Susannah Helman: Good afternoon and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Susannah Helman, Rare Books and Music Curator from the Library's collections branch.  

I'd like to begin by acknowledging Australia's First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of the land, and give my respect to the elders past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

Thank you all for attending this afternoon's presentation. "Palapala: A Tale of Reading, Writing, and Books" by Dr Christina Thompson, the National Library's 2023 Creative Arts Fellow in Australian Writing. Our Creative Arts Fellowship program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library's rich collections through residencies of four weeks. Fellowships and scholarships offered by the Library are only made possible by generous philanthropic support and Christina's Fellowship has been supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.  

Dr Christina Thompson is the author of "Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia," which won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the 2019 New South Wales Premier's General History Award. Her first book, "Come On Shore and we Will Kill and Eat You All," was a finalist for the 2009 New South Wales Premier's Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for writing. A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, Christina has been editor of Harvard Review at Harvard University since 2000, and also teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. I very much enjoyed meeting Christina and talking about our Pacific Collections, on a more personal note. In her presentation today, Christina will discuss her research surrounding how and why the technology of writing was introduced to the Pacific in the early decades of the 19th century, how it was understood and embraced by the Islanders, and what consequences that this had. Please join me in welcoming Dr Christina Thompson. 

Christina Thompson: Hello and thank you for coming. I want to thank the National Library of Australia for the opportunity to spend some time in Australia and to spend some time with the collection. This is an opportunity that's really very special for me because although I am a dual citizen and I do work on the Pacific, I live in Boston. So it's hard for me to get here and I'm very grateful for anybody who helps me. I also wanna say what a great time I've had when I've been here. Everybody has been extremely nice and helpful and friendly, and the Fellowship was very well organised. So I'm really happy about the time I've spent. I also just want to acknowledge the cultures and traditions of the people that I'm gonna be talking about. The discoverers and settlers of all the islands in Polynesia, the Ma'ohi [unclear] Kanaka Maoli, and all the other people whose bold ancestors made the first great ocean voyages from the West.  

So the stories that I wanna talk about today are prompted by this question. What happened when the technologies of reading and writing and printing arrived in the islands of Polynesia in the mid, or sorry, the early 19th century. So as we're seeing in our own world, the introduction of certain kinds of new technologies, perhaps all new technologies can be very disruptive. It's hard to know how to feel about them. It's hard to know what's going to happen with them. I have a couple of kids who work in AI, so we talk about it all the time, and I read about it a lot and I find that I really do not know how to feel about it. You know, the question to me in one sense is are the changes that arise from these new technologies good or bad? I mean, that's kind of simplistic, but it seems important. What new opportunities, what new avenues get opened up and what things that we cherish, what things that we care about are foreclosed, right? So in a moment like this, what is created and what is destroyed? So what I wanna do here is I wanna step back and look about a kind of parallel version of this, an earlier version of this same problem.  

The technology of writing when it's introduced into Polynesia in the early part of the 19th century is undeniably a disruptive influence. These are cultures that have been oral for hundreds, thousands of years, so that's part of it. It's not the only source of disruption. You know, I think of it, I sometimes talk about it as part of the guns, germs, and steel package that arrives in the Pacific in the late 18th century basically. And it comes hand in hand with a lot of other imports, muskets, hatches, linen, onions, scissors, measles, smallpox, cats. So when you look back on a period like this, it's not easy to tease out what causes what. It's a time of really great upheaval in these societies: social, political, religious, just everything. But I'm gonna try for the purpose of this talk to isolate reading and writing and think about that. 

The reason I wanna do this is partly because I'm a writer and so I'm kind of interested in reading and writing, but there's also a quite fascinating material dimension to this story. There are letters, there are spelling books, there are math books, there are bibles. And because writing doesn't just arrive like measles, for example, because it's actively brought and disseminated by people with a specific aim in mind, there's also a lot of contemporary discussion about it, which helps us see some of what's going on.  

So some of the questions that I'm trying to answer, how did the missionaries, who are the agents of change in this situation, attempt to teach reading and writing? You know, what was their methodology? What kinds of hurdles did they face? What kind of successes did they have? And what did the Islanders, who acquired this new skill, want to do with it? What did they consider important enough to put down on paper? You know, to what extent did they do with these new technologies, stuff that they're already doing, and to what extent do they do something new?  

Now, clearly I'm not gonna be able to answer these questions. In fact, I don't really know the answer to these questions yet. But what I eventually wanna do is I want to tell the story of a number of different people from this period who come from different parts of Polynesia, from Tahiti, from Aotearoa New Zealand, from Hawaii, who lived through this period, through the introduction of writing in their societies, and who each took a personal interest in the way that this process unfolded.  

So the three that I'm starting with here, Pomarre, Pomarre the second of Tahiti, who was one of the first Pacific Islanders, if maybe not the first to fully incorporate reading and writing into his life. Mowhee, in the middle, a young Maori from the Bay of Islands who travelled to London via Norfolk Island and Marsden's Farm at Parramatta, who wanted to be a teacher and who I think is the first Maori to become both fluent and literate in both English and Teri Maori. And then Davida Malo, who's a Hawaiian historian who was born in the court of King Kamehameha I, and who went on to become a well-known teacher and writer. And ultimately, one of the really, the great chroniclers of pre-contact Hawaii.  

Now, I wanna note that the term Palapala, which is in the title of this talk, is a Hawaiian term. It's the term that they use in Hawaii for both writing and printing. And it's derived from a term for printing on kapa or tapa, right? By stamping ink on it. So it's a little, it's not really quite appropriate for the Tahitian section of the talk, but there you go.  

So these men belong to roughly the same generation. They're born in the 1780s and '90s. They reach adulthood in the early 19th century. They're born in one world and they into another. They're witnesses to and participants in an era of radical change. And there is just enough in the way of historical documentation, in part because of the introduction of writing during their lifetimes and their interest in it, to allow us to see them not just as individuals, but even to hear a little bit of their voices.  

So I'm only gonna talk about one of them today. And this is partly because these are the materials I've been looking at here in the Library and that is Pomarre. Styled King of Tahiti, he was the son of a Tahitian chief named Tu, later Pomarre I, who rose to prominence in the 1700s, the late 1700s, partly through his dealings with European navigators like Cook and Bligh. In 1777, Cook paid his final visit to Tahiti. This is an aquatint by John Webber, the artist on Cook's third voyage, of a Marae or temple, in Huahine, which is one of the Leeward Islands in the society group. Cook's last visit marks, in a sense, the end of one era and the beginning of the next. Up through the 1770s, there are just a handful of visitors. They don't stay for very long. There are some exceptions, Cook and Bligh stay for a while, but it's just not, it's glancing, the contact.  

But beginning in the 1780s and '90s, the pace of traffic really starts to pick up. Now, there are not just Royal Navy vessels, there are whalers and traders, there's the beginning of commerce with Sydney and New Zealand, and things start to change fairly quickly. One of the consequences of this steady increase in contact and the increasing presence of outsiders, and I think very importantly, all their stuff, right, is that it stimulates a certain amount of conflict locally. Throughout the last decades of the 18th century and into the first decades of the 19th century, there's a lot of turmoil in Tahiti. There is a lot of political manoeuvring for access and influence to the stuff, among other things. And there are battles and negotiations and fortunes rise and fall.  

Into this comparative chaos arrives, comes a ship. This is a ship which is in Tahiti, which is unique in this period in that it carries not just transients and visitors, but would-be settlers. This is the first time that this happens here. Sent out from England in 1796, the Duff arrives in Tahiti in 1797, carrying a group of evangelical Christians, including a few women and children. This is the inaugural mission, the inaugural expedition, of what would be known ultimately as the London Missionary Society. It was a then brand new organisation formed two years earlier, I think, which would go on to establish, quite quickly go on to establish missions all over the world in South Africa, Calcutta, Tobago, Newfoundland, Malta, Burma, Siberia, Salon. But the very first target, their very first target, partially because of Cook's journals and their interest in them, Cook's reports from the Pacific, were the islands of the South Seas.  

The full story of this first attempt at Christianizing the peoples of the Pacific is really quite extraordinary. And I'm just gonna give you a couple of highlights. The Duff left parties of missionaries in the Marquesas, Tonga, and Tahiti. Of the two men who were destined for the Marquesas, one of them refused to stay on shore and left his companion there alone for a year. In Tonga, three of the first 10 were murdered, one joined the Tongans, and the others were eventually rescued. They were hidden and in fear for their lives and they were rescued. Of the 23 who left in Tahiti, all but seven decamped to Port Jackson in the first year.  

So the few that remained in Tahiti persevered. And while the Tongan and Marquesan missions were basically a failure, the Tahitian mission survived. So this is this rather famous image. It's called "The Cession of Matavai," and it's based on a painting of the same name. And it depicts a scene in which the Tahitian chief, Tu, or Pomarre I, grants the Duff missionaries permission to reside in his district. I don't think he's ceding the district to them actually, but I think he's telling them that they can stay there. So Pomarre is the one with the pink cloth over his arm. His son, who's actually my subject today, Pomarre II, is the child who is next to him being carried on someone's shoulders. The missionaries are grouped on the right, the far right, well, and also in sort of there with the captain in the first mate of the Duff are in the blue jackets. The man with the blue cloth over his arm is a Swedish beachcomber who was there when the missionaries arrived and who served quite controversially as a translator, an interpreter.  

Now, the goal of the mission, right, is the conversion to Christianity of the Tahitian people. And the way that conversion worked typically in Polynesia was that it was through the social hierarchy. And of course, the missionaries did not understand this at first, but eventually they figured it out. And once they did, they learned to focus their attention on the chiefs. What would happen is the missionaries would focus their attention on the chiefs. The chiefs would become convinced, the chiefs would then tell everybody to follow them, and that was the way it would work. So the key relationships here are between missionaries and chiefly figures.  

And the other important thing to understand is that literacy and Christianity went hand in hand. And this is not just because they were brought by the same people or arrived at the same time. It has to do with the centrality of reading to the evangelical Protestant mission. And this was something that I really did not understand when I started this work. But Protestantism is linked with literacy in a really specific way. Because it is predicated on the idea of one's direct connection to God via the Bible, it presupposes, in fact, it requires that adherents of the faith be able to read. And so what this meant for these Protestant missionaries was that in order to bring people to Christ, they had to teach them how to read. And in order to do that, they either had to teach everyone how to read in English, or they had to translate the Bible into the local language, which they first had to master and reduce to writing, right? Which in turn meant settling on an orthography for a language that had never been written before, and which they didn't know very well. And then they had to teach everybody how to read.  

So you only have to think about this for a second to realise what an enormous undertaking this is. And it's one that the individuals that were selected for these original missions were really not suited to. They had been chosen for their  practical skills, sometimes known as, they're sometimes known as the godly mechanics, it sounds like a band name, godly mechanics. They were blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, gardeners, harness makers, bricklayers, butchers, weavers, tailors, hatters. One of them gave his occupation as gentleman's servant. They were literate, but they were really quite uneducated and they were certainly not gifted linguists necessarily. By the several years into the Tahitian mission, really only one of them is considered fluent in the local language.  

Now, there were three or four people in the first couple of decades of the Tahitian mission who took an interest in the problems of language. John Davies, who was the librarian, wrote a history of the mission's early years, John Muggridge Orsmond, who began collecting Tahitian oral traditions and to whom we have, we owe a debt of gratitude for that. He preserved a lot of important information. William Ellis, who wrote, who brought the printing press and wrote an interesting book about the islands. But to Henry Nott, this guy, goes the honour of being the primary translator. Now, of course, Nott could not do his translation alone. He had to have a partner and that partner was Pomarre.  

So Pomarre II was born about 1782. He had a very distinguished ancestry and he was described as tall and autocratic. There are not many images of him. The famous Webber paintings of '02 and the [unclear] are of his father, sometimes a little confusing. Anyway, this is one of them, and this is the other one. And you can see they look nothing alike.  

So Pomarre began to learn to write around 1803 when he would've been about 21 years old. The missionary Davies wrote that he would teach him in the beginning by smoothing the sand before him as he sat under the shade of a tree and drawing letters and names in the sand. By 1804, Pomarre could write with legible hand and spell fairly well. In 1806, he requested that the missionaries provide him with a, wait for it, room of his own in the missionary house where he might do his writing. They refused this request, but he did have his own little writing house built. And from, sorry, from 1807, he was said to have been able to correspond on any subject he liked. And in 1811, from 1811 onward, he said to have kept a diary, I think none of which survives, at least so far as I know.  

It was said that his preferred posture while writing was lying down with a cushion under his chest and a writing desk in front of him. He composed only in Tahitian, was never comfortable in English. But often what would happen is that he would write the Tahitian, a missionary would translate the Tahitian into English, and then Pomarre would write the English. He would copy the English, sometimes on the same text, on the same sheet of paper. He also copied formal letters in English that were clearly written by missionaries. And there's this nice account from, of his letters in the Sydney Gazette from 1811, in which they're described as written, "In the Otahitan language in an excellent hand with a red ink consisting of the dye with which they," that is the Tahitians, "colour their cloths and mats."  

So this letter here from 1817 is in Tahitian with the English interleaved. In it, Pomarre asks about ‘the word or letter that I spoke to you about yesterday and the book that I spoke to about, paste together a book’ he writes ‘that I may look at it’. He also asks for some shot to shoot birds. ‘I see the wild ducks’ he writes, ‘but I have no shot. Also a little lead for shot leave for us, if agreeable to you, it will be well’.  

In another letter from 1807, he writes about banishing the god Oro and sending him to [unclear]. And he asks for ‘plenty of muskets and powder as wars are frequent in our country’. He writes, ‘This also I wish that you would send me all the curious things that you have in England. Also, send me everything necessary for writing. Paper, ink, and pens in abundance. Let no writing items be wanting.’  

Pomarre was a really enthusiastic letter writer and the contents of his letters spanning about a decade and a half covers a very wide range of topics. So often they begin by making reference to some current event, the arrival of a ship, a wrestling match, [unclear] which is a ban on the sale of pork, some local rebellion, something like that. Or they will mention some previous correspondence that he's received or some prior exchange. You know the word or letter that I spoke to you about yesterday, for example. He gives his opinion about the situation, says something that he's gonna do, and he also makes overtures to his interlocutor sending. Sometimes he will send good wishes to the family, for example, or making some other kind of gesture of generosity or goodwill. And then he follows this with a series of requests. So there's this really clear sense of a transaction in these letters. And also of a relationship based on reciprocity, which is a very characteristically Polynesian.  

The list of things he asks for, this is fantastic. He wants cloth and clothing, napkins, bowls, thread, musical instruments, rum, muskets, powder shot. All right. He wants baked loaves of bread, writing materials, pen, ink, paper, and in one case a sheepskin, which he says makes such a nice smooth sleeping mat.  

There's also this impressive range of addressees. He writes to Samuel Marsden in Australia, he writes to the director of the London Missionary Society in London, he writes to the missionary printer William Ellis, and to the traitor, Samuel Pinder Henry. Henry who is the son of one of the early missionaries in Tahiti.  

Here's this letter, in this letter, this letter from 1806. He writes to the parents of a missionary named Mr. Yul. This is what he says. ‘Don't be angry with me,’ he writes. ‘I cannot agree to Mr. Yul coming home. I have love for him and shall grieve if he leaves me. I'm sorry for you because of your love to your son. I cannot give him. I wish him to stay in Tahiti.’  

Some of the letters are long, some of them are short, some of them are formal, some of them are intimate. Some have this confident commanding tone. Others have this sly humour. Addressing his friend, Sam Henry, at one point he writes, ‘Is your woman in Port Jackson? You don't mean to tell me that good people can acquire mistresses. Now, don't go spreading this around.’ Sometimes he styles himself just Pomarre, sometimes Pomarre, King of Tahiti, sometimes he writes the letter in Tahitian and signs off in English. ‘I am, sir, yours’, et cetera.  

Now, we talk a lot about voice in writing. And for me, this is this extraordinary opportunity to experience the voice of a man who otherwise, would otherwise come to us only through the voices of other people with other ideas and other languages and other preoccupations and other ways of looking at the world. So this is this gift which writing gives us, which is that it is the preservation through time, not just of information about what actually happened, but actually kind of a personality of character, of humanity. In Pomarre's own writing, you catch this glimpse of who he was, what he sounded like, which as everybody who works in this kind of an area knows, is incredibly rare.  

People who work on early colonial, early contact situations know profoundly how we feel deeply the absence of these counter voices, right, of testimony from the encounters other sides. So to me that's one of the really kind of interesting, and maybe I suppose you might say positive consequences of the introduction of literacy is that it really actually has ultimately kind of enabled and preserved other points of view.  

Now, the introduction of literacy had a lot of consequences, some of them not so great. And one of the big issues that you have to consider if one has to consider, I have to consider if I'm thinking about this, is the way that literacy supersedes the traditions of orality. So these are cultures that have been entirely oral forever and ever and ever. And they have really highly developed traditions of oratory, they have amazing people with amazing memory capacity, they have oral customs and methods for the transmission of knowledge, they have societal roles that are specifically dedicated to the maintenance of information.  

There are accounts from 19th century New Zealand of Maori who could recite genealogies going back 34 generations consisting of nearly 2,000 names. So that there's this whole world of knowledge and understanding and practise that is effectively undermined by the introduction of writing. And this is a huge subject and I'm not gonna talk, really not gonna tackle it right now, but I'm curious about the ways in which these shifts occur kind of on the ground. What actually happens when writing comes in and replaces an oral practise?  

And I think you can see a tiny, tiny bit of this in these letters. So a lot of them have this rhetorical quirk, which is really suggestive of oral composition. Namely these opening and closing taglines that announce the beginning of what the person is going to say, and then mark the end of the communication. So by way of opening, for example, ‘This is what I have to say to you.’ Or, ‘Friends, with respect to your letter you wrote me, I have this to say to you.’ And then in closing, ‘This is all I have to say.’ Or, ‘Friends, I have done. I have nothing more to ask you for.’ So many types of formal oratory have this kind of thing, opening lines that announce the beginning of the oration, closing lines that show that it's over. But obviously, it's not really a convention of writing because you can see the beginning and the end. I mean we have salutations and closings, but it's not the same. We don't start off by ‘here's what I have to say to you’. You know? So I think that that's basically an oral convention showing up in early writing. That's what I think it is anyway.  

Pomarre was also curious about illustration, about drawings and engravings and paintings. And Ellis reports, Ellis the printer, reports, missionary printer, that he often ‘called at my house to look at the plates and encyclopaedia, frequently asking if I thought it possible for him to learn to draw’. You see this in New Zealand too, people are quite interested in drawing. This is a note, a letter which is reprinted in Ellis's book and in it Pomarre writes, ‘Draw or write the likeness of a tree and a bird and a house and send them down here that I may see them. They will not be known by me if I look carelessly at them. I desire that custom or art that I may know it.’ I love that. I think that what we're seeing here, at least in part is evidence of Pomarre's curiosity, his keen interest in mastering this new technology of literacy, relatedly drawing, and a pretty highly developed appreciation for what he could do with these skills.  

And I wanna note that this is really the characters, these are the set of characteristics that seem to me common across the character, the people that I'm looking at, the subjects that I'm sort of interested in. I sort of think of them as, they're early adopters, right? They're inquisitive, they take risks, they do a lot of work to master these new skills, and they have this keen sense that there's something here worth having. Interestingly that what they do with it is quite different. So they don't all do the same thing with it at all.  

In Pomarre's case, the goal is largely political. The Reverend Buzacott, missionary of the Cook Islands, noted somewhat later in the 19th century that writing was very attractive to the Islanders. And he said, ‘What seems to have impressed the most was its usefulness.’ And I think that's right. I think that's what people were after a lot of the time. So writing could be used to communicate with people at a distance. It had this interesting permanence. Words written down couldn't be changed. And in this early period in Tahiti when writing is really still an exclusively chiefly skill. A letter could be carried from one person to another person without anybody knowing what was in it. So there's a privacy kind of piece here. And there's this interesting subtext in a lot of, in some of Pomarre's letters about secrecy. ;Do not tell anyone’ he writes and ‘do not bandee this news about. Keep it to yourselves, let it go no further’. So in this period of really intensive political jockeying, the ability to communicate in writing was a kind of strategic advantage that I think that he appreciated.  

So I mentioned that the missionaries were not really very well equipped to affect this literate revolution. They had been told, for example, that Tahitian was a very easy language to learn and the reality was that they could get like a hundred words pretty easily and fluency evaded them forever and ever. But by the end of about a decade and a half, that's how long it took, they had arrived at the point where they had learned the language, they had printed, they had translated some texts, they had a school to teach in, and they even had a few books printed in Tahitian. And the very first of these was a spelling book. The first of these was a spelling book, which was sent to London to be printed, and then the next few were printed in Sydney by George Howe, including this one, which is "The Words of Jesus Christ" from 1814. There was a lot of demand for these books. The missionaries are always complaining in their reports and letters about how they can't print enough and how people want them. And it does seem as though the book, as an object, has a kind of talismanic significance in this early period. On a tour of Huahine in 1809, a couple of the missionaries reported that the people had shown them part of a large folio Bible, which apparently had been left there by Cook and given to Omai or Mai, his real name. ‘We offered to purchase it,’ they wrote, ‘but the owner would not part with it on any terms.’  

So the Tahitian mission is periodically being reinforced by new missionaries, new brethren. And in 1817, this guy arrives, William Ellis, and he brings with him a printing press, which is set up on the nearby island of Mo'orea. Now, as you may imagine, Pomarre is very interested in this development and Ellis reports that he was extremely helpful in getting everything settled and organised, building a building for the press and moving it from the other side of the island where it had been dropped off and so on.  

Now, the first book that the missionary decided to print in their new press was the spelling book. This is a later edition, but still. And Ellis tells the story of this first printing in great detail in his book, which is wonderful. So a day was set to begin the first printing and Pomarre was invited to set the type. So he arrives with his retinue and Ellis shows him how to compose the type and he composes the capital letters and he composes the little letters and then some monosyllables to complete the page. And then Pomarre wants them to print the page. But the thing about printing right is that you don't print a single page, you print a signature and it's four pages or eight pages or whatever. So they have to tell him that they're not gonna print it right away, that they're gonna have to compose all these other pages. And at which point he says, ‘Fine, call me when you're ready.’ And he goes away.  

So a couple of weeks later, it takes them forever to do this. A couple of weeks later, they're ready and Pomarre is sent for. And he arrives, followed by a great crowd of people. And there are still more people crowded around the building, it's a big event. Pomarre and two of his chiefs, favourite chiefs, go inside, they close the door, and they cover the window because apparently, Pomarre does not want anybody outside the building to see what happens inside. Ellis gives Pomarre the ink ball and shows him how to strike the letters, and then he lays a clean sheet of paper on the press and he directs Pomarre to pull the handle. And when the paper is removed, Pomarre and his chiefs rush over and have a look at it and then the page is taken outside and displayed to the crowd. And apparently, this is according to Ellis again who's making a big deal of this, right, but still, the crowd reacts. They raise a shout of astonishment and joy. I mean, I don't know exactly what happened, but. Davies the mission historian who does not describe this whole, this incident in detail, nevertheless does capture something of the tenor of the event, I think, when he says that Pomarre printed the sheets quote, ‘As if occupied in some occult proceeding.’  

Later, Pomarre was asked what he thought of this business and he replied, and I just wanna say that having been in the business of printing and publishing myself, I think this is a fantastic reply. He said he was surprised by the process. He had supposed that the paper was laid down and the letters by some means pressed upon it. Instead of the paper being pressed upon the type, which I think is highly logical. And I probably would've had the same idea.  

So several little books are published at the Mission Press, including several of the gospels. The first of the gospels to be translated and printed was the Gospel of Luke. This is another thing I'm curious about. Why Luke? I don't have an answer to that yet. And this was a translation that Nott and Pomarre worked together on for quite a few years. And there is a very beautiful copy of this in this library. Most of the later gospels are bound in leather, but this one is bound in tapa, and it's decorated, according to somebody, with the juice from the stem of the mountain plantain.  

Here is another really wonderful little book from the mission press. It's a math book, "Aritemeti," which explains the rules of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in Tahiti from 1822. And here's the inside of it where you can see some of the operations. This is some examples of multiplication and division.  

This is a very lovely little Marquesan spelling book, 1826. And here, a rather odd text called "First Lessons for Learners" described as a few lessons in English and Tahitian with a view to make an attempt to teach the natives the English language printed in 1832. These lessons, which I have to confess, I found rather odd start like this. Lesson one, ‘go on, go up, do so, go in. Am I to go? We go to it. It is my ox. Do ye it. Woe be to me. So do I. It is so. I am he’. And then lesson two, ‘all sin, I sin, you sin, sin is bad, do not sin it all’, et cetera. At the back of this book, there are, it then has many, many things from sort of religious texts, but the very back is a whole series of other sentences, longer sentences, which had to do with fishing on the reef. But they're really at the back of the book.  

In the 1830s, Nott finally completed his translation of the Tahitian Bible, the entire Bible. Pomarre was dead by then and succeeded by his son. Nott petitioned the Missionary Society to send him to London, travel to England where he could supervise the printing of this volume, which he did. And a copy of it was presented to Queen Victoria in 1838. Nott then returned to Tahiti in 1840 with 27 crates containing 3,000 copies of the Tahitian Bible.  

So the leaders of the London Missionary Society believed that conversion would come, this was their philosophy, would come as the result of a kind of social and especially technical diffusion. And I think in a way that is in fact what happened. The Islander's interest in reading and writing, which the missionaries envisioned very narrowly and instrumentally as the pathway to salvation. But the Islander's interest really precedes any interest in Christianity. Their interest in writing precedes the interest in Christianity. And I think it's a reflection of the novelty and usefulness of the technology. Conversion did follow, however.  

One of the things that I always think is sort of interesting to speculate about here is that what might've happened if they'd had anything else to read because accepting the math book, really, everything is a Christian text and nobody's printing Voltaire. Right, so, I don't know, speculative.  

So the upshot of it all anyway is that over the course of a few decades, reading, writing, and Christianity really begin to travel on their own throughout the islands and they're carried not just by missionaries but by Islanders themselves. By 1834, there are more than 900 schools with 50,000 students in the Hawaiian Islands in 1857 in Rarotonga. It's said that you can't find a child of eight or 10 who cannot read. Stories of the demand for books and teachers throughout the region are just legion. And so something certainly happened. Was it a good thing? Was it a bad thing? I don't know, I'm gonna leave that with you. It was a complicated thing. And obviously, this is not the end of the story, but it is the end of the story for today. 

Susannah Helman: It was wonderful. Thank you very much, Christina. That was wonderful. We now have time for some questions. As the presentation is being recorded, please wait for the microphone to reach you before asking your question. If you could raise your hands. 

Audience member 1: Hello, thank you so much for your talk. It was amazing. I was just wondering, when Pomarre was writing to all his extensive audiences, do you think there's evidence of him being encouraged to write to certain people or do you think it was more self-directed? He wants to reach out to these kinds of audiences specifically? 

Christina Thompson: I think he's entirely self-directed. I really do. I mean, I think the character of the letters suggests that he's not very guarded, interestingly enough. And there are definitely places where you can see missionary translations are sometimes really heavy handed and they translate into sort of missionary English. And then sometimes they do a much more literal translation. And I'm hoping to work with a Tahitian, scholar of old Tahitian in order to do some back translation of this early Tahitian to find out what the English feels like. But I do think he's off his own bat. Yeah. 

Audience member 1: Thank you. 

Audience member 2: Hello. Thank you so much, that was in a fascinating presentation. I'm here. Sorry. I'm short. I have one question related to, and I think you probably just answered it, but I was interested in the different kind of genres of letter writing he was doing. So maybe some of them are quite chatty, like an oral storytelling kind of oral engagement, and then he's using more formal sign offs. Is that him using those or the missionary translations? 

Christina Thompson: I don't really know yet. I really need to someone to look at that Tahitian for me, which I can't really do. I think that he adopts, I think so you see in some of the later letters that he has, in addition to those kind of opening, closing tags I was talking about, he also has a kind of ‘yours in Christ’, you know, he has a kind of in Christ opening and closing, which are also conventions. And they're more like letter conventions than speaking conventions, but he's adopting them and sometimes he's using them with his other conventions. So you see sort of layers of kind of adaptation as he sort of decides what to do. But there's a kind of, he's quite free, it feels to me. You know, that sometimes he signs one way, sometimes he signs another. Sometimes it's, I don't know whether the level of formality is maybe sometimes especially like a closing, whether that's like a convention that he's like, he's chosen to adopt because he likes it. You know, he's mimicking stuff. He's got a lot of models in front of him so he can pick and choose from the models what he wants to use. But again, I don't really know, yeah. 

Audience member 2: Yeah, it seems like he's mastering, I think, like quite a master of different genres of letter writing and convention. 

Christina Thompson: I think so. That's what I think, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I don't wanna attribute any more than, I don't wanna project if possible, but I wanna read what's there if I can, you know? Hard to do perfectly. Yeah. Sorry? 

Audience member 3: Is there, is there evidence of him trying to engage in formal diplomacy like reaching out to the- 

Christina Thompson: Informal 

Audience member 3: queen. Diplomacy reaching out to like important political figures in other countries- 

Christina Thompson: Yes. 

Audience member 3: or even other islands and stuff? 

Christina Thompson: Yes, yes, there's a lot of that. There's a lot of that. And you see that in, I mean, Hawaii is the famous example of that really. It just, Liholiho and his wife go to London to, I mean there's a lot of, they even go, of course, they die in London, but yeah, there are definitely a lot of letters and there are petitions that people write to governor of New South Wales sometimes to various different kind of people in positions of authority. I think it was interesting that he was writing to the head of the London Missionary Society. I mean, that was an interesting choice. He had things he wanted to communicate. So yeah. 

Audience member 4: How long does it take before we start seeing the indigenization of the language? So making their own stories instead of just having things provided to them like the Bible stories or readers or- 

Christina Thompson: In writing? 

Audience member 4: Yeah. 

Christina Thompson: Yeah, that's, I don't know the answer to that question yet, but it's a good one. You know, you sort of, you look at letters and you think, ‘Okay, other kinds of composition, what is the next thing you might wanna write? Would you run, maybe write, you might write a petition or something like that. When would you start to write something that was like a diary?’ So a diary seems like another thing that you could start writing. I don't really know. I'm gonna have to look much further into the 19th century and it'll be different in different places.  

So the really interesting case study for this is Hawaii because in Hawaii, they have this really rich tradition of newspaper, writing for newspapers. There are a whole bunch of Hawaiian language newspapers that get started in the mid-19th century. And so people are contributing to the newspaper and they're contributing all kinds of stuff. Information about stuff going on where they live, genealogical information, traditional information of various kinds. I mean all kinds of stuff turn up in the Hawaiian language newspapers. That archive has been recently digitised and was really not much studied forever and ever and ever. And now it's had a lot of attention. So there are a lot of scholars working on the, it's called Nupepa, N-U-P-E-P-A. Nupepa Archive, University of Hawaii, or I don't know exactly where it is, place like that. So there, I think, is one of the places where you first see people writing into the paper effectively, sending letters of like you would write a letter to the editor almost, you know? And that's an interesting, interesting development. You don't see that everywhere and part of it has to do with this sort of infrastructure of newspaper publishing, which just really gets an early start in Hawaii. Yeah. 

Audience member 5: Hi, is this working? I can't tell. This might be a bit more of a linguistics turn from what you do, but I was looking at the titles of the books, like the maths book and the Bible. And with the way it's written, it very much looked like it was Latin. And I don't know if I'm going crazy, seeing a similarity in sort of that. It looked like a transliteration of the Latin or something. 

Christina Thompson: Well, so if you think about what the, so the missionaries who are trying to grapple with this Austronesian language for which they have no model, their models are Latin and Greek. And a couple of them- 

Audience member 5: Rather than English? 

Christina Thompson: Hmm? 

Audience member 5: Rather than English? 

Christina Thompson: Well, I mean, if they've had any education, they have had Latin. They probably haven't, they may or may not have had Greek, but they've had some Latin, and they also think about language in terms of Latin. You know, there's a lot of stuff that happens in the 18th and 19th century where there are a lot of rules that are codified for the English language, and they're all codified based on, it's like the split infinitive, you know? It's codified based on the fact that the infinitive is not split in Latin. So we can't split the infinitive in English because it's not split in Latin. Like what? But there's a lot of Latin-based thinking around language. And you see the missionaries actually talking about sometimes, occasionally about how their influence or especially they have the help of some grammarians or Philologists in England who are themselves absolutely classical scholars. And because they're, if you're a philologist in 1830 or 1820, you have Latin and Greek. I mean, absolutely. And so a lot of your thinking is based on how a language is structured. They'll often think, ‘Oh, it's structured, like the language is structured like Latin.’ Well, it's not, but that's their model. So, yeah, yeah. 

Audience member 5: Okay, thank you. I didn't realise some of it was codified. That like they'll still think- 

Christina Thompson: Yeah, I know it. 

Audience member 5: thinking that turns that light. So thank you so much. 

Christina Thompson: I think you're right. 

Audience member 6: Thank you for your... Reengaging with old friends who have memories of their very first encounter with the rest of the world in 1950. I met the children and grandchildren of a particular friend who I interviewed over a number of years about his experience of his first view of white people and his first interest in literacy, which was not influenced initially by the missionaries, but by the fact that he observed the interaction between patrol officers who he was working for, and the fact that they could write some mystical symbols on a piece of paper, send it to somebody else at a distance, and get a reply. And he was very curious about this and decided he wanted to learn to read and write himself. And when I arrived as a young teacher in 1961, this adult man was part of my school class. And for him, it initially began with usefulness and curiosity, how does this work? A helpful device. And that led later to becoming a significant Christian leader, but it began with an interesting literacy. 

Christina Thompson: Yeah, that's a great story. Yeah, I do think, I mean, I just see in these, in the story, for example, of Mowhee, about whom I know a little bit already that, he ends up in London to study and he learns all kinds of things. He goes to, he's interested in geography, he's interested in architecture, he draws buildings, he's interested in math, he's said to be quite a good mathematician. You know, all this stuff. It's just clear that he has a real curiosity about him, real kind of intellectual curiosity about him. And one of the things, one of the parts of the story that I'm sort of grappling with still is that Mowhee, who is only about 19 or 20 at the time, dies in London of smallpox, I think. Right as he is learning all of these things in order to go back to New Zealand, he wants to go back to New Zealand and be a teacher, and he is, his life is cut short by disease. And this is the thing that happened over and over and over and over again was that people, the depopulation of the Pacific is actually a huge subject, obviously. And so it's kind of, I feel sort of frustrated by that story because I see this kid, you know, he's not a kid, but a young man interested, really interested in doing something really active and taking this enormous risk to do it, and then it's over for him. So I feel bad about it, but I do think that's part of the story. And again, I don't wanna project, I don't wanna project, but it's kind of what I see in the characters and the stories, I don't know. Good. It's a wrap. 

Susannah Helman: Any more questions? Last two. 

Audience member 7: Hi, Christina. Your point, I think, about the oratory and how it makes its way into the written, onto the written page is interesting 'cause in one of the actual slides that you showed, I think he says something like, ‘This is what I'm speaking. You.’ I think it was. So obviously, this is very much the kind of delivery that he would've done when standing in front of people. And therefore, even on the page itself. 

Christina Thompson: When I was first reading about these, I was thinking about it, my husband is Maori, he's from New Zealand and I said to him, I've forgotten what the answer was and I couldn't get in touch with him in time to find out what it was, but I said to him, ‘There's a thing that people say when they're done, right? I am done. I'm stuck. I'm done with the world. This is what I have to say to you. It is over. I have finished speaking.’ You know, and I can remember, he was saying, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, this is what people say just, or in ordinary kind of situation.’ But I do think that you can hear it, you can see it in the speech. And when I saw it in the page, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that's what that is.’ Yeah. 

Audience member 8: Okay, I just have a really quick question to end it. I was really interested in the lists of things that were being asked for in the letters. And I wondered if you knew, was he successful in asking for all these wonderful things? Did they come back to him? 

Christina Thompson: Oh yes. Oh yes. I think that was, I mean, again, what interested me is two things. One is the variety of things that he's after. He's, again, curious about this stuff, but also the stuff, the impact of stuff is just not to be neglected here. So what did he want, you know? But definitely those are transactions. Those are not just, I mean, sometimes the missionaries did not give him or whoever he was writing to did not give him what he wanted. But also, I've seen other letters where somebody says, I'm sending you these things for him, Pomarre, to give him these whatevers, you know? And there was lots of fights about this stuff because the missionaries didn't want anybody to get muskets and powder and shot. They didn't want anybody to get arms. But of course, that's what people wanted. You know, and so there were a lot of battles about who got what and how. But yeah, it wasn't futile. I think we're wrapping. Okay, thank you very much. You've been a lovely audience, thank you. 

Susannah Helman: Thank you very much, Christina. As we draw to a close, some quick plugs before we leave. I hope you can join us for our next Fellowship lecture. ‘Christobel Mattingley: Life, Worlds Words,’ which will be delivered by 2024 National Library Fellow, Dr Melanie Duckworth, on Thursday the 18th of April at 12:30 p.m. If you would like to view other recent talks and performances by Library fellows, you can find these on our website, as well as on the Library's YouTube channel. Thank you for attending this afternoon. Please join me once again in congratulating Dr Christina Thompson for today's fascinating presentation. 

Hear Dr Christina Thompson present a lecture on her 2023 Creative Arts Fellowship research into what happened when writing arrived on the islands of the Pacific.

Dr Christina Thompson is a 2023 Creative Arts Fellow in Australian Writing, supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.

About Dr Christina Thompson's Fellowship research

Introduced as part of a 'guns, germs, and steel' package of influences that swept the Pacific in the 19th century, the technology of writing attracted the immediate attention of Islanders throughout Polynesia. Some saw the political and strategic advantages of writing in their dealings with the European world. Some became fascinated by writing’s association with the new religion of Christianity. Still others grasped the significance of writing as a tool for safeguarding ancestral knowledge in a world of rapid and dramatic change. Originally promulgated as a pathway to salvation, literacy was taken up in the islands as a tool that, perhaps like all new technologies, opened some doors even as it shut others. This is the story of some of the people who lived through this momentous transition and of the many remarkable uses they made of writing, reading, writing, and books.

About Dr Christina Thompson

Dr Christina Thompson is the author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, winner of the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. She has also written a memoir, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, which was shortlisted for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award. A dual citizen of  the United States and Australia, she was editor of Meanjin from 1994 to 1998, and since 2000 has been editor of Harvard Review. She teaches writing and editing at Harvard University Extension and lives outside of Boston with her husband and 3 sons. 

About Creative Arts Fellowships

The Creative Arts Fellowship and Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing are for creative works inspired by the Library’s unique, rare or comprehensive collections. Works can be at any stage of development but must require direct access to the collections to progress or be completed. 

The Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing allows writers working in any literary genre can progress or complete a new creative work. This may include writing for performance, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction (which is sufficiently innovative, writerly or reflective), personal essays or graphic novels, but does not include works of general non-fiction, such as history or biography.

Image credit: Pomare King of Tahiti and Mr. Youl, Letter 1806 Dec.,