- Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti
The brilliance of Tahitian culture has never been in doubt. Certainly the Tahitians themselves never doubted it: The heroic ari'i or island aristocrats were descended from the gods and comported themselves with an extravagant appetite for love and power; highborn women had sacred capital and spent it with a fierce will to advance their dynastic ambitions; the wandering elite called arioi performed theatrical skits and plundered locals wherever they went for food, drink, and sex; commoners as well as aristocrats took part in the dramatic rituals of the sacred calendar year; native canoes went back and forth between Tahiti and neighboring islands like Bora Bora and Ra'iatea, sometimes bringing war and sometimes exchanging news and gifts. No wonder the Europeans who accidentally happened on Tahiti in the late eighteenth century were dazzled by the place.
The encounters between Tahitians and these early explorers are the subject of Anne Salmond's lively and deeply researched book. Readers will profit from close attention to Salmond's presentation of the Tahitian side of the story as history. No longer do we behold the timeless frieze of a precontact society with an immemorial rhythm of works and days. Instead in this recounting an explosive mixture of politics and religion transforms Tahitian society and defines its behavior toward the Europeans who began to arrive regularly (Jacob Roggeveen had passed through the Society Islands in 1722) in the late 1760s. At that time the cult of 'Oro, the god of war, was energizing local paramounts' ambition to establish themselves through marriage alliances and terrible wars as legitimate rulers of the entire island. According to Salmond, following the research of Colin Newbury, the introduction of the cult of 'Oro to Tahiti was a recent event dating from the 1720s. As it displaced the previous dominance of Tane, "the god of peace and beauty," it led to ever more disruptive conflict between the war god's rival followers. When explorers like Samuel Wallis and Captain Cook (on their separate voyages from Britain), Louis de Bougainville (from France), and Don Domingo Boenechea (from Peru, in the service of the Spanish monarchy) reached the island in the 1760s and 1770s, they confronted a cryptic political landscape in which cultic observances, inter-marriages, and friendships crisscrossed deadly dynastic hatreds. Europeans tried out early techniques of shock and awe on the islanders, shooting off cannons and guns to demonstrate their civilized superiority. What they could not imagine, and Salmond reconstructs [End Page 609] admirably well for her readers, was the unintended effect of their actions. The islanders associated European firepower with 'Oro, master of thunder and lightning; they did not know if their strange visitors were gods, men, or returning ancestors, but whatever they were, politically alert ari'i sought to befriend them as powerful allies against their enemies in other districts. It was easy for Europeans to mistake Tahitians' strategy of turning European technology to their own advantage for innocent hospitality. As Salmond writes in her compelling conclusion, Tahitians were makers of their own history before and after Europeans' arrival.
What does all of this have to do with Aphrodite? A lot, for she was a mighty goddess to Tahitians and Europeans alike. Salmond describes how deeply eros animated Tahitian society, which honored sex as the procreative force that brought the universe into being and regularly restored the fertility of the earth. Countering the European myth of a lascivious society, however, she notes that young Tahitian men and women were generally modest, and married women were supposed to be faithful to their spouses. The open availability of women to the early visitors, she argues, was related to the cult of 'Oro, for the Tahitians identified the newcomers with the god and sought his favor through sexual alliance with them; in a more mundane way Tahitians expected sexual favors to forge bonds with men of power, native or foreign. For its part elite European culture was undergoing a profound, unprecedentedly open revolt against the repressive sexual...