The Unknowable and the Quest for Understanding

The role of space, climate and geography in the establishment of norms in human life cannot be overstated. On a surface level it can be seen in the structure and organisation of community groups, in the construction of buildings and places of worship, and in cultural features such as diet, traditions and leisure or recreation. The Polynesian context of this article, and in particular the coming together of markedly different cultures in Tahiti in the Nineteenth Century, is an intriguing example. This is particularly true in looking at one of the most fundamental aspects of human life and society, the development of religious or pseudo-religious beliefs.

Generally speaking, systems of spiritual or religious belief develop from a desire to comprehend. The main purpose of a system of religious beliefs, even greater than the creation of guidelines or rules for behaviour, is the explanation of what things are and why they are that way. The ‘what’ is naturally likely to come first, but attempts to explain the reasons and purposes of real world entities and phenomena are unlikely ever to be far behind. The days of such complete ignorance may have passed, but much remains. Indeed, one of the clear central features of true scientific study is undoubtedly the acknowledgement of that ignorance and the acceptance that it is currently impossible to have all the answers to every question that may arise, as well as an understanding that it is likely that any answer discovered is certainly going to raise yet further questions and reveal new areas of ignorance. Yet in the period before such a concept and mentality became commonplace, human beings needed assurance that there was a way to understand the many wonders and terrors which they would encounter on a daily basis.

Before existential questions arose, the most obvious cause of the development of these ideas was naturally going to be the need for an explanation of the physical world in which early humans found themselves. This geographical, biological and spatial influence, combined with human creativity and imagination was clearly central to all belief systems. Knowledge of what the surrounding environment contained could only provide assurance and a sense of control when combined with ‘knowledge’ of why that was the case. In a sense, the development of these beliefs and the establishment of a clear structure for their use was just that: an effort to take control of the seemingly uncontrollable and the seizure of greater human power over these environmental factors. The most common form taken appears to have been the decision to anthropomorphise the world and its features. The desert was not just a vast stretch of inhospitable land, but one which contained untouchable forces and spirits which could threaten. The inhospitable nature of the landscape may have made it necessary for people to imagine such a threat.The threats of the world around, always likely to be more important to creatures which had gone through much of their evolutionary journey on the dangerous plains and savannah of the African continent, needed control through warnings and means of self-protection.

No one environmental feature could possibly have required this approach more than the colossal unknowable of the oceans. So unpredictable is the weather and ‘behaviour’ of these expanses of water, so vast is their scale and so incomprehensible and fearsome were, at that period in prehistory and history, their depths, nothing could have been more awe-inspiring or terrifying. The oceans were the central factor in the lives of a people such as the Polynesians who had braved them to reach new lands and new environments. Indeed, it is startling and almost unexplainable how these people, in the days before the age of sail, without maps and without a clue whether they would ever find land, could have even thought of making the journey in the first place. The migrations into the blue of the Pacific truly do deserve recognition as the bravest and greatest human endeavour and achievement in the world before people finally shook off the shackles of the Earth and ventured into the even greater ocean of Space.

For Love of the Father

What then were the beliefs which developed out of these new lands and the waters which separated them over such great distances? It is worth considering that Europeans too experienced great fear of the seas, frequently born of religious stories which in themselves were born of concern regarding the surrounding waters. Alain Corbin’s excellent study of European views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic identifies many of these fears as connected with the Biblical stories of Noah’s flood and the world’s creation. The ocean held the abyss from which the dark beasts of the world could come forth, the waters representative of Creation’s unfinished state, their storms and fierce unknowability a humbling element in social consciousness which dissuaded people from exploring them in any significant way1. In some ways, these early concerns can still be seen in works of literature of more recent times, from Melville’s great white whale to Lovecraft’s Cthulu, lurking in his underwater city of R’lyeh.

In Tahiti there were similar concerns, yet they naturally differed in some aspects. In one way it can be asserted that as much as the ocean itself, the islands on which these new societies were established contributed to the birth of gods. The nature of the Tahitian environment is one of impermanence. Dodd’s The Rape of Tahiti identifies this as significant. The island’s environment is in some ways unforgiving in its treatment of human settlement. Homes and other structures suffer from the effects of the elements, the humidity and the ceaseless assault of the salt-filled air which made it necessary to renovate and reconstructhomes every generation2. If the world around forbade the establishment of physical permanence, it is understandable that people turned to the unseeable for continuity and a kind of comfort. Instead of seeking to place a solid and stable centre of society in an environment so hostile, the Polynesians and other Pacific islanders turned to the permanence of family continuity. A whole pantheon of gods developed across the ocean, most of them present in all the separate communities, although respected to different levels from one island group to the next. Yet these gods were not merely disembodied spirits and powers existing forever outside and beyond the reach of the people of the islands, but members of a single traceable familial community stretching back millennia. Recently deceased members of a grouping joined the ‘gods’ in their positions watching over the generations to come, but the oldest and greatest also held the place of ancestral spirits with whom Polynesians could directly identify and from whom they could trace descent. In general they served the purpose of ‘household’ gods, departmental forces not unlike the kami in Japanese Shinto, the gods of pagan worship across the globe, or the vast canon of saints found in Roman Catholic Christianity.3 Different ancestors could offer protection and success in different situations and would receive tribute and be afforded great respect in rituals before any undertaking, in the hope of securing their support. The greatest of these gods, revered across the Pacific – and particularly in Tahiti and the Leeward Islands4, was Tangaroa, and the best thing about Tangaroa was that he was not just a god, he was family. While he may have been worshipped as a kind of god of the ocean waters, he also represented the earliest common ancestor of the islanders, a ground zero for the differently-evolved societies which were established and developed on the islands across the ocean5.

In this context, Tangaroa’s status as a force connected with the ocean itself makes perfect sense. The heaving waters seemed both eternal and ever changing, but the birth of Tangaroa as the ancestor of those who conquered the waters would be immensely comforting, bringing certainty to a surrounding world of constant change. While he may have become a deity powerful enough to prompt reverence and awe, his human origin could be empowering. Again, the environment itself doubtless demanded such psychological reassurance for any people dwarfed by its huge size and trapped by its instability.

The Polynesians did not rely merely on the idea of these deified ancestors, but as with human beings throughout history and across the globe, they were allocated physical space within the community. In Tahiti and elsewhere this took the form of the marae, a separated space in which rituals could be performed and the intangible could become tangible. In Tahiti, these were sizeable temples, although elsewhere they took more modest forms, such as small walled enclosures containing small rock figurines or markers, carefully placed in specific positions to indicate the correct places to be taken by people or artefacts during the performance of rituals6. While all else may have been impermanent, the marae was to be maintained at all costs, as it surely represented the physical existence of the long line of descent repeated again and again in oral history.


Movement and Misunderstandings

By the time Royal Navy Captain Henry Byam Martin arrived in Tahiti in 1846 as a British observer, the alien belief system of Christianity in both of its main conflicting forms, had become established, replacing these earlier gods, at least in theory. In a sense, Christian missionaries had arrived with what, if they took the trouble to learn anything about the meanings of the marae and the apparently polytheistic nature of pre-Christian Polynesian beliefs, they must have considered a trump card. Here was a god that promised not only a single object of devotion – one king to rule them all – but also genuine personal permanence in the form of heavenly immortality. If they understood the effects of the environment on local beliefs and rituals, they must have been confident of success, a confidence that appeared to be justified by the conversions they achieved. However, these assumptions would have missed a very important point about who and what the Tahitians’ gods were. Tahiti’s new French rulers at the time of Captain Martin’s arrival in the group misunderstood too what the islands and family ties actually meant to the native people.

Where the European newcomers originated in societies which, although built in many ways on the actions and relations of various ruling families, often and increasingly defined communities as peoples of areas and ‘nations’. Polynesians came from far more focused cultures which, although they had branched off from one another over the centuries, maintained the same basic common elements. The marae, as previously explained, tied together the people of each family, genealogy being absolutely central to their understanding of society and history. In terms of space, these families were not tied to a state as the European arrivals may have understood them, but localities8. More familiar to the newcomers would have been the importance of these lineages and the long stories which established them often as far back as the legendary cultural heroes of the past in asserting and sustaining claims to land. This was not such an alien concept and would have fit nicely with ideas of land ownership in the West. Yet Polynesian ideas of the connections between land and blood went far beyond this. Damon Salesa has argued that it is rare for one to be able to disconnect the lives, beliefs and family ties from the places in which these things developed: ‘Where one’s ancestors’ bones rest…or where one’s placenta is buried…enshrine the connections between genealogy and place.’9

Similarly tied to the long traditions of oral history which cemented families and lineages was the fact that these lineages had all been born during millennia of colossal and intimidatingly daring voyages. The movement from place to place over such a long period was therefore likely to be far more connected in the mind of the people as a combination between history and space – or more accurately, history existing as space. Genealogies were not merely placed in a single location or in a limited area as might be those of Europeans, they were part of stories which emphasised distant origins10. The migrations, so impressive now in the modern mind, were central to a sense of self and family identity. Movement, perhaps even more than settlement, was the defining feature of genealogical memory.

This bond between cultural heroes of the past who lived on as spirits, both dangerous and friendly, the essential connection between space and identity which differed in some ways from Western concepts of the same, came crashing into conflict with the invasion of the French. Some of the French island invasions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how land, authority and community were connected in Polynesian society. Bringing the assumptions that a single area may have been ruled by a single ruler to whom all other nobles would pay tribute and, in many ways, derive their own status from this relationship, something which had ultimately been true in Europe for much of its history, French leaders and commanders fell victim to their own ignorance. Fischer has asserted that while European religion had long been separate from secular society, in Polynesia it was simply one aspect of a society’s entire structure, fundamental to the authority of the ruling classes12.

By the 1840s it was undoubtedly true that, for most realms and nations in Europe and in the lands of the European diaspora, religion and political society had been completely separated. The relatively new American Constitution had cemented this idea in written words and in Europe the French Revolution, regardless of any subsequent revisions, had obliterated the political power of the Church. In Britain too, the Civil Wars and revolutions appear to have created a distaste in the population for Church intrusion into what was now, politically, the most powerful nation on the planet. Therefore, it is interesting that missionary activity abroad did receive such support at home. This perhaps represented a backlash against the diminished religiosity of the State, but may also have been seen as a means of reconstructing the religiously-focused society of the past in new lands populated by heathens who still required liberation from ignorance of Christ’s teachings.

Missionary activity therefore presented the opportunity or, more realistically, the risk of direct religious political interference in foreign lands. Captain Martin’s take on the matter is characteristically on point. In his early meetings with missionaries working in Tahiti he considered them potentially useful, yet only in a political sense, and explicitly stated his belief that ‘like all churchmen of all nations & all ages, they aim at power & cannot be prevailed upon to play 2nd fiddle.13‘ However, it is important to consider that as traditional native religion was not just close to secular and physical society but an intrinsic part of it, the glue which bound everything together, missionaries would have had little choice but to engage on that level. Naturally, some may have gone further than simply using this to advance their religious aims, but there is no reason to suspect all of doing so. To advance religious interests and to attempt the conversions of Polynesians, it was necessarily to walk a tightrope between the political and the spiritual. Indeed, a tightrope may not be the best analogy, as the two were indivisible.

Most of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia are today largely Christian societies, but I wish to argue that it was ultimately futile for missionaries to attempt to remove the ancestors from the equation entirely. This is true because of the inseparability of the native society from its space and ancient history of movement. The god of the sea was not simply the deity of the waters, he was a ‘real’ person who had made the journey with his ‘children’ and still lived with them. The Tahitians’ proximity to the sea and their reliance on it, their knowledge of its space as inseparable from the land on which they lived because of their history and lineages as travellers, adventurers and explorers, made such a separation ultimately impossible. Space, again, built the world of humankind in the islands and they would forever remain its children.


1Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea (London: Penguin Books, 1994) pp. 2-4.

2Edward Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1983) p. 18.

3Steven Roger Fischer, A History of the Pacific Islands (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), p. 72.

4Robert J. Suggs, The Island Civilizations of Polynesia (New York: The New American Library, 1960), p. 134.

5Fischer, p. 72.

6Ibid., p. 75.

8Damon Salesa, ‘The Pacific in Indigenous Time’ in Pacific Histories: Ocean, Lands, People, ed. by David Armitage and Alison Bashford (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) pp. 31-52 (41).

9Ibid., p. 42.

10Ibid., p. 43.

12Fischer, pp. 71-72.

13Captain Henry Byam Martin, The Polynesian Journal (Salem: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1981) p. 33.

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