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In 1767 the English navigator Wallis discovered the island of Tahiti. His visit was rapidly followed by those of the French explorer de Bougainville, and Captain James Cook. Between them these men opened up the Pacific. All three captains were overwhelmed by their reception at the hands of the people of Tahiti, and by the gifts showered upon them. Bougainville renamed Otaheite—as it was then called—New Cythera after the island in Greek legend where Aphrodite had emerged from the sea. When Cook left Tahiti at the end of his second mission he wrote in his journal, 'I directed my course to the West and we took our final leave of these happy islands and the good people on them.' Some years later he was to write, 'It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.'
Captain Bligh of the Bounty —that stern judge of men—was if possible more impressed. It had been noted back home that the physique of the people of Tahiti was somewhat superior to those of Europe, and the conjecture was that the breadfruit forming a large part of their diet might have contributed to this fact. Bligh spent five months in Tahiti gathering shoots from the breadfruit tree for transportation to the West Indies in the hope of improving the condition of negro slaves. In Tahiti he has become a kind of folk hero, and the memory of him was that he spent much of his spare time playing with the local children. When he finally sailed he wrote: 'I left these happy islanders with much distress, for the utmost affection, regard and good fellowship was among us during our stay ... their good sense and observations joined with the most engaging disposition in the world will ever make them beloved by all who become acquainted with them as friends.' A few days later the famous mutiny on the Bounty took place, due to the determination of members of his crew not to return to England but to remain and settle on the islands where they had found so much happiness.
The accounts given by the great navigator, and by the lesser sailors and adventurers who followed them of the civilization of the South Seas produced a deep and even dangerous effect in Europe. Certain thinkers, above all Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote of the Noble Savage, seemed inclined to argue the opinion that man had not—as had been so commonly preached and accepted—been 'born in sin', but in his primeval condition was naturally good, and that this original goodness had been concealed due to subjugation of corrupt societies.
A counter-attack by the religious orthodoxy of the day was inevitable. In 1795 the London Missionary Society was formed, its immediate attention focused upon the Pacific; two years later a convict ship bound for Australia put the first missionaries ashore on Tahiti. They, too, were overwhelmed by the warmth of their welcome and since the Tahitians were clearly disposed to give things away they asked for the Bay of Matavai, where they had landed, to be given to them. The request was instantly granted by the local chief, who had no conception of private property in land and was later disconcerted to learn that he and his people were to be debarred from the area.
The evangelists were a strange assortment, picked by the Society on the score of their probable usefulness to uninstructed savages, and they included a harness-maker, bricklayer, farmer, weaver and a butcher and his wife. None of them had ever left England before and few had left their native villages. It was four years before any of them learned enough of the language to preach a sermon to a puzzled though sympathetic audience. The Tahitians built their houses, fed them, and provided them with servants galore, but after seven years not a convert had been made. Children called upon to line up and repeat over and over again this simple verse in Tahitian did so obligingly and with good grace,
No te iaha e ridi mei ei Jehove ia oe? For what is Jehova angry with thee?
No te taata ino wou no to'u hamani ino Because I am evil and do evil.
But another seven years of such attempted indoctrination produced no results, then suddenly the great breakthrough took place.
The device which eventually established the unswerving missionary rule is described in a letter to home by one of the brethren, J. M. Orsmond. 'All the missionaries were at that time salting pork and distilling spirits ... Pomare (the local chief) had a large share. He was drunk when I arrived and I never saw him sober.' Orsmond describes the compact by which Pomare, reduced to an alcoholic, would be backed in a war against the other island chiefs on the understanding that his victory would be followed by enforced conversion. Since Pomare was supplied with firearms to be used against his opponents' clubs, victory was certain. 'The whole nation', Orsmond wrote, 'was converted in a day.'
There followed a reign of terror. Persistent unbelievers were put to death and a penal code was drawn up by the missionaries and enforced by missionary police in the uniforms of Bow Street Runners. It was declared illegal to adorn oneself with flowers, to sing (other than hymns), to tattoo the body, to surf or to dance. Minor offenders were put in the stocks, but what were seen as major infringements (dancing included) were punished by hard labour on the roads. Within a quarter of a century the process by which the native culture of Tahiti had been extinguished was exported to every corner of the South Pacific, reducing the islanders to the level of the working class of Victorian England.
J. M. Orsmond crops up again on Moorea where he is remembered with anguish until this day. After their mass conversion it was hoped that the Tahitians might be induced to accept the benefits of civilization by putting them to work growing sugar cane. A Mr Gyles, a missionary who had formerly been a slave overseer in Jamaica, was brought over, along with the necessary mill to set the industry up. 'Witnessing the cheapness of labour by means of the negroes he thought the natives of these islands might be induced to labour in the same way.' He was mistaken. The enterprise failed, and Mr Orsmond, believing that 'a too bountiful nature on Moorea diminishes men's natural desire to work', ordered all breadfruit trees to be cut down. By this time the population of Tahiti had been reduced by syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox and influenza from the 200,000 estimated by Cook to 18,000. After thirty years of missionary rule, only 6,000 remained. Otto Von Kotzebue, leader of a Russian expedition into the Pacific in 1823, long before the decline had reached its terminal phase, wrote: 'A religion like this which forbids every innocent pleasure and cramps or annihilates every mental power is a libel on the divine founder of Christianity.' The Tahitians, he said, were by nature 'gentle, benevolent, open, gay, peaceful and wholly devoid of envy; they rejoiced in each other's good fortune, and when one received a present, all seemed to be equally gratified'. It grieved him that 'every pleasure should be punished as a sin among a people whom Nature destined to the most cheerful enjoyment'.
John Davies, one of the pioneer missionaries, wrote a history of the Tahiti Mission which he finished in 1851. It was never published in full, probably because it was considered unpublishable by his superiors in the Society, who spoke of 'those facts which it would be advisable to expunge altogether'. Only in 1961 were a number of chapters, put together with selections from missionary correspondence, published under the imprint of the Hakluyt Society. Davies wrote frankly, and from his account the missionaries would hardly have claimed to be saints. They were the sons of an age that has become a byword for hypocrisy and secret indulgence. Behind a sternly teetotalitarian façade the senior missionaries, Messrs Scott, Shelley, Hayward and Nott, wrote Orsmond, ran a still. 'From it the King always drank freely.' Mr Bicknall, a missionary leader, traded in spirits. Despite the Society's written instructions to the missionaries to 'avoid to the utmost every temptation of the Native Women', several of the weaker brethren defected to set up house with them. Mr Simpson, a royal adviser, was charged with fathering a daughter on the wife of a Tahitian judge, and even John Davies had to face accusations of philandering.
Nor were the possibilities of financial gain overlooked. Missionary police being paid from fines (what remained was divided between the missionaries and the judges) were anxious to secure convictions, if necessary, as Mr Davis says in his. History, 'by placing both the guilty and the suspect in the stocks'. The brethren also benefited from 'a system of organized tribute to the London Missionary Society'. In all, they seem to have done fairly well for themselves. Coming in most cases to Tahiti as poor men and receiving no financial support from London, they had become not only all-powerful but affluent. Mr Davies died the possessor of flocks, herds, an orchard and a plantation, 'having', as a fellow missionary described him, 'an abundance of wealth'.
Their power base firmly established in Tahiti, the missionaries moved swiftly to the outer islands. They were at first accompanied by the drunken and ferocious Pomare ('a beastly creature', Orsmond calls him). The methods employed were as before. A local chieftain would be baptized, crowned king, presented with a portrait of Queen Victoria, introduced to the bottle, and left to the work of conversion. In Raratonga chieftains, who opted to carry on as before, abruptly changed their minds at the approach of the missionary forces. In a matter of days huge numbers of islanders were baptized. Hitherto there had been nothing to compare with the success of the Gospel here. It took days to baptize the 1,500 who had chosen Jehovah. Mr Davies wondered if they had been true converts, admitting that Mr Bourne's sermon had been in Tahitian, a language the people could not understand. However a party of idolators continued to hold out and one man in ten of the islanders was conscripted into the missionary police in order to deal with them. A moral code of such strictness was then enforced that a man walking with his arm round a woman at night was compelled to carry a lantern in his free hand. On the island Raiatea a man who forecast the weather by studying the behaviour of fish was treated as a witchdoctor, and put to death.
In this campaign conducted by Pomare and the missionaries it is clear that a process of mutual brutalization had gone on. The missionaries had succeeded in infusing Pomare with a wholly un-Tahitian lust for power, and stupefying him with spirits. But having at first expressed their horror at his many human sacrifices, they were in the end able to overlook these. When he died of an apoplectic fit, John Davies wrote: 'December 7th, 1821 King Pomare departed this life to the great loss of the Islands in general, and the keen regret of the missionaries ... whose steady friend he had been for many years.'
By 1850 the conquest of the Pacific was complete. With the French and British's formal annexation of the islands, references ceased to what The Times had called the missionary protectorate. The colonial officials of both countries who took over were indulgent, and with the development of immunity against imported disease, island populations were on the increase. Breadfruit trees, cut down 'to incite the people to industry by reducing the spontaneous production of the earth', sprang up again everywhere. All-enveloping European clothes, both ridiculous and insanitary in the tropics, would soon be thrown away, and bodies once more exposed to the sun. Peace had returned at last after the wars of religion.
Nevertheless the islanders had changed and would never return to what they had been. Once the lives of the Polynesian and Melanesian people had been intertwined with the processes of creation. They seemed under compulsion to decorate everything, from pieces of odd-shaped driftwood, which they twisted into human and animal shapes and inlaid with mother of pearl, to the enormously tall prows of their canoes into which they carved such intricate designs. But now the mysterious compulsion of art had left them. Of the innumerable masterpieces of carving turned out by the Pacific islanders, only a few examples had escaped the general destruction to become museum pieces. The desire to produce beautiful things has gone—possibly through the long association, transmitted by the missionary teachings, of beauty with evil. Island dances, reduced to grass-skirts and swaying hips, are for tourist consumption, and the islanders' songs seem lugubrious as if they have never freed themselves of the influence of the gloomy hymn-chanting in which they are based.
Missionary effort slackened off by the end of the last century, because for a while the movement had run out of feasible objectives. In the Pacific hundreds of islands had been reached and overrun with such ease, because they had not only become accessible, but because when reached there were no natural obstacles by way of mountains and forests to delay occupation. Assuming no resistance was encountered, a native 'teacher' supported by a half dozen missionary police could take over almost any island in a week. Suddenly the Pacific had become full of the whalers of all nations, and nothing was easier than to take a passage on one of these promising a harvest of souls.
The Pacific operation at an end, there was—at least by comparison—nowhere left to go. Much of the interior of Black Africa remained closed except to the intrepid explorers. In South-East Asia three-quarters of the vast islands of Borneo and New Guinea remained to be explored. South America contained an area larger than Europe covered by Amazonian forests and swamps. Such regions were known to be peopled by numerous tribes, many of which no one had even set eyes on. There were no maps. In South America the evangelists, who had persecuted Catholics in the Pacific, were not made welcome by the Catholic authorities. In South-East Asia, where they faced Muslim competition, whatever work could be done remained slight and peripheral.CHAPTER 2
After 1945 all the barriers began to fall. The resourcefulness of war had invented the means of conquering the jungles. A miscellany of light vehicles were now fitted with the caterpillar tracks that had permitted tanks to roll over all obstacles. Bulldozers and colossal earth-moving machines smashed roads through the trees, and pre-fabricated surfaces could be laid over swampy surfaces and used to build airstrips. Above all, short take-off and landing planes were developed that could be put down in many jungle clearings, even without previous preparation. Immediately the blank spaces on the map began to be filled in, and the exploration teams, pushing on into the jungle while the trees were crashing down only a few hundred yards ahead, moved steadily towards the sources of unexplored wealth.
Many surprises awaited the pioneers of such penetrations of the unknown. Stark-naked Indians surrounded by their children appeared softly among the trees to watch wonderingly and perhaps with concealed sorrow as the great machines devoured their environment. In these first good-natured contacts the clearance crews gave the children sweets, and sometimes opened tins of meat for their parents, and often the Indians presented them with superbly feathered handicrafts in exchange. When the time came to claim their villages and plantations in the transformation of the forest into ranching land, they sometimes showed resentment at the loss of livelihood and homes. The original smiling contacts were at an end, and the men on the bulldozers might from time to time be received with a flight of arrows.
Resistance was punished. Indians attempting to impede development were shot down out of hand and on sight. Later, agencies not only in Brazil, but in the US and in this country, offered patches of safe jungles for investment or 'fun ranches', and in the short-lived fad for such acquisitions a number of these were bought by the personalities of the day. Some of these would have been cleared of their original Indian population—as it was later learned—by such methods as aerial bombardment, poisoning by mixing arsenic with gifts of sweets, the production of local epidemics by the distribution of clothing infected by the microbes of deadly disease, or more commonly by armed expeditions of mercenary gunmen. All these things were eventually made public in a White Paper published by the Brazilian government. Action, however, came late and it will never be known how many thousands or tens of thousands of Indians perished at this time.
Excerpted from The Missionaries by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1988 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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