4. A Reconsideration of the Role of Polynesian Women in Early Encounters with Europeans: Supplement to Marshall Sahlins’ Voyage around the Islands of History

Serge Tcherkézoff

Table of Contents

Western “Knowledge” About Pre-Christian Samoan and Tahitian “Customs” Relating to Adolescence and Marriage
Samoan Facts: The Scene Observed by La Pérouse
Internal distinction: Description and interpretation
Ethnographic analysis and extrapolating backward
The “girls” and the “sacrifice”: Comparison with Samoan ceremonies of the period 1830–1850
“The blinds lowered”: Comparison with ethnography of the 1930s to 1980s
The presence of the “women” and “very young girls”
Tahitian Facts: The Scenes of April 7–9 (According to Nassau and Fesche)
Nassau, April 7, 1768
Fesche on April 7
In the following days: Bougainville and Nassau
“Tahitian Marriages” (Fesche)
A forced encounter
The youth of the victims and the ceremonial framework
The question of virginity in the French accounts: The girls’ very young age, deflowering and tears
“Without Asking For Any Reward”: From Ritual to Sexual Commerce (Fesche)
Beyond Tahiti And Samoa: Also Forced Presentations of Young Girls?
The explicit nature of the French journals
Hamilton in Tonga, 1791
J.R. Forster in Aotearoa, 1774
Captain Marchand in the northern Marquesas, 1791
Wallis in Tahiti, 1767
Conclusion (I): One Thing is Certain: Neither Love nor Pleasure
Conclusion (II): A Hypothesis: Virginity, Conception of the First Child
The child of the god
The three partners involved in conception
“Very young age”: The question of the threshold of pubescence
Conclusion (III): European Male Vision

Europeans have been losing their way in the Pacific from the beginning when early explorers made up for navigational errors by claiming inhabited islands as new discoveries. Never mind that the islanders had simultaneously discovered the explorers, no doubt with a fair bit of despair and surprise, but since it took years for islanders to learn the tiny scratches that the visitors called writing, the European claims had a head start in the history books.

(Aiavao 1994)

Je n’ai jamais pu concevoir comment et de quel droit une nation policée pouvait s’emparer d’une terre habitée sans consentement de ses habitants.

(Marchand 1961, 253)

Ethnohistorical work on first and subsequent early encounters between Polynesians and Europeans remained focused on particular archipelagoes, which has meant that comparative hypotheses spanning the entire Polynesian region have not emerged. Moreover, it has been conducted mainly in eastern Polynesia (including Aotearoa), thus leaving aside the western part of the region.[1] In this chapter I examine early encounters in Samoa, from western Polynesia, and also reconsider the Tahitian case, from eastern Polynesia, thus building a comparison of the nature of these early encounters across the region.

The focus of the chapter is the apparent sexual offers that women made to the newcomers. If we go back to a number of journals written during the early voyages which have still not been studied in as much detail as they deserve, namely La Pérouse’s journal and, for Bougainville’s expedition, those of Nassau and Fesche,[2] we can see that a crucial aspect of these apparent sexual offers – the “girls’ very young” age and their “weeping” – has been overlooked. We shall see that it was not a matter of women “offering their favours” but a forced presentation and, indeed, that those who were being presented to the French visitors were not “women” but girls.

In order to further ethnohistorical knowledge of the so-called “first contacts” in this part of the Pacific, we must first of all deconstruct the Western hegemonic view of Polynesian society, based on the official narratives of voyages and encounters. This pervasive discourse has meant that for more than two centuries the Polynesian perspective on such experiences – how Polynesians endured relations with Europeans and their own interpretations of the encounters – was occluded. Moreover, the exclusively masculinist vision of these episodes, the collective narrative voice of the captains and naturalists, had effectively silenced the visions and voices of Polynesian women.

This chapter will address this issue through a specific dimension of such encounters. It will attempt to recover and reveal the painful process of coercion that some Polynesian young girls had to endure when meeting Europeans for the first time. Fesche wrote in 1768 that this was an “operation.” It was, in fact, the same “ordeal” that was customary in Samoa when young girls were married to high chiefs (Pritchard 1866). But in their forced presentation to the Europeans the girls were apparently overwhelmed with the fear that the newcomers inspired. It was pain and fear that made the girls weep. This occurred in 1768 in Tahiti, in 1787 in Samoa and, elsewhere as well, even if the evidence is much more scanty, in Aotearoa in 1772, and in Tonga and the Marquesas in 1791.

In a lecture given in Paris in 1981, Sahlins started peeling back the layers of Eurocentrism covering Hawaiian history. He hypothesised that, contrary to what these early voyagers had thought, it was not “sexual hospitality” offered to male travellers. Rather, said Sahlins, it was a transposition of a mythical and social schema: “theogamy” (marriage with the gods) and hypergamy (marrying-up with a chief). The aim was to procreate powerful children and to secure new kinds of powers. Sahlins had found in Diderot’s (1964 [1796]) text, entitled Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, a first expression of that hypothesis,[3] and he thus entitled his lecture “Supplement to Captain Cook’s Voyage,” published later as chapter 1 of his Islands of History (Sahlins 1985).[4]

A further dimension to this mythical and social scheme now needs to be examined for other parts of Polynesia. Why, in Samoa and in Tahiti, did the females who were presented to the first European male visitors have to be so young? Why were they weeping? The aim of this chapter is to consider these questions about early sexual encounters through a critical rereading of the journals kept during the Polynesian visits of the European voyages and of the official accounts in light of more recent ethnographic knowledge about Polynesian cosmology. Evidence of the “very young age” of all the “women” presented is assembled and discussed in this chapter. Overlooked passages in some of the journals clearly show that the girls must have been virgins. The fact that the Samoan and Tahitian girls were very young and were virgins raises the possibility that this was the case everywhere: similar scenes, briefly noted by voyagers, which occurred in Tonga and the Marquesas tend to confirm this. In the last section of the chapter, hypotheses will be considered as to why Polynesian chiefs and elders chose to present their very young and apparently virgin daughters to Europeans. A plausible explanation involves the Polynesian ideology of the process of procreation, shared by men and women, which attributed a more certain intensity to the sacredness of the first child, conceived by a female of high rank where the union was theogamous or hypergamous.

We shall see that the girls were obviously not eager to play their role in this scheme, enforced by the chiefs. Indeed the girls presented to the Europeans sometimes had to be dragged forcibly and held firmly by adults. Some of the Europeans observed this and wrote about it in their journals. But no mention of their reluctance made its way into the official voyage narratives that were published first in Paris and then in London (Bougainville 1771, 1772; Cook 1773). These accounts immediately established an official, and ultimately unquestioned, view of the encounters with Polynesians: one saturated by images of peace and love, of happiness and plenty.

The new evidence that will be presented here suggests that the Western construct of Polynesian societies as island paradises, where sexual freedom was the norm in adolescence and where young girls and young women were sexually accommodating, must be radically revised. This is a construct largely built, as we shall see, on the male fantasies and Eurocentric misreadings of early French visitors to the region, and then revisited and recycled from the same masculine, Eurocentric perspective in centuries to come.

Western “Knowledge” About Pre-Christian Samoan and Tahitian “Customs” Relating to Adolescence and Marriage


The very first Europeans to set foot on Samoan soil were French, the officers and crew of La Pérouse’s expedition. The date was December 1787. “Observations” were made over two days (December 10 and 11) by various officers, and La Pérouse put these together in his journal. Apart from many notes about material culture, the report describing the behaviour of the inhabitants insisted on two aspects. The Samoan men were “ferocious barbarians” because, on the second day, they “massacred” a dozen French men who wanted only to “peacefully barter” some goods and to fill up casks with fresh water. The women, on the other hand, gained the admiring approval of the French visitors. Even after the “massacre,” La Pérouse noted:

Among a fairly large number of women I noticed two or three who were very pretty and who [one] could have thought had served as a model for the charming drawing of the Present Bearer of Cook’s third voyage,[5] their hair was adorned with flowers … their eyes, their features, their movement spoke of gentleness whereas those of the men depicted ferocity and surprise. In any one sculptor[’s] study the latter would have been taken for Hercules and the young women for Diana, or her nymphs (La Pérouse 1995, 412–3).

La Pérouse’s bias in favour of the women is explained by the sexual encounters that occurred during the stay and to which the French captain refers in his conclusion on the “customs” of the Samoans:

Whatever navigators who preceded us might say, I am convinced that at least in the Navigators Islands girls are mistresses of their own favours before marriage, their complaisance casts no dishonour on them, and it is more likely that when they marry they are under no obligation to account for their past behaviour. But I have no doubt that they are required to show more restraint when they are married (1995, 420).

After a mere two days of encounters on land – and only a day in which peaceful encounters were possible – La Pérouse, without being able to understand a single word of the local language, had formed an opinion about the Samoan customs governing adolescence and marriage! Of course, he had already certain preconceptions of the ways of the “Indians” in that part of the Pacific through his reading of Bougainville’s and Cook’s accounts of Tahiti and neighbouring islands.

A careful reading of the succession of events described in La Pérouse’s journal (Tcherkézoff 2004a, 28–67) reveals the only scenes that La Pérouse and/or his officers could have seen and participated in. The first occasion was when a Samoan crowd gathered on the shore, and from which the French soldiers tried to keep at a distance while the seamen were filling the casks. The second involved one or two “visits” to a village during which some of the French were taken inside a house, where they were asked to have intercourse with a young girl.

Limited as his experience of Samoan culture was, La Pérouse’s opinion – condensed in these concluding sentences that abruptly summarise the upbringing and the rules of behaviour applying to Samoan girls – became an accepted part of Western anthropological “knowledge” about Polynesia. A century and a half later, in a vast compilation of Polynesian customs, which developed into several treatises – standard works of reference for any student of Polynesia – Williamson (1924, 1933, 1939), who had been instructed by Seligman to gather all the information available on this part of the Pacific, quoted that same sentence (from the 1797 publication of La Pérouse’s journal) in order to characterise the absence of “chastity” in pre-Christian Samoa (Williamson 1939, 156). And then, in the 1980s, when the heated debate initiated by Freeman (1983) focused on Mead’s 1926 fieldwork dealing with Samoan adolescence and her conclusions in Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead 1928; Tcherkézoff 2001a, 2001b, 2001c), one of the champions of Mead’s views called on La Pérouse as a witness:

Williamson (1939/1975) carried out an extensive review of all of the early accounts of Polynesian cultures. … With respect to premarital sex in general, he said that in Samoa:

“According to Turner and Brown [early missionaries], chastity … was more a name than a reality … Lapérouse tells us that girls were, before marriage, mistresses of their own favors, and their complaisance did not dishonor them” (p. 156).

… From these many accounts, there can be little doubt that sexual behavior in Samoa before it was Christianized was more casual for virtually everyone, including young females. The denial of this by Freeman and some contemporary Samoans can be understood in terms of the concerted efforts of missionaries and the local pastors to create, and then maintain, a hegemony of Victorian sexual values and practices (Côté 1994, 80–2).


It so happens that, twenty years earlier, in Tahiti very similar scenes had been played out, and these were similarly absorbed into the Western canons about Tahitian customs. On only the second or third day of their Tahitian visit (7 or 8 April 1768), a small group of French officers (we can identify three of them from the journals) told their captain, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, that they had been “offered” sex with a “young girl” in the chiefly household that they had visited. Bougainville recorded this in his journal, and in his book of 1771, famous throughout Europe, he repeated this almost without alteration: “several Frenchmen” had told him what kind of “hospitality” they had enjoyed, “in the custom of this island.” He immediately drew this generalisation: “we are offered all the young girls” (Bougainville 1966 [1771], 194–5; 2002, 63). He later reflected upon this extraordinary society that had clearly remained as it was in Eden, untouched and spared the consequences of the Fall: Tahitian girls were “as was Eve before her sin” (as his companion Fesche expressed it; see my section below “Tahitian Facts: The Scenes of April 7–9”). Notably, Bougainville spoke of “the young girls.”

A close study of the journals written by the members of Bougainville’s expedition (Tcherkézoff 2004b, 114–239) shows how the Frenchmen immediately imagined that this kind of behaviour had always been the local “custom” among Tahitians. The Frenchmen, like many early European visitors to Polynesian islands, could not imagine that they were perceived as not-entirely-human creatures and even as envoys from the realm of the gods (Tcherkézoff 2004a, 109–53). They thought that they were received merely as voyagers to whom “hospitality” was offered.[6] The Frenchmen had no conception that the way in which the girls behaved toward them was extraordinary.

They were also blind – and how strange this seems given the scenes they were witnessing – to the fact that the girls were forcibly presented by adults. They were apparently deeply convinced that, among people who had remained in a “state of nature,” females engaging in sexual acts were only following the impulses of their “female nature.”[7] And that here in this society they were “free” to follow those impulses.

The misconceptions of the voyagers meant that Polynesian societies appeared to scholars of the time to grant more freedom to women, and hence they were labelled more “civilised,” in contrast to “Melanesian” societies where sexual presentations during the first encounters had not been staged. There, the women’s absence led the voyagers to believe that the local women had been forbidden by their fathers and husbands to meet the newcomers and, hence, that they were more dominated by men than in Polynesia. The social position of Melanesian women was therefore thought to be “lower,” and Melanesian societies were labelled more “barbarian” and “backward.” Of course, the European – and exclusively male – assessment as to the “progress” of women was restricted to looking at (and misinterpreting) their roles in relation to men’s roles: division of work tasks, access to “chiefly” positions, and apparent sexual behaviour.[8]

Everything that the French saw during this encounter in Tahiti they understood as being an integral part of the local way of life. They concluded that, during Tahitian adolescence, “girls were free” to follow their desires and thus to “offer their favours.” From then on, up until the present, commentators in Europe and the Western world could write that, “as is well known,” Polynesian females – at least before marriage – were “free to offer their favours” and were quite “willing” to do so. One of a host of examples is Irving Goldman’s Ancient Polynesian Society (1970). The book is a classic example of a long and well-researched study, its subject, quite unrelated to sexuality, being social organisation and social hierarchies. It is therefore all the more significant to find in it this sentence, given as a universally accepted fact: “In Polynesia, where pre-marital sexual freedom was everywhere established custom …” (1970, 564). Such statements, offered en passant, can be found throughout the historical and anthropological literature on the Pacific (Tcherkézoff 2004b, 455–510).

[1] Sahlins for Hawai`i; Salmond and her team for Aotearoa-New Zealand; Dening for the Marquesas, Tahiti and Hawai`i; and Baré for Tahiti, while Thomas has added numerous comparative remarks and has also worked on early encounters in the Marquesas Islands: Sahlins (1981, 1982, 1985, 1989, 1995); Salmond (1991, 1997); Dening (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2004); Baré (1985, 1987); Thomas (1990, 1997). Thomas and others have also edited numerous early accounts (Forster 1996 [1778]; Forster 2000 [1777]; Thomas; Lamb et al. 2000; Keate 2002). But, at the time of writing, only two articles had appeared in relation to western Polynesia (Linnekin 1991; van der Grijp 1994).

[2] Until very recently, these pages were only available in French. In 1968 a Chief Conservator at the French Archives, Étienne Taillemite, made the first transcription of extracts from Bougainville’s and his companions’ accounts of their stay in Tahiti (Taillemite 1968). Ten years later he published all of the journals kept during the circumnavigation (a limited edition from the French Imprimerie Nationale) (1977). And it was only in 2002, thanks to Professor John Dunmore’s great work of translation, that these journals became available in English through the Hakluyt Society. La Pérouse’s journal, published in 1797 by the French naval authorities in an “edited” version, became available in its original form in 1985 (Dunmore and Brossard 1985) and ten years later in an English translation, also thanks to John Dunmore (1995). Throughout this chapter I shall use Dunmore’s translation. Dr. Stephanie Anderson translated the short excerpts from other French authors, namely Buffon and Captain Marchand.

[3] Although Diderot himself really only proposed this idea in jest. Diderot’s Supplement, written in 1772 –immediately after Bougainville’s book appeared – but banned for fifteen years, is an imaginary dialogue between a Polynesian elder and a European priest. In it the Polynesian elder relativises, even mocks, European certainties of the time about religion and political systems. He also explains that Europeans are naïve in their exchanges with non-Europeans. He describes what his people had really planned in Tahiti. The French, he says, thought they had been offered sexual hospitality and gave the Tahitians many gifts in return, when in fact they had been cunningly used. Firstly, they had been depleted of their seed to give some of the local women a chance to get pregnant, so that the Tahitians could secure the “intellectual abilities” of this “new race.” Secondly, Tahitian men, too busy with their wars and garden work, could not waste their time and their own seed with the “sterile women” (the elder does not comment on the presence of these women). It is these women, he says, that were offered first. Then he generalises about human nature: everywhere in the world, in every exchange, one party tries to cheat the other (Diderot 1964 [1796], 499–501).

[4] The sexual encounters were not Sahlins’ main topic. In this lecture and in a book published in 1981, he dealt mainly with the rise and fall of Captain Cook’s fortunes in Hawai`i (Sahlins 1981, 1985: ch. 1). Many other works on this question were to follow (see references in Sahlins 1995).

[5] See pictorial portfolios in Tcherkézoff (2004a, 2004b): La Pérouse refers to the drawing by John Webber (the artist on Cook’s third voyage) of a Tahitian girl bringing gifts of barkcloth and necklaces (we can see the extent to which the Tahitian scene played on La Pérouse’s mind when he visited Samoa).

[6] We shall see this expressed explicitly by Fesche and Nassau.

[7] In his book, Bougainville only admitted to having noticed a temporary shyness or hesitation when the girls were presenting “themselves” to the French; but he was convinced that it was ingrained in the “nature of women” always to “claim not to want what they desire the most” (prétendent ne pas vouloir ce qu’elles désirent le plus) (Tcherkézoff 2004b, 128, 203).

[8] Forster (1996 [1778]) was among the first voyagers to the Pacific to express these views, preceded only by his French fellow naturalist of the Bougainville expedition, Philibert Commerson, who raised the issue in his famous letter of 1769 published in the main Parisian newspaper (Post-scriptum sur l’île de Taïti) which was written on his way back from Tahiti (Tcherkézoff 2004b, 210ff.). See the discussion about the European views concerning a supposed West/East (later called Melanesian / Polynesian) contrast in Jolly (1992, 1993, 1997a, 1997b, n.d.) and Tcherkézoff (2003b).