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Encounters with wondrous things: the historical significance of the Cook-Forster collection

Paper presented by Paul Turnbull, Griffith University
Cook’s Pacific Encounters symposium, National Museum of Australia, 28 July 2006

PAUL TURNBULL: I am going to begin with a shameless puff for the South Seas project organised by the National Library of Australia [http://southseas.nla.gov.au]. Many of the images that I will be talking about are actually online. You can have a look at them your leisure through the South Seas website. To put this into context, much of what I’m going to talk about is Matavai Bay on the north-east coast of Tahiti. On the evening of 12 April 1769, Cook came to anchor in Matavai Bay. It was warm. The sky was clear. Light breezes played across the water. Cook had reason to feel relieved and to take quiet pleasure on his arrival, for the voyage from England across the great and still largely unknown South Seas had been remarkably easy. The Endeavour had reached Strait Le Maire, the starting point for ships attempting the open-sea route around Cape Horn on 20 January 1769, and begun tracking northwards into the Pacific by the end of the month.

A number of Endeavour’s crew had been on the Dolphin under Samuel Wallis when two years earlier Wallis chose to enter the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan, rather than braving the open-sea passage around Cape Horn. That Commodore George Anson had tried to do with a squadron of seven vessels some 30 years previously, when aiming to seize the Spanish treasure galleon that made the annual voyage from Acapulco across the Pacific to Manila in the Philippines. It took Anson’s squadron nearly three months to round Cape Horn in conditions that haunted those who survived that voyage for the rest of their lives. One survivor of the voyage wrote:

Methinks I still hear the roaring of the winds, and see the sea rising into mountains, the ships clambering as if they were hills, and then sinking into the most frightful valley, the rigging torn from the mast, and the sails split into a thousand pieces shivering in the wind. Wildness and despair in every man’s countenance, each thinking that this moment would be his last.

In choosing the Strait of Magellan rather than the open-sea passage into the Pacific Wallis played safe, but his men nonetheless suffered almost perpetual danger of shipwreck for nearly four months. The Dolphin limped into the Pacific with its crew weakened by hypothermia, dysentery and scurvy, and forced to repair as best they could under sail the damage caused to Dolphin’s hull and superstructure by 15 weeks of unrelenting gales and heavy seas. By the time they sighted Tahiti, the voyagers were desperate for water and were desperate for food. Wallis himself was very bad, so sick that he was not able to keep the deck by the time the vessel sought safe anchorage off Matavai. By way of contrast, Cook recorded in his journal:

Entering the Pacific without ever being brought once under our close reefed topsails since we left Strait La Maire, a circumstance that perhaps never happened before to any ships in those seas so much dreaded for hard gales of wind and with its dangerously unpredictable weather and seas off its rocky shores.

The ease of the voyage from Strait La Maire all the way to Tahiti meant that the Endeavour’s crew arrived in general very healthy and ready to ensure the successful observation of the transit of Venus, one of the main reasons of Cook’s voyage into the South Seas. Regardless of how Cook interpreted his good fortune, he knew that successfully observing the Venusian transit hinged on securing friendly relations with the Maohi peoples whose beach they would cross the following day. Strict rules were read to the assembled ship’s company the next morning governing trafficking with the natives. Cook was determined that good value in water, food and materials for the maintenance of his vessel would be had for the limited stock of trade goods he carried. The type and value of goods exchanged would be strictly policed so as to avoid bringing on ‘confusion and quarrels between us and the natives’, as had happened in the course of the Dolphin’s visit two years before.

Cook was especially mindful that some two years before a large fleet of war canoes had greeted the Dolphin shortly after it had found safe anchorage. The attack had only been repelled by Wallis ordering the ship’s great guns to fire on the canoes. Maohi gathered on the beach causing what George Robinson, master of the Dolphin, later recalled was ‘such terror amongst the poor, unhappy crowd that it would require the pen of a Milton to describe, therefore too much for mine.’ Wallis’s expedition was subsequently to land and manage to establish peaceable relations with Maohi, but interactions between voyagers and islanders remained tense. It was only high-ranking Maohi seeking to exploit the voyagers’ presence and power in war for their own political ambitions that curtailed further violence.

Cook’s orders governing trade and exchange were pragmatic in intent and reflective of the importance of commerce, trade and exchange in shaping British perceptions of self, community and nation by the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Capitalist forms of production and consumption had shaped the lives and outlook of Britons since the early thirteenth century, but what was new and astonishing about Britain in the eighteenth century was the sheer expansion and rate of acceleration of its market economy, especially from the mid-century onwards. ‘There was never, from the earliest ages’, wrote Samuel Johnston in a preface to a very well-selling Dictionary of Trade and Commerce published in 1761 by Richard Rolt, ‘a time in which trade so much engaged the attention of mankind, or commercial gain was sought with such general emulation’.

Britain’s economic dynamism during the course of the eighteenth century owed much to success in colonial ambitions. It was fuelled by commerce in an international setting and was an acutely competitive affair in which the full power of the states competing were exerted to strengthen the national economy. Through the course of the eighteenth century, English, French and Dutch commercial ambitions were the direct cause of international rivalry and conflicts, notably the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 and the American War of Independence of 1776-1782. Indeed, it was the loss of the American colonies that had led to British national interest being seen to depend on the exploitation of resources in Asia and of course, as reflected in the aims of Cook’s voyages - the Pacific.

Within British urban centres and provincial towns new patterns of consumption and consumerism arose as the purchasing power of merchants, artisans and skilled labourers grew. Many artisans came to enjoy incomes allowing them to furnish their dwellings with a wide range of material goods that had traditionally only been affordable by wealthy merchants and the landed gentry. Middle-class Britons in the years between 1714 and 1800 took pride in possessing objects, though this materialism is interesting. It was a materialism that was outgoing and social: they loved poring over factories; they loved inspecting machinery; and they were never happier than when peering down microscopes, going to galleries or collecting curios.

Those in the middle classes especially sought to emulate their social betters in spending on fashionable clothing. Much as in our own time, the consuming passions of eighteenth-century Britons were intimately connected to their social aspirations. London in the eighteenth century was a city of riches. It was a city conscious of its rising status and eager to clothe its naked wealth in the elegant and respectable garments of good taste. But this taste was not innocent. The getting and enjoying of material goods and cultural activities functioned so as to affirm status within a society that was undergoing momentous economic and social change but which in its institutional framework remained an intensely hierarchical state grounded in deference to established privilege.

For the middle classes especially but also the more progressively minded amongst the landed elite who still ruled eighteenth-century Britain, trade and economic exchange were seen as the means of achieving orderly social progress and political reform. They looked on commerce as generating new forms of social interaction and cooperation, bringing about refinement in manners, civic stability and commitment to the wellbeing of the nation in an era of growing international rivalry. Indeed, within intellectual circles, commerce was seen as the source of Britain’s emergence to national greatness. But commerce did not simply signify trade. For eighteenth-century Britons it suggested a definitive stage in the progress of mankind, as evidenced in their leadership in western Europe and the manifold social and cultural consequences thereof. The eighteenth century had its anthropologists, its economists and its sociologists, though they were not called by those names in those days. Most of them agreed that they lived in a commercial age, an era in which the processes of production and exchange had dramatically increased the wealth, improved the living standards, and transformed the mores of Western societies still to be found in much of Europe and with still more primitive societies discovered overseas.

The conceptual sophistication of British thinking about commerce is reflected in the receptivity of educated Britons by the mid-eighteenth century to a new kind of intellectual inquiry that has come to be known now as philosophical or conjectural history. Particularly influential writers in this regard were the Scots historians and political economists, notably David Hume, William Robertson, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson – Ferguson above all else whose influential Essay on the History of Civil Society was published to widespread acclaim in 1767, the year before Cook and Banks sailed for the Pacific. Critical of conjectural accounts based on a priori and other ways speculative reasoning as to the origins of social institutions, these authorities were convinced that surviving ancient historical texts and what since the early seventeenth century had become a wealth of testimony in voyaging and exploration journals suggested that the varying degree of civilisation of different nations corresponded to their engaging in particular forms of economic activity. The task of the philosophic observer of humanity was to scrutinise historical evidence and testimony derived from exploration to understand how and why some societies had reached higher stages of economic development and social refinement.

By the 1760s, the writings particularly of Ferguson were largely responsible for wide acceptance in British intellectual circles of what, for the times, was a daringly materialist view of history, indeed one that some 80 years later was to captivate the interest of a young man called Karl Marx. These writers postulated that peoples of all nations had the capability to develop similar, increasingly sophisticated and beneficial forms of social organisation, provided they were able to exploit natural resources and other environmental advantages. The history of humanity was envisaged as the story of the dispersal of tribes with a common ancestry whose experiences were found to be recorded in scripture and other equally ancient historical sources. Social and environmental factors had led to the descendants of these peoples migrating to find new grazing lands. Some eventually came to adopt agriculture and, in the case of those peoples who established themselves in western Europe, to engage in forms of commerce productive of new levels of material and moral progress. The fate of others, however, was to inhabit countries so inhospitable that they were forced to abandon pastoralism for hunting and gathering. The savage life of the chase was presumed to have left these peoples neither time nor resources to preserve other than the barest rudiments of religious sensibilities or civilisation. They became peoples fallen into historical amnesia until their encounter with European voyagers and travellers.

British thinking about the relations between history, commerce and civilisation provides the context in which to understand why the Royal Society should take such care to instruct James Cook before embarking in 1768 on what was to be the first of three momentous voyages of discovery in Oceania. He was charged to ‘observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and Endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them’. He was also to give the people he encountered in the South Seas presents of ‘such trifles as they may value’ and to invite them to ‘traffick while showing them every kind of civility and regard’. The implicit assumption was that, while commerce licensed colonial ambition, it equally bestowed upon Britons responsibility for the enlightenment of the peoples they encountered in the Pacific.

Consider in this regard Benjamin West’s famous portrait of the young Joseph Banks as triumphant explorer of the South Seas. In the painting Banks stands surrounded by objects from Aotearoa [New Zealand] and the Society Islands in front of a raised curtain styled to represent tapa [bark] cloth. At his feet lie a Tahitian adze and one of the many presses of botanical specimens gathered during the course of the Endeavour voyage opened to display a new species of flax, the most commercially valuable plant discovered in the course of Cook’s first journey. Yet the eye is drawn to Banks garbed in a flaxen cloak fringed with dog hair. We can view Banks as having assumed the mantle of authority in Polynesian society, but equally we can see the portrait as visually epitomising the voyager as philosophical historian. Banks has literally assumed the mantle of authority in Polynesian society but seems to have transcended it through being able to explain the nature of that customary authority and its symbolic expression through the artistry of the cloak from the vantage point of his new stage of understanding of the course of human progress that has been enabled by commerce.

The journal Banks kept during the course of the Endeavour voyage similarly illustrates in obvious and also many subtle ways how commercial ambition and philosophical curiosity were conceptually interrelated in motivating the voyagers in trade and exchange with the peoples of the South Seas. With the aid of fellow naturalist Daniel Solander, Banks oversaw the cataloguing, and qualitatively assessed in his journal the horticultural potential of fruits and vegetables forming the basis of the diet of the Maohi peoples of the Society Islands. Of the breadfruit in particular he noted its similarity to the potato, which by the late 1760s was increasingly perceived by Britain’s landed gentry as a crop ideally suited to enclosed cultivation, with growing markets as fodder for cattle and poultry in the countryside and for human consumption in urban centres.

Similarly, Banks took care to describe at length how Maohi fashioned tapa bark cloth, specimens of which incidentally were amongst the earliest items from Polynesia to find their way into the Göttingen collection. What particularly struck Banks was that Maohi knew how to dye tapa cloth in various colours, including a colour ‘most beautiful - I would almost venture to say a more delicate colour than any we have in Europe’. This was done using the fruits of a small fig tree native to the South Pacific, now commonly known at the dye fig.

Though Banks was concerned to appraise the commercial potential of Maohi husbandry and material culture, we find his observations interspersed with, and often subordinate to, philosophical curiosity about the manners, customs and history of Maohi. Writing on breadfruit and coconut he was drawn to speculate on the social consequences of benevolent nature supplying Maohi with not only necessaries but with an abundance of superfluities. Banks was equally drawn to explore how the production, wearing and exchange of tapa and personal ornaments was bound by strict convention and ritual, some clearly analogous to clothing’s symbolic affirming of rank and power in his own society, others signifying things that he could only dimly grasp and yet hungered to understand.

Perhaps the most remarkable illustration of Banks’ fascination as to the symbolic meanings of Maohi material culture was his response to encountering at Matavai one of the elaborate heva or mourning costumes worn by the male kinsperson of high-ranking Maohi men or women in a ritual occurring several days after their death. The heva was being prepared in this instance for Tupura’a i Tamaita, a close ally of Tutaha, then chief of the Pare-Arue District. Tupura’a had strategically established friendship with Cook and Banks and eased the voyagers’ routine acquisition of food, resulting in Banks lightheartedly nicknaming him Lycurgus after the semi-legendary Spartan lawgiver. Tupura’a was to be chief mourner for a female relative whose body had been laid, as funerary custom dictated, inside a specially built structure called a fare tupapa’u or ghost house. In the case of some high-ranking male chiefs, their corpse would lay within a ghost house for a year or longer.

As can be seen by viewing the heva that is now among the treasures of the Göttingen collection the costume consists of a number of elaborately decorated parts, including white tapa robes, a feather and netting mantle, and a striking headpiece of pearl and turtle shell adorned with tail feathers of the sacred tropic bird. Each part of the costume affirms the high standing of the deceased and their kin’s close proximity to, and favour with, Maohi gods. Göttingen’s mourning heva is only one of six more or less complete surviving examples of the costume, and its history has been written about extensively by Adrienne Kaeppler.

One of the most detailed and informative accounts of the ceremony for which the heva was worn is that recorded by James Morrison, who served as boatswain’s mate aboard the Bounty on William Bligh’s ill-fated voyage of 1787-89 to collect breadfruit from Tahiti for planting in the West Indies. After the mutiny of April 1789, Morrison chose to remain on Tahiti where he lived for six months as a member of the entourage of Tu Nui e A’ai Te Atua, commonly known as Pomare I. By that time Pomare had become paramount chief of the Pare-Arue region. Morrison wrote how the chief mourner would appear in the costume, armed with a pike edged with shark’s teeth and accompanied by up to 50 young men and women wearing only a tapa loincloth, their bodies and faces blackened with candlenut soot and overlaid with ochre decorations. The chief mourner’s entourage was also armed with spears and clubs and according to Morrison:

… would parade about the district like madmen and will cut, beat or even kill any person who offers to stand in the way. Therefore when anyone sees them coming they fly to the Morai, it being the only place where they can be safe or get refuge from the rage of the mourners who pursue all they see. The Morai alone they cannot enter. And while this ceremony lasts, which is sometimes three weeks or a month, they pay no respect to persons. Nor are the chiefs safe from their fury unless they take sanctuary in the Morai. The women and children are forced to quit the place as they cannot take refuge in the Morai.

Using oral histories recorded by her grandfather, the missionary JM Orsmond between 1817 and the 1840s, Teuira Henry explained that, in the intensity of their grief, mourners were vulnerable. They exposed themselves to possession by unruly and possibly malevolent spirits from the realm of the dead. If this happened, they were viewed as being incapable of being held responsible for seriously wounding or even killing those they encountered in the course of enacting the ceremony. Further, Henry’s description of the mourning ceremony suggests that, like popular ceremonies occurring during carnival and other festive occasions in medieval and early modern Europe, symbolic subversion of social hierarchy, relaxation of law and custom had the potential to cause real political upheaval. As Henry observes, mourning ceremonies for high-ranking title holders saw mourners enter neighbouring tribal districts, which required leading men of chiefly rank to end the ceremony by what was supposed to be ritualised hand-to-hand fighting. But as Henry tells us, in many instances when this happened, when the mourning ceremony traversed into another district, it became a very serious business particularly when allied parties joined in. Sometimes, she writes, whole districts were involved, many being killed before the chiefs interposed to restore order.

Banks learnt that Tupura’a, a close ally of the chief of the Pare-Arue district, was to be the chief mourner for a female relative. Having had the purpose of the heva explained by Tupura’a as best gesture and limited understanding of each other’s language allowed, Banks pressed Tupura’a to not simply witness the mourning ceremony but to actually participate as one of the mourners’ entourage. By this time the leadership of the Endeavour expedition was well aware that Maohi believed in a seamless continuum of ancestral creation, life and translation into a realm of death. Spiritual entities were seen as active in every aspect of nature and human activity. Their presence and agency could be a force for good or ill, and at no time more than when Maohi reached the predestined time (poi) when the life force or soul (varua) began to be drawn from the body (tino) by spirits. Banks doubtless saw the impending mourning ceremony as offering a unique chance to gain insights into Maohi religious beliefs, knowledge of which might yield important clues to Maohi history when compared with ancient European and Asian religious traditions and folklore.

Whatever Tupura’a made of Banks’ curiosity, he agreed to his participating in the ceremony, most likely seeing it as a way of further strengthening the mana that the friendship he had assiduously cultivated with the voyagers had given his politically ambitious family. Further, what Banks subsequently wrote in his journal about the event suggests that Tupura’a took care to orchestrate the ceremony so that it did not surprise and alarm members of the Endeavour party ashore or implicate Banks in any violence that might occur.

Banks failed to gain deeper insight into Maohi religious beliefs by participating in the mourning ceremony, nor despite his best efforts could he get Tupura’a or any other high-ranking Maohi willing to exchange heva for any kind or amount of European objects. Yet his description of the ceremony and the engravings of the fantastical dress of the chief mourner, as they were to appear in John Hawkesworth’s official account of the voyage published in 1773, were to capture the imagination of educated Europeans. The costumed chief mourner was to be one of the widely circulating images of Tahitian life in Europe during the last third of the eighteenth century. The chief mourner was even brought to life on the London stage during the 1780s in the spectacular and hugely popular pantomime Omai or A Trip Round the World designed by the romantic painter and occultist Phillipes Jacques de Loutherbourg.

Subsequent voyagers and missionaries fared little better than Banks in understanding the meanings of the ceremony and were not able to say much beyond speculating - as did Georg Forster, naturalist aboard Cook’s second voyage - that this singular custom appeared, and I quote Forster:

… calculated to inspire horror, and the fantastical dress in which it is performed has so much of that strange and terrifying shape which our nurses attribute to ghosts and goblins that I am almost tempted to believe some ridiculous superstition lurks under this funeral rite. The spirit of the deceased, exacting a tribute of grief and tears from its survivors and therefore wounding them with the shark’s teeth would not be an idea too extravagant for men to have adopted.

In other words, Forster’s account here is very much locating that within this kind of discourse of philosophical conjectural history. Where Forster and others had better luck than Banks was being able to acquire examples of the mourner’s costume. As Forster was to recall in his published account of voyaging on Cook’s second expedition, ‘A number of complete mourning dresses, not less than ten, were purchased by different persons on board and brought to England’. Moreover, it was not just the leadership of the expedition who managed to procure heva. Forster tells us that even one common sailor was able to profit handsomely from the great curiosity the costume had aroused in English intellectual circles by selling one on his return for what for that sailor was the astonishing sum of twenty-five guineas.

Forster was surprised though delighted that leading Maohi were now willing to part with heva. But what was intriguing was that high-ranking Maohi were ready to part with heva for red parrot feathers, a considerable quantity of which the voyagers had acquired in the Tongan archipelago. As another member of the expedition was to recall, news that the voyagers possessed this cache of red feathers spread quickly throughout the north-west districts of Tahiti and ‘all the principal people of both sexes endeavoured by every means in their power to ingratiate themselves into our favour in order to obtain these valuable Jewels’.

It soon became apparent to the voyagers that Maohi regarded red feathers as especially desirable offerings to their gods, but what they couldn’t appreciate was that they were amongst the most sacred objects of the Maohi prior to the coming of Europeans. Feathers were essential for prayer. They were critical for gaining the attention of gods and spirits and to respectfully acknowledge their presence and impulsive, volatile agency in all aspects of Maohi life. Red feathers, however, were essential for performing the most sacred of ceremonies at principal marae and in the continuing adornment by successive generations of highest-ranking chiefly families with maro, the long waist belts of tapa which were infused with the power of the gods. These were generally worn by first-born males who by their ancestry could claim inheritance to the dynasty’s kin title.

Further, if we look at descriptions of the religious use of red feathers by early voyagers and compare this with what appears in oral histories recorded by missionaries in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it would appear that in the five years since Cook’s first landing at Matavai the play of religious innovation and political ambition amongst Tahiti’s chiefly dynasties appears to have rendered the preciousness of red feathers such that high-ranking Maohi were now prepared to trade things of great power such as heva costumes to secure them.

As we view the many beautiful items from Tahiti within the Göttinen Cook-Forster collection I would argue it is important to appreciate them as the products of societies that were as dynamic and as susceptible to the effects of historical change and cultural innovation as much as those of eighteenth-century Europe. Just as Britons in the century or so before Cook departed for the South Seas had experienced great social and political change, so too had Maohi. It would appear that the desire of Maohi to procure red feathers from Cook’s party in 1774 was due to religious and political instabilities on Tahiti having become more pronounced in the time since Cook’s first stay on the island in 1769.

By the time Cook first encountered Maohi, the cult of the war-god Oro had become well established on Tahiti. Originating on the island of Raiatea, the cult may have gained some Tahitian converts between 1650 and 1700. However, the rise of the Oro cult on Tahiti appears to have been linked to the conquest of Raiatea on the island of Tahaa by the Hau Fa’naui, the most powerful tribal polity on the island of Borabora. This invasion appears to have occurred some time in the early 1760s. Oro continued to be worshipped at the great Taputapuatea Marae on Opoa, but the power of the district’s sacred chief and priests was greatly reduced. According to tradition, the god’s sacred images and maro were brought to Tahiti, and a centre of religious knowledge established shortly afterwards on Tahiti by the Opoan chief Toa-te-manava.

Oro worship appears thereafter to have been integral to interdynastic ambitions and conflict in the wake of the changes in political fortune and alliances after the triumph of the Hau Fa’naui. Strategic marriages took place now between leading chiefly families on the Leeward and Windward Islands. Dynasties sought to legitimate their titles through consecrating familial alliances before Oro and affirming the sacredness of their kin titles by association with Marae Taputapuatea on Opoa.

Red feathers were profoundly sacred to the worshippers of Oro. Maohi believed the god appeared in various forms, the most important being the great frigatebird or what Europeans called the man-of-war bird, the males of which species have a striking inflatable red throat pouch. To’o, sacred images of Oro, were carved from ironwood and covered with braided cord to which red feathers were attached. Similarly, the sacred maro, the sacred tapa girdles of the god, that were said to have come to Tahiti from Opoa, these too were adorned with red feathers.

What we are seeing is a complexity of politics at this time. By the time of Cook’s arrival quite clearly there was much going on in terms of political innovation. In Pare-Arue, the chief Tutaha was greatly concerned to enhance his spiritual power so as to capitalise upon the failed political ambitions of Purea, known formally to Maohi as Te Vahine Airoro atua i Ahurai i Farepua, a high-ranking woman whom Wallis had mistakenly assumed was the Queen of Tahiti.

Purea had sought to enlist Wallis in making her only son Teri’irere the pre-eminent chief on the islands of Tahiti and Mo’orea. After the Dolphin’s departure, Purea and her husband Tevahitua, the paramount chief of the Papara district on the south-west coast of Tahiti, audaciously sought to establish his son Teri’irere’s chiefly power by investing him with a new ancestral title sanctified by the war god Oro. To this end, they exploited their authority over the people of the Papara district to construct Mahaiatea, the largest and most imposing marae ever built on Tahiti in honor of Oro. Banks visited Marae Mahaiatea in late July 1769, and in his journal wrote of having been ‘struck with the sight of a most enormous pile, certainly the masterpiece of Indian architecture in this Island so all the inhabitants allowed’. He found it almost beyond belief that Indians could raise so large a structure without the assistance of iron tools to shape their stones or mortar to join them.

On the structure’s completion, the young Teri’irere was invested with the new title, which may actually have involved his being wrapped in the maro ura, or red feather girdle of Oro, which had been brought from Marae Taputapuatea to Tahiti. Purea and Tevahitua also declared a rahui or spiritual prohibition of various everyday activities over the length and breadth of Tahiti. This, however, provoked the anger of ruling dynasties in neighbouring districts. Worse, the rahui led Vehiatua i te Mata’i, the paramount chief of the Taiarapu Peninsula, to invade Papara in late 1768. Tevahitua and his allies amongst the chiefly families of the north-western districts of the island proved no match for Vehiatua. Tevahitua had to flee with Purea and their son into the mountains after a bloody clash in which many were slain, and villages in the vicinity of Marae Mahaiatea were looted and burnt.

As Banks recorded in his journal, on returning from the marae he took a path following the shoreline ‘where under our feet were numberless human bones chiefly ribs and vertebrae’. Tevahitua and Purea never regained their former power, though Purea worked hard to restore Teri’irere’s prestige, courting as best as she could the friendship of Cook and Joseph Banks. However, she and Tevahitua never regained their former power becoming, as Georg Forester rather portentously reflected of his meeting them during Cook’s second expedition, ‘living examples of the instability of human grandeur’.

Oral tradition recorded by the missionary Robert Thomson in the 1790s tells of Tevahitua and his allies having escaped Vehiatua, bringing away with them the priest of Oro who had charge of the sacred and royal girdle and various other relics brought with the idol from Raiatea. These were safely deposited in the marae at Atehuru. There they were to become the focus of new ambitions unleashed by Tevahitua’s downfall and with it the dissolution of longstanding dynastic alliances. Foremost amongst these new ambitions was a bid by Tutaha to establish his nephew, Teu, as paramount chief of the island.

However, on returning to Tahiti on his second voyage in August 1773, Cook learnt that Tutaha had been killed battling warriors from Taiarapu by Vehiatua, with the result that political power on the island was now fairly equally divided amongst the leading chiefly dynasties. It was this that was to set the stage for further changes in dynastic fortunes - further warfare, further complex, further new alliances, further truces, further warfare - a complex history of shifting alliances and warfare that was to last for 30 to 40 years and which eventually saw Maohi forsake the war god Oro for the god of Jehovah.

As Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin has recently observed, when one looks at these fascinating artefacts of the Cook-Forster collection, the earliest preserved documentation of South Sea cultures, one can hardly resist the temptation to embark on a fantastic journey backwards in time into the second half of the eighteenth century in the hope of encountering in this way the communities and cultures of the South Seas. But she goes on to caution us that the meanings and values of these treasures are always in a process of change, because each new age in which we live and each new question we pose of them transforms not only the point of view of the observer but also the act of seeing and the objects seen. In this way, she argues, they give us ever-changing answers, and new meanings become apparent in a background of shifting standpoints and questions. It’s this difference in time and perspective that render exact an authentic re-experience of the eighteenth century impossible. She argues that the eighteenth-century perspective is simply not the same. I don’t think any of us could have any quarrel with that. Certainly as an historian I can have no quarrel with the view that the eighteenth-century Pacific was a very different world.

In encountering the Cook-Forster collections you will find that it will entice you to voyage across culture and time and to perhaps think differently of yourself. I think it would be a loss if methodological pronouncements about the impossibility of authentically experiencing the past through its artefactual traces were given greater weight than being a counsel of prudence. As I hope to have shown in this talk, we can do much to reconstruct this past. We can do much to understand the culture and the times in which these artefacts were created and to see by careful reasoning, a sensitivity to the surviving textural, visual and artefactual evidence, that we can understand a world which was as dynamic, as culturally alive, as rich, as complex and as fantastical as our own history as it was at that time. It can be a fantastic journey, which through the vicarious experience it provides us, can foster a better understanding amongst we who in Oceania today have the virtues and the ability to understand the richness of our intersecting histories and cultural traditions. Thanks very much.

QUESTION: I will start off by saying you should re-emphasise your advertisement in a bit more detail about what you have been using as a resource here because it is from this wonderful South Seas project associated with the National Library of Australia [http://southseas.nla.gov.au]. It is a very rich research resource and people should be very aware of it. But that wasn’t my question.

My question related to the end of what you were talking about: I would hope that over time - and maybe I have too progressivist a view - that one gets nearer to a relatively more true understanding of the historical past as we move over time. I don’t think that you were at all arguing that these successions of interpretations and so on are just interpretations of equal value but that in fact one is accumulating an understanding, and in a way creating a kind of distance from the European voyages of that time, so that you can read what they have recorded through other eyes. I’m not sure whether that’s a fair thing to say or not.

PAUL TURNBULL: I think that’s a very fair thing and I would agree with you completely. What gets me into trouble with some of my historical colleagues is that I do tend to take that view that the challenge of dealing with the evidence does give you the possibility of making a rich and more complex history. Quite clearly, one has to be careful of what it is that one has claimed that one has established. I get very concerned when the fact that one can’t authentically experience then becomes a licence to go off on some post-modernist twaddle about how one cannot know the past. I think you can, but you have to be very careful philosophically about what knowing the past is. One of the reasons why the South Seas project is so dear to me is that it seems to me that with new media in particular it is a way of modelling cultural complexity and historical complexity in ways that take account of the fact that 85 per cent of our brain is visual anyway. So, yes, I would agree with you.

QUESTION: Just going a little bit further with that, you might even say that contemporaries in a sense were surprised by what they found. I mean, the view that in a sense we all find what we want to find or we all just live in the space of our own heads is perhaps contradicted a bit by the Forsters’ own experience. The Forsters are the ultimate intellectuals, just a mindless field of erudition and full of the philosophical historians that Paul deftly outlined for us in relation to people like Ferguson and all ready to put the Pacific in this nice, neat framework. But it doesn’t work. They go to Tahiti and it doesn’t fit into these stages of development. They are captivated by Tahiti but they feel that it doesn’t quite fit this progressive pecking order. They themselves are an example of the fact that encounter with the Pacific reality can undermine a lot of the neat schemes that people came with.

PAUL TURNBULL: Absolutely, I think you are putting your finger on something very important there. Certainly you can see this in Banks’ journal above all else, because in many ways he runs up against what shouldn’t be if you took the general kind of arguments about the evolution of social and cultural sophistication as advocated by Ferguson and others, and it doesn’t entirely work. But then that very process stimulates more kind of thinking and more inquiry. My argument in the finished version of this in fact is what drives Banks to experience. Beaglehole sort of says that Banks had this hunger for experience, but I think what is driving him is this desire to know more about this. Beaglehole says he’s the founder of Pacific ethnography, although I would like to think that Tupaia has that title. But I think it’s true in so much as Banks does become very ethnographic through immersing himself in Maori culture precisely because he wants to try to make sense of it in that respect.

Similarly, the Forster text is fascinating because it has to be read keeping two things in mind, one of which is that he’s a very young man and he’s out to make a name for himself within London literary and intellectual circles. So it’s a book which is kind of playing to an audience in effect. But, again, it’s interesting there are times when it doesn’t work, when it is not as straight forward and doesn’t fit the model. That is the interesting thing about the Forster text.

But that said, you can see that he is still wanting to contribute to this - and the artefacts. The Tahitian as from Forster one of the things he does is he presents it to the Society of Antiquaries and sort of says, ‘Look how like ancient Celtic implements this thing is.’ So there is this kind of project that’s going on. As Lissant Bolton pointed out last night in many respects it is race that becomes the key, that in effect it becomes the way in which race is seen as the kind of new ordering principle. It’s a very slow process through the eighteenth century and the subject of much debate which clearly throws up as many problems as it answers, but it does seem to me that it’s a mistake to see the Europeans as going into this without being profoundly affected. The fundamental point about the imagery, more than anything else, is that it illustrates the complexity of the encounter.

QUESTION: I would like to direct our attention back to some material culture at the source of some of the things you were talking about – and that is the red feathers. Could you elaborate a bit on the involvement of various people like Forster or Banks, how did they facilitate a trade or an exchange with the red feathers?

PAUL TURNBULL: There is not a great deal - all you’ve got to go on is Forster and several other minor accounts of the second expedition. Really all they tell you first off is that there is this intense desire to get these red feathers and now objects, which had never before been surrendered, are now being surrendered in return for them. There are indications that then the voyagers play on this. Cook above all else, as pragmatically as ever, wants to ensure that he strategically manages that trade so that the most benefit in terms of water, food and potential naval supplies is gathered.

But there’s not much else that one can get out of it other than then going to the work of Henry and other missionary sources of the nineteenth century to see that ultimately this was clearly reflected with something very tense and tumultuous that was happening and that quite clearly the whole Oro cult was at the centre of this period of fairly big upheaval. But it’s frustrating because you don’t get a strong sense of any kind of fine grain detail of actual incidents that I’ve come across yet which give you a greater context of the meaning of that exchange at a localised level. But having said that, I haven’t finished this sort of exploration as much as I would like to. Greg Dening might know much more about this.

GREG DENING: I don’t know much more about it, Paul. I know something in the sense that those red feathers all over the Pacific, not just Tahiti, changed the relationship between the voyagers and the locals. But the most important thing is that they are Tongan red feathers, and almost immediately that involves a mythical understanding of where all the Islanders come from. They understand that these are much more significant than any other thing that they’ve ever seen.

PAUL TURNBULL: That’s a very important point, thank you. You could probably parallel that with the origin of iron and Tuamotos being a similar thing. It is obviously something that signals ancestry from somewhere else.

MODERATOR: Please join with me in thanking Paul for a great opening paper.

Date published: 2 September 2008