In December 1787 His Majesty’s armed transport Bounty crept out of Portsmouth harbor on a clandestine mission, heading for the vast and largely uncharted South Pacific. Tahiti, a tiny pinpoint of land in the Polynesian Islands, was the goal. In October 1788, the Bounty dropped anchor in Tahiti’s spectacular Matavai Bay. In April 1789, she set out for Jamaica, West Indies, the hold filled with breadfruit trees, to feed the slaves there. The secret objectives had also been achieved. A Tahitian-English dictionary was written. A trade and diplomatic relationship had been established. An aristocratic crewman had married into the royal family, linking England and Tahiti politically. The Tahitian culture and governmental system and its weaknesses had been monitored in Captain William Bligh’s log. All this effort was the first step in absorbing and colonizing the Polynesian chain.
On April 27 some of the crew mutinied, led by Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian. In September 1792, a handful of the captured mutineers faced a court-martial in Portsmouth. The trial was sensational. The testimony and the whole aura surrounding the Bounty‘s journey shook British and European society to its core. Did Fletcher Christian revolt because of Bligh’s cruel authority, or had Mr. Christian seen Utopia, the living Garden of Eden, and turned against civilization itself? If the first was true, the mutineers should be hanged. If the second, civil society was on trial. The information released about Tahiti’s moral climate created a great after-shock. The credibility of the Church was damaged—its age-old power to define human values was weakened and shifted to the King’s domain. This strengthened his hold over people’s minds as well as their bodies.
Two centuries later, these after-shocks still reverberate and probably affect us more deeply, since contemporary federal education and social service philosophies have been indirectly influenced by the Bounty‘s journey.
The underlying political and social implications—and not simply the romantic adventure story—is what has created the Bounty‘s enduring popularity (2,500 books and four major motion pictures).
The Bounty’s Tahiti was a sex-and-sun hedonists’ paradise. It was a lush volcanic island, with white coral beaches and crystal-clear lagoons. The natives scarcely worked. All they had to do to eat was pick fruit off the trees. To the sailor’s delight, the Tahitian women were promiscuous and guiltless about it. This was in stark contrast to the restrained, pious women of 18th-century Europe, where the Church exerted a great influence on morals and values. Before the discovery of Tahiti, Christian piety and the work ethic were largely thought to be the universal standard necessary for society to function. In that respect, this Utopian world shocked and fascinated the West. And while Europeans dreamed of throwing off their restrictions to be free, they were unaware that a darker, death-camp side existed in the South sea paradise. Our Uncle Sam may be creating a paradisal concentration camp for us, since our government has used the Bounty‘s findings to rid us of inhibitions and guilt so we can perfectly fit into the “New Social Order.”
Most of this started in 1679. John Locke, in Two Treatises on Government, speculated that before civilization, man lived in a perfect “State of Nature.” Here he was completely free and did anything he wished without guilt because the restrictive rules of society did not exist. Locke’s State of Nature paralleled the innocence of the biblical Garden of Eden.
Then, in 1754, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality pushed Locke’s thesis much further. Rousseau proclaimed that all of mankind’s problems were caused by society’s strict rules of personal and sexual conduct which generated the violence and immorality they were supposed to curb. Rousseau, like Locke, said that in the long gone past, man was most perfect. He ate and fornicated by whim. There was no guilt, competition, or territorial disputes because morality, wealth, and property did not exist. But as civilization advanced, man degenerated. The Discourse was a tale with a hidden meaning. Rousseau implied that a dictatorship was needed to strip contemporary man of his wealth and property and to absorb the Church, to stop the propagation of ideas that kept men believing in morality and family attachments, which kept him imperfect.
The Discourse created a sensation. Many Royalist intellectuals asked, “Does such a perfect society exist? Some far-off people, untouched by civilization, that would prove the theory?” If so, nationalizing wealth and the Church would be justified. The search for the “Noble Savage” became an important aspect of national policy for Absolutist countries, to promote the power of rulers. To an extent, anthropology arose in response to that search; shortly after the Discourse was published, that paradise was discovered!
It was 1768. Great Britain was on the verge of losing her American colonies. So King George III focused on the Pacific for new possessions. He sent James Cook on a clandestine mission in an innocent looking coal freighter, The Endeavor. Supposedly this was a scientific journey to observe an eclipse of the sun. In reality, it had a political purpose: to chart the Pacific for secret Navy bases, to discover new lands, to make diplomatic contacts, and collect data about the various people’s social and political structures for future colonization. One of Cook’s stops was at the just-discovered island of Tahiti.
But the French, having just lost their possessions in Canada, learned of Cook’s objectives. They rushed Louis de Bougainville into the Pacific on the same kind of colonizing mission. He beat Cook to Tahiti by a few months. After further long and exhausting wanderings through that vast ocean, both navigators returned home, where they reported on Tahiti’s Eden-like hedonistic culture. Cook’s journals became Voyages, Bougainville’s: Description of a Voyage Around the World. Both books became best-sellers.
Bougainville literally believed he had found Rousseau’s State of Nature, and the Description popularized Rousseau’s ideas.
Then war with the Americans came to Britain, and Pacific exploration stopped. When the colonies freed themselves, the British need to absorb the Polynesian area was far more urgent. By then James Cook was dead, killed by the natives in a fierce battle on a Hawaiian (Sandwich Island) beach. His second-in-command, William Bligh, was put in charge of another secret operation to continue the process. The objectives were sketched in at the beginning of this essay: creating the dictionary and the taking of breadfruit to strengthen diplomatic and trading ties.
The mutiny and later the drama of the highly publicized trial brought home to Britons the Tahitian Utopia more vividly than Cook or Bougainville had. Major questions were raised. Fletcher Christian was an aristocrat. Did his defection represent a weakening of the class system? Did his disappearance to a place unknown mean he was going to create his own pagan Utopia? Had the long stay in Tahiti undermined the morals of the entire Bounty crew so that they might contaminate society-at-large? Hanging three of the mutineers was a symbolic gesture by the Admiralty that society stood firm. But did it?
Within a generation Socialist philosophy rose up, emphasizing Rousseau’s vision of the evils of materialism, property, and “bourgeois morality.” Soon the world drifted toward Marx’s Socialist Eden, and wherever it touched, the Church and all competing value systems were absorbed by The State. Later, Freud emerged, echoing Marx and Rousseau’s blame of man’s torment on civilization’s moral inhibitions. Freud also proclaimed the liberation of sexual repressions would set mankind free. When young anthropologist Margaret Mead went to Samoa (near Tahiti) to prove her mentor’s thesis that culture, not heredity, determines human character, she also echoed Rousseau’s faith that man can be perfect if the State would only free him from inhibitions and “things.” (Cook and Bougainville stopped at Samoa and observed hedonism there, too.) Mead uncovered social patterns the early explorers missed: androgynous bisexuality, a lack of interest in the family, a commune structure to take up the slack. She advocated all this to undo the “evils” of Western monogamy and possessiveness. Her Coming of Age in Samoa was the mid-20th century’s answer to Description of a Voyage Around the World.
Margaret Mead’s ideas suddenly seemed to ring true. Everywhere governments accepted their obligation to make man perfect by replacing religion’s role of defining values. The method? The vast social bureaucracy and the school systems. Children are malleable. They must be weaned from their inhibited parents’ values. First, “Progressivism,” John Dewey’s philosophy of cooperation, sexual equality, and “spirit” over materialism, became the federal education standard. These views were directly at odds with the free enterprise, individuality of the sexes, and upward mobility mores that permeated American culture. (After half a century, critics wonder whether Progressivism has brought us closer to Utopia or abject docility.)
Mead’s brand of anthropology (based on Franz Boas’ vision) pursued a similar logic. Continually focusing on primitive societies to discover paradise-on-earth, it sought to prove that other illiterate, superstitious, homicidal, cannibalistic and particularly sexually inverted cultures were just as valid as ours. This was another way to demonstrate that America’s competitive, opposite-sexes society was just one more variety of man’s infinite mutability and was no more significant. This view denied there was any connection between Americans’ values and their freedom.
As a result, sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, and the courts have focused their attention on “what is gender.” The results have influenced our national law, so that today equality means court-ordered neutering of the sexes, both in the work place and in interpersonal relations. Androgyny has replaced individuality.
These laws have made it necessary to integrate sex education into school curriculum. This is less concerned with fornication than with explaining equal rights law supposed to end sexism. Interpreted into androgyny, equal rights became interchangeable sex roles—masculine and feminine are reactionary ideas that must be replaced by nondominating, nurturing fathers and bread-winning mothers. Gay and straight are the same—simply “preferences.” All this is straightforward Progressivism elevated to a religion and is a variation of the world that Margaret Mead saw in Samoa. But even she was forced to admit: “Androgyny makes sex an end in itself and makes for shallow relations.”
The results have been predictable. Inhibitions are disappearing. And so are man-woman relations and the nuclear family. The 50 percent divorce rate expresses this, as the vast federal bureaucracy becomes steadily more entangled in personal problems via divorce courts, child custody battles, alimony payments, child care and welfare for dependent children of single parents. Legal rules and subsidies have replaced human values. Many children have come to believe their social worker is a parent.
If Rousseau, Margaret Mead, and the federal bureaucracy are right, paradise should be right around the corner. But there is a fly in the ointment. The early Polynesian explorers described the direct connection between paradise and the hell that was also there. Tahiti’s darker side included random human sacrifice, systematic infanticide, special diets to make the people so passive that they would accept death without a struggle.
It seems that the randomly erotic and random cruelty were conceived by the rulers to keep their subjects slaves, since morality is a metaphor for individual power and freedom as an outcome of personal responsibility. If so, then we too are headed for submission, since Polynesian values are becoming ours.
Peter Heywood was a Bounty crewman. He kept a diary. In fact, Heywood was the aristocrat assigned to create the Tahitian-English dictionary. He married into the royal Tahitian family. He observed that only the common people were hedonists: “Virtue (virginity) was as highly prized among them (the upper class ladies) as [among] our own women at home. And to form an opinion of the ladies of Tahiti from the women who visited the ship would be like judging the virtue of an English woman from a study of nymphs (prostitutes) at Spithead. . . . Chaperones guarded the aristocratic girls.”
There were two value systems for the two classes. In fact, the two classes were two different races. The commoners were short and dark. The rulers were tall and light-skinned, with blue eyes like Europeans. Bougainville confirmed this: “Tahiti is composed of two different races, one being serville.” Bougainville clearly saw the connection between hedonism and servility. “What the common people feel, they have never been taught to disguise or suppress. They do not think. Since they only live in the moment, they are affected by each changing hour.” This made them easy to control.
Captain Cook noted the commoner’s servility in another way. Periodically “the men stay indoors a month or two. They eat nothing but breadfruit and vegetables. This produces a sensible coolness in them. Nothing bothers them. Not even death. This implies vapidness, not acceptance. Such a disposition leads them to direct all their aims only to what gives pleasure and ease . . . only the aristocracy eats meat.”
This sounds similar to recent federally mandated developments in the field of nutrition. On the advice of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, both the Department of Agriculture and HEW have actively promoted the severe restriction of animal fats—namely red meat, an aggressive food—as a way to reduce cholesterol. Chicken and fish, less dynamic proteins, which can produce a “sensible coolness,” have been elevated to the highest official position. Yet the American Heart Association’s original research showed such restrictions to be dangerous for healthy people and were only advisable for “high risk” groups.
The connection between nutrition and power was observed by Bougainville. At first he thought that sexual equality had created an egalitarian society. Margaret Mead has the same view of Samoa. But she never, by her own admission, studied their political system in depth. Only Bougainville saw the truth: “At first we took the Tahitians to be almost equal in rank among themselves, or at least enjoying a liberty. I was mistaken. The distinction of ranks is very great in Tahiti. And the disproportion is very tyrannical. The kings and grandees have the power of life-and-death over The People, who the chief calls ‘vile-men.’ Human sacrifices are taken from this class. Flesh and fish are reserved for the tables of the great. The commonality eat fruit and vegetables.”
Peter Heywood wrote about the Tahitian practice of human sacrifice as a way to diffuse political opposition: “Human sacrifice was practiced on the altar of Oro, the god of war. The victim was taken unaware and killed by a sudden blow from behind. The victim was without exception a man who, in the opinion of the chiefs, deserved death for the public good. In a land where courts and judges were unknown, the prospects of being sacrificed restrained many men from anti-social acts.”
Bougainville hinted that one form of sex was a metaphor for human sacrifice. His sailors were given a girl for the evening. The girl did not do this willingly, but was forced to perform the act as a humiliating public ceremony. “The hut was immediately filled with a crowd of men and women, who made a circle around the guest and the victim of hospitality. The ground was spread with leaves and flowers and the musicians sang a hymnal song to the tune of their flutes. Here Venus is the goddess of hospitality, and her worship does not admit to any mysteries. Every tribute to her is a feast for the nation.”
The lives of the Tahitians were filled with various forms of human sacrifice. Heywood: “Infanticide was considered by the Indians as a praise-worthy act of self-sacrifice.” Captain Bligh asked a district chief about this custom: “The chief said it was to prevent an over-population. They have too many children and too many men, was the constant excuse. Yet it does not appear that they are apprehensive of too great an increase in the lower class of people. The most remarkable instance related to me of the barbarity of this institution was of Teppahoo, who was a district chief, and his wife, Tetteehowdeeah, who is considered a person of the first consequence. They had eight children, every one of which was destroyed as soon as born. That any human beings were ever so devoid of natural affection, as not to wish to preserve alive one of so many children, is not credible. It is more reasonable to conclude that the death of these infants was not an act of choice in these parents, but that they were sacrificed in compliance with some barbarous superstition, with which we are unacquainted.”
If there is a connection between morality and conceiving power, the Tahitian ruling class denied that insight to the commoners via enforced eroticism. This diffused their minds and souls into indifference. Thus the people could not escape from the bottom rung. Margaret Mead faintly grasped this process: “Death and sex are openly observed but the intricacies of social life are a closed book to the young.” Yet, like Freud, she saw this as positive, believing that a child’s exposure to death and sex would make them unneurotic and that the Samoan’s deemphasis of the nuclear family “eliminated undesirable emotional sets.” But, in fact, all it did was destroy their emotions. Mead: “A couple who spent their wedding night being observed by ten other people will not be flustered, but will shrink in shame at touching hands in public.”
Captain Bligh: “Tinah, the district chief, took me to the place where we found a number of women, one of whom was the mother of a young female child that lay dead. On seeing us, their mourning not only immediately ceased, but to my astonishment, they all burst into an immoderate laughter and while we remained, appeared much diverted with our visit. I told Tinah the woman had no sorrow for her child, otherwise her grief would not have so easily subsided.”
In Samoa, only people of rank had nuclear families as in the West. And only their children knew the social structure and ceremonies. Mead: “The non-nuclear family of the lower orders did not provide personal motivation or responsibilities.”
Is all this what we really want for ourselves?