As soon as Tahiti came to the attention of European society in the late C18th it became a symbol of heaven on earth. The accounts of the island brought back by travellers such as Joseph Banks chimed with the spirit of Romanticism, with its dreams of human liberation and perfectability. There is a gripping re-telling of that famous first encounter between englishmen and native islanders in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder,but there is a tiny hint that the myth of eden rediscovered is not the whole story, when the author makes a brief allusion to the possibility that the Tahitians practised cannibalism!
I must confess that I did not even notice that reference until I found a mention of Cook’s visit in another book, which led me check to see if I had missed something. You see Captain Cook was a little bit disconcerted by the Tahitians practice of human sacrifice.In his journals he described the activity, feelingly, as a waste of human life. So it is interesting to ask why that part of the story has generally been forgotten. It might be something to do with the way forms of mechanised human sacrifice have accompanied so many attempts to bring heaven on earth by force.