The Feather Gods of Tahiti


Shorn of its aura, the King of Tahiti’s personal family god,  Temeharo, lies in its glass case in the basement of a London gallery.   This once-powerful idol may have been venerated with human sacrifices.  Now  it seems an unprepossessing thing, a mostly featureless bundle of brown string, closely bound around a piece of wood, about a metre long.



Shipped to London two centuries ago, Temeharo was once decorated with red feathers.   The Polynesian islanders valued red feathers especially; European traders discovered they could trade them for an island pig.   The string is actually sennit, the tightly wound coconut twine, which a stone-age society used to build dwellings, and bind weapons, to the fascination of early  visitors.  , All that’s left now are a few traces of broken quills.

Temeharo – possibly an image of Tahiti’s most important god, Oro – is on display with half a dozen other feather gods, in an exhibition, Missionaries and Idols in Polynesia, at the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London.  There are other striking artefacts; a handsome carved bowl for baling canoes, enigmatic carved double-headed Janus figures, an octopus lure made of shiny cowrie shells, with a jewel-like quality.

It is the feather gods, as Sir David Attenborough notes,  that are the most poignant.   But their form baffled the missionaries who collected them, and they continue to baffle the Western eye to this day.    Some, from the Cook Islands, have kept their colours; one, about the size of a fly whisk, is covered in the bright, short curls of red parrot feathers. But another is just a spindly cluster of black frigate bird feathers, thinly tied with sennit, and intermingled with human hair.


feather god

Feather God, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, central Polynesia.  1823. Sennit binding, feathers, mostly tropic bird. British Museum LMS 103.

The Polynesians, missionaries recorded, had dozens of gods.  They offered prayers before they ate their food, planted gardens, launched canoes, or cast their nets.   There were gods of fishnet makers, ravines, games, carpentry, thatchers, and thieves; there were good gods, and bad. These idols were their temporary homes, objects in themselves of huge veneration.

Ancient religious icons, of carved wood, stone or metal,  figurative or abstract, can carry their spiritual or artistic power into any setting.  But these items, lacking any human form,  are “absolutely foreign to the Western eye,” observes David Shaw King.  A  passionate California collector, Mr King  persuaded several reluctant British museums to release them for display, after a gap of nearly 150 years.

Mr King, 73, raised in the West Indies, a professor in organic chemistry at UC Berkeley, has had a fascination with island artefacts, particularly from Polynesia, since his teens.   The show he has curated at the Brunei Gallery includes pieces from his own collection, two loans from Attenborough, and from the British Museum, SOAS, and other UK institutions.   It runs until September 26th.

My newsier account of the exhibition including comments from Sir David Attenborough is on the Art Newspaper’s website.

In the late 18th Century Captain James Cook returned from the Pacific islands of Polynesia with accounts of a gracious, generous people who also had ‘loose morals’ and practised infanticide, human sacrifice and idol worship.

The burgeoning evangelical Christian movement in Britain set its sights on taking Christ’s message to this “dark and sinful world”, where the heathens were as ripe for the taking as the breadfruit. In 1797 the newly founded London Missionary Society fitted and equipped the ship Duff for a voyage to the South Seas, with 30 missionaries on board.

The Duff made the journey of 13,800 nautical miles and 14 weeks without mishap.  As the missionaries set about their conversions, travelling from Tahiti through Polynesia, the dismembering and public burning of idols was a symbol of winning Christian souls.

But it was the king or paramount chief of Tahiti himself, Pomare I, who in 1816 urged them to take the idols home, including Temeharo. “If you think proper, you may burn them all in the fire,” he said, according to a translated note. “Or if you like send them to your country, for the inspection of the people of Europe, that they may satisfy their curiosity, and know Taheiti’s [sic] foolish gods.”

The leading missionary John Williams, a major character in their story, later told convert teachers, on missions to the outer isles: “If you obtain idols, burn some (but not the best).”

By the mid-19th Century the London Missionary Society had established a London museum, to show “Idols, and objects of superstitioius regard, from islands in the Pacific Ocean”. The directors noted it “tends to promote amongst the numerous persons who visit it…a zeal for the missionary cause”. A peephole souvenir of the LMS museum, made of card, is one of the curiosities in this show.

Peephole diorama of the London Missionary Society Museum, mid 19th C.

Peephole diorama of the London Missionary Society Museum, mid 19th C.

Alongside the feather idols the exhibition features a stone god,  a potent thing with the shape of a flattened easter egg;  stunning carved fan handles, a beautifully shaped scoop used for baling water from canoes; and wooden ‘pillows’, carved curved headrests made from breadfruit wood.  A formidable paeho staff, used at mourning ceremonies to instill respect – violently if necessary – is decorated with sharks teeth.

Bowl, or 'Tata', scoop used for baling canoes.

Bowl, or ‘Tata’, scoop used for baling canoes.

A few idols reached impressive size – the British Museum has one that is about 14 foot tall, not shown in this exhibition – but others were small and spindly enough to be tied to the bows of canoes.    At ceremonies they were carefully unwrapped from layers of bark cloth; the display of images of Oro, would have been accompanied by human sacrifices.

Mr King’s  show is unusual in taking its story line not from the islanders but from the missionaries; what they set out to do and what they brought back, without a political or post-colonial interpretation.

It shows a quietly quirky sense of humour.  The first dictionary of the Tahitian language, compiled over 35 years, with which the missionaries gave the islanders a written culture for the first time. is opened at an entry for Rahohaari , “the name of an indecent dance in which both sexes were perfectly naked”.

The islanders’ clear and strong sense of religiosity made them particularly attractive missionary targets.   “It is impossible not to feel interested in a people who were accustomed to consider themselves surrounded by invisible intelligences,” wrote the Rev. William Ellis, in 1829.  But, his celebrated colleague, the Rev.  Williams would observe, “they don’t seem to be convinced of the sinfulness of sin”.

As missionary zeal faded, the LMS museum closed and the late 19th Century; the archive went to SOAS, and anthropological and art works to other British institutions.  Mr King’s collection includes pieces he  bought  that were decommissioned by the British Museum and others in the 1960s; at the time considered of little value, they now can change hands for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

About a decade ago, he found a manuscript letter in the LMS archive at SOAS, that included a detailed list of 31 “feather gods” brought home from the central Cook Islands. To his astonishment it lead him to the objects themselves, mostly well preserved in drawers, at the British Museum.

Missionaries’ stories are not usually celebrated in contemporary exhibitions of indigenous art or culture. “It’s a poisonous word, and it turns conversations off, the ‘missionary problem’,” said Mr King.

The Duff made landfall 30 years after Captain James Cook visited Tahiti. Incursions by whalers, adventurers, and crew members and later mutineers of the HMS Bounty, importing weapons and disease, had already decimated the islanders’ population; on Tahiti, from Cook’s loose estimate of 2-300,000 islanders on Tahiti, Mr King said, the number fell to 2-3,000.

But the missionaries at least “learned a great deal about the culture. On the one hand, they came to annihilate it, on the other hand some of them were very good ethnographers,” he said. “They brought back the very idols they went to destroy.” The written language they established, recording 12,000 words, in a 15 letter alphabet, survives to this day; versions of the Christian hymns they taught are still sung beautifully and vigorously.

The famous Rev. Williams learned Tahitian, constructed forges, and travelled widely; when stranded on the island of Rarotonga, he lead the construction of a 50 ton schooner from scratch to get off it. (Clubbed to death on a Melanesian island in 1859, he became the evangelicals’ first Pacific martyr, so perhaps aim off for myth-making.)

Temeharo, the idol, appears on the cover of Missionary Sketches, an LMS magazine. It noted: “The public will no doubt feel much disappointed on the view of these despicable idols…..[which] bear no resemblance whatever to the human form…convey no idea whatever of an animated being, and we are totally at a loss to account for their form.”

‘Soft’ X-rays, said Mr King, confirm that typically a wooden stick runs through the middle, with little else inside. “One or two of them have some teeth and something that looks like fingernail, and probably some hair, from ancestors.”

Sir David Attenborough, the broadcaster and adventurer, is a friend of Mr King, and has lent two items from his own collection to the show. Of the feather gods, he said: “Some of them are quite insignificant, it’s rather poignant, there’s that large case and in the middle just a bundle of feathers. These were some of the most powerful idols that there were and that’s how they represented it.”

He added: “One of the things this tells us that the missionaries were just as extraordinary as the people they were ‘missionarising’. They were dogged, genuine, sincere people, and people of enormous resource.”