At daylight, Tahiti, an island which must for ever remain as classical to the Voyager in the South Sea, was in view. — At this distance the appearance was not very inviting; the luxuriant vegetation of the lower parts was not discernible & the centre as the clouds rolled past showed the wildest & most precipitous peaks which can be well imagined. — As soon as we got to an anchor in Matavai bay, we were surrounded by canoes. — This was our Sunday but their Monday; if the case had been reversed we should not have received a single visit, for the injunction not to launch a canoe on the Sabbath is rigidly obeyed. After dinner we landed to enjoy all the delights of the first impressions produced by a new country & that country the charming Tahiti. — Crowds of men, women & children were collected on the memorable Point Venus ready to receive us with laughing merry faces. They marshalled us towards the house of Mr Wilson the missionary of the district, who met us on the road and gave us a very friendly reception. After sitting a short time in the house we separated to walk about, but returned in the evening at tea-time.
The only ground cultivated or inhabited in this part of the Island is a stripe or points of low flat Alluvial soil accumulated at the base of the mountains & protected by the reef of coral, which encircles at [a] distance the entire land. The whole of this land is covered by a most beautiful orchard of Tropical plants. in the midst of bananas, orange, cocoa-nut & Bread fruit trees, spots are cleared where Yams, sweet potatoes, sugar cane & pineapples are cultivated. Even the brushwood is a fruit tree, namely the Guava, which from its abundance is noxious as a weed — In Brazil I have often admired the contrast of varied beauty in the banana, palm & orange trees; here we have in addition the Bread-fruit, conspicuous by its large, glossy & deeply digitated leaf. It is admirable to behold groves of a tree sending forth its branches with the force of an old oak in England, loaded with large nutritious fruit. However little generally the utility explains the delight received from any fine prospect, in such cases as this it cannot fail largely to enter as an element in the feelings. — The little winding paths, cool from the surrounding shade, lead to the scattered houses. These have been too often described, for me to say anything about them: they are pleasant, airy abodes, but not quite so clean as I had been led to expect.
In nothing have I been so much pleased as with the inhabitants. — There is a mildness in the expression of their faces, which at once banishes the idea of a savage, — & an intelligence which shows they are advancing in civilization. — No doubt their dress is incongruous, as yet no settled costume having taken the place of the ancient one. — But even in its present state it is far from being so ridiculous as described by travellers of a few years standing. — Those who can afford it, wear a white shirt & sometimes a jacket, with a wrapper of coloured cotton round their middles, thus making a short petticoat like the Chilipa of the Gaucho. — This appears so general with the chiefs, that probably it will become the settled fashion. They do not, even to the Queen, wear shoes or stockings, & only the chiefs a straw hat on their heads. — The common people when working, have the whole of the upper part of their bodies uncovered; & it is then that a Tahitian is seen to advantage. — In my opinion, they are the finest men I have ever beheld; — very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, with their limbs well proportioned. It has been remarked that but little habit makes a darker tint of the skin more pleasing & natural to the eye of an Europæan than his own color. — To see a white man bathing along side a Tahitian, was like comparing a plant bleached by the gardeners art, to the same growing in the open fields. — Most of the men are tattooed, the ornaments so gracefully follow the curvature of the body that they really have a very elegant & pleasing effect. One common figure varying only in its detail branches somewhat like palm leaves (the similarity is not closer than between the capital of a Corinthian column & a tuft of Acanthus) from the line of the back bone & embraces each side. The simile is a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man was thus ornamented like the trunk of a noble tree by a delicate creeper.
Many of the older people have their feet covered with small figures, placed in order so as to resemble a sock. — This fashion is however partly gone by & has been succeeded by others. Here, although each man must for ever abide by the whim which reigned in his early days, yet fashion is far from immutable. An old man has his age for ever stamped on his body & he cannot assume the air of a young dandy. — The women are also tattooed much in the same manner as the men & very commonly on their fingers.— An unbecoming fashion in another respect is now almost universal; it is cutting the hair, or rather shaving it from the upper part of the head in a circular manner so as only to leave an outer ring of hair. — The Missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit, but it is the fashion & that is answer enough at Tahiti as well as Paris.— I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women; they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a flower in the back of the head or through a small hole in each ear is pretty. The flower is generally either white or scarlet & like the Camelia Japonica. — The women also wear a sort of crown of woven cocoa nut leaves, as a shade to their eyes. — They are in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.
Hospitality is here universal. — I entered many of their houses & everywhere received a merry pleasant welcome. — All the men understand a little English, that is they know the names of common things; with the aid of this & signs a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. — After thus wandering about each his own way we returned to Mr Wilson's. In going afterwards to the boat we were interrupted by a very pretty scene, numbers of children were playing on the beach, & had lighted bonfires which illuminated the placid sea & surrounding trees: others in circles were singing Tahitian verses. — we seated ourselves on the sand & joined the circle. The songs were impromptu & I believe relating to our arrival; one little girl sang a line which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. — the air was singular & their voices melodious. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an Island in the South Sea.
Captain Fitzroy’s Journal
Early this morning we saw Otaheite; but clouds hanging over the high land and a haziness about the horizon, at first disappointed our expectations. As the sun rose higher, the clouds shrunk away, vanishing as they rolled along the grandly formed mountains: high, sharp, irregular peaks, and huge masses of rock appeared between the mists, and again were hidden—deep vallies or glens showed darkly, and while the shadows passed, seemed to be denied the light of day. Strikingly different in appearance were the lower hills and dales, and the richly wooded land at the sea-side. There the bright sunshine heightened the vivid and ever-varying tints of a rich verdure. The beautiful alternation of light and shade, each moment changing as the flitting shadows passed over every kind of green; the groves of graceful palm-trees; the dazzling white foam of the breakers on the coral reefs, contrasted by the deep blue of the sea, combined to form a most enchanting view. At a distance in the west, Eimeo (Moorea) showed a picturesque outline, and added to the beauty of a scene which surpassed our ideas, even heightened as they had been by the descriptions of former voyagers.
Passing Point Venus, and avoiding the Dolphin Shoal, we worked up to an anchorage in Matavai Bay. No pilot appeared, but had we waited in the offing, a very good one* would have offered his services. With a fresh breeze, we gained the anchorage so quickly that few natives had time to hasten on board, as is their usual custom: only one long canoe came alongside while we sailed in: it was made of half a tree, hollowed out, with a narrow rough plank laced to each side, and an outrigger, consisting of two crooked branches, secured to the canoe and to a long piece of light wood which floated in the water parallel to it. This out-rigger extended eight or ten feet from the ticklish conveyance, and enabled four men to sit at their ease in the narrow trunk of a tree that had never exceeded a foot in diameter.
The personal appearance of these men was to me most remarkable: tall and athletic, with very well-formed heads and a good expression of countenance, they at once made a favourable impression, which their quiet good-humour and tractable disposition afterwards heightened very much. To my eye they differed from the aborigines of southern South America in the form of their heads; in the width or height of the cheek-bones; in their eye-brows; in their colour; and most essentially in the expression of their countenances. High foreheads; defined and prominent eyebrows; with a rich, bronze colour, give an Asiatic expression to the upper part of their faces; but the flat noses (carefully flattened in infancy), and thick lips, are like those of the South Americans.
By the time the vessel was secured, a number of canoes had assembled, each containing from two to ten persons. A few, indeed, were so small that they could only hold one man each. The outriggers hindered their approach, as much as hoops impeded the motions of our maternal ancestors; but those who could not get near looked equally happy at a distance. All were cheerful, tractable, and patient, though eager to see the 'manuâ' (their corruption of man-of-war), and dispose of their merchandize (shells and fruit) to the new-comers.
The work necessary for securing the ship being completed, permission was given to admit the natives; and on board they swarmed like bees. In a minute, our deck became a crowded and noisy bazaar. 'One dălă' (dollar), and 'my ty' ('maitai,' meaning 'good, fine, agreed,' &c.) sounded in all tones, except those of women, none of whom appeared afloat. The current price of every article was 'one dala': a pig, a shell, a whole basket of shells, a roll of cloth, a heap of fruit, or a single fishhook, of the worst description, were offered as equivalents for the coveted dollar. Old clothes, if of cloth, they would not take, unless as a gift; but linen was acceptable. Every man had a light linen or cotton garment, or the remains of one, of some kind; the more respectable wore shirts, and loose wrappers for trowsers; a few had jackets and trowsers. Many had straw hats; some had a wreath of leaves, some flowers in their hair: only a few of the youngest boys were nearly naked.
Mr. Darwin and I went to Point Venus, and landed among a mob of inquisitive, laughing, and chattering natives, most of whom were women and children. Mr. Wilson, the respected missionary, so long resident at Matavai, met us on the beach; and with him we went, attended by the younger part of the mob, to his house. Ten minutes' walk along level land, every where, except at the sea-side, covered or shaded by thick underwood, tall palms, and the rich foliage of the bread-fruit tree, brought us to the quiet dwelling. The free, cheerful manners of the natives who gathered about the door, and unceremoniously took possession of vacant seats, on chairs, or the floor, showed that they were at home with their benefactors; and that any seclusion or offensive intimation of superiority had not existed in the conduct of Mr. or Mrs. Wilson. Two chiefs, of inferior rank, made acquaintance with us; they walked into the room, shook hands, sat down at their ease, and conversed with Mr. Wilson in exactly the manner of respectable English farmers. They were large, but inactive-looking men, and round-shouldered—suitably clothed, above the knees, in clean white jackets, shirts, and wrapper trowsers, with their closely-cut hair hidden by a large straw-hat—their appearance was very respectable. 'la-orana,' pronounced 'yoronha,' was a salutation we soon learned; but one of my younger shipmates was a little perplexed during his first excursion, "Why does every one call me 'Your honour,'" said he. Most of our officers and many of the men passed the evening on shore, and Mr. Darwin and myself rambled about until darkness summoned all on board.
Often as the native houses have been described, I found them different from the idea I had formed. Perhaps they are now rather slighter, and not constructed exactly like those of other times. Upon slight posts, placed in the ground in a long ellipse, a very light and elegant frame-work of 'purau'* is supported. This frame-work forms the low, but extensive roof; and upon it a thatch of pandanus leaves,—simply doubled upon twigs or reeds placed crosswise on the purau-wood rafters, which have their ends outwards,—forms a light covering, impervious to water, regular, indeed pretty to the eye, impenetrable by heat, and easily replaced once in eight or ten years. The middle of the roof forms an obtuse angle, as a common low roof does elsewhere; but the ends are rounded. The purau rafters are placed at equal distances around the circumference, converging as radii to the centres and central line of the ellipse. All of them are of equal length and size, and their ends are generally ornamented with a neat matting, made of a mosaic†pattern. Each line of twigs, holding the leaves, is straight and equi-distant from the next; and as, in the house, only about three inches of the smooth surface of each leaf is seen between the lines of twigs, the flat under surface, of an uniform appearance and light straw colour, aids the smooth, round purau in agreeably surprising the eye of a stranger by a new kind of architecture, as admirable as it is simple. Around the house, instead of a wall, are strong canes, regularly placed between the supporting posts, at distances (one or two inches) equal to the diameter of the canes; they are driven into the ground, and secured to the roof; one opening only is left for a door. Within are some screens of native cloth, or framed bed-places, or simply mats spread upon dry grass. There are a few low stools, some baskets, joints of bamboo holding cocoa-nut oil, and calabashes with water, besides a variety of smaller things, which I had not time to examine. What house in a tropical climate could be more agreeable than one of these elegant wicker-work cottages, shaded round by large trees, and profiting by the fresh air of every breeze?
Pretty shades for the face (they cannot be called hats, as they encircle and project from, without covering the head) are made with the palm-leaves. When fresh, adorned by white, or deep red flowers, and tastefully placed, this head-dress is unique and pleasing.
Perhaps my eyes were prejudiced in favour of features and complexion; for the shambling gait and flat noses of the native women had no charms for me. I saw no beauty among them; and either they are not as handsome as they were said to be, or my ideas are fastidious. The men, on the other hand, exceed every idea formed from the old descriptions.