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The Worship of Beauty in the South Seas
By FREDERICK O'BRIEN
OT any people in all the world, ancient or modern, ranked sheer beauty and grace higher in the lists of life's gifts to man than did the people of the Polynesian seas before the whites came to destroy them. In the star-scattered islands of the Pacific tropics a dozen tawny races or breeds of superb physical endowment made their bodies wondrous temples of their free souls. The loveliness of women, the strength and symmetry of men, were the fascinating labor of their days, their vivid religion, and the expression of their joy of living.
While all over Polynesia these conditions obtained when the first Anglo
Saxons threw down the anchors of their ships in the enchanting harbors of these tropics, they remained longest in the Marquesas archipelago, these most mysterious of islands, which lie a few hundred miles below the equatorial line.
In their simple dress, their practice of manipulation in the development of their bodies, their use of unguents and lotions, their wearing of flowers and ornaments, their singular and astounding art of the story-teller, the dance and the pantomime, and their exquisite tattooing of their persons, they showed a delicacy of feeling and an understanding of elegance unsurpassed in the records of the nations of the earth.
In the valley of Vaitahu, on the island of Tahuata, in the lone Marquesas, where I sit under the pandanus thatch of Seventh Man Who Is So Angry He Wallows in the Mire, I read:
The intense esthetic enthusiasm that prevailed was eminently fitted to raise the most beautiful to honor. In a land and beneath a sky where natural beauty developed to the highest point, supreme physical perfection was crowned by an assembled people. In
no other period of the world's history was the admiration of beauty in all its forms so passionate or so universal. It colored the whole moral teaching of the time, and led the chief moralists to regard virtue simply as the highest kind of supersensual beauty. It led the wife to pray, before all other prayers, for the beauty of her children. The courtesan was often the queen of beauty.
The great historian Lecky wrote that of ancient Greece, but I mark the page, to consider the striking likeness between the condition he describes and the attitude of the ancient Marquesans. Here in these tiny islands, separated by ten thousand miles of billow from the land of Pericles and Aspasia, a people whose origin is only guessed at by science erected the same goal of attainment and like standards of harmony of form and movement. Doubtless at that very day these wondrous Greeks of the tropics, considering their environment, most distant from the birthplace of humanity and from the example of other peoples, were comparable in brilliancy of person and ease of motion to the best even of the Homeric figures.
We must guess at the beginning of their being here. Even now scientists make new explorations hereabouts to find the exact route of the Caucasian
people who thousands of years ago, maybe before the Hebrews deserted Baal Peor for Jehovah, migrated, first from India, and then through the unknown and fearsome wastes of ocean toward these misty islands of the far South.
What equipment of body and soul. they brought with them we do not know, but they were or became the masters of their seas, and in their frail canoes dared even the long voyage to New Zealand and to Hawaii when Europeans and Asiatics in keeled ships crept carefully
about their own coasts, or crossed the Mediterranean Sea only within the threatening pillars of Hercules.
However, when the later voyagers of Europe came to the uncharted spaces of these warm seas they found in the Polynesian groups a culture which was beyond the understanding of most of them, and which only a few fine souls glimpsed as an astounding revelation of the natural development of humanity, and, by contrast, of the depravity of civilization. They found health and high spirits abounding to a degree utterly strange to them, the hardiest and most adventurous of their white kind. Murder, mutiny, shipwreck, and desertion wrote red their reactions to the entrancing liberty of thought and action they found here, and the contrast with their rude, ugly, restricted lives in Europe, America, or on their ships.
If you would be ashamed of what the pursuit of profits and proselytism, hand in hand, has done, read the reports of explorer, missionary, captain, and trader in these waters, and view the remnant after beauty and honesty have been replaced by modernity and hypocrisy.
It was in clothing that the first insidious approach was made. As I look up from my paper on my mat upon the paepae of Seventh Man Who Wallows, I see Vanquished Often by the via puna. She has taken off her ahu, or tunic, of pink muslin, and bends over to receive the full stream of cool water from the hills which flows through the bamboo pipes. In this valley where I am now the only foreigner, with my word and example life resumes for a time at least much of the old Marquesan way and appearance. The mission church, the first Christian edifice within a thousand miles of here, is fast rejoining the wilderness. Its walls are falling in decay, and its garden is but jungle. The schoolmaster who taught Vaitahu's children to say, "La France est le plus bonne pays du monde," is gone at my behest to paint other girls as enravishing as Vanquished Often or men as majestic as Kahuiti the Cannibal, or Great Fern, the husband of the mortgagee of the Golden Bed of my Atuona home. Existence is become almost as devoid of invention and divested of artificiality as before the white man
came. I am able to rebuild in my mind the structure of Marquesan customs and to view in imagination the attractive aspect of Vaitahu and its idyllic days of old. We have brought out of the huts the native garments of tapa, and we live as much as possible a perspective of the past.
The Marquesan females had a small variety of clothing, for much of the time they wore only the usual single garment of both sexes, the pareu, or loin-cloth.
These clothes of tapa were, except mattings, the only stuffs made by the Marquesans. They were of a remarkable texture and coloring, considering the materials available. The inner barks of the banian,- breadfruit,- and particularly, the mulberry-tree were used. The outer rind was scraped off with a shell, and the inner slightly beaten and allowed to ferment. It was then beaten over wooden forms with clubs of ironwood about eighteen inches long, grooved coarsely on one side and finely on the reverse, a method that united so closely the fibers that in the finished cloth one could not guess the processes of its making. Bleached in the sun on the beaches to a dazzling white, this fabric was either dyed, or fashioned as it was into the few varieties of garments they affected. All wore the pareu about the loins, a strip two yards or more in length, and a yard wide, which is passed twice about the waist and tucked in for holding, as the sarong of the Malay.
The cahu, or ahu, a long and flowing piece of tapa, was worn by the females, hanging from the shoulders, knotted to secure it, covering one or both breasts at the whim of the wearer. In the coloring of this and the pareu, brown, scarlet, yellow, or even black, rich and alluring dyes were found in the plants and trees and even in the sea animals of the beaches. The outlines of the hibiscus-flowers and carved objects were imprinted upon these tapas, and astronomical, mystic, or tribal signs or records were drawn upon them in fantastic, but artistic, designs.
For the men, while the pareu, as now, was always the common apparel, they had a hundred ornaments in a diversity more numerable than those of the
females. Whenever the male has not sacrificed his masculine craving for adornment to religious or economic pressure, he is the gaudier of the sexes. From the fiddler crab, with his rampant claw, to the mandrill, with his crimson and lilac callosities, nature has so ordained it, and man rejoiced in his privilege. Not until the European man felt the iron hand of the machine age, when the rifle displaced the bow and the pistol the sword, the factory the home loom, and the foundry the smithy, not until money became the chief pursuit of all ranks, and puritanism a general blight upon brilliancy of costume, did the white man relinquish his gewgaws to the parasitic woman. Then he made it a vicarious pride by decorating her with his riches and making her the vehicle of his pomp in ornature and the advertisement of his prosperity.
One soon learns to dress simply away from conventions, though there are men strangely exceptional to this rule. M. Bapp, the French trader at Atuona, I have never seen without a high, stiff collar and bow tie or red velvet cravat, with polished boots, and fanciful belt about his French trousers. An Englishman I know in Tahiti wears a swallow-tailed coat and like accoutrements every steamer day. I know a man who thinks he saved his soul by dressing up daily for dinner on an island where he was the only white and could have no social or mental equals. It stiffened his morale, he said.
Clothes irk the Polynesians, as do the hundred laws of their white masters. Nakedness or near nakedness is ease and grace in this clime, and cleanliness besides. “The gods are naked and in the open," said Seneca.
How often, when I lived at the spacious home of my friend, Ariioehau Ameroearao, the chief at Mataiea in Tahiti, I have seen him, chevalier of the Legion of Honor, come in from the highway in stiff white linen or in religious black, and in a twinkling reduce his garb to a loin-cloth!
geously decorated, than the old chief in his strip of cotton print.
The Marquesan women in most of the valleys to-day wear in public the tunics or gowns that sought to dispossess their tapa clothes shortly after the missionaries arrived. The natives of the South Seas were anxious to copy the ways and dress of the missionaries' wives, and bonnets of Clapham and Maine villages, with the virtuous ankle-tied pantalets of Boston, were both godly and de rigeur in Polynesia among the imitative and afraid. Dorcas societies in England and New England sent hundreds of ready-made nightgowns to hide the offending skin of the converts, while traders found in the sale of cotton cloths a principal source of revenue. The Marquesans were not so easily persuaded to change their habiliments, and only recently adopted the tunics.
The sewing-machine created a furor for new-fangled garments, and in the huts of these islands one may find the machines most popular in America, though the great establishment of St.Etienne in France has gained control of this trade by its rain of catalogues and advertising pamphlets.
His walls were hung with portraits of princes and distinguished travelers, guests of his in the last score of years, and none was more distinguished, though in brilliant uniform and gor
The men, too, with shirts and trousers, are much more covered than in olden days. The theory has been advanced by many writers on the depopulation of Polynesia that this putting on clothing was a principal cause of it. Campbell, who was in Hawaii fifty years ago, said "To this dressing is ascribed in great part the rapid decrease of population, colds, and consumption following on nakedness one moment, on heavy clothing the next."
The making of the Mother Hubbard gown the measure of female virtue in Hawaii, pantaloons and shirts the garb of masculine godliness, make the Hawaiians easy prey to sickness brought by sailors and traders, which had been better warded off with their bodies cleansed by the air and water. They ceased to bathe as often. Bridges and stepping-stones make swimming of the rivers unnecessary.
In the Marquesas the change may have much to do with their yielding readily to tuberculosis. When they wore dresses of tapa, their native cloth,
they took them off when it rained or if they were wet, for they would disintegrate. In manufactured cloth they walk through the streams and in the rain, and sleep in their wet garments.
The Polynesian woman has ever been an arch coquette, paying great attention to her appearance, and enduring severe pain and prolonged ennui to improve her beauty. Her complexion was as much a pride with her as with a fashionable American woman to-day, but a curious secrecy or modesty was attached to the making of the toilet and the enhancement of the natural charms. No Marquesan or Tahitian or Hawaiian would ever have looked often and intently at herself in a portable mirror as do our uncultivated females, and the whitening and reddening of cheeks and lips in public places would have caused a blush of shame for her sex to suffuse the face of a Marquesan, to whom such intimate gestures were for the privacy of her home or the bank of the limpid stream in a grove dedicated to the Marquesan Venus.
Near Tahiti was the atoll of Tetuaroa, where for hundreds of years the belles of Tahiti resorted to lose their sunburn in the embowered groves, and to spend a season in beautification by banting, special foods, dancing, swimming, massage, baths, oils, and lotions.
Here in the Marquesas, as in all Polynesia, a period of voluntary seclusion preceded the début of the maiden, or the preparation for a special pas seul by a noted beauty.
Seclusion of the girl was practised at the time of puberty. It has a curious analogy in such far separated places as Torres Strait and British Columbia. The girls of a tribe in Torres Strait are hidden for three months behind a circle of bushes at their homes at the first signs of womanhood. No sun must reach them, and no man, even though he be the father, enter the house, nor must they feed themselves. The Nootkas of British Columbia also conceal their nubile virgins, and insist that they touch their own bodies for a period only with a comb or a bone, never laying their hands upon it.
It would seem that all this mystery had the same purpose, that of adding
to the attractiveness of the girls, and heightening the romance of their new condition. Our coming-out parties parallel the goal of these strange peoples, announcements, formal introductions, as brilliant as possible, being considered desirable both among savages and ourselves to give notice of a marriageable state. Our débuts have not departed far from aboriginal ideas.
The Junoesque wife of Seventh Man Who Wallows has just come from the via puna in her accustomed bathing attire, and, still dripping, has seated herself in the sun near the Iron Fingers That Make Words, to dry. She has added a jasmine blossom to the heavy gold hoops in her ears, has lit her pipe, and her handsome, large face is twisted between smiles and frowns as she tries to put in understandable words and gestures her recital:
"Our girls, daughters of chiefs, such as I am, were kept hidden for months before we appeared for the first time in public in the tribal dance. The tapu was strict. We were secret in our mother's house and inclosure, without supposedly even being seen by any one but our relatives and their retainers. It was death to gaze upon us. We were tapu tapu. If we had cause to go out, our official guardian blew a conch-shell to warn all from the neighborhood. Not until the day of the dance or marriage ceremony, not until the feast was spread and the accepted suitor present to claim us, or the drums booming for the dance, were we shown to the multitude; we had had months of omi omi, and would be in perfect condition and most beautiful."
It was this omi omi, or massage, that many of the earlier chroniclers of the South Seas believed to be the cause of the chiefs and headmen of all these islands being much bigger and handsomer than the common people. The hakaiki, or chiefs, men and women, throughout Polynesia astonished the voyagers and missionaries by their huge size. Often they were from four to ten inches above six feet tall, and framed in proportion. Hardly a writing sailor or visitor to Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, or the Marquesas, but remarks this striking fact. Many thought these headmen a different race than the others, but scientists know that family, food, and
the curious effect of the strenuous massage from infancy account for the differences. The omi omi of these islands, the taurmi of Tahiti, and the lomi lomi of the Hawaiians, all have a relation to the momi-ryoji, practised by the tens of thousands of whistling itinerants throughout Japan.
In a canoe from Oomoa, on the island of Fatuhiva, has come Nataro Puelleray, my dear wise friend, and his wife. She has one hand that is as famous and as admired in these islands as Mona Lisa's portrait in Europe. A great tuhuka wrought its designs, a man equal in graphic genius, relatively, to Leonardo. or Velasquez. Age and work have faded and wrinkled the picture, but I can believe Nataro that when she was a young woman people came from far valleys to see it. One recalls the right leg of the late Queen Vaekeu, the most notable piece of art in all the Marquesas until it went with her into the grave at Tai-o-hae. In her late years the former queen of cannibals became a recluse and refused to show her leg to strangers, a modest attitude becoming one who made nuns her companions and death her constant thought.
The men liked dark men. The last conquerors here were probably a darker race than the conquered, and they preserved their ideals of color; but having come without women and seized the women they found, they let them preserve their own standards, except for red lips, which they tattooed blue. These latest comers thought much pigment meant strong bones, and after a battle they searched the field for the darkest bodies to furnish fish-hooks and tools for canoe-making and carving.
The Tahitians thought the whites who first arrived were gods, and when they found they were men, with their same passions, they thought they were ill. That is the first impression one who lives long with Polynesians has when he meets a group of whites. They look pale, sharp-faced, and worried. We pay dear for factories and wheeled vehicles.
Very probably the beginning of tattooing was the wish to frighten one's enemy, as masks were worn by many tribes, and as the American painted his face with ocher. That state was fol
lowed by the natural desire of the warrior, as evident in Hector's day, to look manly and individualistic before the maidens of his tribe. Finally, as heraldry became complicated, tattooing-it is tiki in Marquesan-grew, at least in Polynesia, into a record of individual accomplishments and distinguishing marks. Here it had, as an art, freed itself from the bonds of religion, so that the artist had liberty to draw the thing as he saw it, and had not to conform to priestcraft, a rule which probably hurt Egyptian art greatly.
Man consented to share his ornamentation with women after the lapse of time, but insisted that the motive be beauty or the accentuation of sex.
In New Zealand, where a sometime rigorous climate demanded clothing, the head became the main object of the tattooer; but here nakedness or a near approach to it is comfort, and every inch of the body was offered to the decorator. There was a considerable trade among whites in the preserved heads of NewZealanders until the supply ran out. White dealers slew to sell their victims' visages. Museums and collectors of such curios paid well for these tattooed faces, but the demand exhausted the best efforts of whites. After the rarest examples were dead and smoked, there was no stimulating the supply. The goods refused to be manufactured.
Birds, fish, temples, trees, and plants, all the cosmos of the Marquesan, was a model for the tuhuka. He often drew his designs in charcoal on the skin, but sometimes proceeded with his inking sans pattern. He never copied, but drew from memory, though the same lines and tableaux might be repeated a thousand times, and always he bore in mind the caste, tribe, and sex of the subject. Thus at a glance one could tell the valley and the rank of any one, much as in Japan, the station, age, moral standing, and other artificial qualities of women are indicated by their coiffure and obi, or sash.
An old tukuna, or tuhuka, Puhi Enata, one of the last of the great artists, a head of his gild here, who saw his profession fall away from him, has often taken a melancholy pleasure in describing to me his methods and rules of his art.