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Polynesian Researches

The Marquesas

page 309

The Marquesas

The most easterly group of the high, fertile, and populous isles of Polynesia, are situated to the northward of the Labyrinth, or Dangerous Archipelago, and about seven or eight degrees distant from Anna, or Chain Island. A range of mountainous islands appears to extend in an almost unbroken line across the Pacific, in an easterly direction from Borneo, Java, New Guinea, and the large Asiatic islands. Diverging from the Georgian and Society Islands,—Gambier's, Pitcairn's, and Easter Island appear to terminate its south-eastern course, while the Marquesas mark its north-eastern limit. The latter form two clusters, which were discovered at different periods, and are politically, as well as geographically, distinct. The south-eastern cluster, comprehending five islands, Tahuata or Santa Christina, Hivaoa or La Dominica, Mohotane or San Pedro, Fatuhiva or La Magdelena, and Fetuuku or Hood's Island—were, with the exception of the last, discovered in 1595 by Alvaro Mendano, a Spanish navigator, who was proceeding from Peru to form a settlement in the Solomon Islands. In honour of the Marques Mendoza, viceroy of Peru, and patron of the enterprise, Mendano designated the islands, the Marquesas. The next account that we have of these islands is their being visited in 1774, when they were examined by Captain Cook, who discovered the island called Hood's Island, to which he supposed the natives gave the name of Tebua. In 1789, they were visited by Marchand, a French navigator, who saw other lands to the northward; but it was not till the following year, when Lieutenant page 310 Hergest, in the Dædalus, on his voyage from the Falkland Islands to Hawaii, touched at the Marquesas, in March 1792, that the northern cluster was explored, or, so far as I have heard, any account of them published. This division consists also of five islands, Nuuhiva or Nukuhiva, the largest in the group, called, by Hergest, Sir H. Martin's Island, Uapou, Trevenian's Island, Huakuka or Riou's Island, Hergest Rocks, and Robert's Island. Although the latter cluster have been called Ingram's Islands, after an American trader, who saw them soon after the time of Marchand's visit, Hergest's Island by Vancouver, and more recently Washington's Islands; they are usually, with the more southern islands, designated the Marquesas. They extend according to Malte Brun, from 7. 51. to 10. 25. S. latitude, and from 138. 48. to 140. 29. West long. The native names for some of the above, I have received from the inhabitants, or the account of Mr. Stewart, who recently visited them; in one or two I have followed the voyagers by whom they have been visited, and some of them may be incorrect. It very frequently occurs, that transient visitors mistake the name of the bay in which their ships anchor, or the opposite district, for that of the whole island; hence Ohitahoo, which, according to the orthography now used by other tribes of the Pacific, would be Vaitahu, the name of one of the districts bordering on the bay in which most vessels anchor, has been the name generally given to the island, called by the natives Tahuata.

∗Introduction to the Duff's Voyage, p. lxxxiii.

The geographical extent of the group is inferior to that of the Georgian and Society Islands. Nuuhiva, the largest, is much smaller than Tahiti, and page 311 probably not more than fifty miles in circumference; the mountains are lofty, bold in outline, and either clothed with verdure, or adorned with plantations; cascades roll over the sides of the mountains, and streams flow through the valleys. The land capable of cultivation, however, is comparatively small, as the islands are not protected, like most others in the Pacific, by coral reefs. The sea extends to the base of the mountains, and thus prevents the formation and preservation of that low border of prolific alluvial soil, so valuable to the Society Islanders. The shores are rocky and precipitous, and a level beach, or a good landing-place is seldom met with. Deep, wide, and extensive valleys abound in the islands, and are the general places where the inhabitants abide. The vegetable productions correspond with those of the islands to the west, and are cultivated in the spacious valleys. The bread-fruit is the chief article of support to the inhabitants, it is cultivated and preserved with peculiar care, and probably is obtained in greater perfection among the Marquesas than in any other islands of the Pacific. So careful are the people when gathering it, that they frequently suspend a net under the tree, to prevent such as may drop from being bruised by falling on the ground. The sea and their coasts abound with fish, which contribute materially to their subsistence. They have also pigs, goats, and fowls, but not in abundance. Notwithstanding the fertility of their valleys, and the superiority of their bread-fruit, which grows spontaneously, seasons of famine are frequent and severe, and are occasioned by the indolence of the people, and their dependence on the bread-fruit crop; a failure in which, reduces page 312 them to a state of the greatest destitution, and often leads to the perpetration of the most revolting and unnatural crime of murdering and feeding upon each other.

We have frequently met with the natives of the Marquesas in other islands of the Pacific. Three of them attended a public service which I held in Byron's Bay, on the island of Hawaii, in 1823. When the assembly dispersed, they expressed their approbation of what they had heard. I asked them from what island they came: they said, Fatuiva, or La Magdalena, and that there were seven white men and two negroes living in their island, but they told them nothing concerning Jehovah or Jesus Christ. I asked them if they thought their countrymen would receive and protect Missionaries. “Yes,” they answered, “we are sure they would.” “But you kill and eat white people: Missionaries would not be safe among you.” After a moment's pause, they exclaimed, “Oh no ! Oh no ! you would not injure us, and should never be injured by us.” In the Sandwich Islands I have often had a number of Marquesans residing near me, and visiting my house daily, for the purpose of teaching me their language, and receiving instruction in reading and writing; and though, when I have questioned them on the practice of eating one another, they have generally denied it, they have allowed its existence among other tribes; and I have often been disposed to attribute such denial, in reference to themselves, to a sense of shame, arising from the detestation in which cannibalism is held by those among whom they were residing, rather than to their actual exemption from it. The testimony of the natives of Tahiti, and of foreigners who have resided among them, of the page 313 Missionaries, and voyagers by whom they have been visited, seems to be not less decisive than distressing. Kursenstern, in his voyage round the world, touched at Nuuhiva, on his way to Japan. He obtained much information from Roberts, an Englishman, who had resided some time on the island, and states that in times of famine the men butcher their wives, and children, and aged parents. They bake and stew their flesh, and devour it with the greatest satisfaction. Even the tender-looking female will join, if permitted, in the horrid repast. Most recent visitors seem to think the population is diminishing, and both the physical and moral character of the people deteriorating. The population is, however, still greater, in all probability, than that of the Georgian and Society Islands.


The dress of the Marquesans is usually made with the inner bark of the paper-mulberry, and consists of a broad bandage worn round the waist, and a large square piece like a shawl cast loosely over the upper part of the body, tied on a knot on one shoulder, and reaching below the knees. They wear very showy breast-plates, adorned with hard red berries of the abrus precatorious, called by them periperio, and their helmets are often ingenious. Their canoes and dwellings are in many respects similar, though inferior, to those of the westward islands. Their system of religion, with its appendages of maraes, priests, sorcery, divination, and sacrifices, is, with slight variation, a part of that which prevails throughout the Polynesian tribes, excepting that the human victims are not buried under the pavement of the temple, or suspended in a sacred tree, but are eaten within page 314 the marae by the priests. The tabu, or sacred restriction, prevails in all its force among them, and is often, in the instance of general restriction imposed in a very arbitrary manner. The priests alone are said to have the power of laying a general prohibition on certain articles of food—vegetables, hogs, fish, &c. but every man has the power of tabuing his own property, and the tabu operates as powerfully on himself as any other individual; so that, during its continuance, he dare not appropriate to his own use the smallest portion of the article thus prohibited.

Physically considered, the Marquesans are described as among the most perfect of the human species. The men are said to be tall, strongbuilt, and many of them exhibit the finest symmetry of form: they are frequently upwards of six feet high, their limbs muscular and firm, but not heavy. Their movements are always agile, often easy and graceful. In shape and form, the females limbs are inferior to the men, yet often present most agreeable models of the human figure, and are equally distinguished by the liveliness of their disposition, and the ease and quickness of their gait and gestures. Some visiters, however, have represented them as scarcely superior to the Society Islanders. The complexion of the Marquesans is much lighter than that of Tahitians, but it is seldom that the natural colour of their skin is discernible, on account of the astonishing manner in which their bodies are tataued, and the frequent application of a preparation of turmeric and oil. The shape of the face is generally oval. The hair is black, occasionally curling, often bound up on the crown or side of the head in an elegant and most fantastic page 315 manner. They manifest a singular taste in cutting their hair, sometimes the fore-part of the head is shaved, at other times the whole of the head, excepting two small patches, one above each ear, where the hair is tied up in a sort of knot, giving to their naked heads a very strange appearance. Their eyebrows are good; their eyes are not large, but black, and remarkably brilliant and quick. Their features are small, and well formed, but the pleasing effect they would naturally produce is almost entirely destroyed by the use of tatau. The Vignette to the present Volume, representing the natives on the rocks near the landing-place, when the Dauntless anchored near the shore, exhibits their singular appearance.

In the practice of tatauing they surpass all other nations, both as to the extent of the human body to which it is applied, and the varied images and patterns thus impressed. Their tatauing is less rude than that of the Sandwich and Palliser islanders, less curious and intricate in its figures than that impressed on the countenance of the New Zealanders, equally elegant, and far more profuse, than that of the Tahitians. The colouring matter itself is of a jet-black, but, as seen through the white skin beneath which it lies, it gives the limbs, and those parts of the body to which it is applied, a blue or dark slatecoloured hue. The females do not use it more than those of Tahiti, but many of the men cover the greater part of their bodies. The face is sometimes divided into different compartments, each of which received a varied shade of colour; sometimes it is covered with broad stripes, crossing each other at right angles; and sometimes it is page 316 crowded with sharks, lizards, and figures of other animals, delineated with considerable spirit, freedom, and accuracy, frequently with open mouths, or extended claws, so as to give the countenance a most repulsive and frightful aspect. The operation of puncturing the skin, and injecting the colouring matter, (of which a more ample account has been already given,) must be exceedingly tedious and painful, as the most tender parts of the face, such as the inner surface of the lips, and the edges of the eye-lids, are thus punctured.

Those Marquesans who have been in the schools in the Society Islands, have not manifested any inferiority in mental capacity; and those who were my pupils in the Sandwich Islands appeared to be equally capable of learning to read, write, cipher, &c. with the people around them, though they usually manifested a greater restlessness and impatience of the application necessary to make much proficiency; this, I presume, arose from their natural fickleness and volatile dispositions.

All those I have had any means of becoming acquainted with, have appeared gay, thoughtless, and good natured. I never witnessed any thing of that ferocity of barbarism which has distinguished their intercourse with most of those by whom they have been visited; but I have only seen them as guests among strangers, where the vices, practised extensively in their native islands, were held in abhorrence, and where dispositions of hospitality and kindly feelings were respected and cultivated. The testimony of almost all who have visited them concurs in inducing the belief that their morals are most debased, that their licentiousness is of the most shameless kind, that their propensity to theft is universal, and that they are quarrelsome page 317 and murderous. Since Mendano first anchored off their shores, few ships have visited them, during whose stay, some blood, either of the European or natives, or both, has not been shed; and fewer still, whose crews have not been engaged in violent and alarming quarrels. The Russian navigator, whose testimony has been already referred to, observes, that, though they manifested some degree of honesty in barter, they appeared to have neither social institutions, religion, nor humane feelings. Their general behaviour towards foreigners has been represented as wild, violent, and ferocious, adapted to inspire any feeling rather than that of confidence or security. Their government is feudal or aristocratical, and, for every purpose of benefit to the community, is feeble and inefficient. The inhabitants appear to reside in the spacious valleys by which the high lands are intersected, the mountain sides forming the natural boundaries. The inhabitants of each valley are said to have their temple, their priests, and their chieftain or ruler; sometimes several tribes, inhabiting as many valleys, are united under one chief, but we do not know of any chief who exercises the supreme authority over any one of the islands. In each, there appears to be two or more distinct confederations; and these are frequently at war with each other, or with the inhabitants of some neighbouring island. Wars are frequent and cruel; they do not appear to be carried on from motives of ambition or revenge, so much as from a desire for plunder, or to secure a feast upon the bodies of their enemies. The skulls of the captured are sometimes worn as trophies of a warrior's prowess, or are offered for sale to foreigners. Human bones constitute part of the furniture of their dwellings, page 318 and human hair ornaments most of their implements of war. According to the testimony of the European Missionaries, by whom they have been most recently visited, part, if not all, the bodies of the slain furnish the victor's banquet. Their feeding on each other, does not appear to be confined to seasons of famine, or the feast of triumph, but to be practised from motives more repulsive and criminal. Langsdorff, who accompanied the Russian embassy to Japan, states, on the authority of a Frenchman who had resided some years in the islands, that the tauas, or priests, often regale themselves on human flesh, merely from the delight they take in it. For this purpose, they act as if under the influence of inspiration, and, after varied contortions of the body, appear to fall into a deep sleep, before a multitude of spectators; when they awake, they relate what the spirit has said to them in their dream. The communication sometimes is, that a woman or a man, a tataued or or untataued man, a fat or lean man, an old man, or a young man from the next valley, or border of the next stream, must be seized, and brought to them. Those to whom this is related immediately conceal themselves near a footpath or river, and the first person that passes that way, bearing any resemblance to the description given by the priest, is taken, conveyed to the marae, and eaten by the priests. Conduct more diabolical than that here described, cannot easily be conceived of. I have always been reluctant to admit the cannibalism of any of the Polynesian tribes, but the concurring testimony of foreigners of every nation, by whom the Marquesans have been visited, and of the native teachers from the Society Islands, who page 319 have resided for a long time among them, forces upon my mind the belief, that they perpetrate this unnatural crime to as great an extent, and under circumstances as aggravating, as it has been met with in any age of the world, or among any portion of mankind.

∗Langsdorff, vol. ii. p. 159.

The proximity of the Marquesans to the Society Islands—frequent intercourse formerly maintained between the islands by means of trading vessels—their identity in language, traditions, manners, and customs with the latter—their numbers, which are said to exceed those of the inhabitants of the southern islands—could not fail to make them objects of interest to those engaged in improving the temporal and spiritual state of the Tahitians. In 1797, a Mission was attempted in Tahuata, but, after a residence of about twelve months, Mr. Crook was unexpectedly removed from the islands, and no attempt to introduce Christianity amongst them was made until 1821, when two natives, from Huahine, were appointed to these islands; and I accompanied them, for the purpose of assisting their introduction, and ascertaining the state and disposition of the people, with a view to the ultimate establishment of European Missionaries among them. Circumstances occurred during the voyage, which prevented the native teachers from settling at their original destination, and led to their residence in the Sandwich Islands. In 1225 the attempt was renewed, and Mr. Crook conducted thither two native teachers from Huahine, and one from Tahiti. Several natives, who had known Mr. Crook during his former abode, welcomed his return with gladness. The females recited a ballad composed on his arrival, as the adopted son of their late chief Tenae. Some of the inhabitants, he heard, had page 320 destroyed their idols. The greater part of the inhabitants of the island, however, were exceedingly rude, vicious, and disorderly in their behaviour, as well as strongly attached to their superstitions. After remaining about a month among them, holding repeated conferences with the chiefs and priests, Mr. Crook left the native teachers under the protection of a friendly chief in Tahuata, or Santa Christina. Their prospects of usefulness were at first encouraging; but the wickedness of the people was so great, their conduct so violent and alarming, even to the Tahitians, whom they threaten to kill and devour, that they were obliged to return. They were succeeded by others, who were obliged to leave in 1828. In 1829, Messrs. Pritchard and Simpson visited the islands, but such was the impression made upon their minds by the turbulent and repulsive conduct of the natives, that they deemed the establishment of a European Mission impracticable, and returned, leaving the two native Missionaries, who had been already two years in Uahou, to prosecute their perilous and self-denying labours. A chief, whose name is Teato, received them with professions of friendship, and at first treated them kindly—but their privations are great, and prospects dark. These are the only individuals at present employed in endeavouring to often the savage character, and restrain the brutal and murderous habits, of the Marquesans. Their ferocity, insatiable desire of fire-arms and ammunition; their love of war, its sanguinary character, and the inhuman practice of cannibalism with which it is usually concluded; their inveterate attachment to a system which sanctions every vice, and encourages every cruelty; their abominable licentiousness, and natural fickleness of disposition—appear page 321 to present insurmountable barriers to the success of efforts such as those now employed; and nothing but a belief in the Divine promises and energy, confirmed by the recent events which have transpired in the Society Islands, can induce the hope of any favourable change; but from these sources we are warranted in confidently expecting it. Recent tidings from Tahiti announce the preparation of one of the Missionaries to visit them, and settle native teachers in each island. Every friend of humanity will cordially wish that this enterprise, not less benevolent than hazardous, may be successful.

There are several good harbours among the Marquesas, but, on account of the turbulent and treacherous conduct of the natives, few of them, except in St. Christina, are visited.

Near the south-eastern extremity of the Dangerous Archipelago is situated an island, about six miles in circumference, having a bold rocky shore, with high land in the interior, hilly and verdant. It is supposed to be La Incarnation of Quiros, but appears to have been discovered by Carteret in 1767, and by him called, after the name of the gentleman by whom it was first seen,