Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Polynesian Venuses

Further to our posting on our Adventures of Triple P website featuring the lovely, but slightly overdressed, Miss Tahiti, Hinatea Boosie, we feel that, as the snow starts to fall outside we can do with some more summery loveliness from the South Seas.

Much (if not all) of the image of Polynesian girls as smiling, beautiful, willing innocents, living a life of uninhibited free love in their tropical paradise, comes to us from the first European accounts of contacts with the islanders in the eighteenth century.

The importance of the fact that many of these first contacts were made by the French mustn't be underestimated. Compared with British explorers accounts the French writers uninhibited descriptions of the women they discovered focus much more on the local girls' charms than their stuffy British equivalents.

Bougainville arrives in Tahiti

Many of these accounts originate from the voyage organised by Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville ( 1729-1811).  In 1766 Louis XV granted Bougainville permission to attempt to be the first French explorer to circumnavigate the globe.

Bougainville's two ships anchored off Tahiti

Bougainville left Nantes on 15 November 1766 with two ships: the frigate La Boudeuse and l'Étoile (the storeship for the voyage which actually sailed a little later). They travelled to South America first and didn't get into the Pacific until over a year later on 26th January 1768. They didn't see land again until March 21st when they came across the small group of islands that make up Vahitahi. By the beginning of April they had arrived at what the French called Nouvelle-Cythere and the locals called Tahiti.

The Prince of Nassau has some cat trouble

Travelling with Bougainville was Charles Orthon, Prince de Nassau-Siegen who had had an exciting encounter with a jaguar during a stop in South America. An even more exciting encounter awaited him on Tahiti.

On April 7th 1768 Nassau-Siegen recorded the following experience:

"These Indians offered us women as being the objects they most cherished, undeniably these well deserved this distinction. They each in turn used all their charms to please us. Here is one example. I was strolling in a charming place, carpets of greenery, pleasant groves, the gentle murmur of streams inspired love in this delicious spot. I was caught there by the rain. I sheltered in a small house where I found six of the prettiest girls in the locality.

They welcomed me with all the gentleness this charming sex can display. Each one removed her clothing, an adornment which is bothersome for pleasure and, spreading all their charms, showed me in detail the gracefulness and contours of the most perfect bodies. They also removed my clothing. The whiteness of a European body delighted them. They hastened to see whether I was made like the locals and pleasure quickened this research. Many were the kisses, many the tender caresses I received! Throughout this scene, an Indian was playing a tender tune on his flute. A crowd of others had lined up around the house, solely preoccupied with the spectacle. We were living amidst this gentle nation like allies and friends."

Bougainville meets the locals: "Forget the Ferrero-Rocher I'd rather have a brace of those fine Vahines!"

Other European ships found similar enticements but many of the British officers refused to be tempted (or else failed to write about it!). The same could not be said of the sailors, who were delighted to find these young girls being offered to them from canoes or have them swim out to their ships.  The effect on sailors who had been on board ship for months having young, topless or naked girls greeting them can be well imagined.

These actions changed the nature of the islands and the lives of their women.  Initial reports seem to indicate that girls were offered to the captains and officers by the elders as a sort of welcome gift (like a basket of fruit in your hotel, perhaps). The Tahitians soon worked out western hierarchy.

The sailors, however,  wanted the same treatment as their officers and the locals quickly realised that by using the girls to provide sexual favours they could elicit goods in return. The frigates of the time must have seemed like magical vessels compared with the locals outrigger canoes and they were stuffed with previously unseen items.  The effect would have been very like an aliens paceship landing on earth today.  Their knowledge of what the wider woirld was changed in an instant.

One of Bougainville's men, Charles-Félix-Pierre Fesche also wrote accounts of encounters with the local women. First he describes a girl being bought to the ship in an outrigger canoe as soon as they had anchored.

"She was tall and well-made. In her colour she was as white as any Spanish lady might wish. Many of our luxurious men, plainly destitute of provisions for such many months, were uncommonly longing. They came presently near, looked, admired and touched. Soon, the flimsy veil which concealed the lures from their eyes in honour of modesty which may perhaps be condemned, was torn away and more readily it is true to say by the Indian nymph goddess herself than by our men."

Later whilst exploring the local settlement a young girl tries to tempt the sailors to have sex. Most resist except for one bolder Frenchman who started to caress her:

"A much determined hand guided by love made its course towards two upright and burgeoning fruits as deserving as those of Helen’s of serving as models of the highest sort and this because of their incomparable shape and beauty of their form. By fortune’s gift, the hand then travelled onwards and fell upon hidden lures under the covering of a band of their cloth, which soon was removed by the girl herself who revealed herself to our eyes as naked as Eve before the fall."

Fesche later explains that the married women did not grant their favours, but that “those who are unmarried are free and prostitute themselves with whomever takes their fancy, and so one can appreciate the kind of life most of the French led in this fortunate island”.  It was certainly the case that the women being offered to the sailors were very young and the older women did not behave in the same way towards the sailors.

Later, it turned out that the wily locals were bringing pretty girls on board tship o distract the sailors whilst they made off with interesting items from the ships.

After nine days on this paradise the French moved on to Samoa and what would become known as the New Hebrides. The expedition returned to France on March 16th 1769 and the accounts written of the voyage essentially created the reputation of Tahiti and Polynesia as a paradise of beauty, abundance and sensuality.

There was an interesting footnote to the voyage. The botanist Philibert Commerçon was with the expedition and his valet and assistant, Jean Baré had been helping him take samples whenever they made landfall. In Brazil they discovered a flowering vine which they named Bougainvillea, after the captain.  


However, when Baré landed on Tahiti he was immediately surrounded by locals who declared that he was a woman. Back on board Baré confessed that he was really Jeanne not Jean. She, therefore, went on to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. How the Tahitians could spot this immediately whilst a shipload of Frenchmen, who had been cooped up with her for over a year did not, is an interesting question.

Polynesian princess Poedooa from one of Captain Cook's voyages by John Webber 1777

British crews were no less immune to the charms of the locals even if they were a little more circumspect in their descriptions as to what they got up to. Nevertheless, George Forster, who took part in Captain Cook's second voyage wrote in 1774:

"The simplicity of a dress which exposed to view a well-proportioned bosom, and delicate arms might also contribute to fan their amorous fire; and the view of several of these nymphs swimming nimbly round the ship, such as nature had formed them, was perhaps more than sufficient to subvert the little reason that a mariner might have left to govern his passions."

The locals greet the HMS Bounty

Twenty years later. it was Tahiti that the crew of HMS Bounty spent five months on, trying to cultivate breadfruit in an agricultural experiment designed to transplant the crop to the Caribbean.

Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian in The Bounty (1984) enjoys a Tahitian welcome

Many of the crew formed relationships with the local girls and there was so much promiscuity among the crew that no less than eighteen officers and men, including Fletcher Christian, needed treatment for venereal diseases.  Christian, a friend of Bligh's family from England, formed a particularly close relationship with a local girl called Mauatua who he christened Isabella, after an old girlfriend.

Bligh resisted the charms of the local women (he had a wife and six children at home) but he was tolerant of his crew's sexual activities.  He was not surprised that they could give in to temptation when "the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived".  

Marlon Brando with Tarita

Marlon Brando, who played captain Bligh in the 1962 film was not so resistant and fell for his Polynesian co-star, Tarita, during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).  She became his long term girlfriend and the mother of his children.

Shortly after leaving the island the crew of the Bounty mutinied against Captain William Bligh (who had been Cook's sailing master) and many returned to their local women on Tahiti. Another group kidnapped local women and took them to Pitcairn Island where their descendants live to this day.  Although leaving their women was not a direct cause of the mutiny it is arguable that the crews relaxed attitude as they enjoyed their bucolic time on Tahiti contributed to Bligh's increasingly aggressive and inflexible behaviour.  

However, if you had sailed half way around the world in terrible conditions and had probably never seen a naked woman in your life (even if you were married - houses were cold and people dressed up for bed) then being confronted with women arriving by canoe like this was going to change your priorities somewhat.

The development of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century enabled these exotic creatures to be captured in all their finery.  Because they were ethnic, usual rules about the depiction of bare breasts did not apply.

In 1904 French photographer Lucien Gauthier went to live on Tahiti and his photographs of the charms of the local girls were popular souvenirs for the increasing number of tourists to the islands

Here is an early French postcard of a lady from Papeete, which is the capital of not only Tahiti but the whole of French Polynesia.

The experiences of American troops returning home from the South Pacific after World War 2 helped contribute to an image of Polynesian women in the US not dissimilar to the way the British thought of Scandinavian girls during the 1960s: happily uninhibited about sex in a way the women at home just weren't.

Even before the end of the war the appeal of  Polynesian women was being fixed inyo the consciousness of those at home: particularly the girls left behind.  Esquire's 1943 calendar carried this illustration by Vargas and the accompanying verse.

This June I would have married
but an ocean stepped between, 
I hope no sultry so and so 
has landed my marine.

Other pin up artists of the time latched onto the Polynesian girl too and in 1949 Al Moore produced this fine not not very ethnic example.

Two years later he produced this black haired (but blue eyed) grass-skirted lovely for the 1951 Esquire calendar.

In 1954 Life magazine photographer Eliot Elifoson travelled around the South Seas and took a series of pictures that appeared in a January 1955 pictorial entitled Voyages to Paradise.  

Although most of the pictures were reportage or landscapes, needless to say Life used one of his shots of a naked Polynesian girl for their cover picture.

Inside there were several more shots of naked Polynesian girls too.  This one, including the exposed profile of a dark nipple, is pretty bold for a magazine in 1955 but Life could get away with it due to the documentary nature of the piece and the fact that the girl was ethnic.

Other pictures he took on this trip subsequently appeared elsewhere and offer us more gratuitously undressed island girls.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Tiki Culture swept America, even the mens' magazines of the time took the opportunity to inject a bit of South Seas exoticism into their pages. It's no coincidence that the swimming pool at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago was done in Tiki style.

The flower behind the left ear indicates that the girl is available

Sexy Vahines from the Fifties

In truth, some of the ethnic background of many of these Tiki themed restaurants was a bit muddled. Above we see a South Sea Island beauty somehow mixed up with Caribbean zombies.

Polynesian girls remained a favourite of mens' magazines in the sixties, seventies and eighties as well.   Here from 1966 Playboy's December issue featured the Girls of Tahiti.  Many of them were Caucasian but we got a few striking ethic girls too.  You can find some more of them in another post here.

Ocean liner operators and airlines were well aware of the key attractions of Polynesia to their potential clients in the golden age of travel from the thirties to the sixties. Some of them even showed the landscape but not many!    

Even today half dressed, smiling, long-haired beauties feature disproportionately in tourist advertising.  Tahiti being French, half-naked girls on postcards are also popular!

A rather effective modern postcard from Tahiti

Another postcard you can buy on Tahiti

This pert specimen actually came off a French tourism website  The French are much more grown up about nakedness than the British or Americans.

One of the strongest cultural images of Tahiti today is the ōteʻa dance often, these days, performed by lines of girls in grass skirts (or, more likely, synthetic ones) with the only musical accompaniment being drumming.  In the old days of course, there was no need to wear an inauthentic bikini top.

It is a faster, more aggressive dance than the more stately Hawaiian Hula and features rapid hip movement contrasting with graceful arm movements. 

So, a big thank you to Polynesian girls; who have over the last two hundred and fifty years become semi-mythical creatures of sensuality, passion and beauty in a way that is unmatched throughout the world. There is no better antidote to a freezing winter day!


  1. Interesting post! I live near one of the few remaining Tiki-themed restaurants, the Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida which has been around since the 1950s.

    A fine book on this is Caroline Alexander's "The Bounty." In fact, it's definitive!

    Love Bronislau Kaper's music score for the Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty, too. A much better film than its maligned "making of" dramatics might indicate.

  2. "...two upright and burgeoning fruits as deserving as those of Helen’s of serving as models of the highest sort and this because of their incomparable shape and beauty of their form."


    What an evocative (not to mention provocative) description!

  3. It's interesting how the different nations reacted to the Europeans imperialism. We have been talking about Imperialism in my World History class. The native Americans, Africans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Pacific Islanders all had to make a decision on how they would react to these Europeans. Japan was one of the only ones who eventually and successfully resisted the colonization(at a cost). I think the Tahiti were REALLY trying to make friends with the Europeans.

    Where did you get the picture of the three Polynesian girls holding hands running in the water? It's right above the paragraph Fesche talks about the married and unmarried women and how they differed in their attitude towards the Europeans.

  4. I would like live and work in polynesia... Can anyone suggest?