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Introduction to Polynesian Researches

Introduction to Polynesian Researches


William Ellis was a prominent member of the London Missionary Society whose experience as a missionary in the South Pacific and Madagascar provided the basis of several books. He was born in London on 29 August 1794 and, after joining the London Missionary Society in 1815, he and his wife lived as missionaries in the Pacific from 1816 until 1825 where his skills were employed as a printer. Returning to England, he became secretary to the London Missionary Society and through that role became interested in Madagascar. Following several abortive visits in the 1850s, he lived in Madagascar from 1861 until 1865 before returning to England where he died on 9 June 1872. His extensive work, Polynesian Researches: During a Residence of Nearly Six Years in the South Sea Islands, was first published in two volumes in 1829 and followed his Narrative of a Tour through Hawaii, or Owhyee: With Observations on the Natural History of the Sandwich Islands, and Remarks on the Manners, Customs, Traditions, History and Language of their Inhabitants (1825), which had run to five editions by 1828. The later work was republished in four volumes in 1831 under the title of Polynesian Researches: During a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands, following revision by Ellis and with the inclusion of Narrative of a Tour, and also ran into many editions. It is now recognised as one of the earliest and most significant ethnographic works about the South Pacific.

Some Comments on Polynesian Researches

EllisPolynesian Researches are an attempt to detail his encyclopaedic knowledge of Polynesia, its cultures and the history of missionary endeavour amongst them. Volume One provides an account of the Georgian and Society Islands, beginning with their discovery by Europeans; continuing on to discuss their geography, geology, flora and fauna; before describing their inhabitants, cultural practices and myths. Volume Two describes the establishment of a missionary presence in Tahiti and the changes wrought by that presence, and Volume Three continues the narrative before concluding with a survey of other areas of Polynesia including the Marquesas, Australia and New Zealand. Volume Four describes the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Ellis’ participation in an 1823 missionary expedition around the island. Woven throughout are copious descriptions in minute detail of his observations of Polynesian culture and the theological concerns of the missionaries.

In his ‘Preface’, Ellis spells out his rationale for producing such a work. Despite his missionary calling, he

regarded it as perfectly consistent with his office, and compatible with its duties, to collect, as opportunity offered, information on various subjects relative to the country and its inhabitants.
(I.vi-vii) This perceived compatibility between religious and scientific discourses reflects the need of Victorian Evangelicals to be able to justify their faith in rational terms; as Christopher Herbert asserts,
these missionaries were attempting to gather authenticated empirical proof of the proposition that unredeemed human nature is a horrifying mass of lust and wickedness.
(159) Ellis writes,

The following work will exhibit numerous facts, which may justly be regarded as illustrating the essential characteristics of idolatry, and its influence on a people, the simplicity of whose institutions affords facilities for observing its nature and tendencies, which could not be obtained in a more advanced state of society.


Polynesian Researches is intended to depict such “uncivilised” cultures as proof of original sin, both to bolster the credibility of the Christian faith and to demonstrate the need for the radically transformative missionary presence. Yet the ethnocentrism inherent in this view is subverted to some extent precisely by Ellis’ stated desire to preserve a written record of these cultures:

All their usages of antiquity having been entirely superseded by the new order of things that has followed the subversion of their former system…. [T]o furnish, as far as possible, an authentic record of these, and thus preserve them from oblivion, is one design which the Author has always kept in view.


The desire to preserve them from oblivion by implication acknowledges the validity of those cultures despite their unredeemed status, and as such undermines Ellis’ justification of his own presence. This unresolved paradox ensures that Polynesian Researches continues to be of interest.

The portrait that Ellis paints of the Polynesians is inescapably coloured by his view of their spiritual state, which must balance the demonstration of their unredeemed state with proof that they are not unredeemable. Thus, Ellis’ Tahitians surprise him with their intellect. The Society Islanders are:

[R]emarkably curious and inquisitive, and, compared with other Polynesian nations, may be said to possess considerable ingenuity, mechanical invention, and imitation…. the distinguishing features of their civil polity—the imposing nature, numerous observances, and diversified ramifications of their mythology—the legends of their gods—the historical songs of their bards—the beautiful, figurative, and impassioned eloquence sometimes displayed in their national assemblies—and, above all, the copiousness, variety, precision, and purity of their language, with their extensive use of numbers—warrant the conclusion, that they possess no contemptible mental capabilities.


Most impressive to him is their numeracy, indicative of higher reasoning powers:

their extensive use of numbers is astonishing, when we consider that their computations were purely efforts of mind, unassisted by books or figures.
(III.169) Nevertheless, such admiration is inevitably overshadowed by their moral failings; in Herbert’s terms, they are stereotypical
figure[s] of boundless, exorbitant, uncontrollable desires.
(160) Thus their conversation is something
the ear could not listen to without pollution, presenting images, and conveying sentiments, whose most fleeting passage through the mind left contamination.
(I.98) Worse still, they engage in human sacrifice and while
we have been unwilling to believe they had ever been cannibals; the conviction of our mistake has, however, been impressed by evidence so various and multiplied, as to preclude uncertainty.
(I.358-9). Symbolising all that must be fought are the Areois caste,
a sort of strolling players, and privileged libertines, who spent their days in travelling from island to island, and from one district to another, exhibiting their pantomimes, and spreading a moral contagion throughout society.
(I.86) In describing their exploits, Ellis struggles to reconcile the wish to protect his readers with his desire to achieve descriptive totality:

In some of their meetings, they appear to have placed their invention on the rack, to discover the worst pollutions of which it was possible for man to be guilty, and to have striven to outdo each other in the most revolting practices…. I should not have alluded to them, but for the purpose of shewing the affecting debasement, and humiliating demoralization, to which ignorance, idolatry, and the evil propensities of the human heart, when uncontrolled or unrestrained by the institutions and relations of civilized society and sacred truth, are capable of reducing mankind, even under circumstances highly favourable to the culture of virtue, purity, and happiness.


The fact that such “revolting practices” can occur within a climate that might be thought to encourage “virtue, purity, and happiness” allows Ellis to reject any notion of the noble savage:

I should not have dwelt so long on the distressing facts that have been given, but to exhibit in the true, though by no means strongest colours, the savage character and brutal conduct of those, who have been represented as enjoying, in their rude and simple state, a high degree of happiness, and cultivating all that is amiable and benevolent.


In this way, the emergent scientific discourse of ethnographic observation is yoked not only to Evangelical theology but also to wider racial debates.

As well as detailing the usages of antiquity, Ellis also narrates a history of cultural contact. His description of the early missionary presence is notable for the recurrent subversion of their expectations. Not only were the missionaries completely dependent upon their Tahitian hosts, but those hosts failed to concede any form of independence or spiritual authority to them:

All that the settlers ever desired was, the permanent occupation of the ground on which their dwellings and gardens were situated; yet, in writing to the Society, in 1804, they remark, in reference to the district, “The inhabitants do not consider the district, nor any part of it, as belonging to us, except the small sandy spot we occupy with our dwellings and gardens; and even as to that, there are persons who claim the ground as theirs.” Whatever advantages the king or chiefs might expect to derive from this settlement on the island, they were not influenced by any desire to receive general or religious instruction.


Those gardens became a further symbol of the disruption of their expectations, as the missionaries sought to establish the plants that were to be at the forefront of their civilising efforts. Wheat grew well but produced no grain, while potatoes deteriorated when replanted the next season and Ellis mournfully reports that

the coffee and the cashew-nuts were totally destroyed by the goats, which, leaping the fence one day, in a few minutes ate up the plants on which I had bestowed much care.
(I.67) The endeavour of learning the local language was another arena that sorely tested their notions of cultural superiority:

[The Missionaries] had no elementary books to consult, no preceptors to whom they could apply, but were frequently obliged, by gestures, signs, and other contrivances, to seek the desired information from the natives; who often misunderstood the purport of their questions, and whose answers must, as often, have been unintelligible to the Missionaries.


Nevertheless, Polynesian Researches is testament to the enormous social changes that the missionaries began to achieve once they became established. These began with the destruction of indigenous spirituality, whose physical structures provided the clearest evidence of their former idolatry:

A short time before sun-set, Patii appeared, and ordered his attendants to apply fire to the pile. This being done, he hastened to the sacred depository of his gods, brought them out, not indeed as he had been on some occasions accustomed to do, that they might receive the blind homage of the waiting populace,—but to convince the deluded multitude of the impotency and the vanity of the objects of their adoration and their dread…. Patii tore off the sacred cloth in which they were enveloped, to be safe from the gaze of vulgar eyes; stripped them of their ornaments, which he cast into the fire; and then one by one threw the idols themselves into the crackling flames…. Thus were the idols which Patii, who was a powerful priest in Eimeo, had worshipped, publicly destroyed.


Such actions bring the missionaries great joy, but prove to have consequences beyond their expectation. As Ellis describes,

The intimate connexion between the government and their idolatry, occasioned the dissolution of the one, with the abolition of the other; and when the system of pagan worship was subverted, many of their ancient usages perished in its ruins.
(III.133) This reveals a fundamental difference over the nature of religion between the missionaries and their converts, for to the former
it appeared most important to impress the minds of the people with the distinctness of a Christian church from any political, civil, or other merely human institution.
(III.57) This is brought to a head when the missionaries are asked to help in the production of a code of laws, a document that essentially amounted to a constitution. Despite apparently resisting the idea, they are ultimately unable to escape it:

During many years of our residence in these islands, we most carefully avoided meddling with their civil and political affairs, except in a few instances, where we endeavoured to promote peace between contending parties. At present, however, it appears almost impossible for us, in every respect, to follow the same line of conduct…. The first code of laws was that enacted in Tahiti in the year 1819; it was prepared by the king and a few of the chiefs, with the advice and direction of the Missionaries, especially Mr. Nott, whose prudence and caution cannot be too highly spoken of, and by whom it was chiefly framed.


Such incidents suggest a fluctuation of authority — religious and social — between the two cultures that complicates what at first appearance seems a simple picture of colonialism. As with the image of the first communion, where a lack of wheat means that the bread is substituted with baked breadfruit, the missionaries at times appear threatened with the possibility that they might be changed as much by the encounter as the Polynesians.

Nevertheless, Polynesian Researches also reveals the many-faceted and wide-reaching nature of the conversion sought by the missionaries through the depiction of the means by which this was achieved. Pre-eminent for Ellis are the introduction of written language, and its dissemination through printing:

The use of the press in the different islands, we naturally regard as one of the most powerful human agencies that can be employed in forming the mental and moral character of the inhabitants, imparting to their pursuits a salutary direction, and promoting knowledge, virtue, and happiness. It is not easy to estimate correctly the advantages already derived from this important engine of improvement.


Their use of writing to influence “the mental and moral character of the inhabitants” places the missionaries at the forefront of the colonial endeavour. When the halting means by which they first learnt to communicate with the Tahitians are recalled, it becomes apparent that controlling such an “engine of improvement” enabled a radical change of the missionaries’ status and ability to achieve cultural hegemony. This is illustrated by the changing status of indigenous women, whose newfound literacy is paralleled by a desire to adopt other practices that the missionaries deem appropriate for women:

The females, no longer exposed to that humiliating neglect to which idolatry had subjected them, enjoyed the comforts of domestic life, the pleasure resulting from the culture of their minds, the ability to read the scriptures, and to write in their own language, in which several excelled the other sex; they also became anxious to engage in employments which are appropriated to their own sex in civilized and Christian communities. They were therefore taught to work at their needle, and soon made a pleasing proficiency.


Not only does Ellis associate the propagation of Christianity with the adoption of British culture, but he also demonstrates it to be inseparable from capitalism. He relates that one of the most formidable barriers to their receiving our instructions, imbibing the spirit and exhibiting the moral influence of religion, and advancing in civilization has been a lack of indigenous desire for self-improvement:

The difficulties we encountered resulted not less from the inveteracy of their idle habits, than from the absence of all inducements to labour, that were sufficiently powerful to call into action their dormant energies. Their wants were few, and their desires limited to the means of mere animal existence and enjoyment; these were supplied without much anxiety or effort, and, possessing these, they were satisfied.


The attempts of the earliest missionaries to rouse them from their abject and wretched modes of life, by advising them to build more comfortable dwellings, to wear more decent clothing, and to adopt, so far as circumstances would admit, the conveniences and comforts of Europeans were frustrated by the sheer apathy and lack of concern of their heathen audience. Ellis comments of this, They furnish a striking illustration of the sentiment, that to civilize a people they must first be christianized; that to attempt the former without the latter, is like rearing a superstructure without a foundation. As a consequence, the Tahitian converts are inculcated with a Protestant work ethic to the effect that idleness, and irregular and debasing habits of life, were as opposed to the principles of Christianity, as to their own personal comfort. Furthermore, to ensure its long-term viability they establish consumerism upon the island:

To increase their wants, or to make some of the comforts and decencies of society as desirable as the bare necessaries of life, appeared to us the most probable method of furnishing incitements to permanent industry.


Such confessions illustrate one of the greatest ironies of Polynesian Researches. While purporting to be an ethnographic text about the cultures of Polynesia, it demonstrates to an equal degree the values and assumptions of British culture and one of its means of self-propagation through the extension of Empire.


Blaikie, W.G.Ellis, William (1794–1872)”. In Dictionary of National Biography: Volume VI, Drant-Finan. Ed. Leslie Stephen and Sydney Lee. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1908, pp. 714–715.

Edmond, Rod. “Translating Cultures: William Ellis and Missionary Writing”. In Science and Exploration: European Voyages in the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Margarette Lincoln. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1998, pp. 149–161.

Herbert, Christopher. Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Ellis is a somewhat neglected figure, but Herbert’s discussion of Polynesian Researches within the wider context of contemporary Polynesian ethnography is an excellent introduction to his work and concerns.

Selected Links

J. Paul Getty Museum

Provides a brief biography of Ellis, focusing on his later interest in photography and its relationship to his missionary work, with a link to his photograph, “Madagascar Portrait” (1862). Hosted by the J. Paul Getty Trust.