Subject: ali'i war chief
Culture: Tahitian / Society Islander
Setting: Tahiti 1767-1825
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Barrow 1979 p33-36
"It appears quite clear that the ancient Tahitians indulged in war as a sport quite apart from any pressing need to protect tribal interests. Every male child was considered firstly a potential warrior. Victors in war were ruthless, often killing every man, woman, and child of the defeated faction. Destruction extended to houses, trees, and domestic animals. Loot was taken, while wholesale destruction satisfied the spirit of revenge raging in the hearts of the victors. Warfare was so intoxicating that women sometimes followed their husbands into battle, relying on stones, hands, teeth, and nails as weapons.
"Hill fortresses attest to the widespread wars of former times. The main causes of conflicts were tribal rivalry, territorial claims, revenge for insults received, and the perpetuation of feuds that often endured for generations. The missionary Ellis estimated that there had been ten serious wars in the Society Islands between 1797 and 1825."
* Barrow 1979 p40
"The highest ali'i were thought to be directly descended from the gods and were regarded as their representatives on earth; they were priests by right of this divinity. The mana of the gods flowed through them and for this reason the most elevated were carried on the shoulders of special retainers when travelling beyond their territory. If the foot of a high ali'i touched the earth the very ground became sacred and taboo."
* Barrow 1979 p27-29
"Clothing and body tattoos indicated social standing by quality rather than anything else. Garments consisted simply of the male girdle or loin cloth (maro), a wrap-around pareu waist cloth worn by both men and women, and ponchos of decorated bark-cloth or fine matting. Large toga-like cloaks were also worn .... Everyday headgear consisted of tapa turbans for men ....
"It seems that the tattooing of men and women, apart from rank tattoos of the Arioi Society, was primarily designed to be erotic and decorative. Apart from markings on arms and legs, large areas of the buttocks were tattooed. The art was in the hands of specialists called tahu'a tatau who were often highly rewarded for their services. The beauties of this art are now lost to us. Unless perfect mummification could be achieved, as with the tattooed heads of New Zealand, nothing remained after a body had decomposed."
* Barrow 1979 p29-30
"The high ranking ali'i were designated by various possessions which symbolized their authority. These consisted of a wooden seat, a wooden head rest, fly whisk, helmet, spear, staff, waistband, and loin cloth of more than ordinary quality.
"Feathered girdles (maru'ura), the highest symbols of temporal and divine power, were of such sanctity that human sacrifices sometimes marked stages of their manufacture. Such girdles embodied the prestige of hereditary rank, political power, and the territorial rights of rulers. Wars were commonly fought over the possession of a particular girdle, while the investiture of an ali'i with the girdle was a highly sacred event. "A ritual loin cloth was basically a long strip of cloth about six inches wide and sometimes over twenty-one feet long with precious feathers attached to it. It was passed between the legs and wrapped around the waist several times, with the ends left to fall as a kind of drape at back and front. There were two basic types, those with red and those with yellow feathers. They were used on ceremonial occasions then returned to their storage containers."
* Ferdon 1981 p264-266
"The part of the fleet rehearsal which most appalled Cook was the matter of warrior dress. The functional part of their clothing consisted of at least three tapa cloth, poncho-like garments, the inner one being white, the middle one red, and a smaller outside one brown. However, some may have worn considerably more clothing to blunt any spear attack, for Cook took the time to watch them undress after the review and ended up wondering how they could fight with the great weight of the clothing that surrounded them. In an impulsive effort to improve their fighting ability, he gave his Tahitian friends a visual presentation of how an Englishman prepared for battle by stripping the clothes off his back. However, it all went for naught, since no one seemed to care how the English undressed for battle. In addition to the heavy clothing that surrounded each warrior, a second practical accoutrement was a heavier-than-usual turban of tapa cloth, obviously designed to soften the blow of an enemy's club. A few of these were decorated, perhaps symbolically, with the dried branches of some shrub on which white feathers had been fastened.
"One element which may have had the secondary use of warding off the thrust of a spear was a semicircular gorget notched in the center of its one straight edge so that it could fit around the front half of the warrior's neck and hang down over his upper chest. The basic frame was of wickerwork overlaid with a series of expanding semicircles of coconut fiber. These, in turn, were covered with glossy pigeon feathers and were set off in curving bands by two or three crescent rows of white shark teeth. Around the curved edge of the gorget was a fringe of fine, white dog hair. Most, if not all, of the warriors wore these decorative devices which, like their spears, and probably the rest of their war paraphrenalia, had been made by men, rather than women. However, the finest, but physically nonfunctional, piece of military decoration was a tall helmet. Its basic element was a wickerwork cylinder some four feet tall on the front of which was fastened an upright semicylindrical device of a finer basketweave which expanded upwards and, breaking away from the basic helmet, curved gracefully forward at the top. The front of this was completely covered with the glossy, blue-green feathers of a particular variety of pigeon. The finest of these were further decorated by an edging of white feathers from which radiated innumerable long, thin tail feathers of a tropic bird, giving the effect of a delicately diverging halo surrounding the helmet. There were only a few of its beautiful headpieces in the reviewing fleet, and thus it is likely, especially since the chief warrior, Towha, wore none, that they were the headgear of high priests. This Tahitian version of a shako had no chin strap to hold it in place but was merely jammed down on top of a large cloth turban. Not surprisingly, the wearers displayed this precariously balanced piece of finery for only a short time during the review and then placed it on the fighting stage, where it was not apt to be blown away by the ocean breeze.
"José de Andia y Varela, writing about the chiefly warriors of the Taiarapu Peninsula, briefly described somewhat similar helmets, except that those he saw had some kind of small skirt which dropped down over the face of the warrior. Another piece of headgear, which he inadequately described as a sort of crown made from braided coconut husk fibers, appears to have been limited to the use of one person. Andia y Varela reasoned, and perhaps rightly, that that one person was probably the paramount chief, or at least his representative in any battle."
* Barrow 1979 p36
"Warrior chiefs dressed in flamboyant costumes designed as much for display as for protection. They wore high headdresses and breast gorgets formed of a sennit base, with decorative feather, shark teeth, and dog hair attachments. Such dress can be seen worn by ali'i on the warfleet vessels and by a group of warriors on a small pahi. Gorgets ... were favourite curios."
* Barrow 1969 p38 f40
"Breast gorgets and high helmets, which were worn by aristocratic warriors, appear regularly in eighteenth-century pictures. The gorgets are formed on an elaborate sennit base with feathers, shark teeth, and dog hair attached to form an attractive pattern."
* Barrow 1979 p36
"The weapons of particular interest are the spear clubs with pointed, spatulate blades and an ornamented collar below the blades. These weapons look like spears and had pointed tops and bottoms to jab with. They were used mostly with swinging blows, so the term 'spear club' seems to describe them. Warriors showed remarkable dexterity in the mock battles observed by Europeans."
* Ferdon 1981 p262-264
"[Spears and lances], made from the wood of either the tough ararua or the toa, seem to have ranged in length from eight to as much as twenty feet, although Cook mentioned an extreme example of thirty feet. Undoubtedly, the longer of these served as lances which, according to Sydney Parkinson, were often rubbed with the flower of the 'aute to give them a reddish hue, and tapered gently from the grasping end to the thrusting point. These latter, like the spears, were armed with the barbed sting of a stingray fish. Fighting clubs, made from the same woods, seem to have come in two size ranges. Some were relatively small, being from four to six feet in length, while others were long affairs ranging up to eight or nine feet. These latter were probably the so-called battle axes referred to by John Rickman and George Forster. Cook described these longer clubs as having their upper haft flattish, thus forming two edges, and, if we can trust Hodges' illustrations, these blades broadened toward the top of the club. This, then, was the Tahitian armament: spear, lance, club, and sling, which, from the record, appear to have been standard for both land and sea fighting. According to Cook, naval engagements began with a blast of stones, after which the opposing canoes closed, and the lances, spears, and clubs came into play."