Tahiti - Encyclopedia

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TAHITI, the largest and most important of the French Society Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in r7° 38' S., 1496 30' W. Pop. about 10,300. The island, in shape not unlike the figure 8, has a length of 33 m., a coast-line of 120, and an area of 402 sq. m. It is divided into two portions by a short isthmus (Isthmus of Taravao) about a mile in width, and nowhere more than 50 ft. above sea-level. The southern, the peninsula of Taiarapu, or Tahiti-iti (Little Tahiti) measures II m. in length by 6 m. in breadth; while the northern, the circular main island of Porionuu, or Tahiti-uni (Great Tahiti), has a length of 22 m. and a breadth of 20. The whole island is mountainous. A little to the north-west of the centre of Great Tahiti the double-peaked Orohena rises to 7349 ft., and the neighbouring Aorai is only a little lower. Little Tahiti has no such elevation, but its tower-like peaks are very striking. The flat land of the Tahitian coast, extending to a width of several miles - with its chain of villages, its fertile gardens, and its belt of palms, sometimes intersected by stream-fed valleys which open on the seashore - forms a most pleasing foreground to the grand mountain ranges. A good road surrounds the island, the extreme north of which is formed by Point Venus, W. of which lie the Bay of Matavai and Papeete, the European town and seat of government,, on its beautiful harbour.

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The seasons are not well defined. Damp is excessive; there is little variation in the weather, which, though hot, is nevertheless not depressing, and the climate for the tropics must be considered remarkably healthy. The rainfall is largest between December and April, but there is so much at other times of the year also that these months hardly deserve the name of the rainy season. During this period north-west winds are frequent, continuing at times for weeks, and there are thunderstorms and hurricanes.l These, while not generally destructive, are sometimes so, as notably the storm of the 13th of January 1903. During the eight drier and cooler months south-east trade winds prevail, but there are southerly winds which bring rain, and even westerly breezes are not infrequent. The mean temperature for the year on the coasts is 77° F. (maximum 84°, minimum 69°); and the average rainfall from December to March (4 months) is 29 inches; from April to November (8 months), 19 inches.


Mammals, as in other Polynesian islands, are restricted to a few species of bats (mostly of the genus Pteropus), rats and mice, none of them peculiar. Of domestic animals, the pig and the_ dog - the former a small breed which quickly disappeared before the stronger European strains - were plentiful even in Wallis's days. The ornithology is very poor as compared with that of the Western Pacific; the Society Islands possess no peculiar genera and but few peculiar species. They claim, however, a thrush, several small parrots of great beauty, doves, pigeons, rails and a sandpiper (Tringa leucoptera). A jungle-fowl (var. of Gallus bankiva) is found in the mountains, but as domesticated fowls were abundant, even when Tahiti was first discovered by Europeans, these wild birds are doubtless the offspring of tame birds. The lagoons swarm with fish of many species. Insects are poor in species, though some of them are indigenous. Crustaceans and molluscs, on the other hand, are well represented; worms, echinoderms, and corals comparatively poorly. A noteworthy feature of Tahitian conchology is the number of peculiar species belonging to the genus Partula, almost every valley being the habitat of a distinct form.' Flora. - The flora, though luxuriant and greatly enhancing the beauty of the islands, is not very rich. It is, however, less poor in trees, shrubs and hardwood plants, than in the smaller undergrowth. Orchids, including some beautiful species, and ferns are abundant; but, here as in Polynesia generally, Rubiaceae is the order best represented. Remarkable are the banana thickets, which grow at an altitude of from 3000 to 5000 ft. Along the shore - in some places almost to the extinction of all native growth - many exotics have established themselves; and a great variety of fruit-bearing and other useful trees have been introduced.2 Inhabitants. - The Tahitians are a typical Polynesian race, closely connected physically with the Marquesans and Rarotongans, but widely divided from them in many of their customs. The dialects, also, of the three groups are different, the Tahitian being perhaps the softest in all Oceania. The women rank with the most beautiful of the Pacific, though the accounts given of them by early voyagers are much exaggerated; and for general symmetry of form the people are unsurpassed by any race in the world. Even now in its decadence, after generations of drunkenness and European disease and vice, grafted on inborn indolence and licentiousness, many tall and robust people (6 ft. and even upwards in height) are to be found. Men and women of good birth can generally be distinguished by their height and fairness, and often, even in early age, by their enormous corpulence. The skin varies from a very light olive to a full dark brown. The wavy or curly hair and the expressive eyes are black, or nearly so; the mouth is large, but well-shaped and set with beautiful teeth; the nose broad (formerly flattened in infancy by artificial means); and the chin well developed.

The native costume was an oblong piece of bark-cloth with a hole in its centre for the head, and a plain piece of cloth round the loins was worn alike by men and women of the higher classes. Men of all ranks wore, with or without these, the T bandage. The women concealed their breasts except in the company of their superiors, when etiquette demanded that inferiors of both sexes should uncover the upper part of the body. The chiefs wore short feather cloaks, not unlike those of the Hawaiians, and beautiful semicircular breastplates, dexterously interwoven with the black plumage of the frigate bird, with crimson feathers and with sharks' teeth; also most elaborate special dresses as a sign of mourning. The priests had strange cylindrical hats, made of wicker-work and over a yard in height. Circumcision, and in both sexes tattooing, were generally practised, and much significance was attached to some of the marks. The houses were long, low, and open at the sides. Household utensils were few - plain round wooden dishes, sometimes on legs, coco-nut shells, baskets, &c. Low stools and head-rests were used. Pottery being unknown, all food was baked in a hole dug in the ground or roasted over the fire. Their chief musical instruments were the nose-flute - often used as the accompaniment of song - and the drum. Conch-shells were also used. Tahitian stone adzes, which are greatly inferior in finish to those of the Hervey Islands, are, like the adzes of Polynesia in general, distinguished from those of Melanesia by their triangular section and adaptation to a socket. Slings were favourite weapons of the Tahitians; they had also plain spears expanding into a wide blade, and clubs. The bow and arrow seem only to have been used in certain ceremonial games. Their canoes, from 20 to 70 ft. in length, were double or single, and provided with sail and outriggers. They were not well finished, but the high curved sterns, rising sometimes to a height of 20 -ft., of those destined to carry the images of their gods, were carved with strange figures and hung with feathers. Cannibalism is unknown, though some ceremonies which were performed in connexion with human sacrifices may possibly be survivals of this practice. The staple food of the islanders consisted of the bread-fruit, the taroroot, the yam, the sweet potato, and in some districts the wild plantain; but they also ate much fish (the turtle was considered sacred food), as well as pigs and dogs, though of the latter, as pets, the women were so fond as to suckle the puppies sometimes even to the exclusion of their own children.

Tahitians were good fishermen and bold seamen. They steered by the stars, of which they distinguished many constellations. The land was carefully tended and the fields well irrigated. Three great classes were recognized: - (1) The sovereign, who bore a semisacred as well as a political character, and the reigning chiefs of districts; (2) the proprietors and cultivators of inherited land, who also built canoes, made arms, &c.; to these two classes also belonged the priests, who were medicine-men as well; (3) the fishers, artisans. &c., and slaves. As wars and infanticide depopulated the island this class gradually acquired land and with it certain privileges. Rank is hereditary and determined by primogeniture, not necessarily in the male line. The firstborn of a sovereign succeeded at once to titular sovereignty; the father, who was the first to pay homage to his child, then abdicated, and became regent. It is easy to sec that, while this custom tended to keep honours within a family, it may have encouraged the practice of infanticide, which was common in all grades of society when Tahiti was first visited by Europeans. The age at which the child's authority became real varied according to his own abilities and the will of his subjects. Though arbitrary, the power of the king was limited by the power of his vassals, the district chiefs, who ruled absolutely over their respective districts, and who might be of as good blood as himself. The king had a councillor, but was alone responsible for any act. The bi-insular form of Tahiti promoted the independence of the chiefs, and war was rarely declared without their being first summoned to council. Their power over their own people was absolute. The form of government was thus strictly feudal in character, but it gradually centralized into a monarchy, which, in the person of Pomare II., the English missionaries greatly helped to regulate and strengthen. The sovereign sent his commands by a messenger, whose credentials were a tuft of coco-nut film. This tuft was returned intact as a sign of assent or torn in token of refusal.

The temples were square tree-surrounded enclosures, with a single entrance and several small courts, within which were houses for the images and attendant priests. A pyramidal stone structure, on which were the actual altars, stood at the further end of the square. In the temples were buried the chiefs, whose embalmed bodies, after being exposed for a time, were interred in a crouching position. Their skulls, however, were kept in the houses of their nearest relations. In the great temple at Atahura the stone structure was 270 ft. long, 94 ft. wide, and 50 ft. high, and its summit was reached by a flight of steps built of hewn coral and basalt. Sacrificial offerings, including human sacrifices, formed a prominent part of Tahitian worship. An eye of the victim was offered to the king, and placed within his mouth by the officiating priest. Every household possessed its own guardian spirits, but there were several superior divinities, of which, at the beginning of the 19th century, Oro was the most venerated. The images, which are less remarkable than those of Hawaii, were rough representations of the human form carved in wood. The Areoi, a licentious religious association, was a special feature of Tahitian society.

The Tahitians are light-hearted, frivolous, courteous and generous, but deceitful and cruel. They were always notorious for their immorality, one of their customs being a systematized exchange of wives. Besides dancing, the singing of songs, and the recitation of historical and mythical ballads, the natives had also a variety of sports and games. Wrestling, boxing, and spear-throwing matches, with foot and canoe races, were held; also sham fights and naval reviews. They had several ball games - one (played chiefly by women), a kind of football; but surf-swimming was perhaps the favourite sport, and cock-fighting was much practised.

Products, Trade, Administration

Papeete, as the emporium for a widely scattered archipelago (including Paumotu, &c.), has an export trade in mother-of-pearl, pearls (mainly from the Paumotu islands), oranges, trepang (for China), copra and vanilla. Many whalers formerly visited Papeete harbour. During the American Civil War, in the middle of the 19th century, Tahitian cotton was put upon the European market, but its cultivation had ceased by 1884, and it has been little grown since. This is also true of coffee and tobacco, among other crops which have been tried. Sugar and rum are also produced.

The importation of "labour," chiefly for the plantations, from other Polynesian islands was placed under government control in 1862. The Tahitians themselves prefer handicrafts to agricultural work, and many are employed as artisans by European masters.

The total value of exports was 140,325 and of imports £127,600 in 5904. Papeete is the seat of government. The French establishments in the Eastern Pacific are administered by a governor, a privy council, and a council including the maire of Papeete and the presidents of the chambers of commerce and agriculture.


The discovery and early exploration of the Society ' Fih and Hartlaub, Fauna Central-Polynesiens, Halle, 1867. Islands is treated under that heading. In 1788, when Lieutenant nsc 2 De Castillo, Illustrationes Florae Insularum Maris Pacifici, Bligh in the "Bounty" visited Tahiti, the leading chief was Paris, 1886.1886. Pomare, whose family had been pre-eminent in the island for more than a century. Aided by sixteen of the "Bounty" mutineers, and armed with guns procured from Bligh and a Swedish vessel, Pomare greatly strengthened his power and brought to a successful close a long struggle with Eimeo.

The attempt at colonization by the Spaniards in 1774 was followed by the settlement of thirty persons brought in 1797 by the missionary ship "Duff." Though befriended by Pomare I. (who lived till 1805), they had many difficulties, especially from the constant wars, and at length they fled with Pomare II. to Eimeo and ultimately to New South Wales, returning in 1812, when Pomare renounced heathenism. In 1815 he regained his power in Tahiti. For a time the missionaries made good progress - a printing press was established (1817), and coffee, cotton and sugar were planted (1819); but soon there came a serious relapse into heathen practices and immorality. Pomare II. died of drink in 1824. His successor, Pomare III., died in 1827, and was succeeded by his half-sister Aimata, the unfortunate "Queen Pomare (IV.)." In 1828 a new fanatical sect, the "Mamaia," arose, which gave much trouble to the missions. The leader proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ, and promised to his followers a sensual paradise. In 1836 the French Catholic missionaries in Mangareva attempted to open a mission in Tahiti. Queen Pomare, advised by the English missionary and consul Pritchard, refused her consent, and removed by force two priests who had landed surreptitiously and to whom many of the opposition party in the state had rallied. In 1838 a French frigate appeared, under the command of Abel Dupetit-Thouars, and extorted from Pomare the right of settlement for Frenchmen of every profession. Pritchard opposed this, and caused Pomare to apply for British protection; but this was a failure, and the native chiefs compelled the queen, against her will, to turn to France. A convention was signed in 1843, placing the islands under French protection, the authority of the queen and chiefs being expressly reserved. Dupetit-Thouars now reappeared, and, alleging that the treaty had not been duly carried out, deposed the queen and took possession of the islands. His high-handed action was not countenanced by the French government; but while, on formal protest being made from England, it professed not to sanction the annexation, it did not retrace the steps taken. Two years were spent in reducing the party in the islands opposed to French rule; an attempt to conquer the western islands failed; and at length, by agreement with England, France promised to return to the plan of a protectorate and leave the western islands to their rightful owners. Pomare died in 1877, and her son Atiane (Pomare V.) abdicated in 1880, handing over the administration to France, and in the same year Tahiti, including Eimeo, was proclaimed a French colony. In 1903 the whole of the French establishments in the Eastern Pacific were declared one colony, and the then existing elective general council was superseded by the present administration.

Besides the narratives of early voyages, and general works covering the Society Islands (for which see Pacific), see Vincendon-Dumoulin, Les Iles Tahiti, esquisses historiques et geographiques, Paris, 1844; A. Gonfil, "Tahiti," in La France coloniale, Paris, 1886; H. Le Chartier, Tahiti, Paris, 1887; Monchoisy, La Nouvelle Cythere, Paris, 1888; G. Collingridge, "Who discovered Tahiti?" in Journ. Polynesian Soc., xii., 1903. Among the narrative works of visitors to Tahiti may be mentioned Pierre Loti, Le Mariage de Loti, Paris, 1881; Dora Hort, Tahiti: the Garden of the Pacific, London, 1891.1891.

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