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Polynesian Researches



This island is seventeen miles nearer the equator than Raivavai, and about two degrees farther to the westward. It is situated in lat. 23. 25. S. and long. 149. 23. W. and is not more than twelve miles in circumference.

Tubuai was discovered by Cook in 1777; and, after the mutineers in the Bounty had taken possession of the vessel, and committed, to the mercy of the waves, Captain Bligh, with eighteen of his officers and men, this was the first island they visited. Hence they sailed to Tahiti, brought away the most serviceable of the live-stock left there by former navigators, and in 1789 attempted a settlement here. Misunderstandings between the mutineers and the natives, and the unbridled passions of the former, led to acts of violence, which the latter resented. A murderous battle ensued, in which nothing but superior skill and fire-arms, together with the advantages of a rising ground, saved the mutineers from destruction. Two were wounded, and numbers of the natives slain. This led them to abandon the island; and after revisiting Tahiti, and leaving a part of their page 380 number there, they made their final settlement in Pictairn's island. Their attempt to settle in Tubuai is celebrated in a poem by the late Lord Byron, called, “The Island, or Christian and his Companions,” in which are recorded some affecting circumstances connected with the subsequent lives and ultimate apprehension of many of these unhappy men, and several facts relative to the Society and Friendly Islands.

Tubuai was also the first of the South Sea Islands that gladdened the sight of the Missionaries who sailed in the Duff. They saw the land on the morning of the 22d of February, 1797, near thirty miles distant; and as the wind was unfavourable, the darkness of night hid the island from their view before they were near enough distintly to behold its scenery or inhabitants. I can enter in some degree into their emotions on this unusually interesting day. All that hope had anticipated in its brightest moments, was no longer to be matter of uncertainty, but was to be realized or rejected. Such feelings I have experienced, and can readily believe theirs were of the same order as those of which I was conscious, when gazing on the first of the isles of the Pacific that we approached. Theirs were probably more intense than mine, as a degree of adventurous enterprise was then thrown around Missionary efforts, which has vanished with their novelty. Our information, also, is more circumstantial and explicit than theirs could possibly have been.

Tubuai is stated, in the Introduction to the Voyage of the Duff, to have been at that time but recently peopled by some natives of an island to the westward, probably Rimatara, who, when sailing to a spot they were accustomed to visit, were page 381 driven by strong and unfavourable winds on Tubuai. A few years after this, a canoe sailing from Raiatea to Tahiti, conveying a chief who was ancestor to Idia, Pomare's mother, was also drifted upon this island, and the chief admitted to the supreme authority; a third canoe was afterwards wafted upon the shores of Tubuai, containing only a human skeleton, which a native of Tahiti, who accompanied the mutineers, supposed belonged to a man he had killed in a battle at sea. The scantiness of the population favoured the opinion that the present race had but recently become inhabitants of this abode; and the subsequent visits of Missionaries from Tahiti, with the residence of native teachers among the people, have furnished additional evidence that the present Tubuaian population is but of modern origin, compared with that inhabiting the island of Raivavai on the east, or Rurutu and Rimatara on the west.

In 1817, I touched at Tubuai. The island is compact, hilly, and verdant; many of the hills appeared brown and sunburnt, while others were partially wooded. At a distance it appears like two distinct islands, but on a nearer approach the high land is found to be united. It is less picturesque than Rapa, but is surrounded by a reef of coral, which protects the low-land from the violence of the sea. As we approached this natural safeguard to the level shore, which is perhaps more extensive than the level land in any other island of equal size, a number of natives came out to meet us. Their canoes, resembling those of Rapa, were generally sixteen or twenty feet long; the lower part being hollowed out of the trunk of a tree, and the sides, stem, and stern, formed by pieces of thin plank sewed together with cinet or page 382 cord, and adorned with shells. The stem projected nearly horizontally, but the stern being considerably elevated, extended obliquely from the seat occupied by the steersman. The sterns were ornamented with rude carving, and, together with the sides, painted with a kind of red ochre, while the seams were covered with the feathers or aquatic birds. A tabu had been recently laid on the island by the priests, which they had supposed would prevent the arrival of any vessel, and they were consequently rather disconcerted by our approach. Among the natives who came on board, was a remarkably fine, tall, well-made man, who appeared, from the respect paid him by the others, to be a chief. His body was but partially tataued, his only dress was a girdle or broad bandage round his loins, and his glossy, black, and curling hair was tied in a bunch on the crown of his head, while its extremities hung in ringlets on his shoulders. His disposition appeared mild and friendly. His endeavours to induce us to land were unremitted, until nearly sunset; when, finding them unavailing, and receiving from the captain an assurance that he would keep near the island till the morrow, he expressed a wish to remain on board, although considerably affected by the motion of the vessel.

The next morning we stood in close to the reefs, and a party from the ship accompanied the chief to the shore: the population appeared but small; the people were friendly, and readily bartered fowls, taro, and mountain plantains for articles of cutlery and fish-hooks. Their gardens were unfenced, and the few pigs they had were kept in holes or wide pits four or five feet deep, and fed with bread-fruit and other vegetables. Only one was page 383 brought on board, and this was readily purchased. Many of the natives, in addition to the common bandage encircling their bodies, and a light cloth over their shoulders, wore large folds of white or yellow cloth bound round their heads, in some degree resembling a turban, which gave them a remarkably Asiatic appearance. They also wore necklaces of the nuts of the pandanus; the scent of which, though strong, is grateful to most of the islanders of the Pacific.

They were at this time addicted to unjust and barbarous war, and sometimes failed to manifest that hospitality, and afford that protection, to the voyagers from other countries, which is generally shewn by the inhabitants of other islands. On the day after our arrival, two or three natives of the Paumotu or Palliser's Islands, which lie to the eastward of the Society Islands, came on board our vessel, and asked the captain for a passage to Tahiti. He inquired their business there? They said, that some weeks before, they left Tahiti, whither they had been on a visit, to return to their native islands, but that contrary winds drifted their canoe out of its course, and they reached the island of Tubuai; that shortly after their arrival, the natives of the island attacked them, plundered them of their property, and broke their canoe; that they wished to go to Tahiti, and acquaint Pomare with their misfortune, procure another canoe, and prosecute their original voyage. Two Europeans, who were on the island at the time, reported that they were very peaceable in their behaviour; that the natives of Tubuai had attacked the strangers because they had tried to persuade them to cast away their idols, and had told them there was but one true God, viz. Jehovah. Our page 384 captain, and some others who were present, asked why they did not resist the attack? inquiring, at the same time, if they were averse to war; knowing that their countrymen were continually engaged in most savage wars, and were also cannibals. They said they had been taught to delight in war, and were not afraid of the natives of Tubuai; that if they had been heathens, they should have fought them at once; but that they had been to Tahiti, and had embraced the new religion, as they called Christianity; had heard that Jehovah commanded those who worshipped Him to do no murder, and that Jesus Christ had directed his followers to love their enemies; that they feared it would be displeasing to God, should they have killed any of the Tubuaians, or even have indulged feelings of revenge towards them; adding, that they would rather lose their canoe and their property, than offend Jehovah, or disregard the directions of Jesus Christ.—Our captain gave them a passage. Pomare furnished them with a canoe; they returned for their companions, and subsequently sailed to their native islands.

These natives, in all probability, had never heard the question as to the lawfulness or unlawfulness of Christians engaging in war discussed, or even named, but they had most likely been taught to commit to memory the decalogue, and our Lord's sermon on the mount, and hence resulted their noble forbearance at the island of Tubuai.

Subsequently, the Tubuaians heard more ample details of the change that had taken place in the adjacent island of Rurutu, as well as in the Society Islands—that the inhabitants had renounced their idolatry, and erected places for the worship of the true God—and determined to follow their example. page 385 In the month of March, 1822, they sent a deputation to Tahiti, requesting teachers and books. The messengers from Tubuai were kindly welcomed, and not only hospitably entertained by the Tahitian Christians, but led to their schools and places of public worship. Two native teachers were selected by the church in Matavai, and publicly designated by the Missionaries to instruct the natives of Tubuai. The churches in Tahiti, so far as their means admitted, furnished them with a supply of articles most likely to be useful in their Missionary station; and the 13th of June, 1822, they embarked for the island of Tubuai. Mr. Nott, the senior Missionary in Tahiti, embarked in the same vessel, for the purpose of preaching to the people, and affording the native Missionaries every assistance in the commencement of their undertaking.

Finding, on their arrival, the whole of the small population of the island engaged in war, and on the eve of a battle, Mr. Nott and his companions repaired to the encampment of Tamatoa, who was, by hereditary right, the king of the island, acquainted him with the design of their visit, and recommended him to return to his ordinary place of abode. The king expressed his willingness to accede to the proposal, provided his rival, who was encamped but a short distance from him, and whom he expected on the morrow to engage, would also suspend hostilities. Paofai, a chief who accompanied Mr. Nott, went to Tahuhuatama, the chief of the opposite party, with a message to this effect. He was kindly received, his proposal agreed to, and a time appointed for the chiefs to meet midway between the hostile parties, and arrange the conditions of peace.

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On the same evening, or early the next morning, the chieftains, with their adherents, probably not exceeding one hundred on either side, quitted their encampments, which were about a mile and a half or two miles apart, and proceeded to the appointed place of rendezvous. When they came within fifty yards of each other, they halted. The chiefs then left their respective bands, and met midway between them; they were attended by the Missionaries, and, after several propositions had been made by one party, and acceded to by the other, peace was concluded. The chiefs then embraced each other; and the warriors in each little army, wherein the nearest relations were probably arrayed against each other, perceiving the reconciliation of their chiefs, dropped their implements of war, and, rushing into each other's arms, presented a scene of gratulation and joy, very different from the murderous conflict in which they expected to have been engaged. They repaired in company to the residence of the principal chief, where an entertainment was provided. Here the Missionaries had a second interview with the chiefs, who welcomed them to the island, and expressed their desires to be instructed concerning the true God, and the new religion, as they usually denominated Christianity.

On the following morning, the inhabitants of Tubuai were invited to attend public worship, when Mr. Nott delivered, in a new building erected for the purpose, the first Christian discourse to which they had ever listened. It was truly gratifying to behold those, who had only the day before expected to have been engaged in shedding each other's blood, now mingled in one quiet and attentive assembly, where the warriors of rival page 387 chieftains might be seen sitting side by side, and listening to the gospel of peace.

Mr. Nott was unexpectedly detained several weeks at Tubuai; during this time he made the tour of the island, conversed with the people, and preached on every favourable occasion that occurred. The Queen Charlotte at length arrived; when, having introduced the native teachers to the chiefs and people, and recommended them to their protection, he bade them farewell, and prosecuted his voyage to High Island. The chiefs had desired that one teacher might be left with each; and, in order to meet their wishes, two, Hapunia and Samuela, from the church at Papeete, were stationed by Mr. Nott in this island, one with each of the chiefs. The native Missionaries found the productions of Tubuai less various and abundant than those of Tahiti and the adjacent islands. The habits of the natives were remarkably indolent, and inimical to health, especially the practice of dressing their bread-fruit, &c. only once in five days. Against this the teachers invariably remonstrated, and presented to them, also, a better example, by cooking for themselves fresh food every day. Since that time, a distressing epidemic has, in common with most of the islands, prevailed in Tubuai, and has swept off many of the people. Nevertheless, the native teachers continue their labours, and the condition of the people is improved. In February, 1826, when Mr. Davies visited them, the profession of Christianity was general; thirty-eight adults and four children were baptized. The chiefs and people were assisting the teachers in building comfortable dwellings, and erecting a neat and substantial house for public worship.

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In 1829, when they were visited, although the industry of the inhabitants, and their advancement in civilization, were cheering, their progress in learning was but small, and the ignorance or stupidity of the children discouraging. Less attention was paid to the teachers than formerly, and considerable disorder prevailed among the people, from the opposition of some to the laws transmitted by the king from Tahiti, and the want of promptitude and decision in those natives who were invested with authority. At a meeting of the people, which was held by the appointment of the principal chiefs, while Messrs. Pritchard and Simpson remained on the island, it was resolved, that two criminals, one guilty of murder, having shot one of the magistrates, and another of treason, having devised a plot against the government, and meditated the death of the Tahitian teachers, should be banished for life to an uninhabited island; and that others, less culpable, should be kept in irons during the pleasure of the chiefs. Measures were also proposed, which were adapted to induce a better state of things among all classes of the inhabitants.

∗Miss. Trans. vol. iv. No. vi. p. 163.