the devastation of tahiti -- 6/11/19

Today's selection -- from Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. In the century after Europeans first landed there, the native population of Tahiti declined from 204,000 to 7,000:

"The [HMS] Endeavour [under Lieutenant James Cook] dropped anchor on April 13, 1769, in Tahiti's Matavai Bay, the same inlet the [HMS] Dolphin [under Captain Samuel Wallis] had visited two years before. ...

"The islanders inspired ... awe. 'I never beheld statelier men,' wrote [the Quaker artist, Sydney] Parkinson, who described them as tall, muscular, and tawny, with large black eyes and perfect white teeth. They seemed to possess a natural grace: in their gait, in their manners, in their fluid athleticism when swimming and canoeing. But it was the women who captivated the English most of all. They bathed three times a day in a river near Point Venus, shaved under their arms (as did the men), bedecked their hair with blossoms, and anointed themselves with coconut oil....

"Islanders also displayed as little inhibition with the Endeavour's crew as they had with the Dolphin's. 'The women begin to have a share in our Friendship which is by no means Platonick,' the ship's master, Robert Molyneux, observed soon after the Endeavour's arrival. He returned to the subject a few weeks later: 'The Venereal Disorder made sad work among the People.' So sad that more than a third of the crew showed signs of infection.

A scene in Tahiti, with two war canoes, and a sailing canoe. Either side of the long house, are pandanus, breadfruit, banana, coconut trees, and the taro plant. From Drawings illustrative of Captain Cook's First Voyage, 1768-1771. Image credit: British Library

"Cook, always mindful of his men's health, tried to contain the dis­ease's spread by barring infected men from going ashore. 'But all I could do was to little purpose for I may safely say that I was not assisted by any one person in ye Ship.' Cook also feared for Tahitians, presciently observing that the disease 'may in time spread it self over all the Islands in the South Seas, to the eternal reproach of those who first brought it among them.'

"Who had brought it remained unclear. The Dolphin's crew hadn't reported any cases of venereal disease -- or, as Cook and his crew vari­ously termed the illness in their journals, 'this filthy distemper,' 'the fowl disease,' 'the Pox,' 'a Clap,' 'that heavy Curse,' and 'that greatest plague that ever the human Race was afflicted with.' A month before the Endeavour's arrival in Tahiti, Cook's surgeon had checked the men and found only one sailor afflicted; he was barred from con­tact with Tahitian women. So Cook consoled himself with islanders' reports that the disease had arrived with other European visitors.

"The Frenchman, Bougainville, disputed this. He wrote that syphilis was already present when he landed ten months after the Dolphin. Hence another chapter in the cross-Channel blame game, whereby the English termed syphilis the French disease and the French referred to it as le mal Anglais. To complicate matters, some scholars believe that the sickness wasn't syphilis but yaws, a tropical skin disease that pro­duces symptoms similar to those of venereal disease.

"To afflicted islanders, the source of the contagion made little differ­ence. Nor was venereal disease the deadliest consequence of Western contact. When Cook returned to Tahiti in 1773, islanders complained of another scourge, brought by a Spanish ship that had visited in the interim. 'They say that it affects the head, throat and stomack and at length kills them,' Cook wrote. 'They dread it much and were con­stantly enquiring if we had it.' Cook didn't identify this influenzalike ailment, but he wrote that Tahitians called it Apa no Peppe (the sick­ness of Pepe), 'just as they call the venereal disease Apa no Britannia or Brit-tanee, notwithstanding they to a man say that it was first com­municated by M. de Bougainville.'

"As Tahiti became a popular port of call in the decades following Cook's visit, other diseases took hold: tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, whooping cough. Alcoholism and internecine warfare, abetted by Western weapons and mercenaries, became rife as well. The toll was catastrophic. In 1774, Cook estimated Tahiti's population at 204,000. By 1865, less than a century after the first European visit, a French census recorded only 7,169 native inhabitants remaining on the island."



Tony Horwitz


Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before


Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2002 by Tony Horwitz


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