Tahiti:  Documentation

Tahiti, in the Society Islands, is the largest island in French Polynesia. The physical structure is comprised of two volcanoes, the larger being Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and the smaller Tahiti Iti (Little Tahiti).  The English Captain Samuel Wallis was the first European on the island in 1767, and was closely followed by the Frenchman, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, in 1768.  The writings of explorers such as Bougainville, James Cook and Charles Darwin gave the outside world a tantalizing image of Tahiti as a natural unchanging paradise. Tahitians were not recognized as people with a dynamic culture, but were presented rather as passive residents of an uncivilized or untouched Garden of Eden. The image of paradise presented by outsiders is still visible today in tourist literature and it is worthwhile to explore the roots of these potent images.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville came to Tahiti during the late 1700s. He kept record of things he saw and experienced while in Tahiti and later published A Voyage Around the World.  Upon his arrival in Tahiti he was welcomed and invited to sit down with the chief and other islanders. He paints an image of hospitality and friendliness in his writings:  "We were almost come to them when we were stopped by an islander, of a fine figure, who lying under a tree, invited us to sit down by him on the grass. We accepted his offer: he then leaned towards us, and with a tender air he slowly sung a song, without doubt of the Anacreontic kind, to the tune of a flute, which another Indian blew with his nose: this was charming scene, and worthy the pencil of a Boucher.”  

The French set up a camp shortly after arriving in Tahiti and the natives brought many gifts for the sailors. “Hither the natives from all sides brought fruits, fowls, hogs, fish, and pieces of cloth," Bougainville wrote, "which they exchanged for nails, tools, beads, buttons, and numberless other trifles, which were treasures to them. They were, upon the whole, very attentive to learn what would give us pleasure. ... Whether they be at home or no, by day or by night, their houses are always open.”

Bougainville rhapsodized on the Paradisical qualities of the place: "I thought I was transported into the garden of Eden; we crossed a turf, covered with fine fruit-trees, and intersected by little rivulets, which keep up a pleasant coolness in the air, without any of those inconveniences which humidity occasions.”  He wrote of open-handed generosity, frank sexuality, and air so salubrious that his sick crewmen were cured by going ashore.

Those of our men who were sent on shore because they were afflicted with the scurvy, have not passed one night there quietly, yet they regained their strength, and were so far recovered in the short space of time they stayed on shore, that some of them were afterwards perfectly cure on board. In short, what better proofs can we desire of the salubrity of the air, and the good regimen which the inhabitants observe, than the health and strength of these same islanders, who inhabit huts exposed to all the winds, and hardly cover the earth which serves them as a bed with a few leaves; the happy old age to which they attain without feeling any of its inconveniences; the acuteness of all their sense; and lastly, the singular beauty of their teeth, which they keep even in the north in the most advanced age?

The very air which the people breathe, their songs, their dances, almost constantly attended with indecent postures, all conspire to call to mind the sweets of love, all engage to give themselves up to them.

The worst consequences of the shipwreck, with which we had hitherto been threatened, would have been to pass the remainder of our days on an isle adorned with all the gifts of nature, and to exchange the sweets of the mother-country, for a peaceable life, exempted from cares. 

The Bristish explorer Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779), who was also a navigator and cartographer, first arrived in Tahiti in 1769. Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks each kept journals of their voyage and each depict the Tahitians as being peaceful, and describe trade between the two parties. Unlike Bougainville, Cook and Banks delve into aspects other than the peace of the island people, but do not stray too far from the description.  In his earliest encounters, Cook describes the Tahitians as thieves and monkeys (referring to their tremendous agility around his ship): “Two that appear’d to be Chiefs we had on board together with several others for it was a hard matter to keep them out of the Ship, as they clime like Munkeys, but it was still harder to keep them from Stealing but every thing that came within their reach” (Turnbull). 

Banks later wrote of thieving on the island as well: “I do not know by what accident I have so long omitted to mention how much these people are given to theiving. I will make up for my neglect however today by saying that great and small cheifs and common men all are firmly of opinion that if they can once get possession of any thing it immediately becomes their own.”

Perhaps in response to thieving, it seems Banks deemed it necessary to control the Tahitians. On the 15th of April, Banks describes his thoughts of Tahitians as being passive. “This morn we landed at the watering place bringing with us a small tent which we set up. In doing this we were attended by some hundreds of the natives who shewd a deference and respect to us which much amazd me. I myself drew a line before them with the butt end of my musquet and made signs to them to set down without it, they obeyd instantly and not a man attempted to set a foot within it, above two hours were spent so and not the least disorder being committed” (Turnbull).

Cook and Banks do not make the Tahitians out to be perfect examples of human beings. They discuss trade often, and acknowledge both a canny mercantalism and a value system among the Tahitians for items such as pigs. On the 13th of April Banks described an incident where some local people "had one pig with them which they refus’d to sell for nails upon any account but repeatedly offerd it for a hatchet” (Turnbull).

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) visited Tahiti in 1835 and wrote descriptions in his journal consistent with those recorded by his predecessors more than sixty years earlier.  

15 November:  The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic and well-proportioned.

17 November:  Hot roasted bananas, a pine-apple, and cocoa-nuts. After walking under a burning sun, I do not know anything more delicious than the milk of a young cocoa-nut. Pine-apples are here so abundant that the people eat them in the same wasteful manner as we might turnips. They are of an excellent flavor—perhaps even better than those cultivated in England; and this I believe is the highest compliment which can be paid to any fruit.

18 November:  I told my guides to provide themselves with food and clothing; but they said that there was plenty of food in the mountains ... The sides of the valley were here nearly precipitous, but, as frequently happens with stratified rocks, small ledges projected, which were thickly covered by wild bananas, lilaceous plants, and other luxuriant productions of the tropic … above which a beautiful cascade, some hundred feet in height, poured down its waters, and beneath, another high cascade fell into the main stream in the valley below. ... I could not look on the surrounding plants without admiration.

19 November:  The Tahitians, with their naked, tattooed bodies, their heads ornamented with flowers, and seen in the dark shade of these groves, would have formed a fine picture of man inhabiting some primeval land.

A visual image of Tahiti as a paradise was added to the written descriptions when European and American artists, including Paul Gauguin and John LaFarge, arrived late in the nineteenth century—LaFarge in 1890 and Gauguin a year later.

LaFarge portrayed the Tahitians in a peaceful, surreal fashion.  Frank Jewett Mather, a contemporary of LaFarge commented on his work in Tahiti and its reception at home, capturing the dichotomy between paradise and the "savages" who inhabited it. "Among these nude folk the body still had commemoration. That any beautiful thing should pass away unrecorded was painful to him... Perhaps Mr. La Farge’s essentially fastidious and aristocratic personality—an aristocracy, however, compatible with universal sympathy— made him an alien in a civilization that loves uniformity and averages” (Page, 14096-7).Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti in order to leave “everything that is artificial and conventional” behind, and already having developed strong romantic and exotic sensibilities.  "Over there," he wrote, "in the silence of tropical nights, I will be able to listen to the soft music whispering the motions from my heart" (Gauguin). In 1896 Gauguin painted Nave nave Mahana or "Delightful Days," and was quoted as follows: "It is indeed life outdoors, but however in the forest, forgotten streams, women whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself, with all the wealth hidden in Tahiti. Hence all the fabulous colors, the blazing but filtered and silent atmosphere."  Gauguin eventually moved from Tahiti to the Marquesas, feeling that the former had already been negatively altered by the impact of Europeans.  His image of the South Seas was that of Bougainville, and the pictures he painted were influenced by those earlier sources.  He reinforced the stereotypical images, especially of Tahitian women, long famous for their beauty and allure.


Nave nave Mahana
Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon


Ia Orana Maria (Ave Maria)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The power of these images survived into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and postcards of Tahiti typically show women in exotic poses and dress.  Jane Resture has a vast collection of historic to modern postcards on her website that highlight what she describes as “the unique and lasting beauty of Tahiti.”  The postcards portray a feeling of timelessness and innocence, unchanged through ceturies of European contact (Resture).


A lady from Tahiti washing clothes in the river.


An early postcard from Tahiti that capture thes essence of a Tahitian woman, with flowers all around and wearing a pareau, in a void, existing in a timeless space.


An early postcard of Papeete Harbour, Tahiti. This postcard show the beautiful, dynamic landscape of Tahiti, and keeps the scene simple with just a few ships. Today, many images continue to portray peaceful waters with few inhabitants, though the port is a very busy one.    

It is dangerous to equate Tahiti, both in historic and modern times, to a place where time stands still, engulfed in romance and constant happiness. Both then and now Tahitian society is dynamic and changing, wtih political and social conflict; more Tahitians live in urban areas than rural ones; and French Polynesia is impacted by global trade and economics. Still, images in photo galleries on tourism sites provide pictures of endless white sand beaches with palm trees. In these images the native Tahitians are dressed in colorful clothing and have an inviting smile on their face. Tahitians often appear to be dancing or striking a pose for the camera. Another common trend in tourism photos of Tahiti are that is frequently appears almost deserted as though you would have the beach to yourself. Also absent from most pictures are any sign of modern buildings, streets or cars which could lead the viewer to believe that Tahiti is unspoiled by roadways and busy cities. These images have a purpose and that purpose is to attract tourists by maintaining an image of Tahiti as a magnificent and romantic paradise, still primitive and isolated from the outside world.  What one finds on visiting is more complicated, more nuanced, and just as appealing.





Elizabeth Davis, Portland State University 
Jennifer Arndt, Syracuse University




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