When the Tahitians first encountered Europeans in the 18th century, there was mutual incomprehension. Seeing the sailors squinting down the barrel of their muskets, the Tahitians understood them to be blowing down their weapons and called them pupuhi roa – ‘breath which kills at a distance’. And red being the colour of their war god Oro, who enforced his power with thunder and lightening, they understandably perceived the red-clad marines and their explosive weapons to be Oro’s underlings sent to reinstate respect.
In turn, the ships’ crews mistook the ritual dancing of the Tahitian’s young women – in which they revealed their genitals – to be displays of seduction and wantonness. In fact, the Tahitians believed exposing themselves at the invaders’ ship would open a portal through which they could channel their ancestral gods against the destructive visitors.
The exploration of the Pacific was economically motivated – after the American colonies declared independence, the British government needed to find new trading partners and new lands to which they could transport criminals – but the encounter of societies so different from each other also had a profound and lasting cultural effect on both parties. Captain Bligh sailed into this uneasy meeting of worlds on a mission to secure breadfruit for slave plantations but after his crew mutinied he famously ended up being dumped overboard along with the precious plants.
Women play bit parts in most of these stories, so the tale of the young Cornish highway-woman Mary Broad and her daring escape from Australia stands out as all the more extraordinary. Although the writing might lack the narrative thrust of other recent faction works, the historical research is extensive and dazzling, and the delights lie in the touching and revealing details that vividly conjure up this Enlightenment era when so much was being called into question.
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