The section below is from the book, “The Age of Wonder” which is an award winning volume that chronicles the connection between scientific discovery and the ideals of the Romantic Age. In the first Chapter the author writes about the history of Captain Cook’s voyage of discovery. Here he gives ample attention to the time Cook and his crew spent in Tahiti.
I am posting a lengthy section below, and it is worth reading all 4 paragraphs. This narrative is largely taken from the diary of James Banks who documented their experience. As I read this I was struck with more than a bit of Deja Vu. There is something familiar operating here. What they witnessed in Tahiti fits the appetites of our generation for a mythical paradise of free and open sex. But, he also narrated the suffering that grows from this kind of selfishness. What am I talking about? Infanticide and more. It is tempting to view native cultures as pure and innocent, uncorrupted by the ideas of western culture. However, the truth is different. Every society has it’s own virtues and vices. Attempts to portray any one culture or age as a eutopia usually exaggerate the virtues and ignore the vices.
This snapshot from history is not unique. It has been repeated many times in cultures ancient and modern. The American generation that started the sexual revolution forgot to study history. So now we are stuck in the painful double loop of both repeating and failing to learn from the sins of the past. In spite of our most prurient longings there is no such thing as sex without consequences.
Here are a few things I took away from this passage:
- This level of sexual debauchery often starts early. Young girls were taught to engage in lewd dances before they reached puberty.
- There is no sexual sin without grave consequences to others. We seem to believe that as long as we do not transgress the one sexual absolute of consent that everything will be just fine. But the way we wield the weapon of sex leaves deep wounds. Every culture that lives this way ends up damaging the weak and vulnerable, even if they once offered their consent. The rest of the account describe the horrible consequences of the plague of sexually transmitted diseases among the natives and sailors.
- There is always a double standard in the world of free sex. In Tahiti men were allowed to get away with adultery while a woman would be beaten for it. Part of this is because of that natural strength advantage that men have. The other is the fact that in reproduction the woman’s body is designed to carry the child. This is the way we are and it has implications, even in our sin. And the answer to this double standard is NOT that women should be able to be just as bad as men.
- Banks spoke with several couples that had previously murdered 2 or 3 children and THEY EXPERIENCED NO REGRET. This is the long term effect of cultural sin. The fact that some people can commit horrible acts without empathy doesn’t make those acts virtuous. Just because some cultures engage in certain practices doesn’t mean they ought to.
- The decision to kill an infant was driven by the men. When a man wanted free sex but was unwilling to take responsibility for the child, then that child would be killed, even against the wishes of the woman. The way that men manage their strength and leadership is often a driver in this kind of depravity.
- The status of motherhood was despised. Once a woman had born a child, she was viewed with some degree of contempt. High views of motherhood are not compatible with a free-sex culture.
“The idea of sexual innocence proved more complicated for a European to accept: ‘All privacy is banished even from those actions which the decency of Europeans keep most secret: this no doubt is the reason why both sexes express the most indecent ideas in conversation without the least emotion; in this their language is very copious and they delight in such conversation beyond any other. Chastity indeed is but little valued especially among the middling people; if a wife is found guilty of a breach of it her only punishment is a beating from her husband. Notwithstanding this some of the Eares or chiefs are I believe perfectly virtuous.’
“What later came to be regarded as the most scandalous of all Tahitian customs, the young women’s seductive courtship dance, or ‘timorodee’, Banks describes with calm detachment and a certain amused appreciation: ‘Besides this they dance, especially the young girls whenever they can collect 8 or 10 together, singing most indecent words using most indecent actions and setting their mouths askew in a most extraordinary manner, in the practise of which they are brought up from their earlyest childhood. In doing this they keep time to a surprizing nicety, I might almost say as true as any dancers I have seen in Europe, tho their time is certainly much more simple. This excercise is however left off as soon as they arrive at Years of maturity. For as soon as ever they have formed a connection with a man they are expected to leave of Dancing Timorodee-as it is called.’
“The only Tahitian practice that Banks found totally alien and repulsive was that of infanticide, which was used with regularity and without compunction as a form of birth control by couples who were not yet ready to support children. Banks could scarcely believe this, until he questioned several couples who freely admitted to destroying two or three children, showing not the slightest apparent guilt or regret. This was a different kind of innocence, one far harder to accept. Banks pursued the question, and found that the custom originated in the formation of communal groups in which sexual favours were freely exchanged between different partners: ‘They are called Arreoy and have meetings among themselves where the men amuse themselves with wrestling &c. and the women with dancing the indecent dances before mentioned, in the course of which they give full liberty to their desires.’
“He also found that the Arreoy, and the custom of infanticide, owed their existence ‘chiefly to the men’. ‘A Woman howsoever fond she may be of the name of Arreoy, and the liberty attending it before she conceives, generally desires much to forfeit that title for the preservation of her child.’ But in this decision he thought that the women had not the smallest influence. ‘If she cannot find a man who will own it, she must of course destroy it; and if she can, with him alone it lies whether or not it shall be preserv’d.’ In that case both the man and the woman forfeited their place in the Arreoy, and the sexual freedoms associated with it. Moreover, the woman became known by the term ‘Whannownow’, or bearer of children. This was, as Banks indignantly exclaimed, ‘a title as disgracefull among these people, as it ought to be honourable in every good and well governed society.”
Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Print. p. 37