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Looking across the beach – both ways

Paper presented by Greg Dening, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University
Cook’s Pacific Encounters symposium, National Museum of Australia, 28 July 2006

GREG DENING: I honour the First People on whose land we meet and the First People of the Sea of Islands, which we call the Pacific, whose memory and achievements we celebrate today. I honour the scholars and institutions - the libraries, archives and museums - that make it possible for us to see something of the lives from past millennia. I honour the thousands of citizens who give of their time, energy and money in their committees and volunteer groups who make it possible for us to see these beautiful things.

We are at Matavai, Tahiti. James Cook and the Forsters are there before us in the Resolution and the Adventure. It was looking across this beach at Matavai that the European vision of the Pacific was made - in the famous phrase of that giant of Pacific scholarship, Bernard Smith. It was on this beach that Captain George Wallis on June 27, 1767 claimed possession of the island in the name of King George III, but only after killing what the Tahitians later claimed ‘as many as a shoal of fish and a flock of birds’. It was on this Point Venus that James Cook erected his Fort George for the sighting of the transit of Venus across the sun. It was at Fort George that Cook experienced a little cultural relativism in his looking across the beach to the scandal of all England. At the gate of the fort, the Queen of Tahiti staged the theatre of two young people having sexual intercourse in public. Cook reported that he did not know what it meant but that it seemed to be more customary than lewd - an outrageous suggestion thought England’s morally correct public.

It was here that William Bligh tried to make the first profit on English discoveries. First on the Bounty and then on the Providence, he collected that miracle of free abundance of the Pacific, the breadfruit tree, as subsistence for that awful symbol of un-freedom, the slave plantations of the West Indies. It was at Matavai that the Pandora anchored and Captain Edwards spilt his ‘Pandora’s Box’ to transport the mutineers of the Bounty back for their punishment and hanging. The Navy would send their ships to the end of the earth to ensure that the hedonistic temptations of the Island of Love would not undermine proper order and discipline.

It was on this Point Venus on the Island of Love that the missionaries of the London Missionary Society established their first mission station and preached their first sermon on ‘God is love’ and discovered how difficult it is to translate the ultimate metaphors of believing across languages and cultures.

Perhaps it would surprise us to learn that this iconic beach at Matavai was of black sand. It certainly surprised Marlon Brando when he came to Matavai to film The Mutiny on the Bounty. He immediately had hundreds of tonnes of good white New Jersey sand transported to Matavai so that he could film a true Pacific Island beach.

Of course, Brando wasn’t alone in looking across the beach and seeing what he wanted to see. Go to the National Gallery of Australia and see the panoramic wallpapers of Jean-Gabriel Charvet called The Savages of the Pacific Ocean. Go to the National Library of Australia and, if you have the right credentials and put on white gloves, you might be able to see these costume designs by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg for the 1787 pantomime Omai which, among many other things, celebrated Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific.

You only have to go out into this exhibition at the National Museum to see Loutherbourg’s drawing of the apotheosis of Captain Cook - ‘apotheosis’, making divine, making a god. At the end of the pantomime Omai, a giant canvas of Cook, looking a little apprehensive in the hands of Britannia and fame, descended on the stage. The cast all in the native costumes of all the places Cook visited from Alaska to New Zealand sang as the painting descended:

He came, and he saw, not to conquer but to save;
The Caesar of Britain was he;
Who scorn’d the ambition of making a slave
While Britons themselves are so free.
Now the Genius of Britain forbids us to grieve,
Since Cook, ever honoured, immortal shall live.

King George went to the pantomime several times and melted into tears each time as the painting descended.

Of course, this was a very British way of making a god of Cook. They tended to think the Hawaiians got it right when they seemed to make Cook a god when they called him Lono. Looking across the beach of the past, we often see ourselves: James Cook is us as we want to be in our ideals of science and discovery; James Cook is us as we want to be in our carefulness for less privileged peoples; James Cook is us as we want to be in courage and determination; James Cook is us at that time on the Australian coast as he reflected on what he had done bringing so many material things to the people of this land who seemed so perfectly content without them; and James Cook is us on what he said was the worst day of his life, the day he personally killed a Maori in New Zealand. He wondered what freedom he had had to change an awful present. It was a meditation on bad faith that none of us should escape.

I would now like to turn the gaze around and try and see the islanders looking across their beach. If you and I go to this exhibition and are in awe and wonder at its brilliance and are admiring of its collectors and the collecting, then I would like to speculate on what islanders who hold on to the cultural lines which joins them to these marvellous and beautiful things, experience. They are in touch with the symbolic impact of the colours, textures, shapes and functions and will have sense of triumph in what their people have achieved. Inevitably, they will have a feeling of dispossession. I do not want to focus on that negativity, save to say that it is a reality which in some way we have to share and be sympathetic to.

In the time that I have, I would rather focus on a positivity: if I say that James Cook is in some way us, then this wayfinder, this seafarer with his canoes above his head, is ‘us’ for the islanders. Looking across his beach, he and they see a sea of islands. I would like to tell how that is so.

Let us go back to Matavai and come around the shores to a point, which in 1767 the English of the Dolphin saw and named Marae Point. A marae is a temple. If Cook and the Forsters were collecting natives, as it were, as we see in this exhibition, then the natives were also collecting them, the strangers. In the years 1767 to 1797 this temple on Marae Point was a sort of museum where they collected strangers.

One of the first things they collected, wouldn’t you know, was a portrait of Captain Cook - maybe not this one by John Webber but certainly a painting of Cook by Webber. Mrs Cook didn’t like this painting, but wives tend to be like that. My wife has put the first two paintings of me under the bed. Mrs Cook didn’t like this painting because she thought it was too severe and didn’t represent the gentle father of her children. But Cook’s men probably thought Webber had it right. They used to warn one another when they knew Cook was enraged about something and had begun to dance around the quarterdeck. ‘The old man’, they used to say, ‘was doing a heiva’. A heiva was a very animated Tahitian dance. You can read all about this painting, which ship captains used to sign when they visited Matavai, in that lovely article by Jennie Newell in the catalogue for this exhibition.

Something else was in this museum, the auburn hair of the barber of the Bounty, Richard Skinner. Hair was a most sacred part of any person among the islanders. It was awesome to the Tahitians that someone had so much power over others as to cut their hair. Anyway, his hair was red and therefore tapu, or sacred, in itself. Skinner had come to the Pacific with a set of models of the latest fashion in London wigs. Maybe the Tahitians also put these models in their museum beside the skulls of two murdered Bounty mutineers.

There was an English flag in their museum as well, a large one. Islanders used to process with it over their heads. A beach, of course, is a marginal space between land and sea. The Tahitians used as a ritual space an even more marginal strip where the sea soaked into the sand of the beach. The islanders would process clockwise around the island under the English flag in this soak of the sea: clockwise - right hand to the land, left hand to the sea; right hand - life, authorised power, orderliness, tradition; left hand - death, violent power, disorder, history.

There was an even more precious object in this museum than Cook’s portrait, the mutineers’ skulls, Skinner’s red hair and the flag - William Bligh painted it for us. It was this four yards long feather wrap or maro or male loin cloth. This maro was a symbol of sovereignty, like a crown, and would be wrapped around their chiefs at the most sacred moments in their lives. It was also a sort of historical document. Those yellow feathers are clustered and represent the human sacrifices that were made at the installation of a chief, or at some significant moment in the social and cultural life of the group. The red part is the bunting or ensign with which Captain George Wallis claimed possession of Tahiti in 1767. Somewhere on the maro, too, is Richard Skinner’s red hair - a fact that mortified William Bligh no end to think that one of his mutineers had a place on one of the most sacred objects in all Tahiti.

‘Looming’ is a word from the sea. ‘Glim’ is too. On the horizons of the sea, as we see it from the decks of the ship or from a beach, things loom through the glim. For a moment in the glim’s shimmering light things loom beyond the horizon into the sky. For a moment we see beyond the normal limits of our vision. The island seafarers who people this vast ocean called these signs of things beyond ordinary vision the ‘speech of the sea’.

I would like to introduce you to an islander who, more than most, could see beyond the horizon and listen to the speech of the sea. His name was Tupaia. I don’t have an image of him. This image of a sea expert from the Caroline Islands will have to stand in for Tupaia’s spirit. This seafarer has an intensity of gaze, a gentle dignity and an authority that I attribute to Tupaia.

Tupaia was a priest, a priest of the god of sacrifice Oro. On the day after the terrible destruction when Wallis had raised that red bunting in his act of possession, Tupaia clearly understood its meaning. He offered the English proxy human sacrifices in the form of plantain branches, took Wallis’s bunting down, processed with it to Marae Point and eventually would have it sewn into the maro ‘ura.

[Pointing at map.] The Dolphin was anchored just off here. It ran aground there to their great horror. This is Point Venus and this is the river which was useful for all the watering. The Dolphin saw Tupaia and a crowd of Tahitians processing with the bunting from this direction towards One Tree Hill. They fired their cannons into the processing crowd, the cannon balls bouncing over the ground. We know they wounded one person, Omai, Tupaia’s apprentice. Omai would become more famous than Tupaia. Cook would take him back to England, where he became a great hit for the establishment.

The English then directed their fire to the canoes beached near One Tree Hill and destroyed 40 of them. The maro ‘ura belonged, as we have seen, in the temple and archive of Tahitian islanders’ experiences. That temple was called Taputapuatea - Sacrifices from Abroad. It was built on the point of land opposite a passage in the reef from the open sea that was considered sacred. I was thinking when I was having lunch there that this museum is built on much the same point and may look to a sacred space between the War Memorial and Parliament House.

Wallis’ Dolphin had come through that sacred passage. The temple had two parts - a seaward part and a landward part. George Tobin, one of Bligh’s lieutenants on the Providence, had done watercolours of the two parts. The seaward part was a place of sacrifice. Human sacrifices, pigs and vegetable foods were brought to this place of sacrifice on the prow of Oro’s canoe called ‘Rainbow’. Bligh painted it.

I have a confession to make, I only looked at this last evening - I always realised there was a flag on it which was extended by Tahitian buntings but the flag is a Union Jack. I remember Bligh in his launch as he arrives in Timor is puzzling to himself how he’ll make them recognise that he is English navy. He can’t quite remember the jack and he draws it in this thing. I’m not sure whether he’s done it right there again. Paul, can you give me a date on when the Union Jack came in? Okay, you can tell me later what is wrong with that jack. It might not be the Union Jack.

The landward part of Taputapuatea was the museum part and a place of communion. Most religions that have rituals of sacrifice also have rituals of communions. Bligh also painted this museum section.

The seaward and landward parts were separated by a beach, symbolised by a stone. It was a sort of foundation stone. Tupaia had brought it to Tahiti from Raiatea, an island to the north west of Tahiti. The high chief stood on this stone beach for his installation and was wrapped in the Maro ‘ura. There too he would be offered the eyes of the human sacrifices lying at his feet. Whether he actually ate the eyes or just mouthed the eating of them, we do not know. These sacrifices from the sea were clearly to assuage the chief’s violent power, but when it was finished there was a ritual to bring him back to earth. Semen and faeces were poured over him - again, whether actually or ‘as if’, I cannot say. Then he was told he was the ‘shit of the gods’.

Tupaia, at the time of the Dolphin’s visit, was a priest and political supremo for the most high-born or most powerful woman of Tahiti, Queen Purea. Tupaia built for her a Taputapuatea where she would have expected to house the Maro ‘ura with the English bunting. Tupaia, too, managed all the interaction between the Tahitians and the Dolphin, and did the same for Cook in the Endeavour.

Cook and Joseph Banks clearly saw Tupaia as someone special. Banks famously mused that, as other travellers collected animals like tigers at huge expense, why couldn’t he collect Tupaia? And so he did. There is an empty spot in these Cook collections. It is the spot that Tupaia should fill. He died of scurvy and dengue fever in Batavia on the way home to England. Let me fill that empty spot in this exhibition.

The great cabin of the Endeavour was a remarkable place. A scientific laboratory equipped as no other in the world at the time, an art gallery, a museum, a map room. Tupaia was enchanted by it. He saw James Cook making maps. He too would make maps. He saw Sydney Parkinson painting; he too would paint.

Here is Tupaia’s looming, his vision beyond the horizon, his Sea of Islands. I wish I could express to you how extraordinary it is. Remember James Cook’s Pacific at this time is virtually confined to Tahiti and its neighbours. Tupaia places 74 islands on his image of the Sea of Islands. He named another 60 without placing them. Tupaia’s map covers the central Pacific from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in the west to the Marquesas in the north-east. Of the major groups of islands only New Zealand, Hawaii and the Gambiers are absent. These are often ancient names, not all of them we can recognise but they come from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji over to the Marquesas in the north, covering 7000 kilometres of ocean.

Tupaia didn’t claim to have been to all these islands, only some of them. He’d been to Mopelia about 300 kilometres to the west of Tahiti, taking 30 days of tacking into the wind to get back to Tahiti. That’s the feature of it: to have taken his canoe only 130 kilometres or so to the east but then to come against the wind 30 days of tacking against it. He navigated Cook to Mangaia 600 kilometres to the southeast. His grandfather and father had told him of the rest.

The main debate over this map has been whether it is evidence or not that the islanders had the freedom to sail all through their Sea of Islands. That is not my point. My point is that this map is the Sea of Islands in a cultural sense. This map is a map of sea people’s mythic memory of their greatest cultural triumph, the peopling of the Sea of Islands. Whatever way Tupaia’s grandfather and father knew of these islands, whether canoes from them blew accidentally to Tahiti or whether they were deliberately reached by exploration, every name on Tupaia’s list represents the fact that someone came to Tahiti or back to Tahiti with a story of their origins and their voyagings.

This map, if you like, is a map of the Sea of Island’s dreamings. Look across a beach from a ship, you look through a glass darkly. Every part of what you see is coloured by all that makes you who you are: your language, your institutions, your myths, your memories, your daily experiences. Everything different is shaded into familiarity. The other cannot be made different in any other way than by making it somewhat the same. Look out from a beach to a ship. It is the same. Otherness only makes sense if it is a version of the same.

Those ancestors who made the Sea of Islands dreamings, who came from beyond the sky to found the islands of the Sea of Islands, were called atua. Atua in its various dialect modes has been translated since the entry of strangers into the Pacific as ‘gods’. Let me make a parenthesis to honour another great scholar of the Pacific, Douglas Oliver, whose name, together with Harry Maude’s of this city and Bernard Smith, should be mentioned whenever an event concerning Pacific scholarship of the stature of this exhibition is our focus. Douglas Oliver translates atua not as ‘god’ but as ‘godliness’.

In the Sea of Islands godliness was not necessarily a totally ‘other-worldly’ characteristic. Godliness was also a ‘this-worldly’ characteristic of humans. Chiefs were atua - godly; priests and sorcerers were atua - godly; those first-comer ancestors were atua - godly. Here in this world of waves and winds and storms, why wouldn’t it be godly to hear the speech of the sea so expertly as to guide a people from their ancient homeland to an island which would be their new home for millennia? I’m going to tell this story in a minute, but just let me savour it for a while. Two thousand years ago a canoe reached 7000 kilometres across the sea to what we’ve called the Marquesas; they call themselves Fenua’enata, the land of the people. [Points to map] You’ll notice that this voyage 2000 years ago goes over to the north bypassing all the central Pacific. It’s only after they get there that they begin to tumble back into the central Pacific and up to Hawaii and to Erkwost (Easter Island). Let me savour it for a minute: 2000 years ago a canoe reached 7000 kilometres from Hava’iki to Samoa and Tonga, to the Marquesas, the land of the people. That canoe had in the minds and bodies of the men and women who came with it the language, the cultural life, the mythical beliefs and the material objects which became the Sea of Islands people’s signature on their world from Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. All the objects in this exhibition are a symphony of variations on what came in that single canoe. That’s the miracle of it. There isn’t any other thing that can happen than in that canoe of 12 or 15 people comes the language, the material and the religious beliefs which then diversifies into all the places where it goes through all the Pacific.

When the islanders looked across their beach at the coming of strangers of the likes of James Cook and see what they say to be atua, they are associating the godliness of these strangers from over the horizon in their ships with the godliness of their ancestors who came from across the horizon in their canoes. If I dare to try and enter Tupaia’s mind with empathy and honour, I think of his map as a tribute to the godliness of all those founding moments of the Sea of Islands.

Let me try and tell you what a cultural triumph Tupaia’s map of the Sea of Islands is. 40,000 years ago a sea people had reached as far as the eastern headlands of New Caledonia, Santa Cruz and the Bismark Archipelago. For 35,000 to 37,000 years they faced that vast empty space of the ocean to the east of them. Later islanders would call this homeland Pulotu. Three thousand years ago they reached out to Samoa, Tonga and Fiji and made this their homeland, Hawa’iki, for 1000 years. So they controlled these seas here around Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, sailing the 300 or 400 miles between each of those islands of open ocean easily and constantly.

Two thousand years ago there was perhaps the most remarkable canoe voyage in all human history: a double canoe with men and women, male and female chicken, pigs, dogs and all the vegetables that made an island habitable sailed from this Hawa’iki 7000 kilometres on a northward track to the Marquesas. Then in the next centuries their canoes reached out to Hawaii, Easter Island and even the South American coast. They spilled down into the central and south Pacific to Tahiti and New Zealand.

We go into the exhibition and we say to ourselves ‘Cook and the Forsters are us in our idealistic identities’. Islanders go into the exhibition and say, ‘These beautiful things are us, these efforts to make metaphors of cultural life and belief translated into the material things. These are us.’ What they won’t see is what they would think to be quintessentially them - the canoe, the va’a. Above all, the millennia have given this sea people an artefact of cultural genius, their va’a, their canoe. Their va’a is a thing imprinted with millennia of experience as generations find the woods, the fibres, the resins that pull and strain, resist work fatigue and rotting, seal. Their va’a is a thing of very precious design of curves that give strength, of asymmetric shapes that play wind and water against one another, of structured balances that avoid congestion or strain, of aerodynamics that free it to fly along the wind.

It is the way of such artefacts of cultural genius that the real genius lies in simplicity. For the va’a, three things made it unique in the inventiveness of humankind in mastering the sea environment: a lug, a triangular sail and an outrigger. The lug, a projection on the inside of the hull perforated so that cordage could be pulled through, makes it possible to compress all parts of the va’a together. The triangular sail, without masts or stay, pivoting on its head, held high by a prop, creates a self–steering vessel without need of rudder or pulleys. These days we see the windsurfers exploit its simplicity and speed. The outrigger on the windward side, fitted to the hull by means of the lug, gives stability and manoeuvrability. The double va’a, the va’a tauna, removed the need of the outrigger and by means of a platform over the two hulls, perhaps four metres wide and 13 metres long, allows the vessel to carry 50 to 80 people, a shelter, a sand fire-pit and a cargo of up to 30,000 kilograms.

The people of the Sea of Islands have said over the past 30 years that what is really us is not to be seen in museums of dead things as much as in the living museum of the re-enactment of the voyagings that have peopled the Sea of Islands. For 30 years now the sea people have pulled on their deep time consciousness and have been voyaging the Sea of Islands in re-enactment of the voyages of the people of old. They have sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back, from Tahiti to Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa. Their most recent triumphs have been their voyages from Fenua’enata to Hawaii. There are now six voyaging canoes on the Sea of Islands. These 30 years of this odyssey have had their pain and conflict, their tragedies and failures, their political machinations, their greed and their absurdities. But they have also been courageous overall triumphs tapping a wellspring of cultural pride in a sense of a continuing voyage tradition. These voyages have been the theatre of the Sea of Islands these sea people have made.

Tupaia, as he travelled with Cook on the Endeavour, gave the great man lessons on the protocols he should obey in the encounter with island peoples. He urges Cook to show reverence and respect in his body postures when he arrives on the beach. He should bring gifts, not trade. Both wealth and power in the islands is in giving. He should show obeisance to the titles of ownership of the land where they reside in their sacred places. How Cook forgot Tupaia’s advice until the last beach he crossed is another story.

Tupaia the painter - what an extraordinary artefact of the encounter of natives and strangers this is. As no-one else among the islanders, Tupaia looks across his beach and puts what he sees into watercolours. We have his map painting of Taputapuatea, with its division of seaward and landward and with a rainbow in there somewhere. He draws the seaward sacrificial space separate from the landward feastings and memorialising space, with Oro’s canoe, rainbow, in between. We have his depiction of long-distance navigational canoes and, in the background, the vegetable foods they brought: plantain, coconuts and breadfruit. We see the meeting place where their stories are told, and we have the war canoes. I imagine this in the Endeavour’s great cabin and Tupaia not only painting and drawing it but, as we see in Bank’s account, telling us all its parts as it were. That’s where his information comes from and he leaves the drawing for it.

We have the theatre of Tahitian memories: the musicians and the dancers. When Tupaia is in New Zealand, we have the theatre of exchange, with the prominent depiction of the eye, the source of power, and an indication of the red tapu colour of the cooked lobster that the things of the sea were owned. I want to talk with the New Zealanders about this. I’ve written letters to them. You might remember that Cook is in great trouble in Cooktown when the Aborigines burn fire around him, and the reason was that Cook was a thief. He had taken the turtles which were owned quite specifically by people. And clearly this is a tapu object, quite owned. The English and the other voyagers never learned that the sea wasn’t a thing which was open for them that they were thieves.

And of course the Aborigines on the Australian coast. This is a wondrous image by one Indigenous people of another. On the Australian coast, Tupaia is intrigued by the primitiveness of the canoes and the utter nakedness of the people. And he sees people’s eyes. He always sees the eyes.

All the way from Tahiti to Batavia, in whatever direction the Endeavour sailed or whatever the foreign lands they reached, Tupaia always knows the direction of home and its distance. When they reached Batavia, Tupaia noticed immediately that the many different peoples, different in their colours and their appearance, wore their own distinctive native costumes. Tupaia looked at himself and saw himself in the slops of ship’s clothing. All the voyage long he had seen himself reflected in the eyes of the Endeavour’s crew and officers. He saw their scorn for the savagery they saw in him, their contempt for his difference. In these last days of his life, he throws the ship’s slops away and dresses himself in his native red tapa cloth. This is his last gesture of identity. He dies wrapped in the red tapa of his chiefly and priestly status.

Otherness is all around us in brilliant array in this exhibition. In the mirror of that otherness we see ourselves.

QUESTION: While you were showing those maps and talking about the voyages in the Pacific some 2000 to 4000 years ago I was looking for a reference. I recorded Emily Gressingdon. If I race down to the library would I be able to get some reference of that work or would you have another recommended reference?

GREG DENING: There is a wonderful book that has just been written called Beach Crossings, Voyaging Across Times, Cultures and Self. Its author happens to be standing in front of you. It’s the end paper for that.

QUESTION: You mentioned the voyages they made to South America. What’s the evidence for it and were they return voyages?

GREG DENING: Yes, more likely to be return voyages. My evidence for that is Patrick Hirsch, who I take as the greatest archaeologist in the Pacific and an expert on voyaging. It’s his firm conviction that they reached somehow the South American coast and brought back the sweet potato and with the sweet potato - Archae, Parchae[?], whoever he was, Thor Heyerdahl, but he’s wrong.

Date published: 8 September 2008