Sir Joseph Banks and the Art of Tattoo

Sir Joseph Banks, the British world traveler and patron was born in 1743 and died in 1820. Banks, who accompanied James Cook on his first journey to the pacific, was also an encouraged natural scientist and was able to use the chance the examine the Polynesian skin art very closely. On the 5th of July, eight days before their departure, Banks was on Tahiti and wrote down a statement about the Polynesian tatauing. He was the first person ever to record names and customs of the pacific natives who had marks on their skin. His observations granted the tattoo a place in history:

Tahiti: August, 1769: I shall now mention their method of painting their bodies or “tattow” as it is called in their language. This they do by inlaying the color black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible; everyone is marked thus in different parts of his body accordingly maybe to his humor or different circumstances of his life. Some have ill designed figures of men, birds or dogs but they more generally have this figure “Z” either simply, as the woman are generally marked with it, on every joint of their fingers and toes and often round the outside of their feet, or in different figures of it as square, circles, crescents, etc. which both sexes have on their arms and legs. In short they have an infinite diversity of figures in which they place this mark and some of them, we were told, had significations but this we never learned to our satisfaction. Their faces are in general left without any marks. I did not see more than one instance to the contrary. Some few old men had the greatest part of their bodies covered with large patches of black which ended in deep indentations like coarse imitations of flame. These we were told were not natives of Otahite (Tahiti) but came there from a low island called Noouoora. Though they are so various in the application of the figures I have mentioned both the quantity and the situation of them seems to depend entirely upon the humor of each individual, yet all the islanders I have seen (except those of Ohiteroa) agree in having all their buttocks covered with a deep black; over this most have arches drawn one over another as high as their short ribs, which are often one quarter of an inch broad and neatly worked on their edges with indentations, etc. These arches are their great pride: both men and women show them with great pleasure whether as a beauty or a proof of their perseverance and resolution in bearing pain I cannot tell, as the pain of doing this is almost intolerable, especially the arches upon the loins which are so much more susceptible of pain than the fleshy buttocks.

Their method of doing it I will now describe. The color they use is lamp black which they prepare from the smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles (candlenut, Aleurites moluccana). This is kept in coconut shells and mixed with water occasionally for use. Their instruments for pricking this under the skin are made of bone and shell, flat, the lower part of this is cut into sharp teeth from 3 to 20 according to the purpose it is to be used for and the upper fastened to a handle. These teeth are dipped into the black liquor and then driven by quick sharp blows struck upon the handle with a stick for that purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood, or serum at least, and the part so marked remains sore for many days before it heals.

I saw this operation performed on the fifth of July on the buttocks of a girl about 14 years of age. For some time she bore with great resolution, but afterwards began to complain and in a little time grew so outrageous that all the threats and force her friends could use could hardly oblige her to endure it. I had occasion to remain in an adjoining house an hour at least after this operation began and yet went away before it was finished, though this was the blacking of only one side of her buttocks, the other having been done some weeks before. It is done between the ages of 14 and 18 and so essential it is that I have never seen one single person of years of maturity without it. What can be a sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it possibly superstition may have something to do with it; nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom. As for the smaller marks on the fingers, arms etc. they may be intended only for beauty. Our European ladies have found the convenience of patches, and something of that kind is more useful here, where the best complexions are much inferior to theirs, and yet whiteness is esteemed the first essential in beauty. (Source: J.C. Beaglehole (Hg.), The Endeavor Journal of Joseph Banks, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1962)

On the 6th of October 1769 Cook, who was searching for the southern continent, New Zealand, discovered a small group of islands which hadn’t had visitor from Europe for a decade. In a dispute between the brits and the Maori, the natives to New Zealand, over provisions one of the Maori was killed. Banks examined the corpse and was again the first ever to report about the complex and since today admired Maori facial tattoo, the Moko. “Although it is unsettling, I admire the elegance of this signs.” Being so fascinated from what he saw and driven by his passion for natural science, Bank acquire a perfectly preserved and tattooed Maori head on the 20th of January 1770. This was the beginning of him dealing with Moko heads from beheaded bodies.

Courtesy of Tattoo Joy.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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