Aphrodite's Island: The European discovery of Tahiti Salmond, Anne. 2010

Aphrodite's Island: The European discovery of Tahiti Salmond, Anne. 2010

Salmond, Anne.
Aphrodite's Island: The European discovery of Tahiti
University of California Press. 
ISBN 978-0-520-26114-3. 
Previously published by Viking. 2009. ISBN 978-0-670-07396-2.

Anne Salmond's writings are well-known among readers of Captain Cook studies.1 She is Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Aphrodite's Island is her most recent contribution. It is an extremely readable and excellent book.

During Cook's Second Voyage, Captain Cook and JR Forster estimated Tahiti's population as 200,000 to 240,000 persons. Although the book's subtitle suggests a focus on the European discovery of Tahiti, the volume is also a study of the Tahitian population in a way that no other book of which I am aware studies the people and milieu into which Cook and other navigators sailed in the later 18th century.

Professor Salmond observes that in the decade between 1767 and 1777, "it must have seemed to the islanders that almost as soon as a European ship sailed away from Tahiti, another appeared over the horizon." In June 1767 Samuel Wallis and Dolphin reached Tahiti which he named King George's Island. In April 1768 Louis Antoine de Bougainville and ships La Boudeuse and Étoile arrived in Tahiti for a ten day visit. Bougainville claimed the island for France and named it New Cythera (after an Ionian island off the eastern tip of the Greek Peloponnese), where the goddess Aphrodite first washed ashore. James Cook and Endeavour arrived first in April 1769 to observe the 3 July Transit of Venus. Cook named the island Otahite and claimed the island for King George III.

Three years later, the Spanish ship Águila arrived from Peru for a short visit in November 1772, commanded by Don Domingo Boenechea. Spain also claimed Tahiti. Bonechea named it Amat, the Viceroy of Peru's last name. Cook returned to Tahiti on his Second and Third Voyages; his final departure was in December 1777. The Spanish and Águila arrived a second time in November 1774, this time installing two Franciscan friars on the island to convert the natives, along with a marine as protection. After a dismal year, they departed in November 1775, on Águila's return, the friars having made no progress in conversion of the Tahitians to Christianity.

The European presence complicated relationships among Tahitians. The author describes how some of the Tahitians ingratiated themselves to one or more of the European visitors and how special bond (taio) relationships were established by the visitors and Tahitian chiefs. The European visitors also tried to discredit their rivals in the affections of the population, especially the Spanish who tried to convince Tahitians that England was a small island of no importance. Cook replaced a cross erected to claim Tahiti in the name of Spanish King Charles III with one bearing dates of English visits and claiming the territory for England: "Georgius Tertius Rex Annis 1767, 69, 73, 74, & 77."

In the book's 22 chapters, the author guides the reader through the English, French, and Spanish voyages to Tahiti. In doing so, she provides massive detail, often day to day events, sometimes hour by hour, identifying people, places, and actions. The narrative covers not only activities by Wallis, Bougainville, Cook, Boenechea and various ships' crews but also identifies the Tahitians involved with the European visitors: chiefs, former chiefs, paramount chiefs, warriors, wives, mistresses, children, assorted relatives, priests, and others. The native population is not part of an incidental, faceless crowd. Rather Salmond's narrative provides Tahitians with real identity and history, as active participants.

The author explains the power of the sacred "arioi," followers of the god 'Oro, with their life and death powers. Tahitian daily life, behaviour, food, tools, weapons, homes, furnishings, their impressive sailing craft and skills as navigators, etc., are detailed for the reader. A picture of a highly-organized society emerges in this account. While it is easy for the reader to become quickly lost in the day to day detail, the point of the narrative is to understand the flow of often-complicated relationships among the European visitors and the Tahitian population over the course of a decade.

Perhaps the most striking details presented in the book concern the important, constant, nearly daily exchange of gifts. It is clear that the Tahitians were extraordinarily generous in providing food and supplies to the European visitors. They offered pigs, chickens, plantains, breadfruit, coconuts, and other foodstuffs, especially during the Season of Plenty, one of the three seasons in the Tahitian calendar, when the gods were present on Tahiti. The season of High Seas is the second season. The Season of Scarcity, when the gods were absent, is the third season, during which supplies were not plentiful. A useful appendix explains the Tahitian calendar system. It is important to note that there are varying interpretations of Tahitian seasons.

In exchange for foodstuffs and supplies, the Tahitians received metal products (e.g. nails, hatchets, swords), clothing, and trinkets and, in Cook's later voyages, the highly prized red feathers which carried religious and other powers for chiefs and others.

The author also traces the travels from Tahiti to England or Peru by Tahitians such as Tupia (who died in Batavia), Omai, and Hitihiti (who traveled to the Southern ocean). She provides interesting detail regarding the Tahitian visitors to 18th century Peru and a glimpse into this important Spanish viceroyalty.

Tahiti created an extraordinary image in England and Europe. As Bougainville sailed from Tahiti in April 1768, he wrote in his journal, "Farewell happy and wise people, may you always remain what you are. I shall never recall without a sense of delight the brief time I spent among you and, as long as I live, I shall celebrate the happy island of Cythera. It is the new Utopia." Sir Joseph Banks and others educated in the classics provided similar ecstatic descriptions of the island. Whether Aphrodite's Island or Cythera, the landscape, surrounding seas, the people, the hospitable climate, and the native peoples of Tahiti (re-imaged as classical Greeks or Romans), all entered the European imagination as a paradise on earth. As illustration, the text includes a clever juxtaposition of Botticelli's painting, The Birth of Aphrodite, with John Webber's painting, A Polynesian Venus.

Then there were the women: often young, beautiful, apparently willing sexual partners, who even sailed to the ships to welcome visitors. Salmond carefully explains that girls, women (and men) would drop part or all of their clothes as a sign of respect when meeting persons of greater importance, including the European visitors perceived as gods or sent by the gods. Women and men participated in dances or acted in dramas, sometimes without clothing, performances that were often sexually explicit. Sometimes these dances actually derided their oblivious European visitors who automatically assumed these performances were an invitation for sex.

Imagine sailors having survived a long voyage from Europe or after weathering the fog, cold, sleet, snow and ice islands of the Southern Ocean, reaching presumed paradise, arriving to find scores of beautiful and apparently available and willing women. However, to the Tahitian women, there was not much attractive in sailors who showed signs of ulcers from scurvy or other diseases. Even with Cook's insistence on bathing, washed clothing, and a clean ship, many sailors were usually not personally or physically attractive as the natives, who bathed often several times daily, covering their bodies with oils and perfume, and who remained out of the sunlight to keep their skin light and not weathered.

Much of Cook's time was occupied in daily meetings and gift giving with various Tahitian chiefs and families, placating hurt feelings, smoothing over rivalries, quelling disturbances among natives and visitors. Tahitian feelings bruised easily. Reputedly Cook and other officers set out in pursuit of thieves who walked off with anything that could be taken from the ship or stockade. Native visits to Endeavour, Resolution and other ships were followed by visits to the island chiefs and families, somewhat of a human saga without end.

Paradise presented a darker side: Tahitians practiced infanticide and human sacrifice. Tahitian factions conducted internal warfare or fought groups from other Polynesian islands, such as Bora-Bora. It was a sign of Cook's prominence that he was taken to a marae during a human sacrificial ceremony prior to one group of Tahitians launching war against another.

The author provides a useful interpretation of the decade in the final pages covering Cook's last visit as well as in her concluding chapter. In Tahitian belief, at the creation of the world the creator god and a series of female goddesses created new forms of life. The author observes, "sex was the sacred force that drove the cosmos, ensuring the continuity and well-being of descent lines and providing people with key resources".

Salmond concludes that the Tahitians thought they "summoned up" the arrival of the European visitors because of an ancient prophecy that their ancestors would return to the islands. Therefore the European ships appeared as "floating islands," propelled by the power of their ancestors. That is why there was an endless exchange of gifts, why women and girls were offered to the visitors, because the Europeans appeared as ancestral gods.

While the Tahitians soon realized the visitors were human, they continued to be seen as extraordinary beings. The Tahitians continued to forge special bond (taio) relationships, attempting to mingle their spirits (varua) with their visitors. After 1777 the decade of visits by European navigators ended. The visitors' gifts, tarnished with time, and even the gift of Cook's portrait painted by John Webber, took on mythic dimensions in island ritual. Men and women exposed themselves to the portrait, "celebrating imperial and Christian power on the one hand, and the procreative power of the cosmos on the other," thus ensuring the continued fertility of the island.

The book contains over 60 illustrations as well as maps. One map identifies Tahitian districts and the island's chiefs which help the reader follow her narrative. Another useful map is Tupaia's Chart, from Endeavour's Voyage. Cook used Tupaia's knowledge to create the chart of islands surrounding Tahiti. The author provides thorough documentation, a selected bibliography, as well as a detailed index.

Readers are in debt to Anne Salmond for adding a substantial and well-researched cross-cultural work to understanding of a decade in which Europeans, Captain Cook among them, discovered Otahite, Aphrodite's Island.

James C. Hamilton


  1. Amongst the works of Anne Salmond are The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. Allen Lane. 2003. ISBN 0-713-99661-7.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 38, volume 34, number 2 (2011).

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