Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jacques Arago

Vue of the King’s Heiau at Kealakekua.

Jacques Arago (1790-1855), the French writer, artist and explorer, was a major player in the documenting of Hawaiian life in the early nineteenth century. He arrived in the Islands in 1819 aboard the corvette Uranie, in the crew of the renown navigator Louis de Freycinet, who had been commissioned by the French government to collect data about the geography, meteorology, ethnology, and indigenous flora and fauna of the southern hemisphere.

Although the Uranie was in Hawaiian waters for only three weeks, it was at a critical point in history. Kamehameha I had died just three months earlier and the people were still in mourning. The culture was in turmoil for other reasons — the kapu system was disintegrating and there were disputes about the succession.

Ooro, One of the Principal Officers of Kamehameha II.

Arago seems to have been well received by the Hawaiians. In addition to sketching them, he often entertained them with juggling and magic tricks. He chronicled not only the lifestyles of the elite, but ordinary things such as the beating of tapa, the clothing, hairstyles and headdresses of the period — even the manner of criminal executions — and he was particularly fascinated by the Hawaiian art of tattooing.

Verbally witty and observant as well, Arago made acerbic comments about pompous chiefs and certain resident foreigners. He also made trenchant social observations, such as the following on the role of women: “The condition of women here is truly wretched ... they are treated like beings perfectly useless, except to propagate the species....”

The Manner in Which the Natives Tattoo Themselves.

The Houses of Kalaimoku, Prime Minister of the King.

The fate of the Uranie after it left Hawaii was also remarkable. Having visited such ports as Australia, Guam and the Marianas Islands, it ran aground in the Falkland Islands and Arago did not return to France until 1821.

Back in Paris, he published a comprehensive illustrated account of his experiences entitled Narrative of a Voyage Round the World. It was a great success and was reprinted countless times and translated into several languages.

Despite losing his sight in his later years, Arago continued to travel and even wrote for the theater. He died in Rio de Janeiro, leaving behind an invaluable record of Island life — over forty of his drawings can be seen at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Perhaps the most fortuitous aspect of Arago’s visit was its timing — in 1819 the Hawaiian culture, though transitioning, was still fundamentally intact. It would be another two years before the arrival of the minions of religion and the social devastation that followed.

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Blogger motodiva said...

Was Arago hapa-Spanish?

June 28, 2010 at 8:49 PM  

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