Monday, 25 June 2018

Massacre Bay - conflicting visions


To a large extent, what happened at Massacre Bay is riddle without a key;  We have La Pérouse's account, but the viewpoint of the Samoans is lost.  It can only be guessed at from a mixture of oral tradition, anthropological insights and and oblique references in later accounts of Samoan culture. Among modern studies, the crucial research is that of the French anthropologist Serge Tcherkézoff, Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University in Canberra .  His book First Contacts in Polynesia (2008) is freely available on JStor.  What follows is mostly summarised from his conclusions.




La Pérouse's view of events: 

The Instructions drawn up for La Pérouse set out carefully the expected conduct of the expedition towards indigenous peoples. In the spirit of the late Enlightenment, he was expected to pursue a policy of minimum intervention, confining himself to careful observation of native societies and the collection of artefacts.  Part four gave explicit orders regarding the trade for the supplies, which was crucial to the success of the mission.  Strategies on how to win the confidence of the people and their chiefs, were mixed uneasily with advice on how to defend the expedition's interests and maintain security.  Nonetheless, the main thrust is clear: the visit of the French "far from being a misfortune to these people..should on the contrary confer on them advantages of which they are destitute" (Voyage, vol.1 p.42)

The context is clearly Enlightenment debates about the "noble savage", which had been given new currency in the later 18th century by Rousseau and by Diderot in  his Supplement to the Voyage of  Bougainville.  La Pérouse himself, even before the events in Samoa, gave the armchair philosophers short shrift.  He comments that thirty years of "melancholy experience" had taught him that the "man of nature" is "savage, deceitful and malicious" (vol. 1, p.397-8)  His assessment was often more negative than that of  his officers. He had given way Langle on the day of the massacre,  despite the "turbulence" of the islanders and his "secret presentiment" of disaster.  In one of his last letters, from Botany Bay, he observed bitterly to Fleurieu, that the naturalist Lamanon, on the evening before he was killed, had told him that the savages "were better than ourselves" (vol. 2, p.505-6) . He concludes that, even in the benign natural conditions of the South Pacific, "man, scarcely emerged from the savage state, and living in anarchy, is a more malignant being than the wildest beast" (vol. 2, p.130-31)

Bougainville arrives in Tahiti - an image  from 1846
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bougainville_at_Tahiti.png

La Pérouse  would, of course,  have been well aware of Bougainville's  positive assessment of the inhabitants of Tahiti. In 1772 he had visited Mauritius where he had met several of Bougainville's companions, including Philippe Commerson, whose article in the Mercure in 1769 had done much to establish the vision of Tahiti as the "New Cythera". However,   Bougainville, though he had not landed, had bartered for provisions off Samoa in 1768 and had judged the natives negatively.  The men were not "so gentle as those of Tahiti", their features "more savage".  The woman he saw was "ugly", the barkcloth "much coarser", the fish hooks "badly made":  "We were always obliged to be upon our guard against their cunning tricks to cheat us by their barter" (see Linnekin, p.5).

The La Pérouse expedition's first encounters took place at sea, in the Manu'a group, before the ships reached Tutuila. Canoes rowed out to trade. These exchanges prompted La Pérouse to observe that the Samoans, "like all South Sea islanders", were "not over-honest in their dealing". They would row off with the French exchange goods like thieves without delivering the items that they had promised in return - but, as La Pérouse commented , "a few beads and strips of red cloth" were scarcely worth worrying about.  Like Bougainville, he expressed surprise that the islanders were not interested in iron tools but preferred useless beads: he thought this must be the result of having natural plenty: "abundantly supplied with articles of real utility, they desired nothing but superfluities."  He admired the design and workmanship of their houses and canoes.  Nonetheless, the element of moral condemnation in his general assessment is strong.  He finds the physical appearance of the men intimidating - tatooed,  wearing skirts of cordyline leaves, they resemble the river gods of mythology.  Their scars suggests insubordination and hint at "private quarrels".  He is also disturbed rather than enchanted by the promiscuity of the women: there were "not above one or two" that he found attractive:  "...the grossly impudent air of the rest, the indecency of their actions, and the disgusting offer they made of their favours, rendered them worthy of being the wives and mothers of the ferocious beings by whom they were surrounded". (vol. 2, p.154-5)

La Pérouse, who was not himself an eye-witness, did not give a detailed explanation for the massacre itself beyond the violent, perfidious and "turbulent" character of the people.  However, Captain John Hunter who met him in  Botany Bay, gives an account in his journal, which probably reflects La Pérouse's view.  He depicts a sudden, contingent explosion of violence:
Some altercation happened....in consequence of their pressing so close upon the French, probably occasioned a blow with a club from one of the natives, which was instantly taken as a signal by the rest, and the massacre began. (Historical journal, 1793 p.261, quoted, Linnekin, p.8-9.)

In his letter to Fleurieu, La Pérouse dwelt bitterly on the contrast between the forebearance of the French and the ungrateful behaviour of the islanders.  Even though the unthinking violence of ignorant savages was not really their fault, if he ever made another voyage, he would want Instructions which allowed him greater room for reprisals.


Native perspectives

 Although armed with Cook's vocabulary, the Frenchmen's linguistic skills were rudimentary and they made no real attempt to decode the ceremonial and ritual context of their encounters.

 According to Professor Tcherkézoff, the crucial determining factor is that Samoans did not regarded  Europeans as ordinary men, but as supernatural beings sent by the gods. The term they used was "Pāpālagi", a word of uncertain origin, which  still denotes Europeans in modern Samoan. This idea is corroborated by testimony from later missionaries; for example, the Marist priest Father Padel who was told in the 1840s that the French ships had been considered a piece of "the land of the spirits" ("terre des génies")

Professor Tcherkézoff's discussion begins with a refuttal of the longstanding Enlightenment myth of the sexual freedom enjoyed by the women of the South Pacific.   La  Pérouse accepted this idea uncritically.  He diverged from Bougainville only in his disapproval of the islanders' promiscuity and his tendency to equate it with savagery rather than  primitive innocence. Reluctantly he admits that some of his crew had accepted the advances of  "young and pretty females" and, in a much cited passage, concludes that unmarried girls in Samoa "are mistresses of their favours, and are not dishonoured by their complaisance" (p.155). Both men thought in terms of "sexual hospitality" or a "selling of favours" in a setting where "it can be observed" that there are no restrictions on pre-marital sexual activities.

In fact La Pérouse's account of what took place - together with evidence from the journals and logs of Bougainville's companions - suggests a very different interpretation. A ritual is clearly being enacted.The girls, who are always "very young",  are forced to participate  against their will . They are weeping and reluctant, and have to be forcibly held in the arms of an elder. In La Pérouse's version the "ceremony" takes place in a hut with closed blinds, in the presence of howling matrons and an old man who "served as both priest and altar".  To Professor Tcherkézoff these proceedings recall Samoan marriage rituals.  Furthermore the lowering of blinds traditionally accompanied a  "meeting with the spirits".  Far from this being a free act of sexual hospitality, it would seem that the young girls were being presented "in marriage" to the Pāpālagi, perhaps with the idea of creating sacred progeny.

The reading of the Europeans as manifestations of spiritual beings also  makes a lot more sense of other scenes that La Pérouse describes.  The exchange of goods, regarded by the French as a simple bartering for supplies, was see by the islanders in terms of the presentation of offerings and receipt of gifts from sacred beings.  La Pérouse mentions a number of tell-tale items given to the French.  On one occasion they received "the most charming turtle dove we had ever seen" - from La Pérouse's detailed description clearly a Samoan Manumā [many-coloured fruit dove], whichwas  regarded as a sacred pet.  On another occasion he mentions a "wooden vase filled with coconut oil";  again a valued offering.  (The oil belonging to the category of items used to wrap the body and make it shine, which were thought of as gifts for gods, ancestors and sacred chiefs.).

Large numbers of blue glass beads, intended for exchange, were recovered from the wreck sites off Vanikoro.
Perhaps through their previous encounters with Europeans, the islanders expected to receive gifts.  Items such as beads and red cloth, were prized as signs of life and fertility. .  According to pre-Christian Polynesian cosmology such gifts had to be snatched away since the gods always had to be forced to surrender part of their powers to human beings.  Here, clearly, is the rationale behind those occasions when the Islanders rushed off with the goods, without handing over the agreed compensation. Their behaviour, writes Professor Tcherkézoff was "in line with the mythological and ritual structure of the annual raid that the people perpetrated on the first fruits and on all signs of life sent by the gods".(Tcherkézoff,p.52)

At various points in La Pérouse's narrative the Samoans are depicted in what are obviously ceremonial situations.   A group of islanders is seen "sitting in a circle under some cocoa trees"(p.122).  The ships are haranged from the shore by an "elderly Indian" holding a branch of Kava, a ceremonial offering to sacred chiefs. The French interprete the gesture as a sign of peace, and throw him "a few pieces of cloth" (p.123).  When the ships anchored in Tutuila Bay, they were approached by large numbers of canoes, laden with coconuts, pigs and fruit, which the French "bought" with beads.  Langle's preliminary reconnaissance found an assembly of natives on the shore around a "great fire";  by the next morning, still more canoes had appeared.  The first mission to collect water (on 10th December) was watched by two hundred natives, all jostling to offer them livestock and fruit.  They were again offered "charming turtledoves and parakeets as tame as pigeons" - further confirmation of ceremonial nature of these gifts. The women, "some of whom were very pretty" caused disorder, "offering their favours to all, who had beads to give them".

At this point, came the first "real act of hostility" when a man suddenly clambered into the longboat  and set about the sailors with a mallet.  According to Professor Tcherkézoff this behaviour can be interpreted as as act of bravado, a challenge to Pāpālagi powers -  the idea was to board their boat, to touch them, to see if they would bleed.  La Pérouse reports other similar incidents; the surgeon Rollin had stones thrown at him, and an attempt was made to snatch the chief engineer Monneron's sword.  When La Pérouse returned to the Boussole he found that seven or eight Indians had forced their way on board, "the eldest of whom was presented to me as being a chief".  Fortunately he was able to placate them with the desired gift of beads.

On the 11th December came the final eruption into violence. According to Lieutenant Vaujas, the landing party was at first welcomed by the Samoans who threw Kava branches into the sea. They were again approached by "a number of women and very young girls".  The trouble began when the boats, laden with barrels, became stranded by the low tide. Samoans waded in after them from the shore and they found themselves surrounded by large numbers of canoes returning from the ships.  The islanders at this point felt emboldened to set upon upon them with stones and clubs.
.
Vaujas adds the crucial detail that he believed "the primary cause of our misfortune" was Langle's gift of "a few beads" to five or six individuals that he thought might be chiefs holding the crowd in check. In doing this, he incurred the displeasure of the rest. According to  Professor Tcherkézoff (p.59) in all probability these were the taule'ale'a of the village - ordinary unmarried men who took on collective work for the community.  Perhaps Langle's gesture was interpreted as a signal that supernatural gifts were available to all who dared to take them.

Certainly the Samoans did not think they had killed ordinary men. A few days later five or six canoes again came out expecting to barter with the ships; the incredulous La Pérouse had to restrain himself from murdering the occupants on the spot.(p.139) The incident recalls Hawaii in 1778 when the islanders who had killed Captain Cook, rowed out to the ships and asked when he would come back to visit them. (Tcherkézoff, p.59).


References

Serge Tcherkézoff, First Contacts in Polynesia - the Samoan Case (1722-1848), 2008.
ANU e-text, available freely on JStor.
Chapter 3 December 1787, Lapérouse: first incursion on land (pp. 29-50)
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h2mx.8
Chapter 4 Lapérouse, the Ignoble Savage, and the Europeans as ‘spirits’ (pp. 51-68)
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h2mx.9

Linnekin, "Ignoble savages and other European visions: the La Perouse affair in Samoan history" Journal of Pacific History 26(1) 1991, p.3-26.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/25169049



Readings


From the Instructions

Part the Third:OPERATIONS RESPECTING ASTRONOMY, GEOGRAPHY, NAVIGATION, PHYSICS AND THE DIFFERENT BRANCHES OF NATURAL HISTORY

p.37-38: During the stay he shall make in any harbour, he will observe the genius, character, manners, customs, bodily constitution, language, government, and number of the inhabitants.

He will  order the garments, arms, ornaments, utensils, tools, musical instruments, and every thing used by the different people he shall visit to be collected and classed; and each article to be ticketed, and marked with a number corresponding to that assigned it in the catalogue."


Part the Fourth  "OF THE CONDUCT TO BE OBSERVED TOWARDS THE NATIVES OF THE COUNTRIES WHERE THE TWO FRIGATES MAY LAND. 
The narratives of the several voyagers, who have preceded the sieur de la Perouse, in the seas which he is to traverse, will have acquainted him before hand with the character and manners of some of the different people with whom he may have to deal, both in the islands of the great ocean, and on the north-western coast of America. 
His Majesty is persuaded, that, improved by this reading, he will strive to imitate the good conduct of some of these navigators, and avoid the faults of others. 

At his arrival in each country, he will endeavour to conciliate the friendship of the principal chiefs, both by tokens of goodwill and by presents, will inform himself what resources the place affords, to supply the wants of his vessels, and will employ all honourable means of forming connexions with the natives. 

He will endeavour to learn what wares and commodities of Europe they prize the most highly, and he will make such an assortment of these as will be acceptable to them, and induce them to commence a traffic. 

He will feel the necessity of taking every precaution, that prudence can suggest, for preserving his superiority over the multitude, without employing force and, however kind the reception he may meet from the savages, will consider it as of importance always to show himself in a state of defence; because it is to be apprehended, that security on his part might tempt them to endeavour a surprise...

He will enjoin every one of the crew to live amicably with the natives, to endeavour to conciliate their friendship by civility and good behaviour and he will forbid them, under pain of the severest punishment, ever to employ force to procure from the inhabitants what they may refuse to part with voluntarily. 

On all occasions the sieur de la Perouse will behave with great gentleness and humanity to the different people he may visit in the course of his voyage. 

He will zealously exert himself in every thing that can improve their condition, by bestowing on their country the pulse, fruits, and useful trees of Europe; by teaching them the manner of sowing and cultivating them; and by enabling them to understand the use they are to make of these presents, the object of which is to multiply on their soil productions necessary to a people who derive almost the whole of their subsistence from the. earth. 


If imperious circumstances, for which, in a long expedition, it is the part of prudence to be provided, should ever compel the sieur de la Perouse to employ the superiority of his arms over those of savage nations, in order to procure himself, in spite of their opposition, the necessaries of life, such as provision, wood and water, he will use his strength with the greatest moderation, and punish with extreme severity any of his people who shall exceed his orders. In all other cases, if he cannot obtain the friendship of the savages by good treatment, he will endeavour to keep them in awe by threats ; but he will have recourse to arms only in the last extremity, for his own defence alone, and on occasions when forbearance would decidedly endanger the safety of the vessels, and the lives of the French  subjects, with whose preservation he is entrusted : and His Majesty will consider it as ons of the happiest events of the expedition, if it should terminate without costing  the life of a single individual. 
Jean-François de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse
A Voyage Round the World Performed in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788 (Robinson, 1799), vol. 1, p. 39-42.
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_0#page/38/mode/2up




 La Pérouse on the "noble savage"

Philosophers may exclaim against this picture if they please.  They may write books by their fire-sides, while I have been voyaging for thirty years.  I have been witness to the knavery and injustice of these people, whom they depict as good, because they are so little removed from a state of nature;  but this nature is sublime only in the great, in the minutiae of things it is negligent.  It is impossible to penetrate woods not thinned by the hand of civilized man; to traverse plains filled with stones and rocks and deluged with impassable morasses; and to associate with the man of nature, because he is savage, deceitful and malicious.  Confirmed in this opinion by melancholy experience, I have not thought it my duty, however, to employ the force with which I was entrusted, to repel the injustices of these savages, and teach them, that there is a law of nations, which is never to be violated with impunity.

...I will admit, if you please, that it is impossible for a society to exist without some virtues;  but I am forced to confess, that here I could not perceive any.
Voyages, vol. 1, p.397-8 [following the expedition's encounter with the native Americans in Lituya Bay]
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_0#page/398/mode/2up/


My opinion concerning barbarous natives was long since fixed; and my voyage has served only to confirm that opinion.

I am, however, a thousand times more angry with the philosophers, who so enthusiastically extol savage nations, than with the savages themselves.  The unfortunate Lamanon, whom they massacred, told me, the evening before his death, that these men were better than ourselves. Adhering strictly to the orders prescribed in my instructions, I have always behaved to them with the utmost mildness;  but I confess to you, if another voyage of the same kind were intrusted to me. I would request different injunctions.  A navigator, on leaving Europe, ought to consider the savages as enemies, weak indeed, and whom, without sufficient reason,  it would be ungenerous to attack and barbarous to destroy; but whose hostile attempts he has a right to prevent when authorised by well founded suspicions to believe in such attempts.
Letter written by La Pérouse to Fleurieu from Botany Bay , 7 February 1788 (vol. 2, p.505-6)
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_1#page/506/mode/2up/




La Pérouse's descriptions of  the Samoan people

This first passage occurs in the context of the expedition's first  explorations of Tutuila.  La Pérouse contrasts the idyllic surroundings of the inhabitants with their appearance of ferocity.

This charming country unites the advantages of a soil fruitful without cultivation, and a climate requiring no clothes. The cocoa, plantain, guava, orange, and bread-fruit tree, bestow on these fortunate people abundance of wholesome nourishment ; and fowls, hogs, and dogs, which live on the surplus of their produce, afford them an agreeable change. They were so wealthy, and had so few wants, that they despised our cloths and instruments of iron, and would accept only beads : abundantly supplied with articles of real utility, they desired nothing but superfluities.

....What imagination would not conceive this delightful place the abode of felicity!  These islanders, we were continually saying, must be the happiest people upon earth: surrounded with their wives and children, they pass their days serene and tranquil in the bosom of repose: they have no other care, but that of bringing up birds, and, like the first man, of gathering without labour the fruits that hang over their heads.  But we were mistaken: this charming abode was not that of innocence. We saw no weapons, it is true: but the bodies of these Indians, covered with scars, proved, that they were often at war, or quarrelling with one another ; and their features announced a ferociousness not perceptible in the countenances of the women.   Nature, no doubt, left this impression on the persons of these Indians, as a warning, that man, scarcely emerged from the savage state, and living in anarchy, is a more malignant being than the wildest beast.
(vol. 2, p.130-31)

https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_1#page/130/mode/2up/



After his account of the massacre, he adds a further summary in similar vein:

These islanders are the stoutest and best-made we had yet seen.  Their ordinary height is five feet nine, ten or eleven inches.  But their tallness is still less astonishing than the colossal proportions of the different parts of their bodies...Their countenances often appeared to me, to express a sentiment of distain...

The men's bodies are painted or tattooed, so that you would think them dressed, though they are almost naked.  They wear nothing but a girdle of sea-weed round their loins, which reaches to their knees and gives them a resemblance to the river-gods of mythology, that are represented enveloped with reeds.  Their hair is very long, and frequently turned up all round the head, so as to heighten the ferociousness of their countenances, which always express astonishment or choler.  The least dispute between them is followed by blows from clubs, sticks or paddles; and often, no doutb, costs the combatants their lives.  Almost all of them are covered with scars, which must have been the consequence of these private quarrels. (p.154).

[The women] are tall, slender and not ungraceful; but before their spring-time is past, they lose that gentleness of expression, and elegance of form... Among a great number of women, whom I had an opportunity of seeing, I could distinguish but three that deserved to be called pretty: the grossly impudent air of the rest, the indecency of their actions, and the disgusting offer they made of their favours, rendered them worthy of being the wives and mothers of the ferocious beings by whom they were surrounded. (p.154-5)
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_1#page/154/mode/2up/


The Massacre - Described by John Hunt

In his journal John Hunter, captain of the Sirius, recounts his meeting with La Pérouse in Botany Bay. La Pérouse went out of his way to present the Samoans in a positive light to his English acquaintance

... I accepted Monsieur Peyrouse's invitation to pass the day with him [on the Boussole], and to return to Port Jackson in the morning...At the Island Macuna (one of the Isles des Navigateurs) ....he had been so very unfortunate as to lose Monsieur De Langle, captain of the L'Astrolabe, together with eight other officers, four sailors and one body;  all of whom were killed by natives, besides a number who were wounded.  This melancholy affair happened in the following manner:  The two ships had been at the island just mentioned some days, and were on very good terms with the natives, who had furnished them with every article of stock in the greatest profusion, for barter:  Monsieur De la Peyrouse, however, had found it very necessary to be on his guard against a treacherous disposition which he discovered in them.  When everything was ready to for their departure, and the ships were under weight, De Langle requested M. Peyrouse to permit him to get another turn of water; this M. Peyriyse consented to, but with as much reluctance as De Langle seemed solicitious to obtain his request....When the boats landed, the men were, as usual surrounded by the inhabitants, who did not immediately discover any hostile intention: unfortunately the sailors in the long-boats had suffered them to take the ground, and whilst they were endeavouring to get them afloat again, the natives were very troublesome, and pressed close in upon the sailors; on this De Langle ordered the men in the rowing-boats to be ready to fire on the natives, but not to do it until he ordered them.  Some altercation happened at this juncture, in consequence of their pressing so close upon the French, probably occasioned by a blow with a club from one of the natives, which was instantly taken as a signal by the rest, and the massacre began.  The natives were armed with short heavy clubs, by which means they rendered the fire-arms useless.  Orders were given to fire the swivels, etc. in the rowing-boats, but it ws too late, although the natives fled the moment they were fired, dragging the dead bodies after them.  It was supposed that thirty of the natives were killed in this unfortunate affray.  Those belonging to the ships, who escaped the massacre, swam to the rowing-boats, and were carried on board the ships:  many of them had received violent contusions on the head, as all the blows were aimed at that part.

.......he describes the inhabitants of these islands as a very strong and handsome race of men;  scarcely one was to be seen amongst them less than six feet high, and well proportioned;  the women are delicately beautiful; their canoes, houses, etc. are well constructed, and they are much more advanced in internal policy and order than any of the islands in the Pacific Ocean (p.262)
John Hunter, An historical journal... (1793) p.259-62
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=t0tfAAAAcAAJ&pg=259#v=onepage&q&f=false



La Pérouse and Bougainville on the offering of young girls

The crucial passage from La Pérouse is presented as part of his general description of the Samoan people, so the occasion cannot be pinpointed.

From La Pérouse's Voyage

As the narrative of our voyage may serve to add a few pages to the history of man, I must not omit pictures that might be deemed indecent in another work; and I must relate, that the small number of young and pretty females, of whom I have already spoken, soon fixed the attention of some of their visitors, who, notwithstanding my prohibition, sought to form connexions with them.  The looks of our Frenchmen expressed desires which were soon divined.   Some old women took upon themselves to negotiate the affair.   The altar was prepared in the best looking house in the village; all the blinds were let down; and the curious were sent away.   The victim was placed in the arms of an old man, who, during the ceremony, exhorted her to moderate her expressions of pain: the matrons howled and sung; and the sacrifice was consummated in their presence, and under the auspices of the old man, who served both as priest and altar.  All the women and children of the village were round the house, gently lifting up the blinds, and searching for the smallest openings in the mats to obtain a sight of the spectacle.  Whatever may have been said by travellers that have preceded us, I am convinced that, in the Navigators' Islands at least, the young women, before they are married, are mistresses of their favours, and are not dishonoured by their complaisance.  It is even more than probable, that, when they marry, they have no account to give for their past conduct; but I have no doubt, that they are obliged to be more reserved as soon as they have taken a husband.  (vol. 2, p.155)
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00lapr_1#page/155/mode/2up/

The account of Bougainville and his companions

In Tahiti, on the third day of Bougainville’s tacking off the coast (before he even attempted a landing), a group of Tahitians brought an adolescent girl out with them and had her climb on board; once there, she took off her barkcloth (obeying the adults who accompanied her, as we learn from the journals)  and appeared to the French on the deck "such as Venus shewed herself to the Phrygian shepherd" . This sentence, which became the most famous of Bougainville’s book of 1771, together with the Post-Scriptum from Commerson, sparked the myth about the ‘lascivious’ customary education of Tahitian—and later all Polynesian—adolescent girls that spread throughout Europe. It gave the idea that the girls were offering themselves quite willingly.  Then, when the French landed, they were conducted into a chief’s house where, with complete ceremonial decorum, they were asked to take a young girl sexually.

The journals provide some crucial details that were never published.  We learn that the girl was presented to the visitors in the middle of a circle of adults who chanted (prayers?) and held a green bough in their hands (as a sign of fecundity and as an offering to the superior entities?). We learn too that the girl was crying. The significance of the green bough (a branch of plantain) can be inferred from the Tahitians’ behaviour in front of their own sacred chiefs, as observed a few years later by James Morrison, the first European visitor to stay a long time in Tahiti.  The presentation of a green bough paved the way for making offerings to a superior....The presence of the green bough indicates the formal and indeed ritual (sacrificial) character of the whole scene which, contrary to what Bougainville wrote in his book, cannot thus be reduced to any kind of sexual ‘hospitality’.

These details are supplied in the journals and logs of the companions and officers who accompanied Bougainville. But the captain did not include this information in his published account and only mentioned that in ‘every house’of this island where the French entered those favours were ‘offered’. He thus led the European reader to believe that all of this was purely sexual hospitality, from a people who had made sexuality their main value and thus their main offering. The French made no attempt at all to decode the ceremonial and ritual context in which the sexual offering occurred and concluded for the most part that they had found in Tahiti a people who had remained ‘as Eve before her Falling’: a place in which the sexual act was ‘naturally’ done, constantly practised and ‘staged in public’ (en public).
Serge Tcherkézoff, First Contacts in Polynesia, p.35-36.
Louis-Antoine, comte de Bougainville, A voyage round the world.  Performed by order of his most Christian Majesty, in the years 1766,1767, 1768 and 1769.  Trans. John Reinhold Forster, London 1772, p.217ff.
https://archive.org/stream/voyageroundworld00boug#page/217/mode/2up

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