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Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters
By Vanessa Smith
Cambridge University Press, 323pp, $54.95, 2013 ISBN 978-0-521-72878-2
Reviewed by Paul Turnbull
UNTIL WELL INTO THE MISSIONARY ERA OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, POLYNESIAN Islanders understood themselves, kin and others in relation to the potency of spiritual power (mana) they inherited by birth or gained by adoption. Everyday life was characterised by interactions in which expectations and outcomes were determined by implicit acceptance of differences of status owing to unequal flows of mana through successive generations of families.
The seven interrelated essays making up this book explore how interactions between (mostly) Tahitians and Europeans from the late 1760s to the turn of the nineteenth century were very often grounded in taio, a ritualised bonding in friendship requiring mutual acceptance of various obligations to each other.
It is difficult to say anything confidently about the practice of taio prior to the coming of Europeans. It seems clear from a careful reading of surviving genealogical histories of the Society Islands that it served the ambitions of the Islands’ ruling clans. What is also clear is that the paramount title-holders of the Matavai region of Tahiti encountered by Wallis and shortly afterwards by Cook, on his first voyage, eagerly sought to bond in taio with the leadership of the two expeditions to strengthen their military power amidst great turmoil caused by religious change fuelling dynastic rivalries.
What else we know about the institution near exclusively relates to voyagers and early missionary accounts of Islanders securing taio with Europeans. This reportage needs to be mindful of how contingencies prevailing in specific contexts of interaction and exchange may well have influenced what both parties sought from, and could expect of, the relationship. Indeed, we cannot discount the possibility that with the coming of Europeans, taio took on new meanings and existential possibilities. Smith is primarily interested, however, in using British, French and Spanish voyagers’ first-hand accounts of taio as an analytic
Turnbull, Paul. Review of Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters by Vanessa Smith. Australian Humanities Review 55 (2013): 141-4.
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