Eighteenth century Europeans arriving in Tahiti for the first time struggled for the vocabulary to describe what they saw. Educated men resorted to their grounding in the classics, drawing on Greek and Roman mythology to interpret their experiences.
When French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed at Tahiti in 1768, he immediately named the island ‘La Nouvelle Cythère’ (New Cytheria) after the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
He quoted from Virgil’s The Aeneid and cited Aphrodite’s Roman equivalent in his attempts to understand the Tahitians: “These people breathe only rest and sensual pleasure. Venus is the goddess they worship. The mildness of the climate, the beauty of the scenery, the fertility of the soil everywhere watered by rivers and cascades, everything inspires sensual pleasure,” he wrote.
He described another encounter with the locals as “a charming scene, worthy of Boucher’s brush”, referring to his compatriot painter François Boucher, who was famed for his depiction of classical themes, such as the one above.
The naturalist Philibert Commerçon, who travelled together with Bougainville, called Tahitian women “The rivals of Georgian women in beauty, and the sisters of the unclothed Graces,” referring to the three goddesses who were said by Homer to have accompanied Aphrodite. Commerçon compared Tahiti to Utopia.
Things were no different when the Endeavour landed at Tahiti in 1769, with the crew unaware that the French has visited since the first British expedition had claimed the place as King George’s Island in 1767.
One of the artists onboard, Sydney Parkinson, counted Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, plus Ovid’s Metamorphoses among the books he brought along with him on the voyage. Parkinson’s employer, the naturalist Joseph Banks, while having shunned classical education, couldn’t help himself from falling back on such references.
Not only did Banks call Tahiti “the truest picture of an arcadia,” but he also took to giving the local people Greek and Roman names. On encountering two of the island’s most powerful chiefs he called one Lycurgus, after the Greek lawgiver of Sparta (right), and the other Hercules – the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles.
François Boucher’s painting above top is of Heracles and Omphale, the queen the demigod was forced to serve as a slave for a year – doing women’s work and wearing women’s clothes while he did it. After some time, Omphale freed Heracles and married him.