As we celebrated the 250 years since the arrival of the French navigator, Bougainville, in Tahiti this year, there is also another first that should not be forgotten. The Tahitian Ahutoru, voluntarily embarked on one of the expedition’s two vessels, arriving in France in 1768, he was presented to Louis XV’s court a year later. His story also deserves to be told.
On April 6th, 1768, half-way through their voyage around the world, two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile were forced to make port in catastrophic circumstances in a small bay on the East coast of the island of Tahiti. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s account of this first scientific expedition circumnavigating the globe was published in 1771. His glowing account of the place, in which he likens Tahiti to a paradise on earth, gave rise to new ideas about human happiness and contributed greatly to the blockbuster success of his Journal de voyage. A book of its time, the age of Enlightenment, a period of history that saw profound social and cultural transformations, and outrageous debauchery, the volume was avidly read by a broad audience including the royal courts of Europe. Bougainville brought back with him the undeniable « living proof » of the existence of this place he called New Cythera. When he started out on his return journey to Europe, he agreed to take a native of Tahiti on his vessel, and later presented him at the court of Louis XV. This young Oceanian become the darling of Parisian drawing-rooms, where he encountered philosophers and academics, during his remarkable adventure. The Pacific « Prince », as Bougainville called Ahutoru (Aoutourou), the first Tahitian to set foot on European soil, also had an opportunity to discover a society – climate, customs, objects, architecture… – that were completely unfamiliar to him. We know of his existence through the descriptions given by the author of Voyage autour du monde and by the accounts made concerning him in the ships log, and journals of other members of Bougainville’s crew during the expedition. There are also letters, news articles from the time that mention him, as well as private correspondence. Two hundred and fifty years later, the remarkable story of this relatively forgotten character and his European visit deserves to be retold today.
It was for the Tahitians a logical progression of the manner in which they themselves had offered their own wives to these strangers. In a custom that much affected Bougainville himself: « (a local chief) offered me one of his wives, very young and quite attractive … », explained the travel-writer who saw a country where « Venus is … the Goddess of hospitality ». Many other anecdotes, related by other members of the expedition, the Prince of Nassau among others, confirmed the existence of these customs, whose description would make the Voyage autour du monde a best-seller. Not without ambiguity and misunderstandings on many levels.
Ahutoru’s presence greatly facilitated exchanges with the French, despite several deadly clashes with the seamen. Ahutoru was in fact the adopted son of the village’s chief. The brief time in Tahiti was an opportunity for Bougainville to make the first description of the island and its inhabitants, an island that he called New Cythera, after its namesake, birthplace of the Goddess of love in antiquity. A friendship sparked between these two men which motivated the expedition’s captain to take the Tahitian back to Europe with him. Bougainville (Poutaveri) and Ahutoru (Louis) in fact exchanged names, as was customary in Tahiti.
Two « worlds » meet
When the expedition approached the coast of Tahiti, after months at sea, many of the crew were dying or had died of scurvy. Given the disturbing state of health of his crew, and despite the difficult coastal access, Bougainville decided to spend several days of rest here. He stayed for nine days, in order to renew his drinking water supplies as well as taking on board fresh produce and livestock. Canoes, that did not appear to be hostile surrounded the ship. One of the Tahitians, who was particularly brave boarded the Étoile offering gifts (bananas, a small pig …) as a peace offering, he even stayed the night onboard. It was Ahutoru. If the exchange was friendly, it was not without disturbing consequences, as the young man revealed the presence of a woman onboard the Étoile. The botanist’s assistant was in fact of the fairer sex.
While it is likely that some of members of the exclusively male crew must have been aware, she had not been officially demasked (learn about Jeanne Baré’s adventure below). It also had repercussions on land, the Tahitians wished to « honor » the young woman, making it necessary for one of the Officers to constantly keep watch over her.
A long journey back to Europe
Bougainville’s expedition had left Brest, in France, at the end of December 1766, not arriving in Tahiti until April 1768. To be fair, there had been several lesser missions on the way there, in the Falkland Islands and South America. The return journey turned out to be no shorter, poor Ahutoru only arrived in St.Malo on March 16th, 1769. The first deception had awaited him just several days after his departure, off the coast of Raiatea (Leeward Society Islands) the destination he had hoped to reach on the ship. He was not allowed to disembark on the Sacred Island. What followed was a journey of many months, fraught with difficulty and sometimes danger, during which the Tahitian, like his shipmates would be tested by many challenges: getting stuck for 15 days inside the Great Barrier Reef, crossing the Solomon Islands then Papua New Guinea, where they were attacked by the hostile local population and pirates, a tsunami….Not least of the dangers was disease. In August 1768, Bougainville noted that 45 of his crew had died of scurvy.
Then there was a stay in Batavia (Jakarta) where Ahutoru caught sight of his first city, but where he also fell sick. The expedition then dropped anchor at Port-Louis – île de France (today the island of Mauritius) – during the a monthlong stay the Tahitian got a taste of French « high society » through the ex-pat community, which included the colony’s administrator Pierre Poivre (pepper or poivre in French was named after him), and the author Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. From there the Boudeuse headed towards the Cape of Good Hope, once ashore, Ahutoru had the opportunity to see giraffes. In February 1769, off the coast of the Azores, he fell sick once more but the journey was nearing its end and the vessel finally arrived in the St.Malo’s harbor, almost a year after leaving Tahiti.
Ahutoru at Louis XV’s court, before his ill-fated return to Tahiti
In France, primarily in Paris and at Versailles, Ahutoru was Count de Bougainville’s protégé and was presented to Louis XV at court, where he witnessed the French king’s wake up ceremony. Certain courtiers made fun of his clumsy behavior, and his poor pronunciation of the few French words he had learnt. But that did not prevent him from meeting certain well known scientific figures of the time. At Bougainville’s side, he made the rounds of the fashionable drawing rooms of the time and came to learn the Parisian way of life. It is said that he loved watching opera performances. Apparently, he was also very popular with the ladies, who were titillated by the accounts that Bougainville and his seasoned travelling companions gave of the Tahitians open sexuality. The philosopher Voltaire wrote in his book Les oreilles du comte de Chesterfield et le chapelain Goudman (The Count of Chesterfield and chaplain Goudman’s ears) that « with the arrival of the Tahitian in Europe … we discovered a country where the sexual act was neither sacred nor forbidden ».
The Tahitian, nevertheless, while taking advantage of his visit to learn more about things unknown to him, suffered enormously from the winter cold and was undoubtedly homesick for his islands. Bougainville kept his promise to return Ahutoru to Tahiti, and he left France on March 4th 1770, first travelling to Mauritius, where he met up with his shipmates and acquaintances Philipert Commerson and Jeanne Baré on October 23rd. He stayed there for almost a year, sailing onwards, Tahiti bound on September 18th, the following year. Unfortunately, there was an epidemic raging, and the Tahitian was reported as having succumbed to smallpox several days after boarding the vessel. His ship was put under quarantine off Fort-Dauphin, in Madagascar, and Ahutoru passed away during the night of November 7th, 1771, nearly three and a half years after leaving Tahiti. His body was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean by the Royal Navy with Christian burial rites. Philippe Prudhomme has written a novel about his adventure.
Ahutoru : « What he lacks in beauty he makes up for in intelligence » (Bougainville)
This portrait, entitled « portrait of Otoo », is considered to be that of King Pomare I. But, Ahutoru (whose name resembles Otoo phonetically) may well have looked similar to this. Originally from Raiatea, he was the son of a Tahitian chief – and thus held both the title and standing of an arii (nobility) – , his mother was a captive from a neighboring island. He belonged to one of the two physical types that Bougainville described. One was tall and light-colored, the other, wrote the famous explorer in his book Le Voyage, « was of a medium height, with frizzy hair as thick as horsehair; the color and traits differing little from mulattos. The Tahitian that has embarked with us is of this second type, even if his father is a district chief; what he lacks in beauty he makes up for in intelligence ».
Jeanne Baré, the first woman to travel around the world
Bougainville’s expedition is remembered for another world first, implicitly linked to Ahutoru’s voyage. A woman, disguised as a man travelled on one of the vessels, as a scientific assistant of the botanist Philibert Commerson. Strictly forbidden by Royal Navy regulations. On their return journey, Commerson and Jeanne Baré (Baret or even Barret, depending on the author) were left in Mauritius, Bougainville wished to avoid a scandal on his return to France. The colonial administrator Pierre Poivre gave them excellent lodgings which allowed them to continue their botanical studies. After Commerson’s death Jeanne opened a cabaret-billiards hall and married a French naval officer. The couple returned to France five years later, in 1776, where she inherited the legacy Commerson had left her. Despite the fact that her gender was hidden during Bougainville’s expedition, she was later acknowledged as being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She was even received by Louis XVI’s at court, in November 1785. He called her a « remarkable woman », and awarded her a pension of 200 pounds for « the great courage, hard work and danger » she had faced as Commerson’s assistant. She died on August 5th 1807, aged 67. Her adventure has inspired several novels and comic books .