Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Banning of Tattooing

Having shown that Marshallese tattooing was on the demise in the second part of the 19th century, after the arrival of the first European residents in the Marshall Islands, let us now investigate the reasons for the demise in tattooing.

There had been intermittent contact with the outside world since the first Spanish visits during the 16th century. The contact increased in the late 18th century as the Marshall Islands lay on the trade route between the new British Colony in Australia and Canton in China. Vessels passed through and over time limited trade developed. The Marshallese retained their independence from thee influences and retained a fearsome reputation for cutting off and overpowering ships and landing parties. The local culture was strong and firm, and the social order functioning. Intermittemt internecine warfare was waged to and fro, and there was an abundance of options for chiefs to prove themselves and their courage.

Then there came a cultural change upon the islands at a scale hitherto unprecendented: the missionaries and the inroduction of the Christian religion.

To the missionaries teaching the gospel was omni-present and omni-potent. Moreover, it was incompatible with the old customs prevailing in the islands. But apart from the teachings of the Bible, and the fear of an almighty god, as disruptive as this ideological indoctrination proved to be, the missionaries brought along their ownset of moral, ethical and aesthetical values, which were the values of their own class level. Most missionaries seem to have come from the lower or middle classes, self═righteous, narrow═minded and rather intolerant to nonconformists. Combined with single-minded religious fervor and zeal this formed a potent mix which bode ill for the cultures they were about to descend upon.

Tattooing in the eyes of the missionaries

The missionaries brought to the Pacific the "blessings" of the Christian faith. Doing so, they instilled in the people the fear of a single and "all mighty", omni-present god, revengeful and destructive to non═believers, a kind of god many of the Pacific societies never possessed or imagined. Furthermore they created a new consumer═type economy, foreign in its workings and concept, completely outside the parameters of the traditional societal structures, and largely dependent on introduced foods and goods. Most, if not all missionary enterprises of the foundation years were coupled with the provision of trade items sought after by the locals [406] and were backed up, where possible, by the military power of naval vessels of the missionaries' home country or other European naval powers. [407] Where the missionaries were unable to gain an immediate foothold, because the people they were dealing with were self sufficient in their needs or had a strong sense of societal unity, missionaries are on record of destroying food plantations and thereby creating food shortages and economic dependency. [408]

Commonly, a foothold could be gained by supporting a lesser ranking, yet ambitious chief by supplying him with trade goods-which in turn could be traded for recognition, alliances and other favours-and sometimes even weapons, in return for which the Christian missionaries were given a place to stay and the support of the chief. [409] In short, the missionaries supported internecine warfare and fostered societal divisiveness if it allowed them to gain a foothold on an island or a region. The missionaries had a disruptive effect on the local society, economically, politically and spritually. As soon as a foothold was gained, the remodelling of the society began with a fervour only Christian mission zeal can bring about.

The denominations we are to be concerned with as far as the Marshall Islands were involved, were the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions ("Boston Mission") [410] and the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesu (Jesuites). The first Christian mission to the Marshall Islands was founded by the ABCFM on Ebon in 1859. Not until the 1890s had the Protestant missions established themselves on most atolls. [411]

Along with the teachings of the Bible, the missionaries brought along their set of moral, ethical and aesthetical values, which were-of course-those of the contemporary society of their home country, and more to the point, the values of their own class level. It was these values then, which they superimposed by persuasion or force on the peoples of the Pacific, who until then had been able to survive quite well without the doubtful blessings of Christiandom and European society. Throughout the Pacific, tattooing, traditional attire, as well as traditional dancing was considered to be the apex of heathenism and therefore banned by missionaries of any denomination, be they Marists, London Missionary Society, Wesleyan, [412] or American Protestant Revivalists. [413]

Exemplary of missionary attitudes may be the following. Describing a missionary visit to Hivaoa, Marquesas Islands, Warren (Boston Mission) mentions the tattooing of the Marquesas people and comments that:

"their naked bodies were so disfigured by tattooing that their appearance was exceedingly revolting". [414]

In all of Polynesia the Marsquesas had developed tattooing to its apex and took pride in whole body compositions. [415] Yet, European aesthetic concepts also strongly prevail in the following passage:

"[In the Marquesas]Tattooing is considered a mark of great beauty. But we should consider the beauty of a man very questionable, to say the least, who had a large lizard pictured on each cheek, with its tail and legs spread in each direction, and looking as though it was ready to jump right into the man's eyes!" [416]

At another location the Marquesas people are said to "tattoo their body horribly, from head to foot". [417]

Tattooing was a custom which the missionaries had to put an end to for a number of reasons, each equally compelling to the self═righteous souls from rural backgrounds:

On the balance, therefore, the missionary abhorrence towards tattooing was partially based on European narrow═mindedness and European ideals of beauty and aesthetics, and-for a fundamentalist-was morally justifiable by the bible. [420]

An interesting side issue is the fact the missionaries not always banned tattooing. According to some contemporary ethnographic sources, the (French) Catholic missionaries were on the whole more tolearnt than their English and American Protestant counterparts. For Rotuma, and Polysnesian Islands north of Viti Levu, Fiji, it is reported that tattooing of traditional motifs was banned by the Catholic priests, but that a tattoo of Christ on the Cross was permitted. [421]

With the increased Christianisation of the Marshall Islands and the wide═ranging changes in traditions during the late 19th century tattooing had become outlawed and ceased to be conducted. [422] That Christianity was the major influence becomes clear if one considers that in the mid-1880s tatooing was still practised in the north, where Christian religion had not yet gained a foothold:

"The original native customs are still to be firmly entrenched in the northern islands of the group. Here tattooing and flower decorations are still en vogue, as well as the enormous distention of the ear lobes." [423]

The speed with which the missionaries could effect this change is astonishing. Tattooing was banned soon after the missionaries arrival on Ebon. Since the special rites associated with tattooing in the Marshall Islands had also a religious significance, the Ebonese shortly after the arrival of the European missionaries showed reluctance to carry out these rites in the missionaries presence; about 800 people left for Jaluit to do it in safety there. [424]

Tattooing in the eyes of the German Colonial authorities

It seems that the German colonial authorities had nothing or only little to say about tattooing. A survey of the Colonial Records showed that this matter played no role in the correspondence between the Station Chief in Jaluit and the Governour General in Rabaul, New Britain. The German Colonial legislation does not outlaw tattooing either. [425]

Tattooing in the eyes of the Japanese Mandate authorities

Unlike the Germans, the Japanese authorities, who took over the administration of the Marshall Islands following the outbreak of World War I, banned tattooing.

According to a U.S. government publication of 1943. [426]

"In 1922 the Japanese made tattooing or marking if one's own or another's body a police offense under penalty of enforced labor for a period not to exceed 30 days. This law may have been an effort to erase the physical marks of distinction separating chiefs from commoners. Or it may have been designed to eliminate a source of infection, since it is reported that, after being tattooed, a person usually develops a high fever. This is doubtless the result of the native method of tattooing, which is to dip a sharp-toothed comb in pigment and drive the teeth beneath the surface of the skin with a small hammer. Considerable ceremony surrounds the operation. The high value the natives place on tattoos makes it probable that the Japanese ruling has met with resistance."

No further information on the enforcement of the ruling, or the intentons of the ruling could be obtained.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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