When two worlds collide one is usually enslaved

The Pacific islands may have been beautiful but were never peaceful, less so when western slavers arrived. Tim Severin on empire and destruction

Islanders The Pacific in the Age of Empire

Nicholas Thomas

Yale University Press, €33.00;

or paperback €22.45

THE Queen of Tonga stole the show in the coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Three million sodden spectators lined the London streets on a miserable day. They were hoping to see heads of state, royalty and other grandees en route to the ceremony.

To their disappointment, most of the dignitaries passed in carriages with windows closed, to protect their finery against the drizzle. Then, along came Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tupou III, the queen of Tonga. Huge, at 6’ 3’’ and reputedly weighing 20 stone, she was riding in an open carriage, feathers sticking up from her hair-do. Declining the protection of an umbrella, she beamed and waved her well-fleshed arms at the crowds.

They loved her. Noel Coward watched the spectacle from an upper window, so the story goes. His companion noted that the only other occupant of Salote’s carriage was a tiny, top-hatted courtier in a morning suit seated opposite the cheerfully overflowing black queen. “What’s that fellow doing there?” he is supposed to have asked. Coward turned to him and said “That’s her lunch”.

Apocryphal or not — the witticism was not original to Coward — the story keeps alive the contradictory reputation of the Pacific islands: Captain Cook dubbed the Tongan archipelago the ‘Friendly Islands’. When his exploring expedition came back to Europe, reports soon circulated of a demi-paradise on earth.

Gentle waves lapped on coral reefs, breadfruit ripened untended in the trees, the sun shone, the natives were handsome and hospitable, and the women folk willingly granted sexual favours to the visitor. But a generation later the same islands were well on their way to a reputation as a violently dangerous place. If you were not careful, gigantic barbaric warriors would dash out your brains with a carved club, then stuff, bake and eat your corpse.

Islanders is the latest in a chain of distinguished historical studies of the Pacific islands that examine the interaction between the native peoples and the incomers. Alan Moorhead’s aptly titled Fatal Impact is the best known.

His thesis was that the arrival of the outsiders shattered native societies and cultures. Next came Beach Crossings, by Greg Dening, again aptly named. It looked at the interface between the incomers and the native cultures. The beach was where missionaries, beachcombers and castaways entered the lives of the (mainly Marquesan) island peoples.

Nicholas Thomas has now moved the same story on — mostly to consider what happened during the 19th century. His is a more nuanced study.

Thomas says the native societies were not as isolated from one another as previously supposed. Prior to contact with westerners, the islanders moved between one archipelago and another, their contacts facilitated by shared language and cultural traits. The European incomers were sucked into pre-existing tribal politics. They did not initiate destructive conflict. They tipped the balance between islander factions already disposed to go for one another’s throats.

The tale becomes darker as the century moves on. Societies and economies collapse, diseases spread. But the Pacific peoples were integral to this process.

From the first years of contact with the westerners, they were crew members on visiting ships — think Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner aboard the Pequod in the novel Moby Dick. They served not only as deckhands, pilots, and interpreters. They were also slavers, overseers, and prosecuted their own vendettas with the help of new-fangled weapons.

Thomas says that islanders became expert judges of trade muskets. They knew which ones would shoot straight and not blow up in their faces when the trigger was pulled.

This depressing trend sank to its lowest with the ‘blackbirders,’ who were slave catchers. Their vessels roamed the Pacific in search of able-bodied men who were too isolated to know what was happening, or desperate to find a better life. The ‘blackbirders’ duped their victims into agreeing to work on plantations in Chile, Fiji and Australia. If they showed reluctance, they risked being kidnapped.

‘Blackbirders’ were both islanders and incomers, and frequently benefited from the willing cooperation of the victims’ friends and relatives to facilitate the traffic.

In Chile, the ‘blackbirder’ market was pioneered by an unsavoury speculator of Irish origin, J C Byrne. Bankrupt, liar, and opportunist, he fitted up a vessel to ‘recruit’ in Polynesia. The ship’s hold was sub-divided with iron gratings.

Swivel guns were mounted where they could mow down anyone who got free and reached the deck. Sailing to Vanuata, Byrne chanced upon an island where there was a famine. Missionaries on the island encouraged their starving flock to go aboard. Byrne whisked his catch away to Chile and sold them for a fortune.

Now issued in paperback, Islanders is garlanded as joint winner of the 2010 Wolfson history prize. This award promotes excellence in history writing. Thomas has written a work of scholarship that merits close attention and, at the same time, that presumes a ready grasp of the vast geography of the Pacific.

His analysis is thoughtful and often thought-provoking. Pomare II, the high chief of Tahiti, made great efforts to learn how to read and write. It is tempting, Thomas says, to suppose that the Tahitian wanted to learn foreigner’s ‘magic’.

But Pomare, like other Tahitians, would have regarded European writing as a form of tattooing.

The Tahitians believed the Europeans were making their marks on a sheet of material that resembled tapa, barkcloth, instead of using human skin. Tapa already had social importance for the Tahitians, and Tatau, as Thomas calls it, was less for bodily beautification than for “armouring the body, for safeguarding it from the unstable contagion and transference of taboo.”

The Tahitians watched the officers of visiting ships walking around and writing notes. They would have noted that only the superior-ranked visitors did this writing business. Acutely status-conscious in their own society, the Tahitians would have concluded that writing was reserved for the upper class, therefore a practice charged with power.

The Marquesan archipelago was where tattooing reached its most extreme.

Here the author of Islanders did much of his fieldwork. In a rare personal glimpse, he writes of sensing a memorial to vanished Marquesan culture in the stillness and silence of the lush abandoned valleys. In them, the Marquesans built their houses on a great stone platforms, which survive.

By contrast, their specialist tattooists, who once created such amazing pictures on the skin, have left no direct heirs.

During my own brief visit to the Marquesas, I encountered a neatly dressed American executive in his late 20s. He came from Atlanta, Georgia.

Despite the heat, he never rolled up the long sleeves of his crisp white shirt nor unbuttoned the collar. He seemed so unlikely a visitor that I asked why he was there. “To study tattooing,” he said. He intended to track down a tattoo master because the Marquesas were the font and excellence of the ancient art.

Glancing round furtively, he unbuttoned and stripped off to reveal arms, shins, thighs, and body covered with the most intricate tattoos. They had been inscribed in a tattoo parlour in Atlanta.

Some days later, I met up with him again and asked if he had succeeded in his search. He had been unable to find a tattoo master. He had shown his own tattoos to the islanders and been told that nothing so splendid could be found on the Marquesas. Rather, his informants wanted to know how much it might cost them to journey to Atlanta and have similar artwork done on their own skins.

Thomas sets out to demonstrate in Islanders that cultures intermingle. Both sides learn, adapt, and adopt. He makes his point, and it is still the case, whether for tattooing or when Pacific islanders play rugby for Munster.

More in this section