the ban of the gods: by some crime, or the influence of some enemy, he was supposed to have become obnoxious to their anger, of which his malady was the result.

These ideas, relative to the origin of diseases, had a powerful tendency to stifle every feeling of sympathy and compassion, and to restrain all from the exercise of those acts of kindness that are so grateful page 47 to the afflicted, and afford such alleviation to their sufferings. The attention of the relatives and friends was directed to the gods, and their greatest efforts were made to appease their anger by offerings, and to remove the continuance of its effects by prayers and incantations. The simple medicine administered, was considered more as the vehicle or medium by which the god would act, than as possessing any power itself to arrest the progress of disease.

If their prayers, offerings, and remedies were found unavailing, the gods were considered implacable, and the diseased person was doomed to perish. Some heinous crime was supposed to have been committed. Whenever a chief of any distinction was afflicted, some neglect or insult was supposed to have been shewn to the gods or the priest, and the most costly offerings were made to avert the effects of their wrath, and secure the recovery of the chieftain. Human victims were sometimes sacrificed, ceremonies performed, and prayers offered. These were not made to the national idol, but to the tutelar god of the family.

They were all, at times, unavailing; and when they imagined, in consequence of the rank or ancestry of the chief, that the deity ought to have been propitious, but they found he was not, and the sufferer did not recover, with a singular promptitude, in powerful contrast with their ordinary conduct towards their gods, they execrated the idol, and banished him from the temple, choosing in his place some other deity that they hoped would be favourable.

The interest manifested in the recovery of their chief would depend much upon his age. If advanced in years, comparatively little concern would page 48 be felt for his restoration. Old age was seldom treated with respect, often with contempt and cruelty.

In seasons of illness, especially if protracted, the common people, and the aged, received but little attention. If the malady was not soon relieved by the prayers of the priest, and the remedies he administered, the sufferer was abandoned. Sometimes he was allowed to remain in the house of those with whom he was connected. But, in general, a small temporary hut was erected with a few cocoa-nut leaves, either near a stream, or at a short distance from the dwelling. Into this, as to the condemned cell, the sick person was removed. For a time, the children or friends would supply a scanty portion of food, but they often grew weary of sending this small alleviation; and it is believed that many have died, as much from hunger, as from disease.

This process was sometimes too slow for those who were connected with the sick, and who desired to share any property they might possess. If they thought there was but little prospect of recovery, they would determine to destroy them at once. Murder was at times perpetrated, under these circumstances, with heartless and wanton barbarity. The spear or the club was employed, to effect what disease had been to tardy in accomplishing. All the persons in the house, when these deeds of horror were performed, were called out; and the friends or companions of the sufferer, armed with spears, prepared for their savage work. It was in vain the helpless man cried for mercy; instead of attending to his cry, they “would amuse themselves in trying which could take best aim” with the spear they threw; or, rusing upon him page 49 with spear in hand, they would exclaim, Tui i vaho, pierce through—and thus transfix him to the couch on which he was lying.

Sometimes they buried the sick alive. When this was designed, they dug a pit, and then, perhaps, proposed to the invalid to bathe, offering to carry him to the water, either in their arms, or placed on a board; but, instead of conveying him to the place of bathing they would carry him to the pit, and throw him in. Here, if any cries were made, they threw down large stones in order to stifle his voice, filled up the grave with earth, and then returned to their dwellings.

The natives once gave me an account of an unhappy sufferer, whom they were conveying to the grave; he perceived it at a short distance before they approached, and, influenced by fear, sprang from the board, and endeavoured to escape. He was pursued, and crippled by a large stone, and thus secured by the murderers. I was acquainted with two persons, who were sawyers, and resided some time in the island of Huahine, who had both been engaged in burying one of their companions, merely because they felt the few attentions required, a burden. One of them, whose name was Papehara, is dead; the other is still living.

It is unnecessary to add to these details. Every friend to humanity will rejoice to know, that since the subversion of that system, under the sanction of which they were practised, they have ceased and that now, from the influence of Christian principles, although the aged do not receive that veneration which is paid to gray hairs and length of years in some countries, they are treated with kindness.

The sick are also nursed with attention by their page 50 relatives and children; and so far from deeming it a burden to attend to them, in Eimeo, Huahine, and, I believe, in some of the other islands, the natives have formed benevolent societies among themselves, for the purpose of building houses, supplying with food and clothing those who, in their old age and helpless state, have no friends or children to take care of them. In these dwellings they are lodged, and clothed, and fed. Persons also visit them for the purpose of reading the scriptures, and praying with them; their present necessities are supplied, the decline of life made easy, and their passage to the grave comparatively tranquil and happy. It is only necessary to contrast this with the former treatment of individuals under similar circumstances, in order to strengthen our conviction of the incalculable diminution of misery which has resulted from their reception of the gospel, and the temporal blessings it has imparted.

During the year 1820, the Mission in the Wind-ward Islands sustained a heavy bereavement in the decease of Messers. Bicknell and Tessier. The latter, who was a man of modest and unobtrusive habits, but patient and unremitting industry in the important work of educating the rising generation, died on the 23d of July. His Christian course had not been splendid or attractive, ut it had been undeviating and unsullied. His end was not only peaceful, but triumphant in faith, and glowing in anticipation of the holy and spiritual joys awaiting him in the abodes of blessedness.

Mr. Bicknell, whose health was not firm, followed the remains of his faithful coadjutor to the tomb; and while standing on the edge of the closing grave, and addressing the sorrowing multitude page 51 around, felt indisposed from the exposure. This was followed by fever, which terminated his life fourteen days after the death of Mr. Tessier. Though his illness was short, his mind, towards the latter part of it, was tranquil, in reliance on that Saviour who alone can support in the prospect of dissolution.

I have heard that he was the first individual who offered his services to the Missionary Society, and was among the first who landed from the Duff in 1976. He remained in Tahiti till the civil war in 1808 drove him and his companions from the islands, at which time he visited New South Wales and England. When Pomare invited the Missionaries to return, he was the first to resume his station, which he never abandoned, till called by death from a field, on which he had bestowed upwards of twenty years of patient persevering toil, and from which, though long barren and fruitless, he had ultimately been honoured to reap the first-fruits of a glorious harvest.

In 1818 he removed to the populous district of Papara, on the south-west side of Tahiti. This district had, prior to the last war, been the strong-hold of idolatry, and was the head-quarters of the pagan army; and the inhabitants, until the death of their chieftain in the memorable battle of Bunaauïa, obstinately opposed the progress of Christianity. Here, under the favourable auspices of Tati, Mr. Bicknell commenced his labours; and while Mr. Tessier daily instructed numbers in the school, Mr. Bicknell collected around him large and attentive congregations, baptized many, and gathered an interesting Christian church.

His latest earthly concern regarded the stedfastness and welfare of his charge. On the last evening page 52 of his life, and but a few hours before his departure, he addressed Mr. Crook (who had attended him during his illness, and who was then about to perform divine service among his people) on the subject. “Tell them,” said the dying Missionary, “that my conviction of the truth of those doctrines I have taught, is now stronger than ever. Tell them I am dying, but that these truths are now my support. Tell them to be stedfast.” He left, not only a destitute church and afflicted congregation, but a sorrowing widow and five fatherless children, to mourn his departure. Mrs. Bicknell was afterwards united in marriage with Mr. Davies, but she did not long survive, and the children are now orphans. Mr. Caw, who had been sent out to instruct the natives in ship-building and other arts, but who had been long incapacitated by illness, died about the same time.