Paul-Emile Botta was born to Carlo Botta, an eminent historian and educator, and Antoinette de Vierville of Chambery, in Turin on December 6, 1802. His mother died when he was still a child. In 1815, he became naturalized as a Frenchman.
In 1826, the French prepared for a round-the-world voyage on Le Heros, On board regulations required that there be a surgeon; Botta, though not yet a full-fledged doctor, was appointed to that post. He was also charged with the duties of naturalist aboard, with the mission of collecting examples.
The Heros, a three-masted ship of 362 tons, with 32 men on board, left the port of Le Havre on April 9, 1826, circumnavigated the globe. The following, in Botta’s words, are his observations of the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiʻi) when he and Le Heros visited the Islands from September 17, 1828 to November 15, 1828. (The quotation marks are dropped.)
The natives of the Sandwich Islands are for the most part large and well built. Among them are often found men who, in figure and proportion, recall the most beautiful statues of antiquity.
They vary a great deal in color. Sometimes it is a very dark brown, almost black, but at other times, to the contrary, it is a rather light brown, almost yellow. Their faces are pleasing, especially because of the expression of goodness and joviality always displayed on them … their hearts are full of goodness and friendliness.
The men are completely naked except for a type of belt of which one portion passes between their thighs, called by them maro. They have … a custom of knotting about the end of the prepuce a piece of reed, when they are not wearing the maro; this is the last bit of clothing that they are accustomed to take off.
The women … ordinarily wear a cloth skirt and a garment made of a fabric of the islands covering their thighs. Yet I saw some of them indoors having as their sole clothing a belt of leaves. This is the attire of the common people; the chiefs, however, as well as their women, at present dress in European fashion, some indeed with a studied affectation.
The Sandwich islanders, at least the common people, eat chiefly vegetables. Their principal food is taro, root of a type of arum which when raw is very bitter and even poisonous, but when cooked has an excellent flavor, superior to that of the potato.
They eat it either cooked in their underground ovens or pounded into a paste, often half fermented, which they call poi, and which is the basis of their meals.
Potatoes, carrots, and fish, which they eat raw most of the time, or else pounded with water and salt, are, after taro, their commonest foods.
Their customary drink is only water … very few islanders are to be seen giving themselves up to drunkenness. They still, however, make use of the infusion of ava to get intoxicated.
They also prepare a type of brandy with the root of a plant very common in the island, which they call lahi. The root is thick, fibrous, though rather tender and of a very sweet and sugary flavor when cooked. The brandy made of it through fermentation is very strong. This root is called ti.
The islanders’ homes are small houses made with a light scaffolding covered over by dry grasses. They are formed with a roof, the sides rising obliquely almost from the ground. They usually have two doors, set in accordance with the direction of the most frequent winds, providing for coolness inside.
The floor is formed by a layer of dry rushes covered over by a rather large number of mats. The floor usually serves as table and as bed, some chiefs’ homes excepted; the latter are sometimes furnished most elegantly in European style.
These very simple houses are cool and inexpensive and islanders as well as some Europeans prefer them to houses built of stone or wood, as some quite pretty ones transported from America are.
The chief occupation of the islanders is the cultivation of taro, which requires much toil and care. This plant grows well only in marshy terrain, and even in mud; therefore, all the upper valleys and terrain at the foot of the mountains are divided into small plots covered with water and separated by narrow embankments, which are the only paths.
Taro is planted in rows or in regular quincunxes in little ponds, into which the natives are often obliged to dive, either to harvest the roots, or to pull out the reeds and other grasses which might hinder their growth.
The water is brought there by means of little irrigation canals, made with great care, and which divide infinitely, passing from one taro field to another, so that a small stream can irrigate a great number of fields placed in terraces one above another on a hill slope. All this cultivation gives an impressive notion of the industriousness of these people.
Fishing is, next to taro, the principal resource of the Sandwich islanders; they now use European hooks. In order to catch great sea fish such as the bonitos or the dorados, however, they join them to bits of polished mother-of-pearl with bristles at one end, which, in the water, gives the appearance of a small fish, with sufficient exactness for the big fish to be deceived by them.
Their nets are very well made and they have some, I have been told, that are large and are the common property of several villages.
The dug-out canoes used by the islanders have the bottom made from a hollowed out tree, pointed at the two ends; it is raised by two boards joined to the two ends tapering; they are provided with a balance, formed by a piece of wood parallel to the dug-out canoe and sustained by two cross-bars. The paddles have rounded blades. When they desire, they add a mast and a trapezoidal sail to the canoes.
The recreation of the islanders consists only of lascivious dances, and I have always seen them performed by women and never by men. … The tunes have, properly speaking, no melody, for they are made of only one or two notes. To hear them sung, one would believe that they are rather being chanted. I have not seen any musical instrument except a small drum made out of coconut.
But their favorite pleasure is swimming. Men, women, and children all know how to swim and they are all constantly in the water.
Nothing is more interesting than to see them devoting themselves to the exercise they call henalou, that is, mounting the waves. In the places where the coral reef surrounding the island and stretching far out causes the water to have a depth of only between seven and eight feet, the sea rolls its waves in a frightening manner, sometimes for a distance of over a mile, until they come to break at the shore.
In these places the Sandwich islanders place themselves on their stomachs on a board oval in shape, elongated, somewhat convex on each side. They then swim with their hands and feet, passing over or under the waves constantly rolling over the reef, going out to sea where they wait for a wave which they think will inevitably reach the shore.
Then they place themselves in front of it, letting themselves be carried thus with incredible speed, without losing their balance, continually pushed forward by the wave the summit of which, towering above, seems destined to engulf them. This exercise which has always seemed terrifying to me is just a game for them.
The language of the Sandwich islanders is sweet and harmonious, because of the great number of vowels and few consonants found in it. …. The vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. The consonants are f, h, k, 1, m, n, p, r, t, and v. But the number of consonants should be reduced, for the inhabitants use some of them indifferently for others; thus r and l, k and t, p and f, are letters which seem for them to have the same sound.
Such are the observations which a stay of two months on Wahou has permitted me to make. They are most incomplete, and I greatly desire to be one day in a position to make a better study of these people, rendered so likeable by their goodness and sweetness …. (This summary is based on a translation and summary from Knowlton.)
The image shows the town of Honolulu as it looked when Botta arrived in the Islands. (Beechey)