In 1799 two Protestant missionaries came on a ship to the valley of Vaitahu in Tahuata. The ship anchored in the bay and with the help of the sailors on the ship these missionaries unloaded their belongings on to the beach. They were able to communicate to the people of the valley that they wished to live with the people in that valley. When these two went up on the beach there were a bunch of Marquesan warriors all standing around with war clubs. The first missionary was named William Pascoe Crook the other one was named Harris. William Crook was young and a little naive. Harris was older and more cynical. Apparently, Harris was terrified of the idea of big, almost naked, tattoed warriors standing around him with warclubs. Perhaps, he kept turning around and looking behind him at every moment, worried that someone was sneaking up on him with a club. In addition the native women were in various states of undress and that was possibly distressing to him. The chief of the valley, Teinae, came down to meet these two missionaries and through a Polynesian who could speak some English he invited them to come up the valley to his house and spend the night up there. William Crook saw that as an opportunity to make friends so he accepted the invitation. Mr. Harris was more suspicious and he viewed the offer as just a plan to get them out of sight from the ship, so that the people of the valley could easily murder and roast out of sight from the ship. Mr. Harris declined the invitation. He really had nothing to fear from the chief of the valley and the people. They all meant well and were just trying to be as good as hosts as they knew how. When the chief and William Crook left Mr. Harris on the beach, the chief, like a proper host, instructed his wife to make sure that Mr. Harris was kept comfortable in every way. It was the custom in the Marquesas at this time that a proper hostess would do everything to please male guests. It was just their way of being the perfect hosts and hostesses. At some point in the evening, the wife of this chief attempted to sleep with this missionary and, of course, he refused. This surprised the wife of the chief. She couldn’t imagine why he didn’t want her. She went and talked with her friends and told them about what had happened. They also thought it was strange that he hadn’t been interested in her so they got curious that maybe that missionary was really a woman dressed as a man. So they all went back to him and tried to ask him what if he was a man or a woman. But since they didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Marquesan that didn’t go so well. So they decided to look and see what he was. There was about ten of them and they were probably in much better shape than he was. They were able to remove enough of his clothes so they could see and then they left him. No doubt they considered him strange by their customs. The next morning he signalled to the ship that had brought him and he left the island and he never came back. (Parts of this story are from a forgotten source. Parts are from ‘Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land’ by Greg Denning.)
When William Crook returned back to the shore the next morning he talked with Mr. Harris who was just about to leave to go back to the ship and he decided that even though he was the only missionary on the island that he would stay on and work with the people. William Crook took his stuff up to the house of Teinae, the chief, and lived with him. He had a native translator with him who sort of spoke English and could help him communicate with the people. The second day there, he was introduced to the wife of the chief and he was told by his translator that she was the ‘Queen’ of the valley. The wife of the chief fit the picture that William Crook had of a queen: she had servants, she acted respectable, she didn’t giggle a lot like the other women of the valley. She stayed pretty solemn and respectable. Sort of like any queen would act. After supper that night in the house of the chief the people sat around and talked for awhile around the fire but pretty soon they put out the fire and everyone rolled up in tapa cloth on mats and went to sleep in the dark. A couple of minutes after the fire was out and everything was quiet, William Crook felt a warm, naked female body slide up against his as he was lying on his sleeping mat. He knew that it wouldn’t be right and he made a fuss. That woke some of the people in the house and someone relit the fire to see what was going on. William Crook saw that the woman who had tried to sleep with him was the wife of the chief! Now he didn’t know the custom about taking care of guests in the Marquesas so he was certainly surprised that the always solemn, serious wife of the chief would try to sleep with him. He was asked thorugh his translator why he had made a fuss. He tried to explain thorugh his translator about his beliefs in chastity and sexual morality but that is a difficult thing to explain particularly in the middle of the night. The translator didn’t speak very good English but he thought he understood what the William Crook was trying to say. So the translater said, “He says, that she’s too old for him.” (From an unknown source.)
It is fashionable these days to think that the missionaries who came to Polynesia were bad. This view is based in ignorance. The real destroyers of Marquesan society were the sailors who brought syphillis, slavers who brought smallpox and French admirals who did not know that to destroy is not to civilize.
Revised: June 13, 1996
Copyright © 1996 Daniel (Taniera) Longstaff