An Essay on Tahitians and Europeans in the Voyage of Bougainville
The Voyage of Bougainville tells of a story about a voyage into the island of Tahiti which was led by Bougainville. His group wandered and stayed in this island for a period of time during which they were welcomed by its natives, Tahitians, with overwhelming hospitality, and a degree of trust, due to their innocence and ignorance of the ways and motives of Europeans. They offered them their women as a welcome gesture.
Their stay, however, had manifested a great degree of difference in morals, customs, ways and beliefs between Tahitians and Europeans, and had irked the ire of their Chieftain.
The differences between these cultures became even more evident through the discourse between Orou, a Tahitian, and the European Chaplain. It may be said that Tahitians lead a savage life, a way of life that is ‘near the origin of the world,’ whereas Europeans live in a society with a ‘complicated mechanism’ brought about by its advanced culture. Clearly, the difference is remarkable to say the least. But Tahitians and Europeans, similarly, had beliefs, customs, and morals that they religiously followed however different they were.
We shall discuss extensively their differences, and how they will be manifested and supported through an examination of their lifestyles, practices, customs, and beliefs. As Tahitians greatly held the law of nature as superior, the Europeans believe without a doubt, and with great conviction, that the law of God was absolute and supreme, above all else. They likewise held different views in how to live their lives, whereas Europeans were great achievers of material gains and human knowledge, Tahitians were happy with the basic necessities of life. They did not want anything more than what they needed.
Perhaps, citizens of modern society would view the seemingly extreme beliefs and morals of Tahitians as barbaric, especially in their views towards sexual act, child bearing and the union between men and women. On the other hand, they regarded the beliefs and customs of Europeans as going against the ways of nature, illogical, and hypocritical. Tahitians viewed their women differently from that of familiar Europeans, including that of physical attributes in general. What may be important and beautiful to the modern world held no importance and were valueless in the eyes of the Tahitians.
These points of differences merit point by point discussion, as well as their potential similarities. Basic vs. Excess Historically, Europeans have always gone to great lengths to widen its reach in land and territory; improved on skills and knowledge; increased its sources for food, among many reasons. In fact, they have traveled all over the globe, to lands yet unexplored in search for things that they thought they needed or wanted, that were not available in their native lands, or to lay claim on those lands that they found, whether or not these land have inhabitants.
They strived hard and worked towards their worldly goals in the hope that these will enrich their lives. These desires to explore, to know and to claim in excess of what they had, paved way for Europeans to acquire reaches and influence of great magnitude, perhaps, even having been instrumental in populating half the world. On the other hand, the Tahitians were content in their own part of the world, without a care to the goings on of the people in other parts of the globe.
They were happy in their land and had no wish to explore and gain worldly possessions outside of what their native land could offer, their isolation had been instrumental in their innocence. However ignorant they may be of worldly knowledge, as they hold no importance to it, they were not desirous of it or in want of anything else. As the Tahitian chieftain has remarked upon Bougainville’s and his troop’s departure from Tahiti, Europeans brought over to their land was only chaos and confusion in return to their hospitality.
They were certain that they would never barter their ignorance for the Europeans’ “useless” knowledge, as it would do them no good in their desire to remain grounded and maintain the basic necessities of life. To Tahitians, if a people has enough food to feed themselves, then they should not want for anything more, they gave utmost importance to their basic needs alone, all else were unimportant. They lived in order to be happy, and exerted effort only so slightly to provide their basic needs; in fact, they reduced work to the barest minimum, as much as possible, to enjoy more of life.
However, the Chieftain of Tahiti was troubled by the Europeans as they brought with them customs and beliefs which inadvertently influenced his people to react differently regarding their traditional customs. In his mind, the European’s imaginary needs, that is, outside of their basic necessities, would only be cause for trouble to the simple Tahitians. Clearly, each side of the two widely different cultures offer insight to their principles by which we could see that they bear virtues and reason, albeit, different ones.
These two cultures were as far from each other as could ever be, but they were similarly obedient in their ways and customs. It was worth noting, though, that the Europeans seemed to be more receptive of the culture of Tahiti, contrary to the Tahitians who were more set in their beliefs. Based on the discourse between the Chaplain and Orou, the Tahitian native, the Chaplain had expressed understanding and desire to learn the reasons behind the other person’s culture, he showed some degree of acceptance of the other’s culture, as well.
On the other hand, Orou expressed utter disbelief to European culture and strongly expressed that he could not understand the reason for their beliefs and customs. Exclusivity vs. Freedom In the eyes of an ordinary person, living in a regular, ordinary modern world, the ways, customs, beliefs and practices of Tahitians may be regarded as “immoral” and “barbaric” to say the least. It is important to note that Tahitians did not regard the act of sexual activity with any form of malice.
What to Europeans was a topic of utmost sensitivity and acts done in a supremely private environment was to Tahitians an act done in perfect freedom and absence of restraints. For young men and women of Tahiti, losing their virginity was a part of the rite of passage to adulthood, when they reached the right age of procreation, they were publicly celebrated in a ceremony that were open for all to see. This custom must have been an amazing shock to the “morals” of the European visitors.
After all, such a practice was unheard of especially in a society where openly talking about sexual activities was a taboo, and the act itself was regarded with malice. A public display of such an act as was normal to Tahitians must, to a certain degree, offended the sensibilities of the Europeans whose sexual activities were always kept behind closed doors. According to the Tahitian Chieftain, due to this crooked “morals” and belief, the foreigners had inadvertently planted the shadows of malice into the heads of young men and women, regarding sex.
After their arrival, young men and women have started to “blush” and became “uncomfortable” about the ceremony of “losing their “virginity,” and in so doing have tainted the once pure and innocent source of their happiness. Moreover, Tahitians’ unique custom and hospitality involved offering their women – daughters and mothers alike – to male visitors, where they could take their pick from those “offered” to them in the household. Refusal to accept this offer of generosity and hospitality” was a serious affront to the family, especially to the man of the house.
The Europeans must have found this arrangement uncomfortable, strange, but nevertheless welcome, except for their Chaplain. Orou, who had taken in the Chaplain to his household as a guest for the duration of the Europeans’ visit, offered his wife as well as his three daughters to the visitor, much to his astonishment. He had never been this close to temptation, but he did his best to hold on to his beliefs. He repeatedly told them that he could not possibly take what he was being offered because of his religion and calling, to the disbelief and confusion of his host, Orou.
He took it as an affront, not understanding the Chaplain’s religion and faith, and questioned him if he thought his (European) customs were better than theirs (Tahitian). However, the story did imply that the Chaplain succumbed to the “hospitality” of the household. In their conversation, Orou explained that in their land, the sexual act was without malice and was shared as a family, and learned that what Europeans term as incest and adultery were accepted as part of the customs.
Moreover, sexual act was viewed as merely an end to procreate as compared to the European norm where the act as a form of pleasure and gratification, were as important as the purpose of procreation. And as such, the purpose of Orou’s offering his daughter to the Chaplain was to help bear a child. Tahitians regard sex mainly as a means to multiply or bear a child, for they equated riches with the number of brood they have in the household. Every new born was an addition to the household’s fortune and was therefore welcome.
For Europeans, however, it was not uncommon to regard a child – although well loved – as an expense to the household rather than an additional fortune for they were considered as a source of expense for a long period of time before they could do service in return. Similarly in both cultures, the birth of a child was the occasion of domestic joy. As Europeans see the newborn with all its potential success in the future, Tahitians see in the child a farmer, a fisherman, a hunter, a soldier, a husband and the father. Childbearing was also a status symbol for women.
Tahitian women of age who have not yet bore a child was often seen and treated as an inferior to those who already produced children. Therefore, it became the sole purpose of women of the right age, to bear children or procreate lest be considered as barren. Interestingly, while European culture view the union of man and woman as exclusive and the freedom to perform a sexual act commences after marriage, it was the complete opposite in Tahitian culture. For to them, the idea of a man and a woman belonging exclusively to each other for all of their lives was “opposed to nature and contrary to reason.
” They saw such exclusivity as going against the general law of existence and violated the freedom of men and women. It was senseless to confine pleasures to a single person, than to give them freedom to choose, for all things in their land belong to all of them. The Law of God vs. Law of Nature It might be safe to say that the root of the difference between the European and Tahitian cultures come mainly from their differences in beliefs and in the laws that they follow, and more importantly the source of those laws.
To the Tahitians, the Law of Nature dictates their actions, customs, morals and beliefs. They do not go against what nature has allowed them to do and view it as the more logical and natural approach to life. Their beliefs dictated that Nature’s eternal will was to hold good over evil, and the public good is above the good for one individual. Orou learned from the Chaplain that although God forbids the sin of the flesh, He allowed them to do as they will, and viewed God as someone “who commands but is never obeyed; who can prevent but does not do so.
” He did not understand the concept of will power that God gave to human beings, which was fervently believed by the Europeans. Orou questioned the Chaplain furthermore, whether the young men and women in his country never sleep together without permission; and if a woman who has been sworn to belong only to her husband, never give herself to another man, and vice versa? The Chaplain answered with the truth, that yes, they indeed happen. To this, Orou concluded, that Europeans are a bunch of hypocrites for they had beliefs and laws which they did not obey.
The beliefs of these two different cultures both held their own merits, although the Tahitians’ beliefs were outrageous from the viewpoint of a European, or modern day person, it did have plenty of logical reasons behind it. They have maintained an unmoving and firm stance on their belief on the laws of nature, and maintained that such simplicity and attachment to nature was the more logical choice of action. Contrary to their simple and spartan beliefs on the laws of nature, Europeans held three codes with high regard, these were: the natural code, the civil code, and the religious.
It could be said that not everyone abides by these codes, but Europeans strongly believed in their necessity to maintain peace and happiness. Women of Tahiti vs. Women of Europe In general, as society progresses, so do its taste/preference, viewpoint, and thinking improves. Even historically, Europe has always been at the helm of progress and culture, its women of classic and undeniable beauty. Europeans, as in most part of the world, are of opinion that physical beauty is equitable to brilliant complexion, broad forehead, large eyes, refined and delicate features, a slender waist, a small mouth, small hands and feet.
On the other hand, Tahiti had a different standard of beauty, especially in its women. A woman who held promise of a large family was sought after and pursued by men, usually active, intelligent, brave, healthy and robust. A Tahitian woman to her fellow native woman, “You are beautiful but your children are ugly. I am ugly, but my children are beautiful, and I am the one the men prefer. ” This clearly illustrated their standard of beauty and attractiveness. To them, beauty was more of personal qualities, than physical attributes.
Again, the quality of childbearing ability was manifested in how they were seen by their fellow natives. Contrary to European women, Tahitian women retain the freedom to choose who they would like to live with, in a household, even after she has had a husband. While European women, like men, were bound by the laws and strict customs, Tahitian women, like their men, were free to separate from their previous marriage without the bindings of the law and disapproval of the society.
In situations when the woman had existing children with her previous “relationship” she simply takes along her children, as dowry, to her new chosen household. In situations when there were multiple children, the parents simply divide among them equally. In Tahiti, barren women are treated as outcasts, simply put it would be hard for these women to be accepted in the society, and thus, attain happiness. Due to the importance that they attribute to child bearing capacity, Tahitian women who lack in the most essential proof of womanhood, became stigmatized by their society.
More so because of this, men were not supposed to have sexual activities with them as nothing would be produced by such an action. Barren women even had to wear a black veil at all times to warn the men that they were not worth pursuing. A woman who removed this veil and mingled with men was considered as a loose woman, and the man who raises the veil and had relations with a barren woman was a libertine. In progressive Europe, although barrenness would create a big personal impact on the woman and her husband,
it would not be a cause to be stigmatized and labeled by the society. Such simplicity could never be accepted by European women for they held their family dear and would never, in most cases, think of leaving their children behind. It could be safely said, though, that both kinds of women took good care of their husbands. Physical attributes Similarly to the standards of beauty of women, Tahitian men held different views of physical superiority, but not much different from that of European men.
It can be safely assumed that people who were not favoured by nature could not be fully happy in Tahiti, but such situation is similar to European society where the beautiful and powerful command greater respect and attention. Similarly to Europeans, Tahitians place high regard to health, beauty, strength, industry and courage as well. However, they believe that their people are more healthy and robust than their European counterparts. They knew not any plague or sickness for their land had always been healthy, save for the diseases that were spread by the Europeans themselves.
Admittedly, Tahitians believed that the Europeans were the more intelligent people, but they were healthier and stronger, and only old age could plague them, not diseases. Conclusion Certainly, Tahitians were very different from that of Europeans in every respect. There was a great degree of disagreement between them as to what culture, practices, beliefs and customs were superior. The following summarizes the observations and regard of Tahitians on the ways, beliefs, practices and customs of the Europeans:
“By the tyranny of man, who has turned the possession of a woman into the right of property; By manners and customs, which have overweighed the conjugal union with conditions; By civil laws, which have subjected marriage to an infinity of formalities; and by the nature of our society, in which the difference of rank and fortune have introduced the proper and improper. ” The Tahitian beliefs and customs are completely opposite to every point in the above observation. Indeed, in their land, women held as much freedom as that of men in term of choosing their partners, and the freedom to so choose with whom she would like to live with.
Although to a certain extent, they seemed to be as much as properties whenever they were being offered to visitors as a form of hospitality, it should be noted that these women believe and enjoy this practice. Meanwhile, the Europeans were indeed bound and overweighed by the conditions of their unions or marriage, as opposed to the Tahitians who could separate and change partners as they please, and only subject to the agreement between both parties. As they were not tied by any legal bindings, their culture allowed them to do as they please.
However, in fairness to the Europeans in regard to the conditions of conjugal union, they would not want it differently as these conditions and formalities protect their relationship and cement their status in the society, as married couple. Unfortunately, society had indeed created a division between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the popular and the obscure and other opposites of the spectrum. Meanwhile, the Tahitians know not any division or segregation. Theirs is an example of a society that held equal regard for everyone, albeit, a “barbaric’ yet unpretentious society.