Europeans frequently misinterpreted Polynesian codes regarding dress and bodily performance. For example, as Anne Salmond has explain in Aphrodite’s Island, a history of Europeans and Tahitians in which sex plays a central role, “in Tahiti people stripped to the waist in the presence of gods and high chiefs, and a high-ranking stranger was often greeted by a young girl swathed in layers of bark cloth who slowly turned around, unwinding the bark from her body until she stood naked—a ritual presentation with no necessary implication of sexual availability.” Captain Bougainville’s men, who had not seen women in many months, misunderstood the ritual’s meaning, and some of the girls sent to greet the first European ships in Tahitian harbors narrowly escaped (and sometimes did not escape) sexual assault. Not at assaults were simply the results of misunderstandings, of course. A little over a decade later, Captain James Cook would discipline his men for raping women on those same Tahitian beaches.But back in Europe, Michael Sturma (who I quoted earlier) explains how the tales of Tahitian sexual mores became a public sensation:
Consensual or not, sex between Europeans and Islanders had devastating results. Rates of death due to diseases, particularly those sexually transmitted, were extremely high. As Nicholas Thomas notes, the extent of population decline “is highly debatable, indeed this is one of the most controversial topics in public as well as academic argument about the Pacific past.” The debates stem from the fact that there is no reliable data on population before contact. What is clear, though, is that populations declined significantly. In the Marquesas, Thomas’s particular area of expertise, he notes that between 1800 and 1840 the population dropped from at least 35,000 to under 20,000. Howmuch the population had already declined before 1800 is not clear. Some sailors were unaware of the effects of these diseases, but most Islanders and Europeans figured out what was going on; figuring out how to stop it was another, far less successful, matter.
On Cook’s third and final voyage, the one on which he “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands, his crew was riddled with gonorrhea and syphilis after their 1777 summer in Tahiti. Cook demanded that his crew cease sexual contact with Islanders. He threatened his crew with harsh punishment, including flogging (something he did far more often on the third voyage than on the first two, as Gananath Obeyesekere famously emphasized), if they had sex with women. Upon their return to the islands, nine months later, they approached Maui, a considerable distance from Kaua‘i, where they had been earlier in the year. Cook surmised that the people of Maui were indeed of the same people group as those in the western Hawaiian islands. He quickly published an order prohibiting any contact with the islanders. It was already too late, though. He recorded the November 26, 1778 entry in his diary: “Women were also forbid to be admited [sic] into the Ships, but under certain restrictions, but the evil I meant to prevent by this I found had already got amongst them.” The population of the Hawaiian Islands was decimated.
Sturma writes that this publicity lead to a bit of revisionism by Cook and some colleagues, who started insisting that the Tahitian women who not as bad as all that - those who were married were generally chaste, and not all of the unmarried were throwing themselves at the sailors. Sturma suggests it was concern over the effect on public morality that was behind this. Indeed, there was a bit of press backlash against the book:
Hawkeworth's Account raised so many unsettling questions about the true nature of society that he was widely attacked in newspapers, journals and pamphletts for his 'immoral' book. The resulting furore was blamed for sending the Account's now notorious editor to an early grave six months later.
But, the sensationalism continued:
The general English and European fascination with Tahiti was aided by a 2 year visit to Britain of Omai, a handsome young man with good manners brought there courtesy of one of Cook's ships in 1773. A brief summary of how his time went in England can be found here.
It would seem that all of this was part of the motivation for setting up the London Missionary Society (although the "need" for conversion of India and other parts of the world played a large role too.)
But things did not go easily for them when it came to Tahiti (in 1797):
Nearly seven months later Wilson anchored the Duff off the island of Tahiti, after a voyage via Gibraltar and Cape Horn. Seventeen missionaries were to disembark here, including all those who were married. As the island came into view, the missionaries on board began to sing a hymn, `O'er the gloomy hills of darkness'. The weather was bad, so Wilson moored out at sea for the night, dropping the missionaries by boat around midday the next day. ...Yet, they persevered and attained success, as you can read at the previous link.
The men Wilson dropped that morning wore tail coats, high stockings, knee breeches and buckled shoes; their wives wore bonnets and heavy cotton skirts. The missionaries' immediate instructions were commonsensical, if vague: to make as friendly contact with the islanders as possible, build a mission house for sleeping and worship, learn the language of the island and, until able to preach in the native tongue, offer examples of `good and co-operative living'. The Tahitian king, Pomare, who came to examine them from the beach, wore a girdle of bark cloth, jewellery of shark teeth and shells, and a crown-bunch of feathers. He rode astride a slave crawling on hands and knees.
The missionaries who had been left in the South Seas quickly discovered an unforeseen problem. Since Cook's voyages, other ships of exploration and whaling (Russian, French, British and American) had paid visits to the islands. Rum and firearms were now a part of life, as were disagreements and occasional violence between crews and islanders. The natives watching the missionaries disembark from the Duff were as wary about their intent and greedy for their possessions as they were incredulous at the sight of them. The introduction of firearms into Tahitian warfare had made the islands increasingly dangerous places, but most dramatically, bacterial diseases carried to Polynesia by European crews had had a terrible impact on the populations: some islands had seen their numbers decimated. Though the islanders seemed to attribute these plagues to vengeance by their own gods, they were still wary of the crews. The missionaries left on Tahiti probably would not have obtained Pomare's permission to settle at all, had it not been for a marooned English-speaking Swedish sailor called Peter Haggerstein, who had been living on the island for four years and who was able to act as interpreter.
Of those left on Tahiti, eight of the seventeen soon wanted to leave. Another two, the harness maker Benjamin Broomhall and the Reverend Thomas Lewis, `went native'; the latter having first taken a native woman as his wife. (Broomhall was never seen again; Lewis's broken skull was found two years later.) Most of the deserters left Tahiti aboard the first ship to stop there, a British vessel on its way to Sydney two months later. Two of them had gone mad; one missionary suffered a nervous breakdown, during which he tried to make love to King Pomare's wife and teach Hebrew to her court.
And this seems as good a point as any to end this bit of public self education.