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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology



The Spaniards carried priests with them on the voyages of Mendaña and Quiros, but they left with the ships. In 1774, Boenechea took two priests to Tahiti to establish a mission, but as they went in fear of their lives, they returned to Valparaiso in the following year. However, the priests kept a diary which recorded valuable information concerning the Tahitians of this early period.

Later the published accounts of the voyages of discovery in the Pacific aroused the interest of people in Europe and America. Religious bodies felt it incumbent upon them to send out missionaries to convert the heathen to their particular forms of Christianity. The Nonconformist Churches in England formed the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.) which sent out a body of 28 missionaries, who were landed by the ship Duff in Tahiti on March 4, 1797. Of these, 16 remained in Tahiti, 10 were taken to Tonga, and two went to the Marquesas. Subsequent reinforcements were sent out and new missions were established in the Cook Islands and Samoa. The Church of England formed the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) which directed its efforts to New Zealand. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) was established in New England and sent missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands. (It will be noticed that the use of long combinations of the alphabet to designate various institutions is not a new growth in America.)

The Catholic Church entered the field, and the Order of the Sacred Heart (Picpus) started missions in the Mangareva (Gambier) Islands, Easter Island, and the Tuamotus. The Société de Marie (Marists) directed their attention to western Polynesia and established missions at Uvea, Futuna, page 28Samoa and Tonga. In the course of time, the London Missionary Society relinquished its missions in French Oceania which, with French occupation, came under the full influence of the Catholic Church. The Wesleyan Church established a rival mission in Tonga. With more frequent transport services, the whole of Polynesia became open to the competition of all sects.

The first problem which faced the missionaries was that of learning the language of the island which they proposed to convert. The second was that of identifying the sounds in the native languages with the symbols employed in their own languages to establish alphabets for recording the spelling of native words. Fortunately, the missionaries who invaded Polynesia, though of different nationalities, used a similar script. There was confusion enough, but one shudders to think of what might have happened if missionaries from Turkey and China had entered the field with their own forms of writing. Having established more or less satisfactory alphabets and spelling, it was next necessary to teach the natives how to write and read their own language. A printing press was part of the mission equipment, and it was possible not only to translate and write out portions of the scriptures and hymns in the native language, but to print them for use as texts in teaching. Thus, the missionaries introduced writing for the first time within Polynesia, they were the first printers, and they established the first schools. To help their own teachers, they translated the native words into English and French and they were, therefore, the compilers of the first dictionaries. With infinite pains and labor, the old and new testaments were translated into the dialects of the various groups of Polynesian islands, and the Bible became as great a literary classic in the native language as it was in English. When various nations took possession and assumed the responsibility for native education, they adopted the missionary alphabets and spellings and made no attempt to correct inaccuracies or supply deficiencies due to an earlier stage in the knowledge of linguistics.

However, the missionaries gave with one hand and took away with the other. To build up a knowledge and acceptance of their own culture, they were forced by the very nature of their assignment to condemn and destroy integral elements in the native culture. A frontal attack was made on native religion to clear the way for Christian teaching. Customs and observances which were not really understood were condemned as heathen practices which stood in the way of salvation. The progress of the missions was reported to the organizations at home and the so-called heathen customs were often painted as black as possible in order that the difficulty of the task might be understood and the changes appreciated. Many of the reports were published in the missionary journals at home, and they have provided source material for later students in a less biased age. Some of the missionaries were scholars in a literary sense and expanded the material of their reports into books which were published in their homelands. When the religious details are omitted, a goodly amount of source ma-page 29terial in ethnology remains. The most prominent missionary writers were William Ellis (Society Islands, Hawaii), John Williams (Society and Cook Islands), W. Wyatt Gill (Cook Islands), A. R. Montiton (Tuamotu), Honoré Laval (Mangareva), George Turner (Samoa), Shirley Baker (Tonga), Hiram Bingham and Sheldon Dibble (Hawaii), and Richard Taylor and William Colenso (New Zealand).