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Friendship in the Society Islands
Online Sources Published Sources Gallery
Taio was an important type of social relationship in Maohi society, usually formed between individuals who were not related by ancestry or determined by respective social rank. The concept of Taio can best be described in English as a kind of formal friendship.

Until well into the missionary era of the nineteenth-century, Maohi concepts of self, community and the wider world were determined by where exactly a man or woman stood in terms of their genetic relationships and the social rank of the family into which they were born, or adopted. For most Maohi everyday life was characterised by social interaction between people with kinship ties or who possessed differing degrees of power and authority by virtue of their ancestry.

While kin-ties and family status were all important, individuals whose behaviour was relatively unaffected by obligations due to kinship or social rank could form another kind of close social relationship known as taio, or formal friendship.

As Douglas Oliver points out, it is difficult to reconstruct the meanings and values that taio had for Maohi prior to the arrival of Europeans. This is because most instances of taio documented between 1767 and 1820 involved the establishment of friendships between Maohi and Europeans, and there is no way of accurately gauging how the character of the institution may have been changed by Maohi desire for European goods or political support.

However, some things can be fairly safely assumed. Firstly, taio most commonly occurred between men of roughly equal age and social standing. When men became joined by taio they gave each other rights to occupy and enjoy what lands each might possess for as long as they both lived. James Morrison, the Bounty Mutineer, wrote that when a man died without heir, his land and goods were inherited by his friend (see the South Seas edition of Morrison’s Account of the Island of Tahiti). This claim is supported by the account of the establishment of the Pomare Dynasty appearing in Adam’s Memoirs of Arii Tamai (See South Seas edition, p. 85)

Male taio friends were strictly forbidden to have sex with each other’s female relatives, though - according to Oliver - ‘a friendship pact appears to have licensed and even encouraged sexual relations with a partner’s wife (Oliver 1974: 846)’. However, the evidence leading Oliver to this conclusion consists of ancestral stories telling of intimacy with a friend’s wife leading to the violent end of taio, and European accounts which appear suspiciously keen to represent Maohi women as being by turn sexually promiscuous and chattels of their husband. All that one can safely conclude is that taio between Maohi and may have extended to sex with a partner’s wife, but that women were either willing or with their husband could see the ambitions of their family served by strengthening taio relation. Certainly, sex seems to have been a common dimension to taio between ambitious men and women of Ari’i rank and Europeans.

Maohi ancestral traditions speak of the bond of taio being so strong that a man encountering his friend as an enemy in battle would not knowingly kill him. Similarly, a man whose taio was killed was expected to revenge his death.

In we are to believe James Morrison, a man who killed another in battle would not only assume his name but also enter into a taio relationship with his closest relative.

Taio was by no means exclusively a male institution, at least after the coming of Europeans. One account survives suggesting that friendship between involved a taboo on sex (Wilson: 1799: 346). However, most of the evidence bearing on taio between men and women relates to European men and Maohi women in circumstances where both parties saw clear material and political advantages flowing from their friendship. Such was certainly true of the taio Purea established with voyagers Samuel Wallis and Joseph Banks.

Whether taio bonds were formed between women is unknown beyond the report of John Turnbull (1813) that women courted the friendship of a Hawaiian mistress of a visiting ship’s officer (Oliver 1974: 843).

Oliver also draws attention to the possibility that mahu (male transgenderists) and women may have formed Taio (1967: 442; 1974: 844).

Online Sources Published Sources
  • Hawkesworth, John, An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty, for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq. Derived from the 1773 London edition, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell. National Library of Australian call number: FERG 7243., South Seas, 2004, http://southseas.nla.gov.au/index_voyaging.html. [ Details ]
  • James Morrison, Account of the Island of Tahiti & of the Customs of the Island, 1792. Derived from the Golden Cockerel Press edition of Morrison's Journal published in London in 1935, edited by Owen Rutter., South Seas, 2004, http://southseas.nla.gov.au/index_indigenous.html. [ Details ]

Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 15 September 2003
Modified: 17 May 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000312

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