The first European and American voyagers to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in the 18th century were stunned by the women. They came swimming out to a ship, or paddling in canoes, naked, or nearly naked, and brazenly flirted with the crew as they signaled that they wanted to come onboard. The younger ones wore their hair crowned with flowers, and long and flowing over their shoulders. Those who had been married had it cut short in back and longer in front, stained white in streaks with clay or crushed coral. Strings of shells or polished black wood hung around their necks. Some wore only a short skirt of grass, or a barkcloth loin skirt, which they readily stripped off. In the understated modesty of one ship’s officer they “seemed not to esteem chastity a virtue.”
Coming from societies with strict sexual constraints, what the men didn’t understand was that sexual hospitality was a common custom in the Pacific islands. Women had a certain amount of sexual freedom and they had been taught from girlhood the ‘amo’amo – the ‘wink-wink’ of the muscles of the vulva, as well as other arts of love. Espousing their passion and practicing their art was equated with praising their god. It typically came to pass that while the women were honoring their religious teaching, the sailors were quickly trying to forget their own. Many of them deserted their ships to stay in the islands and ally with a local chief. Inter-island war had been raging off and on for generations, and this was part of the social strategy of the custom, for the women to bond these men who had foreign knowledge and powers to their tribe.
Sailors who stayed ashore, including men left by American captain John Kendrick in 1789, 1791, 1793, and 1794 brought guns and cannons and taught native warriors how to use them. When British commander George Vancouver arrived in the islands in 1792 with an intent to take them over, he was struck by the fact that the natives were not only well armed with muskets, but could use them as well as European soldiers. Supported by his American allies, King Kamehameha of Hawaii ultimately conquered all of the islands in 1795. Peace arrived for the first time in generations. Without the power of the women and their subtle arts, history may have taken a very different course.
About the author: Scott Ridley is the author of Morning of Fire: John Kendrick’s Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific; William Morrow/Harper Collins, November 2010.
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