Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Tahiti: From Wild Life among the Pacific Islanders by E.H.Lamont

Polynesian Resource Center

The second morning following, though still some sixty miles from Tahiti, the cry of " Land ho, ahead ! w from aloft, told us that the " Gem of the Ocean,'' as it has been called, was sighted. One or two spear points just peeping above the horizon were all that at first could be seen ; but soon the lower lands also began to appear, and by noon Tahiti with its varied outline had risen fully to our view.Tahiti was, no doubt, formerly two islands, though united by an isthmus connecting Tahiti proper, the larger, with Tairahu, the smaller peninsula. Tahiti now forms an island some thirty-five miles long by twenty-five broad. It is of volcanic construction, and is thrown up into numerous pinnacles, the loftiest of which is 7352 ft above sea level. From the peaks in the centre spread narrow-ridged spurs towards the sea, for the most part covered with evergreens, and occasionally terminating in bold, wall-like precipices, over which the mountain rivulets tumble in miniature cascades. Many of these little rivers, uniting as they approach the sea, water the lovely valleys, and cross the narrow strip of plain that lies between the hills and the ocean, wearing a bed in the coral reef that fringes the shores of Tahiti (or rather the fresh-water preventing the growth of the coral) and dropping into the lagoon. This lagoon or channel between the fringe and barrier reefs almost encircles the island, and a great part of it is navigable for vessels of considerable burthen ; the outer, or barrier reef, on which the surge of the Pacific lashes in impotent fury, having many openings, through which shipping may pass securely to the safe and commodious harbours within, ten of which have good anchorage for vessels of any size, the smaller ones being chiefly used by the fruiting craft, that put into them for oranges, which are in season here for nine months in the year, and constitute now the chief product and trade of Tahiti. California derives its supply of this article from the island, and has several schooners in the trade.

We approached the land off Point Venus, celebrated as the camping ground of Captain Cook when he first landed in Matavai Bay, and made these lovely islands interesting to Europeans by his glowing description of them. His memory is still revered by the natives. Cook, however was
not the first visitor, as is often erroneously supposed. The honour of the discovery rests with the Spanish navigator, Pedro Fernandez de Gueros, who touched at the islands as early as 1605, though little was known of them till Wallis, by whom they were supposed to be a new discovery, visited them in 1767. During his stay the thievish propensities of the natives led to a collision between the navigators and the islanders, which, notwithstanding the immense superiority in numbers of the latter, ended of course, in their defeat, and inspired them with a wholesome dread of Europeans, that was beneficial to their subsequent visitors, Bougainville and Cook.

The first missionaries arrived in 1797, by the Buff, from England, bringing with them several artisans, whose works in wood and iron created the utmost astonishment amongst the unsophisticated natives. Their missionary labours, however, met with so little success, that on the visit of the Nautilus, the majority of them left for Australia, and the remainder, with one exception, shortly after followed to the same place. This was during an insurrection, which drove King Pomare from Tahiti to the neighbouring island of Morea, where the zeal of the remaining missionary
was rewarded by the conversion of the king in 1812. From this period the cause progressed rapidly, and the victory of Pomare in a great battle gained over his refractory subjects, being ascribed to his change in religion, the natives were easily induced to embrace Christianity, and to yield to the control of the missionaries, not only in Tahiti, but in the neighbouring islands, which acknowledged the supremacy of Pomare.

From this time till the landing of the French, the missionary power may be said to have been supreme. Mr. Pritchard, a missionary, became British consul, and from the two positions was the most influential man in the island with the queen and her people, in whom he felt the warmest interest. An opposition party, however, was formed against him, which had the sympathy of M. Mo'renhaut, the consul for France. That gentleman, observing the immense influence the missionaries possessed over the people, thought it might be to the advantage of France to
have similar assistance, and some French missionaries were accordingly invited to Tahiti; but on their arrival they wore rudely expelled from its shores by the natives, with the sanction, if not by the instigation, of their spiritual rulers. The French fleet, therefore, sailed into the harbour shortly afterwards, and imposed a fine on Tahiti, to an amount that Pomare and her government, as the commander well knew, could not raise. The queen, dreading the consequences that might ensue, was induced to place her kingdom under the protectorate of France. Mr. Pritchard indignantly protested against these proceedings, but as his day of power was now passed away, he struck the English flag and returned to England, as it was supposed, to induce the British government to take up the cause of the poor Tahitians.

Meanwhile, to the astonishment of all Europe, these gentle islanders commenced that celebrated struggle commonly called the war of independence, in which for a long time, though almost destitute of arms, they bade defiance to the power of France; the English residents and missionaries, without much ground, I am sorry to say, holding out false promises to them of help from the British government. The capture of " Faa Tana," the mountain fortress of the Tahitians, through the treachery of some of their own chiefs, put an end to the war, and the people are now better governed than they ever were before, enjoying more security in their possessions than under their own queen, who, when she had power, was an avaricious tyrant, dispossessing her subjects of their property at her caprice. Pomare still retains the rank of queen, with a semblance of power, and a revenue from the French government of $5000 per annum.

The French are now firmly settled as a protectorate government, apparently to the entire satisfaction of the natives. The British missionaries, however, whom the French offered to place under salaries, if they would disconnect themselves from the London society, and place themselves under the French laws, with two exceptions, indignantly refused, and retired to other islands of the Pacific. Such is a brief history of Tahiti, from the first landing of the whites till the present time.

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