Agora-SHS Ateliers gouvernance et recherche Appliquée
Nouméa, Thursday 11 July 2024

Sciences Sociales Nouvelle Calédonie Sciences Humaines


Mailing address:
829 Nalle Street
Charlottesville, VA 22903-3425 USA
T 434 245 0245

My dissertation Ph D : If you are interested, you can download a PDF copy (9.8MB) from the following website (password "tahiti"):

If and when this uchicago web site closes down, you can e mail me and I will send the file.

Tahiti Royale

From Herman Melville to Paul Theroux, Tahiti is consistently perceived as a thoroughly Christian, French colony through which one must pass to find authentic “Polynesia” beyond.
Anthropologists, too, have tended to dismiss Tahiti in favour of less “modern,” more “traditional” islands in the region, skewing research away from Tahiti or away from typical subjects of anthropological inquiry in the region: hierarchy, kingship, chieftainship, ritual politics and economy. My current book manuscript challenges this perception and tendency. Tahiti Royale studies the origins, history and trajectory of the group who epitomizes Europe or France in Tahiti: its colonial elite and bourgeois class, known locally as the “demis” and best represented by the illustrious Salmon family. Based on ethnographic and archival research into how this group commemorates itself, I find that their power and status today continue to be inspired by the mythical and ritual politics of Polynesian gods and ancestors, but personified now by protagonists drawn from European history and sociology.
I argue that the skillful use by this elite of adopted European guises to achieve influence – both in Tahiti and abroad – is consistent with theories that a genius for absorbing and executing European symbols well is culturally distinctive of Polynesia. I propose kinship jealousy, rivalry and intrigue as typical registers for Tahitian hierarchy today, and I argue that kinship with Europeans, or stranger-marriage, has not been a process of westernization, but rather a variation on stranger-kingship that flourishes in the French-Tahitian conjuncture. In short, I explore how the ideals and ends of Polynesian hierarchy have today come to be pursued and at times achieved by European symbolic means.
Tahiti Royale contributes to studies of European contact in the Pacific and beyond by
challenging the historical function or trajectory embedded in ideas of a French colonial elite and rising bourgeois class. By arguing for a politics of polyarchy and divine kingship among grand “demi” families in French Tahiti, I question what is imperative about colonialism and capitalism, and I conclude that quintessentially modern progress in Tahiti today functions in practice as quintessentially Polynesian kingship.

The Immemorials

In the course of my book research, I discovered that memories of the destruction of material culture, circa 1816, are particularly vigorous in Tahiti today, expressed sometimes as an habitus (a visceral sense of absence or silence) and sometimes as expertise (precise knowledge of what happened). I was intrigued, because this period is usually interpreted as Protestant iconoclasm and as such the total conversion of Tahiti to a Protestant mentality, but the memories told to me in 2002 imply a more uneven set of agents, icons and effects.
Specifically, they suggest that most destruction occurred in battles among Tahitian chiefs; that some symbolic materials, particularly feathers, were not destroyed; and that purportedly destructive acts, like burying, sinking, dismantling and recirculating, were in effect preservative and reproductive.

As a result of this ethnographic discovery, I have begun to study the archival and material record of 1816, including “idols” which were rescued by Protestant missionaries and sent to London. I am preparing two articles which use this research to motivate further revisions of this history and in so doing explore not only an alternative to theories of westernization, but also the possibility for reassessing the at times axiomatic link between Protestant iconoclasm and radical epistemological change. I am also investigating the possibility of an exhibition.

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