Volume 46 1937 > Volume 46, No. 182 > The kings of Easter Island, by Alfred Metraux, p 41-62
THE KINGS OF EASTER ISLAND
THE old social order of Easter island was entirely destroyed in 1862 when Peruvian slave traders kidnapped a large part of the population. They took to the guano islands on the Peruvian coast, not only the king with many members of his family, but a considerable number of the learned men (maori). This catastrophe, disrupting the traditional mode of living, created a state of anarchy and confusion. But the events of the years that followed were even more disastrous. Epidemics of smallpox, introduced by the few kidnapped men who returned to their island, decimated the population and struck the last blow to native culture. When the missionaries arrived in 1864, they were surprised to meet such complete ignorance of the past, such rudimentary forms of religion, and such disintegration of social organization. They found only the ruins of a civilization. In large measure they too accelerated the change and the obliteration of the past.
Maurata, who is always designated as the last king of Easter island, died in the guano islands. But when the missionaries went to Easter island there still existed a shadowy kingship incarnated in the person of a 12-year old boy. He was Gregorio, probably the son of Te Pito, who was the uncle of King Maurata, since Maurata was the son of Kaimakoi-iti, and, according to Lapelin (9, p. 109), Te Pito was the brother of Kaimakoi. The young King Gregorio was an intelligent boy who died, a catechumen in the Mission, when he was twelve, “equally regretted by the missionaries and his subjects” (Roussel, 15, p. 358). Speaking of the same little king, a missionary states that the natives felt for him a certain respect; “they would bring him the first yams, but he never interfered in affairs of state” (Ollivier, 12, p. 255).- 42
With the death of Gregorio the kingship came to an end. The missionaries mention no successor, and travellers who called at Easter island from this time down to 1886 have not alluded to a king nor to anyone who could be so considered. It is true that Pinart (14, p. 236) speaks of Koreto as the queen of the island, but Pinart seems to have been imaginative and naive, and his statements are not always reliable. Certainly Koreto must have had not a little power since she was the wife of Dutroux-Bornier, the despotic ruler of the island. However, it is probable that only her exceptional position as the wife of a white man gave her such authority. Pinart must have misunderstood many things; it could hardly have been possible for Koreto to be at one time the queen and the regent ruling the island in the name of one of her daughters. One of Koreto's children is still living, but I have never heard that she had the slightest royal prerogative or pretension. As a matter of fact, Koreto was only the wife of a chief before she became the mistress of Dutroux-Bornier and thus must have had a certain rank and a certain prestige. When Geiseler (7, p. 23) inquired about her, he was told that a queen of that name had never existed.
Not until after the Chileans had taken possession of the island did the question of a king again arise. Although the islanders of to-day speak of the late kings, Atamu Te Kena and Riroroko, as if they were really kings, informants make it clear that they had very little in common with the ariki of olden days. Their power was of an indefinite, dubious nature, and they seem to have enjoyed none of the prerogatives of former ariki. Perhaps their only claim to the title lay in their descent-line; both belonged to the Miru group. Possibly if native civilization had continued, they might have been true kings. Personal pretension, supported by Chilean officers who needed a responsible intermediary to deal with the population, might have contributed toward the restoration of power to this fictitious and ephemeral royalty. Atamu Te Kena Maurata was made a “king” by the Bishop of Tahiti, Tepano Jaussen, who needed someone on the island to represent the interests of the missionaries (see Estella, 4, p. 118). Atamu Te Kena Maurata died about 1890 and was succeeded by Riroroko.- 43
In 1898 Riroroko went to Chile to complain about abuses perpetrated on the natives, and died a few days after landing in Valparaiso, probably from over-indulgence in brandy. Since his time there has been no king on the island. Twenty years ago the Chilean officers of the Baquedano tried to proclaim my informant, Juan Tepano, king. His new dignity was conferred upon him in a public ceremony, but no one took it very seriously, not even the new sovereign himself. There is still on the island a Riroroko, son of the late king, who could pretend to royal dignity, but he seems uninterested.
As kingship disintegrated at a very early date, information about the powers of the ariki, his functions, and his authority is extremely deficient. Some interesting facts are to be found in the letters and the reports of the missionaries, especially in the notes of Father Roussel, published recently and not hitherto utilized. Mrs. Routledge heard a few anecdotes about King Nga-ara, who reigned shortly before the raid of the Peruvian slavetraders, from Te Haha, one of his attendants. The memories of the old man were neither very numerous nor especially illuminating. From my informants I was able to obtain some new details and to collect several legends expressing the sacredness of the king. By combining these several sources of information it is possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the main features of kingship on the island.
Father Roussel seems to have best understood the true nature of kingship. His definition of the king's status (Roussel, 15, p. 358) is in accord with the scattered information gathered from other sources: “these kings who in the beginning were considered deities and had absolute power on the island, did not retain such authority for long, but only the prestige of a supernatural power with certain personal privileges.” I shall show later that the political power of the king, if there was any at all, was slight at least during the last period of Easter island history. His exalted position rested mainly on the religious beliefs of the natives, and his functions, although limited, had a strong bearing upon the magico-economic structure of the island culture.- 44
The ariki-mau, or king of Easter island, was a divine chief descended from the gods. The several lists of kings record as their common ancestor King Hotu-matua who settled on the island with his retainers. This king is probably an historical character who was never deified. The evidence for the exalted ancestry of the ariki-mau is to be inferred from several details which are apparently not connected but which if carefully considered throw a new light on this obscure question. My informant, Victoria Rapahango, an intelligent woman belonging to the royal descent-group of the Miru, told me on several occasions that the kings always belonged to the Honga, a lineage or sub-group of the Miru. Thanks to Mrs. Routledge some genealogies of the founders of the lineages in the Miru descent-group have been preserved and published recently by Williamson (19, vol. 2, p. 57). The two first ancestors of Honga were Tangaroa and Rongo. There is of course no direct proof that this Tangaroa and Rongo were identical with the well-known gods of Polynesia, since they may have been human kings with the same names, but it is highly probable that they were the same gods so frequently claimed as ancestors by chiefly families in the Society islands and the Tuamotus. There are further details which show that Tangaroa and Rongo were known as gods to the Easter islanders.
The ariki-mau, or divine chief, possessed mana and was surrounded by tapus. A king with an oversupply of mana might be a danger to his people. The following legend tells of an ariki whose mana produced many wonders, although it was a source of calamity to others:
This brief legend emphasizes the extreme importance of mana. Although the other two sons of Nga-ara were born before Rokoroko-he-tau they were without mana. The mana manifested itself in the third son for some mysterious reason, perhaps because the mother was of higher rank than the other wives. Often in Polynesia the birth of the divine chief was associated with many portents and wonders, but in this tale the phenomena which accompanied the birth of the king were emanations from his mana and were the cause of his destruction. It was also the mana of the king which produced the white fowls that became extinct after his death. Such an essential attribute of a king was the possession of mana that, though the people suffered from the noxious overload of mana, they refused to pay any attention to the first-born sons of Nga-ara. They recognized - 46 as ariki only Rokoroko-he-tau to whom they presented wreaths and standards—tributes of respect and honour.
Another legend, strange and incomprehensible in its present form, deals with the mana of a king and his miraculous birth. Much of this tale which appears to be mysterious would perhaps be clearer if we knew a little more about the kingship and its supernatural powers. It is perhaps not merely chance that the name of the father of the ariki who is the principal character in the legend is Tangaroa, the same as that of the god who was the probable ancestor of the royal Honga family.
Although there is no way of knowing whether this tale refers to a legendary king with great mana or to the son of the god Tangaroa, it contributes to a better understanding of the various aspects of a king's personality.
Here, as in the preceding tale, the king's mana is so strong that it becomes deadly, and those who carry him die. Moreover, the king is carried on a litter, probably to prevent any contact between the ground and the mana embodied in him. This is the only hint of such a custom on Easter island, but here again is an attitude which fits the Polynesian pattern of culture.
The sacredness of the ariki-mau obliged both him and the people of lesser rank to subject themselves to a series of restrictions in their mutual relationships. The entire person of the king was tapu; no one could touch him without running the risk of falling dead or of suffering severe pain. The sacredness of the king's head is well illustrated by the following anecdote (Roussel, 15, p. 360):
“Their heads were tapu (sacred). They were obliged to let their hair grow without ever allowing the mata (cutting stone) to pass through it. I remember well that when I arrived on Easter island the young Gregorio was introduced to me as being the only real chief; he was also the one who wore the hair long. When for cleanliness sake I asked one of the Mangarevans who was with me to cut his hair, the child opposed it firmly and yielded only through force or fear. The anger was so general that the hairdresser was on the point of being stoned when he achieved his work.”
There is no doubt that the head of the king was the most sacred part of his person. The head of every man was more or less tapu; until recent times a mother was extremely careful to not eat above the head of her child. But from Roussel's text it would appear that only the king's head was so sacred that the hair on it could not be cut. However, a personal incident told by Te Haha, the attendant of King Nga-ara, to Routledge (16, p. 242) seems to indicate that other people, perhaps noblemen related to the king, were under the same tapu. Te Haha as a boy had “long hair reaching to his heels.” One day when he was asleep - 49 in a cave somebody cut it off. Te Haha went to Nga-ara, and by means of a spell the king blasted the offender who died.
The hands of kings were also tapu. The only activity permitted to the ariki was the recreation of making fishing-lines and nets. They were also permitted to go fishing in canoes. The extremely contagious nature of the mana extended to all the belongings of the ariki, which were consequently tapu. “Their huts, their enclosures, their food, their entire persons and everything they used were tapu for other persons of both sexes” (Roussel, 15, p. 360).
It was not permissible to see the king or his son eat or sleep, and none but the servants, who were noblemen (ariki), were allowed to enter his house. The respective functions of the two classes of servants, the tūra and haka-pāpa, are defined in the following legend about the first chiefs to settle on the island:
The duties of the tūra were not restricted to fishing. They provided for the entire maintenance of the king; they tilled the soil, gathered seashells for him, and practised all kinds of fishing. The haka-pāpa attended the king in the capacity of valets. Among their functions was the serving of the king's meals. The fragment of legend quoted above speaks of only one tūra and one haka-pāpa. The same informant who dictated this text told me on another occasion that there were several of each class of servants. As a matter of fact, he was not sure of the number.- 50
Several foods were tapu to the king. He could not eat rats under any condition, and it is quite possible that the same tapu applied to the other members of the Miru. Te Haha, who gave so many important details to Mrs. Routledge (16, p. 242) about King Nga-ara, told her that one day the king went to him as he was watching rats being cooked. Nga-ara was extremely angry “for it transpired that, if Te Haha had eaten them, his power for producing chickens would have diminished; presumably because he would have imbibed ratty nature, which was disastrous to eggs and young chickens.” The mahore, kotea, pahika, and teteme, all small fish, were remembered as the king's fish. The tapu on tuna fish during the winter months did not apply to the king who with some noblemen could eat the fish without running the risk of being poisoned. The boat in which expert fishermen went to catch tuna during the tapu period belonged to the king. It was called vaka-vaero and was decorated with cock feathers. All fish caught from the vaka-vaero were presented to the king, who either kept them for his own use or, more often, distributed them among the tangata-honui (important old men). The first tuna taken after the lifting of the tapu in summer were taken to the king, who tasted a bit of the fish and gave the rest to the tangata-honui. The food for the king was strictly tapu and nobody but the tūra could touch it.
The dress of the king was not very different from that of any wealthy man. He wore a beautiful tapa cloak stained yellow (nua) with turmeric, and he covered his head with “feather hats of various descriptions.” Six tahonga (wooden balls) and six small wooden crescents (rei-miro) called rei-matapuku, hung from his neck back and front. The wooden crescents had small shell tassels (rei-pipipipi) hanging from them. The only physical characteristic of the sons of kings was an alleged growth of down under the eyes.
Nga-ara, the last king of the island to die with full rank had his headquarters at Anakena. At the bay of Anakena is the most pleasant part of the island. Hills surround the long sandy beach which slopes gently to the sea. The present natives are particularly fond of going there to swim and rest. They express their admiration - 51 of the favoured bay in the saying that “Anakena is the loveliest place in the world.” Anakena cove has always played an important part in the history of the island. On its sandy shore King Hotu-matua landed, and there he died. Anakena was in the territory of the Honga lineage of kings. The six ahu which stand along the beach received the bones of the members of the Honga group, and the kings were buried there. At Anakena there was a school for chanters where the people gathered to hear the rongorongo men recite their chants.
According to a tradition that I was unable to check, each new king went to live at Ahu-akapu, near Tahai on the west coast. Later, when he had yielded his authority to his son he went to Tahai and then to Anakena where he spent his last years. Nga-ara was the only king who died in Tahai and his remains were buried in the big ahu there. The young princes were raised in a village called Papa-o-pea, near Ohau, not far from Ahu-te-peu. In all of the literature on Easter island there is only one allusion to the kings' changes of residence. However, Mrs. Routledge (16, p. 279) has recorded a tradition according to which Hotu-matua, having quarrelled with his eldest son Tū-maheke, gave up his position to his son and retired to the top of the Rano-kao where he lived on the south side of the crater, opposite to Orongo. Traditions connected with the ruins of Anakena make significant its prestige, and it is clear that Anakena was an important site and the one most closely associated with the memory of kings. There is no doubt that it was a royal residence, but with the present lack of knowledge the frequent and obligatory changes of the king's home are inexplicable and will undoubtedly remain so. Perhaps such changes concerned only some kings of historical times and cannot be generalized. Often war obliged the king to move from his customary residence, though the sacredness of his person put him above the vicissitudes of the war. “Through prudence or fear some of them abandoned their homes to retire as far as possible from the war theatre, hence their sojourn at Hanga-roa, Anakena and Hotu-iti” (Roussel, 15, p. 360).
A king resigned his power in favour of his first-born son when he married. My informant, Juan Tepano, was - 52 positive about this fact, which is confirmed by Roussel (15, p. 360). “The king resigned on the occasion of the marriage of his son, but his wedding could be delayed for a long time, since the custom of the country allowed him to marry only at an advanced age.” Geiseler (7, p. 41) is certainly mistaken when he says that after the king's death the rule passed to his brother.
The power of the king is extolled in a chant transcribed by Thompson (17, pp. 523, 524), but unfortunately the translation is so free that it is entirely unreliable. With the help of Tepano, I attempted to reconstruct and retranslate the native text which has been produced with scores of errors. There is no doubt as to the significance of the chant. It celebrates the beneficent influence of the king upon nature, especially on the sources of staple foods. On him depend the growth of plants, the abundance of fish, favourable atmospheric conditions, in a word everything related to food and the maintenance of life.
In defining the main features of the king's personality, at the beginning of this essay, I mentioned among the salient characteristics of his position his bearing on the magico-economic activity of the people. The intimate connection of the king with nature as revealed by the chant, is corroborated by many other references to his influence on the welfare of the people. There is still a belief among the natives that a great many food plants vanished from the island with the kings who controlled them. The favourite variety of sweet-potato called huatea is no longer found on Easter island. It could not exist without the king who made it grow, explained my informant. Thus, other plants and animals have deserted the island, and since the kidnapping of Maurata and his family no tortoises have appeared on the shore. The beneficial influence of the king's sacredness was shared by the ariki-paka or noblemen. Their skulls made the fowls lay eggs. The same power was probably ascribed to the head of the king, since otherwise the stealing of King Nga-ara's skull would remain unexplained (Routledge, 16, p. 246).
The first-fruits of all the products of the land were presented to the king. Father Roussel (15, p. 360) writes:
“Such offerings were brought to him with great ceremony. I was present when yams were presented to the little Gregorio who lived in our house. The bearers led the way, followed by a numerous suite and by two files of boys holding in their hands branches of hau, peeled and stained dark. The procession was more like torch-bearing at a funeral than anything else. From time to time the air sounded with cries and with chants I was unable to understand.
“Only the king could initiate the harvesting of the crops which were tapu as long as he ordered them to be. Alas for the man who dared to violate the - 55 tapu. Often he was deprived of his property and possibly of his life.”
The tuna fish (kahi) caught by the fishermen were given to the king (Roussel, 15, p. 428).
Certain religious functions, probably limited, were incumbent on the king. In time of drought he sent his son or another ariki-paka to perform rites in which Hiro was beseeched to make the rain fall. Such is the tradition obtained by Routledge (16, p. 242) and by me. Very likely the ariki-paka in charge of this duty was a high priest related to the king.
The sacredness of the ariki-mau is beyond any doubt, but this does not imply that he was a priest (iviatua) inspired by the gods and with a complete knowledge of the ritual. In Polynesia the divine chiefs played only a passive part in the religious life and this was probably true of the Easter island king. The importance of the sacerdotal group which came right after the king and the lack of any reference to the king as a priest point out that his functions were not confused with the ritualistic and prophetic activities of the ordinary priests. But as descendant of the gods and as medium between his divine ancestors and the people, his personality could not be dissociated from the cult. Many of the king's duties were purely religious. He inaugurated the harvest, received the first fruits of the crops, consecrated new houses or canoes, placed or lifted tapu and presided over many ceremonies.
All twins were presented to him to be given a “royal name.” I was unable to get details about the special names or the mystical beliefs about twins which necessitate the intervention of the ariki. From vague traditions one may infer that the king had a supervisory authority over activities of a more or less religious nature. For instance, the learning of chants and the tattooing of young men, both of which had a great deal to do with religion, were under the king's control. Tradition tells that the young men, recently tattooed, gathered in Anakena and exhibited their designs to the king who sat on the head of an old image. The king examined their tattoo and if he was satisfied with the work of the artist he said to the young man, “Ka hoa ki Tuna-roa” (Go to the ahu Tuna-roa), but if he judged the motifs poor he told the unfortunate bearer of them to “Ka hoa - 56 ki ahu runga” (Go to the upper ahu). He criticized the form and the size of the piercings of the ears and probably the ornaments which were worn in them.
There is still some mystery about the actual significance of the so-called Easter island script. The rongorongo men who used the tablets and chanted on festive occasions must have formed a class or group of expert reciters comparable to the rongorongo men of Mangareva. The learning of chants and the proper use of the tablets was a matter of interest to the king. Tradition recounts that each year the rongorongo men went to Anakena to read the tablets to the king. Te Haha told Mrs. Routledge (16, p. 245) that Nga-ara and his son, Kamakoi, “sat on seats made of tablets, and each had a tablet in his hand, they wore feather hats, as did all the professors.” The people of the neighbouring districts brought offerings of food to Nga-ara for distribution among the rongorongo men. The king listened attentively to the chants and punished those who made mistakes, which caused them to be laughed at. If a quarrel arose among the people, the king sent a boy with a royal ensign (maru) to the fighters. The sight of the maru was enough to quiet their wrath. Mrs. Routledge (16, p. 246) adds:
“When the function was over, the Ariki stood on a platform borne by eight men and addressed the rongorongo men on their duties, and doing well, and gave them each a chicken.… In addition to the great day, there were minor assemblies at new moon, or at the last quarter of the moon, when the rongorongo men came to Anakena. The Ariki walked up and down reading the tablets, while the old men stood in a body and looked on.…
“King Nga-ara used to travel around the island, staying for a week or two in the localities of the resident experts.”
Thompson (17, p. 514), who preceded Mrs. Routledge by forty years, was also told that the
“… knowledge of the written characters was confined to the royal family, the chiefs of the six districts into which the island was divided, sons of - 57 those chiefs, and certain priests or teachers, but the people were assembled at Anakena Bay once each year to hear all the tablets read.”
In the legend of Rokoroko-he-tau it is told how the people brought wreaths (mukomuko) and standards (huhu) to the firstborn children of the king. Later, when they discovered that the third son was endowed with more powerful mana, they deserted the other ariki, bringing all the huhu and mokumoku to Nga-ara's third son, Rokoroko-he-tau. Roussel, in a text already referred to (15, p. 360), mentions the branches of hau peeled and stained dark and held by boys accompanying the people who presented the first-fruits to the king. The symbolism of such ensigns is not known, but they were probably brought before the king as a token of respect. Natives still remember such sacred ornaments and tell how once a month (Tepano insisted once a week) the people went to Anakena to present the ariki-mau with huhu and maru. My informant translated the word huhu as “standard” and described it as a pole with three to five small red, white, or black sticks inserted into it. The ends of such sticks were decorated with cock-feathers. The top of the huhu bore a long feather garland (maro) the like of which is still made by the natives for trade. The huhu and the maru were planted in the ground in front of the king's house and left there until they rotted. These huhu were apparently not the same as those made by the ariki-paka and placed in the taro- and yam-fields to make the rain fall.
References to insignia are to be found in the accounts of the earlier voyagers. Behrens (1, p. 128) says that after some natives had been shot by the Dutchmen, “they came back to meet the foreigners with palm boughs and a sort of standard of red and white.” His description fits the huhu that the Easter islanders presented to their mysterious and powerful visitors. The party sent by Cook to explore the interior of the island received honours which seem to be the same as those paid to ariki. Cook (2, vol. 1, p. 281) writes:
“A middle-aged man, punctured from head to foot, and his face painted with a sort of white pigment, appeared with a spear in his hand and walked along - 58 side of them, making signs to his countrymen to keep at a distance, and not to molest our people. When he had pretty well effected this, he hoisted a piece of white cloth on his spear, placed himself in the front and led the way, with his ensign of peace, as they understood.”
King Nga-ara “was visited one month in the year by all people who brought him the plant known as pua on the end of sticks, put the pua into his house, and retired backwards.” (Routledge, 16, p. 243).
Te Haha, who in his youth was of the court of King Nga-ara, told Mrs. Routledge (16, p. 242) that “if the people wanted chickens, they applied to the Ariki-mau, who sent him with maru, and his visits were always attended with satisfactory results.”
Nothing is known about the activities and duties of the king to suggest any great political power. He was not a ruler in the common sense of the word. So little has survived in the memory of the natives about the king's authority that Routledge (16, p. 242) could assume that the ariki-mau was “neither a leader in war nor the fount of justice, nor even a priest.”
It remains to determine clearly the position of the king and his possible influence in the political system of the island. Again the best source of information is Father Roussel (15, p. 360). About the king he makes a general statement that seems to be very near the truth:
“In late times, although the kings were still surrounded with respect by the natives who considered their persons to be sacred, their authority was nil and entirely disregarded. It has passed entirely into the hands of the mata-toa [warriors] who decided everything and carried on the war without beforehand consulting his majesty.”
Of course the opinion of Roussel as to the extension of kingly power in ancient days is an entirely gratuitous assumption, but there is good evidence that his statement for historical times is quite accurate. Geiseler (7, p. 41), who visited the island in 1882 for a few days, is not a very reliable source, and he is also the only one who says that - 59 “in former days the almost despotical power of the king contrasted with the condition of the people.” Gana (6, p. 32) expresses it in more or less the same way, but since his report is only a badly misinterpreted compilation of the data collected by Roussel it is best to discard his discussion. Far more important is Thompson's contribution (17, p. 473). He writes:
“The ancient government of Easter Island was an arbitrary monarchy. The supreme authority was vested in a king and was hereditary in his family. The person of the king was held sacred. Clan fights and internecine struggles were common, but the royal person and family were unmolested. The king reigned over the entire island and was not disturbed by the defeat cr the victory of any of the clans. The island was divided into districts having names and governed by chiefs, all of whom acknowledged the supremacy of the king. The title of chief was also hereditary, and descended from father to son, but the king reserved the right to remove or put to death any of them and of naming a successor from the people of the clan … disputes were settled by king or chief without regard to law or justice. It does not appear that any great homage was paid the king, and no tax was expected of the people.”
Although in some details Thompson's text seems to contradict my views on the lack of political authority of the king, it contains some other information which supports my conception of the king's power on Easter island. Here again is a precise statement about the sacredness of the king's person, and about the little deference the chiefs paid him when they wanted to fight. The statement that no great homage was paid to the king may be interpreted as disregard of his authority. As a matter of fact, being the descendant of the first king who settled on the island and thus of the gods, his would have been a status superior to that of the other ariki, chiefs of the various descent-groups. But had he real influence or authority over them? Thompson asserts that he had, but there is no way to check his statement. It is probable that owing to his prestige the king might have acted as a mediator in quarrels. Why - 60 then did he not interfere in the wars of the descent-groups? An historical incident which occurred a little before 1862 illustrates strikingly the insignificance of the king's political position. The Ngaure descent-group succeeded in defeating the Miru whom they took as slaves (mata-kio). The king, his son Kamakoi, and his grandson Maurata were held in captivity in the territory of the Ngaure and were not rescued until a few years later by the Miru who had in the meantime united with the Tupahotu.
The ariki-mau was respected because of his pedigree which related him with the gods and because of the sacredness of his person, but he was certainly not a ruler or civilian chief. He transmitted the mana of the god, and it was necessary for the welfare of the island to keep him, but beyond this usefulness he was not allowed to enjoy any real power other than this more or less strictly religious and aristocratic prestige.
Williamson, in his great work on social organization in Central Polynesia (19, vol. 1, p. 405), presents the hypothesis that the kingship of Easter island was of a double nature. According to him, besides the ordinary king there was a secular king elected each year during the feasts of Orongo and invested with power for only one year. This second king was the tangata-manu (bird man). Williamson's principal authority is Gana who misused the information he obtained from Roussel. But even one of the missionaries (Ollivier, 12, p. 256) had adopted the same standpoint. The more detailed accounts of Thompson (17, p. 483) and of Routledge (16, pp. 254-266) of the bird-cult, together with some scattered evidence gathered by me, do not speak in favour of Williamson's hypothesis. This is not the place to discuss the deep significance of the bird-cult, which seems to have conveyed certain privileges to those who took part in the race for the first manutara egg. The winner seems to have been endowed with religious power which manifested itself in the right to plunder and to bully others. To be able to enjoy such a favoured position one had to be a mata-toa (a warrior or chief) and to belong to a descent-group in the ascendancy. The analysis of available documents had already induced me to consider the tangata-manu as a man incarnating provisionally the god Makemake and entitled to rights of an aggressive nature. The reading of - 61 the recently published manuscript of Roussel (15, p. 427) confirmed my induction. He writes:
“I will not repeat what has been said before, that the great chief was out of the ordinary affairs and that chance, the discovery of seabird eggs gave authority to those lucky enough to find them. They took the name of mata-toa (warriors). But the investiture of such an authority began only after they had shaved their heads. Their activity consisted in marauding day and night and in trying to fool as many people as they could during the year they were in power, and in taking part in continuous feasts, the most childish and licentious.”
How should one define kingship on Easter island in view of all the evidence brought together? The king not only descended from the chief who first settled on the island, but he was able to trace his origin to the gods. He was the man with the most aristocratic pedigree and the most exalted social position on the island. His person was overflowing with mana and his sacredness caused him to be feared and respected. His function in society was to insure through his very being the abundance of crops and the fertility of the ground and to exercise his influence on animal life. From his sacredness derived certain religious activities, and he held supervisory control over various practices connected with religion. His political power was little.- 62
1 Dr. Métraux was a member of the Franco-Belgian expedition to Easter island in 1934.