Early Missionaries in Tahiti

Who are your ancestors? For most people living in 21st-century industrialized societies this is a question that is not easily answered without the help of very recent DNA technology. Many are not even sure who their own great-grandparents were. But for Polynesians in the period before European contact, genealogy was at the center of one’s identity. Expressed through oral tradition, dance, and tattoo, genealogy was one of the foundations of Polynesian culture. The first missionaries in the region, especially those associated with the London Missionary Society, slowly interpreted and exploited the power of genealogy within Tahitian society. Eventually understanding the way that family lineage was central to social authority, they targeted the most powerful elements in Tahitian society for conversion, a process that would to serve to break down the existing social structure and ultimately lead to the collapse and fall of Tahiti to France.

Since the arrival of people in the Polynesian islands beginning over 3,000 years ago, history and power were conveyed through oral tradition from generation to generation.[1] Genealogies were of utmost importance because they were the only way to legitimize one’s right to power or authority as a result of ancestors’ status.[2] Each bloodline traces back to a specific marae, the ancient stone platforms that hold immense spiritual power or mana. These are places of the gods, where people would offer sacrifices and pray. Before the influence of missionaries, the complex oral representation of genealogies is what organized Polynesian society into many classes.

Before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1767, Tahiti and the surrounding islands were engaged in a power struggle between competing chiefs in the ruling class, the ari’i.[3] In every local area there was one ari’i chief; together the ari’i chiefs would determine who had the most prestige and name him or her the ari’i nui based on their ancestry. The easiest comparison of an ari’i nui’s power would be to that of a king or queen, of royal blood. However, if the rule of an ari’i nui was not respected, it was not uncommon for the local ari’i chiefs to gather support and forcefully remove the ari’i nui from power.[4] Normally this vacancy was temporary, until someone of equal prestige based on his or her linkage to the marae came to resume control.

Despite the ongoing struggle for power amongst different island communities and within islands, culture still flourished. In the arts there was dance and tattoo, while in religion the worship of fertility and the increasing prominence of the cult of Oro, god of war, were influencing daily lives. Tattoos not only represented bravery and strength but more importantly they outlined one’s genealogy, thereby demonstrating one’s claim to power and authority in the flesh.[5] They were done as bold lines of varying widths, adorned with decorative lines and shapes, all by use of plant ink, a mallet, and a sharpened bone. Dance was also largely celebrated as a form of storytelling and ceremonial worship. Both arts are still persistent today as a part of Polynesian culture linked to genealogy and ancestry.

Before the introduction of Christianity, people believed in many gods, but the first god was Ta’aro, the creator of all things and land, which he pulled from the sea. As genealogy was important to humans it was also of great significance in the bloodlines of the gods. Oro, the god of fertility and warfare carried immense power as the son of Ta’aro. He became the most important god to Polynesians, particularly in the eighteenth century, when the cult of Oro spread from Raiatea to Tahiti and other islands.[6] Since Oro was the godly figure of fertility and the continuation of genealogy, people often worshiped him by making sacrifices and holding ceremonies featuring sexually explicit dancing and symbols of both war and fertility. In response they expected Oro to bring lush success to the land, animals and people.[7]

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the London Missionary Society had been gaining popularity and support in London, led by Reverend Thomas Hawes. Their choice of Tahiti was not a matter of chance but instead a strategic move. Due to the structure and simplicity of the Tahitian language, Tahiti was chosen as a missionary testing ground over Asia or Africa because of incomers’ ability to quickly gain local vernacular skills during a few months’ stay on the island.[8] In addition, the missionaries knew something of Tahitian social structure from their European forbears—Bougainville and Cook. They were knowledgeable about the ari’i class and the power of genealogy. Confident in their decision to evangelize Tahiti, in 1796 the Society set sail from England in the Duff under Captain Boyd with eighteen missionaries and craftsmen.[9]

At this time the Pomare family held power, strength and prestige, by virtue of its genealogical links to the marae at nearby Raiatea. The first Pomare was a good leader and linked many of the islands surrounding Tahiti, including Mo’orea, Tetiaroa, and Mehetia. He accepted incoming explorers, namely Bougainville and Cook in the late 1760s and 70s, not knowing that missionaries would later exploit these relationships and endorsements for their own purposes.[10] Unlike his father, Pomare II was not well liked by all the ari’i chiefs, and ultimately a local chief, Opuhara, forced him out of Tahiti to Mo’orea. However although Opuhara held power through his strength and bravery, he lacked prestige because his genealogy did not link him to the powerful marae at Raiatea, and thus he could never hold the honorific title of ari’i nui. The missionaries were well aware of this fact and spent no time attempting to convert Opuhara, instead following Pomare II out of Tahiti.

Initially the missionaries made very little headway in converting the Tahitians. When they first tried to recite part of the gospel to Pomare II and other natives in Matavi Bay, the natives laughed at the missionaries and their inability to speak the native tongue.[11] However, the endorsement of previous captains helped them gain a foothold in Tahiti.[12] As time progressed Tahitians showed interest in the missionaries but maintained strong allegiance to their own religions and gods. Nonetheless, over time the influx of alcohol and disease weakened the existing society making it more vulnerable to the missionaries. Pomare II was not effective in the eyes of the local ari’i cheifs. This is why the ari’i chief of the Parea valley, Opuhara, contested Pomare II with the support of his people and forced Pomare II to Mo’orea in 1809.[13]

When Pomare II was forced to Mo’orea, many missionaries left Tahiti as well. As the missionaries recognized the power of Pomare II’s genealogy, Pomare II recognized the power of the missionaries through their access to iron tools, weapons and ammunition. During his time in Mo’orea he was baptized, and he used his conversion and support by the European missionaries to regain power in Tahiti in the Battle of Tiepi in 1815. During this battle Opuhara was killed. Instead of massacring the survivors, Pomare II protected them on condition that they be baptized and convert to Christianity. It is likely that this was done as a way of gaining control over the entire island, which is exactly what he did. With missionary support in 1819, Pomare instated the “Code of Pomare,” the first written law of Tahiti, in which only one religion was recognized.[14] Under this code, idols and sacred items were burned in large bonfires. People were forced to wear clothes, and tattoos and traditional arts were banned. This was a direct attack on the natives’ ability to draw power from their lineages, because the arts through which genealogy was preserved were forbidden.

Not long after regaining power in Tahiti, Pomare II died of alcoholism. At the time of his death the ari’i cheifs had acknolwedged their defeat, and for the most part Tahiti was free of violence. Pomare III was only seven years old when he came to power in 1821, so at the time the missionaries were able to gain further influence. Within seven months, however, the young Pomare died, and his older sister Amimata succeeded him and became known as Pomare IV in 1827.[15]

Pomare IV maintained good relations with the supporting ari’i cheifs and often consulted them when making decisions. She defied many missionary expectations, in particular their repression of sexuality. She spent much of her time away from Tahiti in Mo’orea.[16] The missionaries recognized that their hold in politics was weakening, since Amimata was not as easily moldable and did not care for Christianity or power as the previous Pomares. Missionary George Pritchard arrived in 1824 and set out to change her ways and effectively reestablish a hold for the missionaries within Tahitian politics. He succeeded in converting Pomare IV, and she was baptized in 1835. In the years leading up to her conversion many of the ari’i chiefs rose up against her in 1832 when she tried to force their allegiance. In addition to becoming baptized Pomare also accepted help to suppress the chiefs from a British warship, which in return caused her submission to new British laws.[17]

The missionaries were gaining more and more influence and power in Tahiti, leading to increased political upheaval amongst the natives. In 1836 Pomare IV expelled two French Catholic missionaries from Tahiti under the Code of Pomare, which only allowed for one religion, Protestantism.[18] Ultimately changing Tahiti’s fate, this move was likely made by Pomare IV under the pressure of the London Missionary Society and George Pritchard.[19] Soon afterward, the French Admiral du Petit Thouars demanded an apology for the expulsions of the priests. He forced Pomare IV to pay reparations and salute the French flag, under the threat of bombardment. In addition he drew up a treaty that she signed, fearing bloodshed for her people.

During this time Pomare IV tried to seek help from the British Queen but received no direct support. Finally when Du Petit Thouars returned to Tahiti from France in 1842, he coerced the local ari’i chiefs to sign over Tahiti as a French Protectorate. By the time he got to Pomare IV, who was staying in Mo’orea, she had no choice but to sign away Tahiti, having essentially lost her power due to the betrayal of the male ari’i chiefs.[20] As she signed she knew the implications, as she held her oldest son and said, “My dear child, I have signed away your birthright.”[21]

Despite Tahitian resistance Europeans gained control of Tahiti by understanding the importance of genealogy. In doing so they were able to impose Christianity and ultimately to colonize the Polynesian islands. Though this transition did begin with the London Missionary Society and end with Tahiti as a French rather than British protectorate, the strategic actions of the missionaries were an important causal factor in the long transition.

Meredith Bosco, Cornell University

Suggested Further Reading
Anne D’Alleva. “Christian Skins: Tatau and the Evangelization of the Society Islands and Samoa,” Tattoo, ed. Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole, Bronwen Douglas. (Chapel Hill: Duke UP, 2005): 90-108.

Davies, John, and Colin Walter. Newbury. The History of the Tahitian Mission: 1799- 1830. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961..

Gunson, Niel. “Missionary Interest in British Expansion in the South Pacific in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Religious History 3 (1965): 296-309.

- - -. “On the Incidence of Alcoholism and Intemperance in Early Pacific Missions.” Journal of Pacific History 1 (1966): 43-62.

- - -. “Pomare II of Tahiti and Polynesian Imperialism.” Journal of Pacific History 4 (1969): 65-82.

- - -. "Visionary Experience and Social Protest in Polynesia: A Note on 'Ofa Mele Longosai." Journal of Pacific History 8 (1973): 125-32.

Morrel, W. “The Transition to Christianity in the South Pacific.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 28 (1946): 101-120.


[1] Douglas L. Oliver, The Pacific Islands (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1951): 1.

[2] Oliver, 21.

[3] Edward Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti (New York: Dodd, Mead 1983): 62.

[4] Anne Salmond. Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (Berkeley: U of California P, 2010).

[5] Karen Stevenson, “Heiva: Continuity and Change of a Tahitian Celebration,” Contemporary Pacific 2 (1990): 257.

[6] Salmond, Aphrodite’s Island, 26.

[7] Salmond, Aphrodite’s Island, 26.

[8] Nicole Jacques, “Manuscript XIX: The First Missionary Text in a Polynesian Language,” Journal of Pacific History 22 (1987): 94-101.

[9] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 34.

[10] Jonathan Lamb, Vanessa Smith, and Nicholas Thomas, Exploration & Exchange: A South Seas Anthology, 1680-1900 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000).

[11] Jacques, “Manuscript,” 95.

[12] Lamb, Exploration, 54.

[13] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 36.

[14] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 36.

[15] Patty O’Brien. "‘Think of Me as a Woman’: Queen Pomare of Tahiti and Anglo-French Imperial Contest in the 1840s Pacific," Gender & History 18.1 (2006): 108. Jstor. January 22, 2012.

[16] Obrien, “Think of Me,” 109.

[17] Obrien, “Think of Me,” 109.

[18] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 37.

[19] Obrien, “Think of Me,” 110.

[20] Salmond, Aphrodite’s Island, 26.

[21] Obrien, “Think of Me,” 112.

How to cite this page:
Meredith Bosco. “Early Missionaries in Tahiti,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]