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Historical Observations

A better understanding of the Tatatau


This page includes historical information that has been found in various sources regarding the Tatatau. I have tried to preserve what was printed for fear of misinterpreting any information. Minor corrections, e.g., Tongan words, have been corrected to make the text more readable. Below each quote is the source for that information.

One of the first explorers to reach Tonga was Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. On January 21st, 1643, he came to several islands, to which he gave the names of Amsterdam, Middelburg, and Rotterdam, better known as Tongatapu, Eua, and Nomuka. Tasman observed these early Tongans and wrote down one of the earliest recordings of a Tongan Tatatau. Tasman did not, however, go into great detail, but his records are still an important source of Tongan history.

"At noon and in the afternoon we saw numbers of people walking along the shore, some of them with small white flags, which we surmised to be signs of peace and amity. We therefore also hoisted our white flag astern, upon which there came alongside our ship a small prow [canoe] with four persons in it; they were able-bodied men, having their bodies painted black form the waist to the thighs and their necks hung round with leaves . . . Shortly afterwards a great number of prows came alongside . . . Many of these people had the lower part of the body painted black down to the knees, some had a mother-of-pearl shell hanging on the breast."

William Mariner gave a very detailed account of the process of the Tatatau in Tonga as follows:

"The instrument used for the purpose of this operation somewhat resembles a small-tooth comb. They have several kinds, of different degrees of breadth, form six up to fifty or sixty teeth. They are made of the bone of the wing of the wild duck. Being dipped in a mixture of soot and water, the outline of the tatau is first marked off before the operator begins the puncture, which he afterwards does by striking in the points of the instrument with a small stick cut out of a green branch of the cocoa-nut tree. When the skin begins to bleed, the operator occasionally washes off the blood with cold water, and repeatedly goes over the same places. As this is a very painful process, but a small portion of it is done at once, giving the recipient intervals of three or four days rest, so that it is frequently two months before it is completely finished. The parts tattooed are from within two inches of the knees up to about three inches above the umbilicus. There are certain patterns or forms of the tatau, known by distinct names, and the individual may choose which he likes. On their brown skins the tatau is black. The tatau procedure causes that portion of the skin on which it is performed to remain permanently thicker. During the time that it is performed, but sometimes not for two or three months afterwards, swelling of the inguinal glands [the groin area] take place, and which almost always suppurate [to form or discharge puss]. Sometimes they are opened with a shell before they point, which is considered the best treatment; at other times they are allowed to take their course. We need not wonder at the absorbents becoming so much affected, when we consider the extent of the surface which is subjected to this painful operation. Even the glans penis [the head of the penis] and the verge of the anus do not escape. It is considered very unmanly not to be tattooed, so that there is nobody but what submits to it as soon as he is grown up. The women are not subjected to it, though a few of them choose to have some marks on the inside of their fingers. The men would think it very indecent not to be tattooed, because though in battle they wear nothing but the mahi [traditional loincloth similar to the malo], they appear by this means to be dressed, without having the incumbrance of clothing. The beauty and neatness of the tatau far exceeds my expectations."

Another account by McKern expands on the d'Urville drawing on the home page.

"d'Urville published a side view of the marking on the lower trunk and thigh which shows the inking arranged in horizontal panels, one of which on the upper thigh is inset with rows of triangles. Two of the patterns shown in this illustration closely resemble Samoan designs: the parallel serrated lines on the abdomen, which appear to be quite similar to the Samoan Fa'aifo, and the sets of several parallel lines on the upper thigh. In addition to these, the irregular shape imprinted across the small of the back above the main panels somewhat resembles the Samoan tua, which was put in the same location. However, the Tongan pattern is much thicker and has a deeply notched edge. A similar shape is shown indistincly on the abdomen. The principal patterns were named and they were applied in a definite sequence. Only two of these names have been recorded: a design across the small of the back was called Peka (flying fox), and one on the front of the leg was termed pulu. Later in life some of the men had simple patterns applied to the arms and the upper torso. The latter design is the only marking for males actually described. It was called Matahema and consisted of a stripe which began on the lower spine, then bifurcated into branching lines which ran under the arms and curved up toward the nipples."

In Giffords account, he states:

"Many great chiefs or warriors were tattooed in eccentric manners to distinguish them from common people. Vahai had two lines on each side, the upper ones extending to the breasts. King George Tupou I is said to have had the head of his penis completely covered with tattooing to show his disregard for pain as well as to mark him peculiarly."

The following account discusses the social importance of males and being tattooed:

The ordeal of being tattooed was less a choice for Tongan men than a matter of social necessity. The area covered seems to have been limited to that part of the body extending from just above the navel down to within a few inches above the knee, a basic conformation observed as early as 1643. According to Mariner, this even included the penis and the skin immediately surrounding the anus. The standardized pattern, of which there were several choices, served in lieu of an exterior garment on such occasions as bathing or during battle when a warrior wore nothing more than a loincloth. In fact, its value as a decorous permanent substitute for the usual Tongan wraparound skirt was such that Vason was essentially forced into being tattooed by the sarcastic teasing of the young Tongans with whom he bathed. In addition, its importance as an indicator of manhood was such that Mariner claimed every young male Tongan submitted to its torture as soon as he was "grown up." This observation would strongly suggest that supercision [circumcision] and tattooing were closely linked as symbolic, ritual aspects involving the transition from boyhood to manhood. As for women, however, there appears to have been no requirement that they be tattooed, though some carried lines of indelible dots on their hands and fingers, and a few may have had them on their arms as well. Whether such dots were meaningful or purely decorative must remain a question.

The following account is by George Vason. He recalls his time in Tonga when he received a Tongan tattoo. He was teased often by other Tongan males for not being tattooed that he ultimately submitted to being tattooed. The account was written the 1800's.

"I was frequently exposed to the reflections and sarcasms of the young people, especially in the hour of bathing, which generally recurred three times every day, for being destitute of that cuticle vesture, which modesty has taught the South Sea Islanders to throw around them as an excellent imitation and substitute for garments; I mean the Tattoo. On these occasions, they would raise a shout of merriment and call me by opprobious epithets ... I was at length determined no longer to be singular, and the object of ridicule. While at Vavao (Vava'u) therefore I consented to be tattooed. But the pain was so great, that I could not endure to go on with the operation, till I came to reside at Arbai (Ha'apai), and superintended Loogolala's (Ulukalala) brother's estate ... Then I summoned up resolution to have the tattooing finished by a professed operator in the neighbourhood. It was performed only every third day. The pain being so exhausting, and the large tumours which immediately follow, not subsidng before that time. When it was completed I was very much admired by the natives, as the European skin displays the blue colour, and the ornaments of the tattooing to very great advantage. I looked indeed very gay in this new fancy covering.
"The tattooing is used as much for the sake of decorum as ornament, and it certainly bears so admirable a resemblance to a close dress, that it might in some circumstances be taken for it.
"I recollect there was a chief at Tonga who could not endure the pain of tattooing, but so impressed he appeared with the absolute necessity of it, as a decent covering, that he never was seen without his garment: but the rest of the natives had no delicacy in that respect, on account of the seeming veil which the tattoo spreads over them."