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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology


The discoveries in Polynesia have been enumerated because of the first contacts with the native inhabitants. The published journals of the voyages thus contain first-hand information concerning the culture of the people. They vary according to the length of contact and the amount of attention which the writers of the journals paid to recording the details of their contact with the natives. In the Tuamotus and other islands where anchorage was impossible or weather conditions were bad, ethnological information may be absent or small. No matter how little the information, however, it is valuable in filling in the picture of native culture before it underwent change from later, more frequent, or prolonged, European contact. Of all the early navigators who tried to record the details of their association with the Polynesians, Captain James Cook is easily the most outstanding.

The journals of the early voyagers who visited the islands after their discovery are sometimes more valuable than those of the discoverers for reason of a longer stay or a more careful observance of the manners and customs of the people. Thus, Wilson when he discovered the Gambier (Mangareva) Islands did not land, and his observations were of necessity confined to describing a group of people he saw on an islet on the outer reef as the ship passed by. Beechey, who landed on the various islands some 28 years later, provided the first real picture of the culture of the people. Roggeveen, who discovered the Manua Islands of eastern Samoa in 1722, made his observations on the people through a telescope. There is a great difference between what might be termed telescopic information and contact information, yet telescopic information may be better than none. However, valuable as the early journals may be, there is always the possibility of personal errors and exaggerations on the part of the observers.

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The rate of change in native culture due to contact with western civilization depended not so much on the date of first contact, but upon whether that contact became continuous through the establishment of white settlement. The various phases of native culture were also affected differently according to the reaction of the people and the amount of pressure brought to bear upon them from different directions. For instance, it was obvious to the natives that iron was vastly superior to stone, but they could not all abandon their stone implements until the supply of iron implements was assured. The change in religion after an initial period of doubt as to its advisability was rapid, because missionary settlement became permanent and their attack was sustained and continuous. Other elements in native culture, such as technical processes in building houses and canoes and social organization, changed much more slowly. Thus, the Wilkes Expedition in 1838-1842 was able to record an astonishing amount of valuable information. The changes recorded in chronological sequence of voyages form a record of the process of acculturation in the different island groups and have an important bearing on the present and the future.

The following list of voyages is arranged chronologically and has been brought down to about the middle of the nineteenth century. The islands visited are named in the notes to the work quoted, but some have been omitted owing to lack of useful information concerning them. Later journals may be useful in indicating further acculturation changes, but aside from that, they are usually a repetition of what has been gained from earlier informants. Some voyages have been described by more than one author, and their works are included as they contain different details from the official account.