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three pairs of lovers with space


It is widely known that the first Europeans to visit Tahiti (or Otaheite, as they usually called it) thought they had stumbled upon a sexual paradise when they were welcomed by its beautiful, nearly-naked girls.  Less well-known, and shocking to them, was that it was also a paradise for the free practice of Greek love.

However, as elsewhere in Polynesia, Greek love was overshadowed by the institution of the mahu, a passively-homosexual and socially-accepted transvestite. As the Tahitians were famous as sexually active from prepubescence, the mahu was frequently a boy, but it is unclear whether a loved-boy in Tahiti (such as described by George Hamilton in what follows) was generally a mahu.

The Log of the Bounty by Lt. William Bligh, 1789

William Bligh is famous as the commander of the British ship the Bounty, whose crew mutinied against him in April 1789. The mutiny occurred soon after they had spent five months in Tahiti, where Bligh maintained a ship’s log.  Included in this was the first detailed description of a Tahitian mahu. Although the example Bligh met was a young man, rather than a boy, his description is given here in full because he makes it clear that the mahu began as a boy, and other accounts suggest he may usually have been one.

The text is taken from The log of the Bounty: being Lieutenant William Bligh's log of the proceedings of His Majesty's armed vessel Bounty in a voyage to the South Seas, to take the breadfruit from the Society Islands to the West Indies edited by Owen Rutter, London, 1937, volume II, pp. 16-17:

HMS Bounty arrives in Tahiti 1788 by John Clayton

On my Visit this Morning to Tynah[1] and his Wife, I found with her a person, who altho I was certain was a Man, had great marks of effeminacy about him and created in me certain notions which I wished to find out if there were any foundations for. On asking Iddeeah[2] who he was, she without any hesítation told me he was a friend of hers, and of a class of people common in Otaheite called Mahoo. That the Men had frequent connections with him and that he lived, observed the same ceremonies, and eat as the Women did. The Effeminacy of this persons speech induced me to think he had suffered castration, and that other unnatural and shocking things were done by him, and particularly as I had myself some Idea that it was common in this sea. I was however mistaken in all my conjectures except that things equally disgusting were committed. Determined as I was either to clear these people of such crimes being committed among them, or to prove that they were so, I reqııested Tynah to inform me, which as soon as I had requested it, a dozen people and even the Person himself answered all my questions without reserve, and gave me this Account of the Mahoos. These people, says Tynah, are particularly selected when Boys and kept with the Women solely for the carnesses [sic] of the men, here the Young Man took his Hahow or Mantle off which he had about him to show me the connection. He had the appearance of a Woman, his Yard & Testicles being so drawn in under him, having the Art from custom of keeping them in this position, those who are connected with him have their beastly pleasures gratified between his thighs, but are no farther Sodomites as they all positively deny the Crime. On examining his privacies I found them both very small and the Testicles remarkably so, being not larger than a boys of 5 or 6 Years Old, and very soft as if in a State of decay or a total incapacity of being larger, so that in either case he appeared to me effectually a Eunuch as if his stones were away. The Women treat him as one of their Sex, and he observed every restriction that they do, and is equally respected and esteemed.


Observations and remarks… by Lt. George Mortimer, 1789

A Heiva in 1789, depicted in the film The Bounty (1984)

British Lieutenant George Mortimer of the Marines recorded the following episode, while anchored in Matavia Bay on 1st September 1789, in his Observations and remarks made during a voyage to islands of Teneriffe, Amsterdam, Maria's Islands near Van Diemen's land; Otaheite, Sandwich Islands; Owhyhee, the Fox Islands on the North West Coast of America, Tinian, and from thence to Canton, in the brig Mercury commanded by John Henry Cox, Esq. (London, 1791) p. 47:

In the afternoon, I went on shore for the last time, with two of our gentlemen, and saw a Heiva, which was uncommonly indecent and lascivious. Now I am upon the subject of these kind of entertainments, I cannot help relating a very droll occurrence that happened in consequence of their nocturnal Heivas. Attracted by the sound of drums and a great quantity of lights, I went on shore one night with two of our mates to one of these exhibitions. We seated ourselves among some of our friends whom we found there; when one of the gentlemen who accompanied me on shore took it into his head to be very much smitten with a dancing girl, as he thought her, went up to her, made her a present of some beads, and other trifles, and rather interrupted the performance by his attentions; but what was his surprise when the performance was ended, and after he had been endeavouring to persuade her to go with him on board our ship, which she assented to, to find this supposed damsel, when stripped of her theatrical paraphernalia, a smart dapper lad. The Otaheiteans on their part enjoyed this mistake so much that they followed us to the beach with shouts and repeated peals of laughter; and I dare say this event has served as a fine subject for one of their comedies.

The Voyage of H.M.S. Pandora 1790-91 by George Hamilton

HMS Pandora sinking after her departure from Tahiti in 1791 based on a drawing by mutineer Peter Hayward

The following remark British naval surgeon George Hamilton, who was in Tahiti from March to May 1791 in his The Voyage of H.M.S. Pandora Despatched to Arrest the Mutineers of The 'Bounty' in the South Seas 1790-91, (London, 1915) p. 89, more typically European in its expression of outrage:

To this island [contiguous to Otaheite] they [the Otaheitans] likewise send their wives, thinking they become fair by living on fish, and low diet. They also send boys for the same reason, whom they keep for abominable purposes.

Untrodden Fields of Anthropology by Dr. Jacobus X…, 1893

Jacobus X…., was a French army surgeon, who passed twenty-eight years of his life in diverse French colonies “giving my professional services to the natives of each place I visited” and collecting lubricious scientific data on their sexual organs and the ways they were put to use.

His book about it, L’amour aux colonies. Singularités physiologiques et passionnelles observes Durant trente années de séjour dans les Colonies françaises Cochin-Chine, Tonkin et Cambodge—Guyane et Martinique—Sénégal et Bivières du Sud—Nouvelle Galédonie, Nouvelles-Hébrides et Tahiti (Paris, 1893) was translated in a 2nd, enlarged edition as Untrodden Fields of Anthropology: Observations on the Esoteric Manners and Customs of Semi-civilised Peoples, Being a Record by a French-Army Surgeon of Thirty Years’ Experience in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania (Paris, 1898), from Part IV (“Oceania”) of which the following extracts are taken.

Chapter IX: Six Weeks at Tahiti.

On leaving New Caledonia to return to France,[3] I obtained, as an unexpected favour, permission to make the journey at my own expense via Tahiti and America, instead of returning on the sailing transport vessel. […] I was also able to obtain a furlough, and remain six weeks at Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.

One of my colleagues. Doctor S***, who had been three years in the colony, undertook to serve as my guide, and owing to his kindness in putting his notes at my disposal, and to the information of various kinds which he procured for me, my voyage to Tahiti was not devoid of profit.

Chapter XIV: Perversions of the sexual passion amongst the Tahitians: The Tané.

Spirit of the Dead Watching by Paul Gauguin, 1892: depicting the artist's 13-year-old Tahitian wife

This chapter will be brief so far as concerns the Maori Tané.[4] From the age of puberty, he is a faithful worshipper of the natural Venus, and fervently adores her until old age. He commences the sports of love as soon as he finds a little Vahiné,[5]—or perhaps even a nubile one,—who is obliging enough to give him his first lessons. Is he, when young, addicted to the vice of masturbation, peculiar to human kind, and its caricature, the simian race? I do not know; but from the moment that he has to do with his first mistress, the Tané cares only for women. That there may be amongst the race,—as amongst all others,—sodomites and pederasts, I admit; but they are very rare exceptions,[6] and prove nothing against the relative morality of the Maori race. The cult of the Annamite “basket”, and “boy”,[7] has never existed at Tahiti, and from this particular point of view, the Tané is less depraved than certain European nations, the Italians for example, amongst whom the culo has always counted fervent devotees.

Tahitian mahus in 1961

Robert I. Levy “spent twenty-six months (during 1961-1964) … in two Tahitian speaking communities in French Polynesia”, based on which he wroteThe Community Function of Tahitian Male Transvestitism: A Hypothesis”, published in Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), pp. 12-21.

Tahitian boy, 1960

Though mahus did not have to be boys, they certainly often were, so Levy’s article is of interest as a detailed eye-witness account.  There are further reasons for his article being to special relevance to Greek love. He says “The mahu, as a social type, still exists. There was one in each of the two communities that I studied. … I will base this discussion mostly on the more rural and traditional of the two communities, "Piri," a village … on the island of Huahine about 100 miles north-west of Tahiti.” The mahu thus studied, in 1961 only, was a boy of sixteen. The other one, a man in his fifties, is in fact alluded to in only two sentences.

Moreover, suggesting that being a mahu was often associated with being a boy rather than being for life, Levy mentions that “There was also a man in his twenties who had been a mahu in Piri, when the present one was a child. According to the village reports he had given up being a mahu, had gone to Papeete to work, and was now living as an "ordinary man." Mahus were not defined by effeminate behavior alone; they also had to fulfill some aspects of a woman's village role, a role they could give up to become ex-mahus.”


[1] Tynah, correctly Tunuieaiteatua, was the King who had just brought Tahiti under unified rule for the first time.

[2] Tynah’s wife.

[3] The author says in Chapter I that he arrived in New Caledonia in 1878, but it s not clear when he left, but evidently in or very near the 1880s.

[4] Maori is what the author calls the Tahitian race, which he says is a hybrid of three. A “tané” is a Tahitian male.

[5] Tahitian female.

[6] Considering what he says about his stay and his reading of 18th-century European literature on Tahiti, it is remarkable that the mahu did not come to his notice. He lamented the prudish influence of the British on this “paradise of love”, but the next source quoted in this article will show that the mahu was by no means extirpated.

[7]Nay” meaning “Basket” and “Boy” were described earlier in the work (Vol. I, Chapter VII) as being Annamite (central Vietnamese) street-boys commercially available for sex and aged respectively 7-15 and 15-25, though both were physically immature for their age by global standards.




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