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never abandon their priests with the sacrifices and taboos; that the christian teachers could not possibly succeed in their attempt to convert such idolaters, but that they would be robbed and driven away, or most probably murdered for the sake of their property.
It was not, therefore, without solicitude that intelligence was expected from the adventurous missionaries. At length, after a delay of seventeen months, letters arrived announcing not only their safe arrival, but also that a door had been previously opened for them, by which they could at once enter upon their labours with every prospect of a happy issue. As they approached the shore, their vessel was surrounded by natives in boats, who exclaimed "the gods of Owhyhee are no more; Tamehameha is dead; Rihoriho is king; the taboo is abolished; and the idols are destroyed."
The way had been already paved for this determination on the part of the young monarch. His father, whose eyes were opened to the benefits of civilisation, had, there is no doubt, impressed upon his mind the expediency of superseding the ancient system by one which would be attended with an increase of knowledge, wealth, and power. The method adopted by Rihoriho for promulgating his resolution was precisely that of which Pomare, the Otaheitan sovereign, had set the example. Proceeding on the principle that the essence of Polynesian belief consists in the divine origin of the taboo, he determined to unchain the minds of his subjects from their contemptible superstition by an open violation of its precepts, and a direct defiance of the gods who were supposed to have enjoined it. The term in question, though usually restricted to such things only as were forbidden, had a much more comprehensive signification, and was applied to all persons and objects which were consecrated or devoted to the service of the invisible powers. On this broader ground, not only the priests and temples, but also the king and the chiefs who could boast of a heavenly descent were at all times considered taboo. The same character of sacredness was attached
to every thing in the slightest degree connected with their idolatrous usages. But in practice it varied greatly both in extent and duration. Sometimes only a single tree or a single animal was tabooed, and at other seasons a whole grove or herd. Sometimes only one house, a small piece of land, or a fishing-station; on other occasions, an extensive district or even a whole island was subjected to its influence. Sometimes it was limited to a day, at others it continued during weeks and even months. When applied to seasons, however, it varied in the rigour with which it was enforced; demanding, in some cases, a cessation only from ordinary work and amusement, while at others it enjoined an entire seclusion from the world, under the penalty of death. Every fire was extinguished, every sound, even to the crowing of a cock, or barking of a dog, was prevented, and a universal silence reigned throughout the whole district where the inhibition was proclaimed. Hence it is manifest, that, though intimately connected with the services of religion, the taboo, so far from consisting of any fixed observances, was in its requisitions both arbitrary and uncertain. As an instrument of power, it might be made to assume any shape which interest or caprice should happen to dictate, and to extend to all things sacred or civil, public or domestic. Besides, as every breach of it was punishable with death, it became an instrument in the hands of the sovereign and priesthood by which the people were governed as with a rod of iron.
But though the taboo was changeable in its times and forms, there were certain points in which it was universal and unalterable. For instance, the best kinds of food were consecrated either to the use of the gods or of the male sex, the women being excluded from all participation in hogs, fowls, cocoa-nuts, bananas, the better kinds of fish, and various other viands. On the same principle, females were prohibited from entering the houses of the men, even of their parents and husbands. Now, it was on these more domestic restrictions, which
were most frequently witnessed and most deeply felt, that the king resolved to make the first inroad, and thereby give a signal for the abolition of the whole, and, as a matter of course, for the complete downfal of idolatry. Having secretly consulted the high-priest and certain chiefs on whose co-operation he could rely, he announced a great entertainment, to which all the foreign traders and residents were invited. Two long tables, the one for men and the other for women, according to the former system of discrimination, were spread in the open air, surrounded by a great multitude of the common people. After the banquet was served, and all the company had taken their seats, his majesty rose with a dish in his hand denied to females, and advancing deliberately towards their board, sat down amongst them, and invited those nearest to him to partake of the meat, which he began to eat in their presence. Immediately the whole assembly exclaimed, that the food was no longer sacred, but common! The highpriest now rushed forth and set fire to an adjoining temple, and agents were sent in all directions to commence a similar conflagration. In a very few days every heathen fane throughout the Sandwich Islands was reduced to ashes, and the idols which escaped the flames were cast out as useless lumber, or reserved only as objects of curiosity to strangers.*
This event has elsewhere been somewhat differently related, though the result is the same. It is supposed that the young king Rihoriho, or Tamehameha the Second, shared his father's scepticism in regard to the national idolatry; and that upon expressing his doubts to the principal chiefs, they readily concurred in the expediency of an entire change. It was necessary, however, to obtain the sanction of his mother, Keopuolani, who, as the daughter of the legitimate monarch, enjoyed a higher rank in the estimation of the public than could be communicated to
The Private Journal of the Rev. C. S. Stewart, late Missionary to the Sandwich Islands (Dublin, 1830), pp. 7, 8.
him by his father, whose right to the throne was doubtful. Upon being reminded that the worship of the idols was burdensome, that they required human sacrifice, and that gods of wood could not protect them, she gave her consent to the meditated revolution. Some have asserted that the abolition of taboo was a mere frolic on the part of Rihoriho; but there is no ground for questioning the belief that the measure had been deliberately considered, and the execution maturely planned.*
It is not easy to appreciate all the motives which led Rihoriho to a determination at once so bold and important. There cannot, however, be any doubt that his intercourse with foreigners must have created scepticism as to the supposed origin of his faith, and a feeling of contempt for its superstitious ritual. The enlightened European could not conceal from him the sentiment of abhorrence with which human sacrifice, infanticide, and the humiliation of the softer sex were regarded; while, as to the reverence manifested towards the unseemly idols of wood or stone, the most superficial exercise of reason must have convicted him of childish credulity. At the same time, it is not improbable that his resolution may have been strengthened by his knowledge of what had taken place some years before at the Society Islands. At all events, the American missionaries met a favourable reception from him and the principal chiefs. They were immediately established in Owhyhee, Woahoo, and Towee, with such prospects of extensive usefulness, that the first communication from them to their patrons at home were accompanied by an earnest application for a greater number of teachers.t
Mr Ellis is convinced that the main purpose of the king in pursuing the decisive course just described, was, in the first place, a desire to improve the condition of
*Lord Byron's Voyage to the Sandwich Islands, p. 43-46. In the introduction to this work are some valuable notices illustrating the history and manners of this primitive people.
+ Stewart's Journal, p. 9.
the women, and especially of his wives, whom the taboo sunk into a state of extreme wretchedness and degradation. He seems also to have been influenced by a wish to diminish the power of the priests, as well as to prevent that useless expense and those cruel privations which were demanded by the established idolatry. It is manifest, however, that he had secured the connivance or approbation of the principal members of the sacred order, by whose means he removed from the minds of the multitude the dread that a signal vengeance from the gods would follow the abandonment of their worship. The guardian of the war-idol declared that no evil would follow the change which the sovereign recommended; and as soon as the marais with their bloody altars were thrown down, he resigned his office, as having no longer either object or authority.*
The views of the common people being less disguised, were more easily comprehended. When asked by the missionaries who was their god, they said they had none; formerly they had many, but now, having cast them all away, they worshipped no idol. Being interrogated whether they had done well in rejecting them, they replied in the affirmative, for the taboo occasioned much labour and inconvenience, besides draining off the best part of their property. They were asked whether it was a good thing to have no god, and to recognise no being to whom they ought to render religious homage; to this they answered, that perhaps it was good, for they had not to provide for the great sacrifices, and were under no fear of punishment for breaking taboo; that now one fire cooked their food, and men and women ate together the same kind of provisions.†
But though the people in general adopted the sentiments of their king, a considerable party showed a disposition to check the current of innovation. Kekuaokalani, to whom the late sovereign, a short time before his death, confided the care of the gods and their temples, Polynesian Researches, vol. iv. p. 126. Ibid. p. 201.