Government of the South Sea Islands monarchical and arbitrary—Intimately connected with idolatry—Different ranks in society—Slavery—The proprietors of land—The regal family—Sovereignty hereditary—Abdication of the father in favour of the son—Distinctions of royalty—Modes of travelling—Sacredness of the king's person—Homage of the people—Singular ceremonies attending the inauguration of the king—Language of the Tahitian court—The royal residences—Dress, &c.—Sources of revenue—Tenure of land—Division of the country—National councils—Forfeiture of possessions.
The government of the South Sea Islands, like that in Hawaii, was an arbitrary monarchy. The supreme authority was vested in the king, and was hereditary in his family. It differed materially from the systems existing among the Marquesians in the east, and the New Zealanders in the southwest. There is no supreme ruler in either of these groups of islands, but the different tribes or clans are governed by their respective chieftains, each of whom is, in general, independent of any other. Regarding the inhabitants of Tahiti, and the adjacent islands, as an uncivilized people, ignorant of letters and the arts, their modes of governing were necessarily rude and irregular. In many respects, however, their institutions indicate great attention to the principles of government, an acquaintance with the means of controlling the page 94 conduct of man, and an advancement in the organization of their civil polity, which, under corresponding circumstances, is but rarely attained, and could scarcely have been expected.
Their government, in all its multiplied ramifications, in its abstract theory, and in its practical details, was closely interwoven with their false system of religion. The god and the king were generally supposed to share the authority over mankind. The latter sometimes personated the former, and received the homage and the requests presented by the votaries of the imaginary divinity, and at other times officiated as the head of his people, in rendering their acknowledgments to the gods. The office of high-priest was frequently sustained by the king—who thus united in his person the highest civil and sacerdotal station in the land. The genealogy of the reigning family was usually traced back to the first ages of their traditionary history; and the kings, in some of the islands, were supposed to have descended from the gods. Their persons were always sacred, and their families constituted the highest rank recognized among the people.
The different grades in society were not so distinctly marked in Polynesia, as among the inhabitants of India, where the institution of caste exists; nor were they so strongly defined in Tahiti as among the Sandwich Islanders, whose government was perhaps more despotic than that which prevailed in the southern islands. The lines of separation were, nevertheless, sufficiently distinct; the higher orders being remarkably tenacious of their dignity, and jealous of its deterioration by contact with inferiors.
Society among them was divided into three distinct page 95 ranks: the hui arii, the royal family and nobility—the bue raatira, the landed proprietors, or gentry and farmers—and the manahune, or common people. These three ranks were subdivided into a number of distinct classes; the lowest class included the titi and the teuteu, the slaves and servants; the former were those who had lost their liberty in battle, or who, in consequence of the defeat of the chieftains to whom they were attached, had become the property of the conquerors. This kind of slavery appears to have existed among them from time immemorial. Individuals captured in actual combat, or who fled to the chief for protection when disarmed or disabled in the field, were considered the slaves of the captor or chief by whom they were protected. The women, children, and others, who remained in the districts of the vanquished, were also regarded as belonging to them; and the lands they occupied, together with their fields and plantations, were distributed among the victors.
We do not know that they ever carried on a traffic in slaves, or sold those whom they had conquered, though a chief might give a captive for a servant to a friend. This is the only kind of slavery that has ever obtained among them, and it corresponds with that which has prevailed in most of the nations of the earth in their rude state, or during the earlier periods of their history. This state of slavery among them was in general mild, compared with the affecting cruelty by which it has been distinguished in modern times, among those who support the inhuman system of trafficking in these unhappy beings. If peace continued, the captive frequently regained his liberty after a limited servitude, and was permitted to return to page 96 his own land, or remain in voluntary service with his master.
So long, however, as they continued slaves or captives, their lives were in jeopardy. Sometimes they were suddenly murdered, to satiate the latent revenge of their conquerors; at others reserved as human victims, to be offered in sacrifice to their gods. Slavery, in every form, is perfectly consistent with paganism, and it was maintained among the islands as one means of contributing to its support. This kind obtains in most of the clusters, but is probably far more oppressive in New Zealand than in the Society Islands. The slaves among the former are treated with the greatest cruelty, and often inhumanly murdered and eaten.
The manahune also included the teuteu, or servants of the chiefs; all who were destitute of any land, and ignorant of the rude arts of carpentering, building, &c. which were respected among them, and such as were reduced to a state of dependence upon those in higher stations. Although the manahune have always included a large number of the inhabitants, they have not in modern times been so numerous as some other ranks. Since the population has been so greatly diminished, the means of subsistence so abundant, and such vast portions of the country uncultivated, an industrious individual has seldom experienced much difficulty in securing at least the occupancy of a piece of land. The fishermen and artisans (sometimes ranking with this class, but more frequently with that immediately above it,) may be said to have constituted the connecting link between the two.
The bue raatira, gentry and farmers, has ever been the most numerous and influential class, constituting at all times the great body of the people, and page 97 the strength of the nation. They were generally the proprietors and cultivators of the soil, and held their land, not from the gift of the king, but from their ancestors. The petty raatiras frequently possessed from 20 to 100 acres, and generally had more than their necessities required. They resided on their own lands, and enclosed so much as was necessary for their support. They were the most industrious class of the community, working their own plantations, building their own houses, manufacturing their own cloth and mats, besides furnishing these articles for the king.
The higher class among the raatiras were those who possessed large tracts of land in one place, or a number of smaller sections in different parts. Some of them owned perhaps many hundred acres, parts of which were cultivated by those who lived in a state of dependence upon them, or by those petty raatiras who occupied their plantations on condition of rendering military service to the proprietors, and a portion of the produce. These individuals were a valuable class in the community, and constituted the aristocracy of the country. They were in general more regular, temperate, and industrious in their habits, than the higher ranks, and, in all the measures of government, imposed a restraint upon the extravagance or precipitancy of the king, who, without their co-operation, could carry but few of his measures. In their public national assemblies, the speakers often compared the nation to a ship, of which the king was the mast; and whenever this figure was used, the raatiras were always termed the shrouds, or ropes, by which the mast is kept upright. Possessing at all times the most ample stores of native provisions, the number of their dependents, or retainers, was page 98 great. The destitute and thoughtless readily attached themselves to their establishments, for the purpose of securing the means of subsistence without care or apprehension of want.
The bue raatira, or middle class in society, formed the most important body in times of peace, and the strength of their armies in periods of war. Warriors were sometimes found among the attendants on the king or chief; but the principal dependence was upon the raatiras. These, influenced by a noble spirit of independence, accustomed to habits of personal labour, and capable of enduring the fatigues of war, were, probably from interest in the soil, moved by sentiments of patriotism more powerfully than any other portion of the people. The raatiras were frequently the priests in their own family temples; and the priests of the national maraes, excepting those allied by blood to the reigning families, were usually ranked with them.
The hui arii, or highest class, included the king or reigning chieftain in each island, the members of his family, and all who were related to them This class, though not numerous, was considered the most influential in the state. Being the highest in dignity and rank, its elevation in the estimation of the people was guarded with extreme care; and the individuals, of whom it was composed, were exceedingly pertinacious of their distinction, and jealous of the least degradation by the admission of inferiors to their dignity.
Whenever a matrimonial connexion took place between any one of the hui arii with an individual of an inferior order, unless a variety of ceremonies was performed at the temple, by which the inferiority was supposed to be removed, and the parties made equal in dignity, all the offspring of such an page 99 union was invariably destroyed, to preserve the distinction of the reigning families.
The king was supreme, and next to him the queen. The brothers of the king, and his parents, were nearest in rank, the other members of the family taking precedence according to their degrees of consanguinity. The regal office is here ditary, and descends from the father to the eldest son: it is not, however, confined to the male sex; these islands have often been governed by a queen. Oberea was the queen of Tahiti when it was discovered by Wallis; and Aimata, the daughter of Pomare II., now exercises the supreme authority in Tahiti and Eimeo: the daughter of the king of Raiatea is also the nominal sovereign of the island of Huahine.
The most singular usage, however, connected with the established law of primogeniture, which obtained in the islands, was the father's abdication of the throne on the birth of his son. This was an invariable, and it appears to have been an ancient practice. If the rank of the mother was inferior to that of the father, the children, whether male or female, were destroyed; but if the mother originally belonged to the hui arii, or had been raised to that elevation on her marriage with the king, she was regarded as the queen of the nation. Whatever might be the age of the king, his influence in the state, or the political aspect of affairs in reference to other tribes, as soon as a son was born, the monarch became a subject—the infant was at once proclaimed the sovereign of the people—the royal name was conferred upon him, and his father was the first to do him homage, by saluting his feet, and declaring him king. The herald of the nation was then despatched round page 100 the island with the flag of the infant king. The banner was unfurled and the young sovereign's name proclaimed in every district. If respected, and allowed to pass, it was considered an acknowledgment by the raatiras and chiefs, of his succession to the government; but if broken, it was regarded as an act of rebellion, or an open declaration of war. Numerous ceremonies were performed at the marae, a splendid establishment was forthwith formed for the young king, and a large train of attendants accompanied him to whatever place he was conveyed.
Every affair, however, of importance to the internal welfare of the nation, or its foreign relations, continued to be transacted by the father, and those whom he had formerly associated with him as his counsellors; but every edict was issued in the name and on the behalf of the young ruler; and though the whole of the executive government might remain in the hands of the father, he only acted as regent for his son, and was regarded as such by the nation. The insignia of regal authority, and the homage which the father had been accustomed to receive from the people, were at once transferred to his successor. The lands, and other sources of the king's support, were appropriated to the maintenance of the household establishment of the infant ruler; and the father rendered him those demonstrations of inferiority, which he himself had heretofore required from the people.
This remarkable custom was not confined to the family of the sovereign, but prevailed among the hui arii and the raatiras. In both these classes. the eldest son immediately at his birth received the honours and titles which his father had hitherto borne.page 101
It is not easy to trace the origin or discover the design of a usage so singular, and apparently of such high antiquity, among a people to whom it is almost peculiar. Its advantages are not very apparent, unless we suppose it was adopted by the father to secure to his son undisputed succession to his dignity and power. If this was the design, the plan was admirably adapted to its accomplishment; for the son was usually firmly fixed in the government before the father's decease, and was sometimes called to act as regent for his own son, before, according to ordinary usage, he would himself have been invested with royal dignity.
Considering the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands as but slightly removed from barbarism, we are almost surprised at the homage and respect they paid to their rulers. The difference between them and the common people was, in many respects, far greater than that which prevails between the rulers and the ruled in most civilized countries. Whether, like the sovereigns of the Sandwich Islands, they were supposed to derive their origin by lineal descent from the gods, or not, their persons were regarded as scarcely less sacred than the personifications of their deities.
Every thing in the least degree connected with the king or queen—the cloth they wore, the houses in which they dwelt, the canoes in which they voyaged, the men by whom they were borne when they journeyed by land, became sacred—and even the sounds in the language, composing their names, could no longer be appropriated to ordinary significations. Hence, the original names of most of the objects with which they were familiar, have from time to time undergone considerable alterations. The ground on which they page 102 even accidentally trod, became sacred; and the dwelling under which they might enter, must for ever after be vacated by its proprietors, and could be appropriated only to the use of these sacred personages. No individual was allowed to touch the body of the king or queen; and every one who should stand over them, or pass the hand over their heads, would be liable to pay for the sacrilegious act with the forfeiture of his life. It was on account of this supposed sacredness of person that they could never enter any dwellings, excepting those that were specially dedicated to their use, and prohibited to all others; nor might they tread on the ground in any part of the island but their own hereditary districts.
The sovereign and his consort always appeared in public on men's shoulders,∗ and travelled in this manner wherever they journeyed by land. They were seated on the neck or shoulders of their bearers, who were generally stout athletic men. The persons of the men, in consequence of their office, were regarded as sacred. The individuals thus elevated appeared to sit with ease and security, holding slightly by the head, while their feet hung down on the breast, and were clasped in the arms of the bearer. When they travelled, they proceeded at a tolerably rapid pace, frequently six miles within the hour. A number of attendants ran by the side of the bearers, or followed in their train; and when the men who carried the royal personages grew weary, they were relieved by others.
∗As represented in the engraving, inserted in the beginning of vol. ii.
The king and queen were always accompanied by several pair of sacred men, or bearers, and the page 103 transit from the shoulders of one to those of another, at the termination of an ordinary stage, was accompained with much greater despatch than the horses of a mail-coach are changed, or an equestrian could alight and remount. On these occasions, their majesties never suffered their feet to touch the ground; but when they wished to change, what to them answered the purpose of horses, they called two of the men, who were running by their side; and while the man, on whose neck they were sitting, made little more than a momentary halt, the individuals who were to take them onward fixed their hands upon their thighs, and bent their heads slightly forward: when they had assumed this position, the royal riders, with apparently but little effort, vaulted over the head of the man on whose neck they had been sitting, and, alighting on the shoulders of his successor in office, proceeded on their journey with the shortest possible detention.
This mode of conveyance was called amo or vaha. It could not have been very comfortable even to the riders, while to the bearers it must have been exceedingly laborious. The men selected for this duty, which was considered the most honourable post next to that of bearers of the gods, were generally exempted from labour, and, as they seldom did any thing else, were not perhaps much incommoded by their office; and although the seat occupied by those they bore was not perhaps the most easy, yet as it was a mark of the highest dignity in the nation, and as none but the king and queen, and occasionally their nearest relatives, were allowed the distinction it exhibited, they felt probably a corresponding satisfaction and complacency in thus appearing page 104 before their subjects, whenever they left their hereditary district. The effect must have been somewhat imposing, when, on public occasions, vast multitudes were assembled, and their sovereign, thus elevated above every individual, appeared among them. Of the dignity it conferred, the natives themselves appear to have formed no inferior idea. It is said that Pomare II. once remarked, that he thought himself a greater man than king George, who only rode a horse, while he rode on a man.
In our different journeys and voyages among the islands, where there have been but few means of crossing a stream without fording it, or of landing from a boat or canoe without wading some distance in the water, we have often been glad to be carried, either across a river, or from the boat to the shore. On these occasions they have requested us to mount in ancient regal style. Though we generally preferred riding on their backs, and throwing our arms round their necks, we have, nevertheless, when the river has been deep, seated ourselves upon their shoulders, and in this position have passed the stream, without any other inconvenience than that which has arisen from the apprehension of losing our balance, and falling headlong into the water.—The inhabitants of Rurutu have a singular and less pleasant method of conveying their friends from a boat, &c. to the shore. On the arrival of strangers, every man endeavours to obtain one as a friend, and carry him off to his own habitation, where he is treated with the greatest kindness by the inhabitants of the district; they place him on a high seat, and feed him with abundance of the finest food. After an arrival from a strange island, when a man sees his page 105 neighbour carrying a friend or a new-comer on his shoulders, he attacks him—a fight ensues, for the possession of the prize—if the man who formerly possessed it is victorious, he goes home with his man on his shoulders, receives a hearty welcome, and is regarded by the whole district as a brave fellow; whereas if he loses the prize, he is looked upon by all his friends as a coward.
I am not aware that the highest rulers in the Society Islands received at any time the same kind of homage which the Hawaians occasionally paid to those chiefs who were considered to have descended from the gods. When these walked out during the season of tabu, the people prostrated themselves, with their faces touching the ground, as they passed along. A mark of homage, however, equally humiliating to those who rendered it, and probably as flattering to the individuals by whom it was received, was in far more extensive and perpetual use among the Tahitians, This was, the stripping down the upper garments, and uncovering the body as low as the waist, in the presence of the king. This homage was paid to the gods, and also to their temples. In passing these, every individual, either walking on the shore, or sailing in a canoe, removed whatever article of dress he wore upon the shoulders and breast, and passed uncovered the depository of the deities, the site of their altars, or the temples of their worship.
Whenever the king appeared abroad, or the people approached his presence, this mark of reverence was required from all ranks; his own father and mother were not excepted, but were generally the first to uncover themselves. The people inhabiting the district through which he page 106 passed, uncovered as he approached; and those who sat in the houses by the road-side, as soon as they heard the cry of te arii, te arii, “the king,” the king,” stripped off their upper garments, and did not venture to replace them till he had passed. If by any accident he came upon them unexpectedly, the cloth they wore was instantly rent in pieces, and an atonement offered. Any individual whom he might pass on the road, should he hesitate to remove this part of his dress, would be in danger of losing his life on the spot, or of being marked as a victim of sacrifice to the gods.
This distinguishing mark of respect was not only rendered at all times, and from every individual, to the person of the king, but even to his dwellings, wherever they might be. These houses were considered sacred, and were the only habitations, in any part of the island, where the king could alight, and take refreshment and repose. The ground, for a considerable space on both sides, was in their estimation sacred. A tii, or carved image, fixed on a high pedestal, and placed by the road-side, at a short distance from the dwelling, marked the boundary of the sacred soil. All travellers passing these houses, on approaching the first image, stripped off the upper part of their dress, and, whether the king was residing there or not, walked uncovered to the image at the opposite boundary. After passing this, they replaced their poncho, or kind of mantle, and pursued their journey.
To refuse this homage would have been considered not only as an indication of disaffection towards the king, but as rebellion against the government, and impiety towards the gods, exposing the individuals to the vengeance of the supreme powers in the visible and invisible worlds. Such page 107 was the unapproachable elevation to which the superstitions of the people raised the rulers in the South Sea Islands, and such the marked distinction that prevailed between the king and people from his birth, until he was superseded in title and rank by his own son!
The ceremony of inauguration to the regal office, which took place when the king assumed the government, being one of considerable moment, was celebrated with a rude magnificence, though, like every other observance, it was marked with disgusting abominations, and horrid cruelty. There was no fixed period of life at which the youth were said to have arrived at years of manhood. Unaccustomed to keep even traditionary accounts of the time of their birth, there were but few whose age was known. The period therefore when the young king was formally invested with the regalia, and introduced to his high office, was regulated by his own character and disposition, the will of his father and guardians, or the exigences of the state; it generally took place some years before he had reached the age of twenty-one.
As it was one of the most important events to the nation, great preparation was made for its due celebration; and whatever could give effect to the pageant was carefully provided. The gods indicated the interest they were supposed to take in the transaction, by the miraculous events that occurred at this time. Among those might be mentioned the sacred aoa, a tree resembling the banian of India, that spread over the Faa-ape. This was said to have shot forth a new fibrous branch at his birth, and this branch or tendril reached the ground when he was to be made king. Taneua, a bamboo used on the occasion, was said page 108 to draw its roots out of the ground at the approach of the ceremony, and to leap into the hand of the person who was sent for it.
The inauguration ceremony, answering to coronation among other nations, consisted in girding the king with the maro ura, or sacred girdle of red feathers; which not only raised him to the highest earthly station, but identified him with their gods. The maro or girdle was made with the beaten fibres of the aoa; with these a number of uru, red feathers, taken from the images of their deities, were interwoven with feathers of other colours. The maro thus became sacred, even as the person of the gods, the feathers being supposed to retain all the dreadful attributes of power and vengeance which the idols possessed, and with which it was designed to endow the king. The sacred girdle which was shewn to Capt. Cook in the marae at Atehuru, and which was used by the sovereigns of Tahiti, was five yards long, and fifteen inches wide. It was covered with red and yellow feathers: one end was bordered with eight pieces, about the size and shape of a horse-shoe, and fringed with black feathers; the other end was forked; the feathers were ranged in square figures. The pendant which Capt. Wallis hoisted at Matavai was attached to this girdle. Every part of the proceeding was marked by its absurdity or its wickedness, but the most affecting circumstance was the murderous cruelty attending even the preparation for its celebration.
In order to render the gods propitious to the transmission of this power, a human victim was sacrificed when they commenced the fatu raa, or manufacture of this girdle. This unhappy wretch was called the sacrifice for the mau raa titi, commencement or fastening on of the sacred maro. page 109 Sometimes a human victim was offered for every fresh piece added to the girdle; and when it was finished, another man, called “Sacrifice for the piu raa maro,” was slain; and the girdle was considered as consecrated by the blood of those victims. On the morning of what might be called the coronation day, when the king bathed, prior to the commencement of the ceremonies, another human victim was required in the name of the gods.
The pageant, on this occasion, proceeded by land and water. The parties, who were to be engaged in the transactions of the day, assembled in the marae of Oro. Certain ceremonies were here performed: the image of Oro, stripped of the sacred cloth in which he usually reposed, and decorated with all the emblems of his divinity, was conveyed to the large court of the temple; the Papa rahi o ruea, or great bed of Oro, a large curiously formed bench or sofa, cut out of a solid piece of timber, was brought out, for the throne on which the king was to sit.
When these preliminaries were finished, they proceeded from the temple in the following order. —Tairi-moa, one of the priests of the family of Tairi, carried the image of Oro. The king followed immediately after the god. Behind him the large bed of Oro was borne by four chiefs. The miro-tahua, or orders of priests, with the great drum from the temple, the trumpets, and other instruments, followed. Each of the priests wore a tapaau on the arm, consisting of the braided leaflets of the cocoa-nut tree. As soon as the image appeared without the temple, the multitude, who were waiting to witness the pageant, retired to a respectful distance on each side, leaving a wide clear space. The priests sounded their trumpets, page 110 and beat the sacred drum, as they marched in procession from the temple to the sea-shore, where a fleet of canoes, previously prepared, was waiting for them. The sacred canoe, or state barge of Oro, was distinguished from the rest by the tapaau, or sacred wreaths of platted cocoa-nut leaves, by which it was surrounded, and which were worn by every individual on board.
As soon as the procession reached the beach, Oro was carried on board, and followed by the priests and instruments of music, while the king took his seat upon the sacred sleeping-place of Oro, which was fixed on the shore. The chiefs stood around the king, and the priests around the god, until, upon a signal given, the king arose from his seat, advanced into the sea, and bathed his person. The priest of Oro then descended into the water, bearing in his hand a branch of the sacred mero, plucked from the tree which grew in the precincts of the temple. While the king was bathing, the priest struck him on his back with the sacred branch, and offered up the prescribed ubu, or invocation, to Taaroa. The design of this part of the ceremony was to purify the king from all mahuru huru, or defilement and guilt, which he might have contracted, according to their own expression, by his having seized any land, banished any people, committed murder, &c.
When these ablutions were completed, the king and the priest ascended the sacred canoe. Here in the presence of Oro, he was invested with the maro ura, or sacred girdle, interwoven with the feathers from the idol. The priest, while employee in girding the king with this emblem of dominion and majesty, pronounced an ubu, commencing with Faa atea te arii i tai i motu tabu, “Extend page 111 or spread the influence of the king over the sea to the sacred island;” describing also the nature of his girdle, and addressing the king at the close, by saying—Medua teie a oe e te Arii; “Parent this, of you, O king;” indicating that from the gods all his power was derived.
As soon as the ubu was finished, the multitude on the beach, and in the surrounding canoes, lifted up the right-hand, and greeted the new monarch with loud and universal acclamations of Maeva arii! maeva arii! The steersman in the sacred canoe struck his paddle against the side of the vessel, which was the signal to the rowers, who instantly started from the shore towards the reef, having the god, and the king, girded as it were with the deity, on board; the priests beating their large drum, and sounding their trumpets, which were beautiful large turbo, or trumpet-shells. The thronging spectators followed in their canoes, raising their right-hand in the air, and shouting Maeva arii!
Having proceeded in this manner for a considerable distance, to indicate the dominion of the king on the sea, and receive the homage of the powers of the deep, they returned towards the shore.
During this excursion, Tuumao and Tahui, two deified sharks, a sort of demi-gods of the sea, were influenced by Oro to come and congratulate the new king on his assumption of government. If the monarch was a legitimate ruler, and one elevated to the office with the sanction of the superior powers, these sharks, it was said, always came to pay their respects to him, either while he was bathing in the sea, or during the excursion in the sacred canoe. But it is probable, that when they page 112 approached while his majesty was in the water, some of his attendants were stationed round, to prevent their coming too near, lest their salutations should have been more direct and personal than would have proved agreeable. Yet, it is said that the parents of the present rulers of some of the islands, at the time of their inauguration, actually played with these sharks, without receiving any injury.
The fleet reaching the shore, the parties landed, when the king was placed on the papa rahi o ruea, or sacred couch of Oro, as his throne; but instead of a footstool, the ordinary appendage to a throne, he reclined his head on the urua Tafeu, the sacred pillow of Tafeu. This was also cut out of a solid piece of wood, and ornamented with carving.
The procession was now formed as before, and moving towards Tabutabuatea, the great national temple, Tairimoa, bearing the image of Oro, led the way. The king, reclining on his throne, or couch of royalty, followed immediately after. He was borne on the shoulders of four principal nobles connected with the reigning family. The chiefs and priests followed in his train, the latter sounding their trumpets, and beating the large sacred drum, while the spectators shouted Maeva arii! as they proceeded to the temple. The multitude followed them into the court of the marae, where the king's couch or throne was fixed upon the elevated stone platform, in the midst of the unu, or carved ornaments of wood erected in honour of the departed chiefs whose bones had been deposited there.
The principal idol Oro, and his son Hiro, were placed by the side of the king, and the gods and page 113 the king here received the homage and tribute of allegiance from the people. A veil must be thrown over the vices with which the ceremonies were concluded.
Although this ceremony was one of the least offensive festivities among them, the murderous cruelty with which it commenced, and the wickedness with which it terminated, were adapted to impress the mind with acutest anguish and deepest commiseration. The abominations continued until the blowing of the trumpet on board the canoes required every one to depart from the temple. They now repaired to the banquet or feast provided for the occasion, and passed the remainder of the day in unrestrained indulgence and excess.
The phraseology of the Tahitian court was in perfect accordance with the elevation, and sacred connexion with their divinities, which the binding on the red girdle was designed to recognize and ratify. The preposterous vanity and adulation in language, used in epithets bestowed upon the king of Tahiti and his establishment, fully equal those employed in the most gorgeous establishment of Eastern princes, or the seraglios of Turkish sultans.
It was not only declared that Oro was the father of the king, as was implied by the address of the priest when arraying him in the sacred girdle, and the station occupied by his throne, when placed in the temple by the side of the deities, but it pervaded the terms used in reference to his whole establishment. His houses were called the aorau, the clouds of heaven; anuanua, the rainbow, was the name of the canoe in which he voyaged; his voice was called thunder; the glare of the torches in his dwelling was denominated lightning; and page 114 when the people saw them in the evening, as they passed near his abode, instead of saying the torches were burning in the palace, they would observe that the lightning was flashing in the clouds of heaven. When he passed from one district to another on the shoulders of his bearers, instead of speaking of his travelling from one place to another, they always used the word mahuta, which signifies to fly; and hence described his journey by saying, that the king was flying from one district of the island to another.
The establishment and habits of the king often exhibited the most striking contrast; at one time he was seen surrounded by the priests, and invested with the insignia of royalty, and divinity itself; or appeared in public on the shoulders of his bearers, while the people expressed every indication of superstitious reverence and fear. At other times, he might be seen on terms of the greatest familiarity with his attendants and domestics.
He never wore a crown, or any badge of dignity, and, in general, there was no difference between his dress and that of the chiefs by whom he was surrounded, excepting that the fine cloth and matting, called vane, with which he was often arrayed, were more rare and valuable than the dress worn by others. His raiment frequently consisted of the ordinary pareu, or ahu pu, in quality often inferior to that worn by some of the chiefs in attendance upon him.
In some of the islands to the westward, at the ceremonies of the temple, the people, to shew their homage, wound folds of cloth repeatedly round the body of the king, till he was unable to move, and appeared as if it was only a man's head resting page 115 on the immense bale of cloth in which he was enclosed. I do not know that the kings of Tahiti ever experienced such treatment from their subjects. The kings of the former were left in this ludicrous and helpless situation, while the people travelled round the island, boxing and wrestling, in honour of their sovereign, throughout every district.
The regal establishment was maintained by the produce of the hereditary districts of the reigning family, and the requisitions made upon the people. Although the authority of the king was supreme, and his power undisputed, yet he does not appear to have been considered as the absolute proprietor of the land, nor do the occupants seem to have been mere tenants at will, as was the fact in the Sandwich Islands.
There were certain districts which constituted the patrimony of the royal family; in these they could walk abroad, as they were sacred lands. The other districts were regarded as belonging to their respective occupants or proprietors, who were generally raatiras, and whose interest in the soil was distinct from that of the king, and often more extensive. These lands they inherited from their ancestors, and bequeathed them to their children, or whomsoever they chose to select as their heirs. At their death the parties to whom land had been thus left, entered into undisturbed possession, as of rightful property.
The practice of tutuing, or devising by will, was found to exist among them prior to the arrival of the Missionaries, and was employed not only in reference to land, but to any other kinds of property. Unacquainted with letters, they could not leave a written will, but, during a season of illness, page 116 those possessing property frequently called together the members of the family, or confidential friends, and to them gave directions for the disposal of their effects after their decease. This was considered a sacred charge, and was usually executed with fidelity.
Every portion of land had its respective owner; and even the distinct trees on the land had sometimes different proprietors, and a tree, and the land on which it grew, different owners. The divisions of land were accurately marked by a natural boundary, as a ridge of mountains, or the course of a river, or by artificial means; and frequently a carved image, or tii, denoted the extent of their different possessions. Whether these tiis were designed to intimate that the spirits they represented guarded the borders of their property, or were used as ornaments, I could not learn, but the removal of the ancient land-marks was regarded as a heinous offence.
The produce which the king received from his hereditary estates being seldom sufficient for the maintenance of his household, the deficiency was supplied from the different districts of the islands. The frequency, however, with which the inferior chiefs were required to bring provisions, was neither fixed nor regular, but was governed by the number of the districts, or the necessities of the king's steward. Still there was a sort of tacit agreement between the king and chiefs, as to the times when they should furnish his provision; and the usage among them, in this respect, was generally understood.
The provision was ready dressed, though occasionally the vegetables and roots were brought uncooked, and the pigs led alive to the king's servants. page 117 The pigs, after being presented to the king, were sometimes taken back by the farmer, and fed till required for use. Cloth for the dress of the king's servants, houses for his abode, and canoes, not only for himself, but also for those of his household, were furnished by the inhabitants of the islands.
Although the king's will was the supreme law, and the government in some respects despotic, it approximated more to a mixed administration, a union of monarchy and aristocracy. The king had usually one confidential chief near his person, who was his adviser in every affair of importance, and was, in fact, his prime minister. Frequently there were two or three who possessed the confidence, and aided the counsels, of the king. These ministers were not responsible to any one for the advice they gave. So great, however, was the influence of the raatiras, that a measure of any importance, such as the declaration of war, or the fitting out a fleet, was seldom undertaken without their being first consulted. This was effected by the friends of the king going among them, and proposing the affair in contemplation, or by convening a public council for its consideration.
Their public measures were not distinguished by promptness or decision, excepting when they wreaked vengeance upon the poor and helpless victims of their displeasure. After a meeting of the chiefs had been summoned, it was a long time before all came together, and their meetings were often interrupted by adjournments.
Their councils were usually held in the open air, where the chiefs and others formed a circle, in which the orators of the different parties took their stations opposite to each other. These page 118 orators were the principal, but not the only speakers. The king often addressed the assembly. The warriors and the raatiras also delivered their sentiments with boldness and freedom. When a difference of opinion prevailed, and words ran high, the impetuosity of their passions broke through all restraint, and sometimes the council terminated in scenes of confusion and bloodshed; or if it ended without open hostility, the chieftains returned to their respective districts, to assemble their tenantry, and prepare for war.