The Protestant Missionaries first arrived in Tahiti aboard the “Duff” on 5th March 1797. It’s an intriguing piece of trivia but the ‘Duff’ crossed the International Date Line in sailing to Tahiti; a fact overlooked in the ship’s log-book. The result of this oversight is that the missionaries actually arrived in Tahiti on 4th March 1797.
On that day in March 1797, thirty male missionaries from the London Missionary Society anchored in Matavai Bay near Point Venus on Tahiti with the aim of evangelising French Polynesia. They disembarked 2 days later & were received on the beach by King Pomare II & his wife who were both carried high on the shoulders of locals. A monument to mark the arrival of the missionaries was built at Point Venus in 1970.
The missionaries were men of letters & only 2 had any notion of manual work – Nott was a mason & Bambridge a carpenter. Although the missionaries befriended Pomare II the constant waring in Tahiti saw the missionaries leave Tahiti before returning in 1812 once Pomare had abandoned heathenism. With a supportive King, & perhaps one may add, due to the fear engendered by the impact of disease from outsiders coming to Tahiti against which the Tahitians had no resistance, conversions to Christianity were swift & many.
The missionary influence was clear to see in many varying areas. The Tahitians had hitherto been fearsome, ‘take no prisoners’ warriors for centuries – Pomare II was the first to offer a pardon to those laying down their arms. The missionaries also promoted manufacturing, sugar & textiles in particular. The missionaries also guided Pomare II is introducing Tahiti’s first laws providing for the protection of life & property, the sanctification of marriage & the appointment of a judiciary to administer the law.
The 5th March is now a public holiday celebrated with a ecumenical service in Prototestant Temples throughout French Polynesia. The service includes an extensive reading of the liturgy in English as a sign of recognition that the missionaries were English speaking.
The celebration flows on from the Taurua Varua with members of participating districts coming attired in their district colours, their heads adorned with magnificent floral couronnes as can be seen in the photo above.
Passionately performed Himenes (formal Tahitian religious choral songs) are the order of the day. As the above link records: “Himenes are contrapuntal compositions in as many as six voices producing a powerful, pumping, unique & quite mesmorising sound sung with great gusto” – something everyone should witness in their lives.
The missionaries instantly recognised the Tahitians love for song & were quick to adapt the ancient Himene to religious purposes as a means of gaining converts.
A couple of stalwarts for such gatherings:
I found of particular interest a reference in the formal proceedings (Mass) to the following prophesy of a certain Tahitian priest of the time, Vaita a Tahua:
Vaita a Tahua is held to have prophesised the coming to Tahiti of the Europeans.
In the mid 1700’s, during a ceremony on Marae Taputapuatea in Raiatea, Vaita told the King that they were living in the period where a people of a different colour – white people – would arrive in a “va’a” (boat for a Tahitian) without an ama (balancing float) & that they would bring with them their God who would rule over all other deities. Their culture & traditions as they knew it would change forever.
The King, uneasy with what he heard asked for proof that a va’a without an ama could float. Vaita went to fetch an umete (a large, elongated bowl hollowed from wood) which he placed on the water as he & the King watched it float effortlessly without sinking.
Once today’s Mass was concluded parishioners performed differing spectacles for all present. Some were involved in final preparations such as the making of a couronne for a confident young lass about to perform an orero (ancient Tahitian oral declaration):
The performances are accompanied by a quality group of musicians & singers known as Bora Bora Gospel:
The following images highlight some traditional dancers, the performance of two orero, some more modern dancing & the Sunday School dancers who all performed – it’s a joyous ocassion celebrated with a great sense of community:
Did you recognise the couronne from the car-park in the third photo above?
In Bora Bora the arrival of the missionaries is celebrated with great fervour each year. A sumptuous lunch is offered to all those present following the ceremonies.
Given the numbers eager to attend each year the celebrations are held in one of the church annexes in Vaitape – the Temple in Vaitape (below) simply can not accommodate all those wishing to participate.
As the 5th March is a public holiday throughout French Polynesia tourists to Bora Bora will find most of Vaitape closed. They should, however, make enquiries concerning the whereabouts of celebrations surrounding the arrival of the missionaries. Everybody is welcome & a warm reception is extended to all who attend.
Participating in unexpected ceremonies such as this is a culturally enriching experience.