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First Contacts in Polynesia

First Contacts in Polynesia: The Samoan Case (1722-1848) Western Misunderstandings about Sexuality and Divinity

Serge Tcherkézoff
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    First Contacts in Polynesia
    Book Description:

    This book explores the first encounters between Samoans and Europeans up to the arrival of the missionaries, using all available sources for the years 1722 to the 1830s, paying special attention to the first encounter on land with the Lapérouse expedition. Many of the sources used are French, and some of difficult accessibility, and thus they have not previously been thoroughly examined by historians. Adding some Polynesian comparisons from beyond Samoa, and reconsidering the so-called 'Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate' about the fate of Captain Cook, 'First Contacts' in Polynesia advances a hypothesis about the contemporary interpretations made by the Polynesians of the nature of the Europeans, and about the actions that the Polynesians devised for this encounter: wrapping Europeans up in 'cloth' and presenting 'young girls' for 'sexual contact'. It also discusses how we can go back two centuries and attempt to reconstitute, even if only partially, the point of view of those who had to discover for themselves these Europeans whom they call 'Papalagi'. The book also contributes an additional dimension to the much-touted 'Mead-Freeman debate' which bears on the rules and values regulating adolescent sexuality in 'Samoan culture'. Scholars have long considered the pre-missionary times as a period in which freedom in sexuality for adolescents predominated. It appears now that this erroneous view emerged from a deep misinterpretation of Lapérouse's and Dumont d'Urville's narratives.

    eISBN: 978-1-921536-02-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. In memory of the Samoans who discovered the Papālagi
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book narrates the first encounters between Samoans and Europeans, adding some Polynesian comparisons from beyond Samoa, to advance a hypothesis about the interpretations made by the Polynesians at the time of the nature of these newcomers to Pacific waters. Bearing on encounters of historical and cultural significance, it discusses the ways we can address the analysis of such events. In order to do so we must go back two centuries and reconstitute as far as possible the point of view of those who—European narratives say—‘were discovered’, but who, in fact, had to discover for themselves these other...

  6. Part One: the Samoan discovery of Europeans (1722-1848)

    • Chapter 1 June 1722, the Dutch ‘discovery’ by Jacob Roggeveen
      (pp. 15-22)

      During the 17th and 18th centuries, various Dutch expeditions ventured into the Pacific, searching for new routes to the East Indies and new lands where gold or spices would be abundant. Small islands did not present any interest other than as sites for brief restocking of provisions such as wood, water, or fruit. When indigenous people were encountered, they became a target for the guns of the visitors the moment that their gestures could be interpreted as a sign of hostility. The Spaniards had opened fire on indigenous people in the 16th and 17th centuries. After Mendaña’s massacre in the...

    • Chapter 2 May 1768, the French ‘discovery’ by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville
      (pp. 23-28)

      The French round-the-world expedition led by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was among the first to open up a new era of voyaging in wich discoveries were sought as much for mercantile profit as for the new scientific study of the ‘System of Nature’. This was the second opportunity that Samoans had to see European ships, apart from the supposedly few Samoans who had earlier seen European ships sailing in Tongan and Fijian waters. Nevertheless Bougainville, when he sighted the Samoan islands, thought he was the first European to do so. Behrens’s account, the only one published from the Dutch expedition of...

    • Chapter 3 December 1787, Lapérouse: first incursion on land
      (pp. 29-50)

      With the arrival of Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse we come to the first Samoan/European contact on land, and to the first of the two authors who are Williamson’s and Côté’s key witnesses for the theory of a free sex pre-marital life among Samoan girls. We saw in the Introduction how Côté found to be crucial Williamson’s statement that ‘Lapérouse tells us that girls were, before marriage, mistresses of their own favours, and their complaisance did not dishonour them’. Indeed, as regards this quotation, as for all others from Lapérouse in his volumes on Polynesia, Williamson was accurate. The question,...

    • Chapter 4 Lapérouse, the Ignoble Savage, and the Europeans as ‘spirits’
      (pp. 51-68)

      In the preceding chapter all recorded references to female sexual ‘offers’ were collated and discussed. The analysis of this material on the one hand provided conclusive evidence that, in the final pages of his account relating his encounter with the Samoans, Lapérouse was in fact describing a marriage ritual and not sexual hospitality, and, on the other, showed that there were no grounds to support the hypothesis of customary sexual freedom during adolescence.

      But additional information about the encounter is necessary in order to provide an exhaustive study of the interactions between the Samoans and their Papālagi visitors. So let...

    • Chapter 5 The turn of the century: from Edward Edwards (1791) to Otto von Kotzebue (1824)
      (pp. 69-80)

      In 1790, the British Admiralty learned about the mutiny on the Bounty. Captain Bligh and his companions, who had been disembarked by Fletcher Christian in Tongan waters, made their way in their small canoe to the East Indies and from there back to England. The authorities immediately set up a punitive expedition. Captain Edwards’s orders were to search for the mutineers and bring them back alive to stand trial. At the beginning of the 20th century, Basil Thompson located Edwards’s journal and published it together with the narrative of the surgeon of the expedition, George Hamilton (only the surgeon’s narrative...

    • Chapter 6 Commercial vessels. Another French visit: Lafond de Lurcy
      (pp. 81-90)

      Besides the scientific expeditions in the Pacific, which were under way by the 1760s, issuing mainly from England and France, and the military-diplomatic expeditions, which began in the late 1830s, a whole fleet of whalers and trading vessels invaded Pacific waters from the end of the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th century. The whalers extracted oil from the harpooned whales by heating. The merchants were searching for sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (and furs in the North Pacific), which they took to Manila and Canton, and returned with tea. Soon after, the trade for coconut oil, first...

    • Chapter 7 The late 1830s: Dumont d’Urville and Wilkes; Jackson and Erskine
      (pp. 91-108)

      Jules-Sebastien-César Dumont d’Urville is the second and only other witness about Samoan sexual freedom to be called upon by both Williamson and Côté (see Introduction). ‘D’Urville says that girls were entirely free to dispose of their persons till married’, they tell us. And indeed, Dumont d’Urville’s general comments on the customs of Samoa do include this statement. But both authors fail to mention that the French captain was merely summarising the view of a local beachcomber whom he had met. They conveniently ignore the fact that even then the man was only referring to a supposed distant past which he...

    • Chapter 8 Conclusion
      (pp. 109-110)

      We can see that, from 1722 up until the 1830s to 1840s, the contacts between Samoans and Europeans all followed the same pattern of mutual defiance. This tendency increased markedly on the European side after 1787. For the Samoans, it had probably been there almost from the very beginning, following the spread of the stories about the Dutch cannons, which were reinforced after they had experienced the firepower of the French in 1787 (Lapérouse) and of the British in 1791 (the crew of the tender of Edwards’s expedition).

      The only significant change in the overall pattern was that, after 1771,...

  7. Part Two: Methodological comparisons

    • Chapter 9 ‘On the boat of Tangaroa’. Humanity and divinity in Polynesian-European first contacts: a reconsideration
      (pp. 113-158)

      The story of the first encounters between Polynesians and Europeans has, until now, only been told by Europeans, or more generally by Westerners. That is why, too often, it is subject to two main qualifications. First of all the perspective from which the encounters are viewed is one-sided. The ‘discovery’ in question is made by voyagers who set sail one day from the Thames, or from the coast of Brittany, for the Pacific. But what was the other significant discovery that resulted from these voyages, the discovery that the Polynesians were forced to make at the same time? Samoan voices...

    • Chapter 10 Sacred cloth and sacred women. On cloth, gifts and nudity in Tahitian first contacts: a culture of ‘wrapping-in’
      (pp. 159-186)

      The ethnohistory of the early encounters between Samoans and Europeans has shown us the important role played by the offerings of cloth, on both sides on the encounter. This cloth exchange is in no way specific to the Samoan case and was indeed a crucial element of all early Polynesian-European contacts. In order to achieve a certain level of generalisation on this point, I shall now add to this discussion the available data for Tahiti. A study aiming at a pan-Polynesian comparison cannot limit itself to one side of Polynesia and must at least include for comparative purposes a case...

    • Chapter 11 The Papālagi (‘Europeans’) and the Sky. Etymology and divinity, linguistic and anthropological dialogue
      (pp. 187-202)

      Europeans have been labelled ‘Papālangi’ in Western Polynesia (written Papālangi in Tongan, Papālagi in Samoan), apparently since the early contacts. The word is already mentioned in Cook’s narrative. When James Cook was in Tonga in 1777, he noted that this word was used to refer to his expedition as well as to the coming of European boats long before him (this could only have been the Dutch expeditions of the 17th century, the last being Tasman’s expedition more than a century before, in 1643). The Tongans said: (Cook’s transcription) ko e vaka no papalangi ‘the boats of/from the papalangi’ (we...

  8. Conclusion: Ethnohistory-in-the-field
    (pp. 203-210)

    This study of the 18th-century encounters between Samoans and Europeans which was the subject of Part One of this book, together with the comparative analysis of other Polynesian cases in Part Two, makes a further contribution to an historical anthropology or ethnohistory which has only recently begun to be written. The subject of this relatively new field is the cross-cultural encounters between the Polynesians and the Europeans (Papālagi-Popa’a-Pakeha-Haole) from the 16th century. It embraces the earliest encounters as they occurred throughout the Pacific, and their subsequent development.

    By applying the same critical reading that has been attempted here for Samoa...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. 211-222)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-242)