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Theft in Maohi Society

Published Sources
Theft has been a much misunderstood aspect of encounters between early European voyagers and the peoples of the Society Islands.

Few European voyagers escaped the theft of clothing or other personal possessions by Maohi. As an exasperated Cook observed, some Moahi readily put their lives at risk to secure all manner of objects aboard the Endeavour and the encampment at Fort Venus.

However, we would do well to try and understand this passionate desire for European things within the context of Maohi culture.

Theft was as much a social transgression within Maohi society as it was in eighteenth-century Europe. And as in Europe punishment tended to be dictated by the social standing of a thief and their victim. If both were men or women of low social rank and belonged to the same tribe then punishment was commonly a beating and fine in the form of the victim taking from the thief what was communally agreed to be goods equivalent to those stolen.

Even so, thieves rendered themselves outlaws who could be severely beaten or even killed by those whose property they had taken. No offence was thought to have occurred if a victim killed a thief in the heat of anger. Also, if the thief were guilty of earlier offences or disliked for other reasons within their community they could be stripped of their property and banished, or killed by drowning.

When the things stolen belonged to an Ari’i, priest, other influential individual, or were subject to tapu, the thief could expect to be sacrificed within the grounds of the marae. They also exposed their close relatives to the same fate.

Just as in Europe, if the thief was a person of chiefly rank, or someone enjoying the favour of a high-ranking man or women, they were unlikely to be punished, although theft by Maohi of high social standing was extremely rare. As numerous ancestral stories suggest, an Ari’i who did not respect the property of those over whom they enjoyed hereditary power severely diminished communal perceptions of their authority and exposed themselves to challenge by rival chiefs.

Theft most commonly occurred across tribal boundaries, although here too responses were determined by who the thief and victim were. If theft threatened to disrupt peaceful relations between two districts, the offender was almost certainly killed ritually at a marae associated with the ruling dynasty of the offended tribe. If the thief enjoyed the patronage of a chief, or themselves were of high status, they were likely to go unpunished, especially if retribution promised to cause a rift between chiefly dynasties, which in many instances were interrelated by marriage.

When theft occurred across tribal boundaries, it also appears to have led in many instances to the offender giving the stolen property to a social superior as an affirmation of loyalty. This person of higher social rank often in turn gave the goods to a social superior with appropriate ceremony, until eventually they came into the possession of a district’s pre-eminent chief or his immediate relatives. From there they might be further exchanged for a variety of social or political ends. In this way crime could actually serve to end strengthen social authority and order.

When people sailing between islands were forced by storms onto foreign shores they were deemed to have lost the protection of or displeased the gods. The people on whose shore they landed saw their misfortune as empowering them to strip the unfortunate voyagers of their possessions. However, they also saw themselves as obliged to provide voyagers with food, shelter and assistance in continuing their journey.

As was often the case with inter-tribal theft, the possessions taken from voyagers might be variously exchanged so that they were eventually acquired by a district’s elite.

The frequency with which early Europeans voyagers experienced theft may well have been because they entered Maohi consciousness as politically unaligned possessors of a wealth of items that were desirable because of their sheer novelty, or in the case of iron the meanings they had within the Maohi cosmology. Initially, at least, theft did appear to threaten inter-tribal relations between Maohi. On the contrary, the Europeans provided a source of things that by their desirability promised to strengthen the prestige of the giver and the relations they either sought to affirm or now felt empowered to create.


Created: 19 September 2003

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-P000321

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