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Elena Govor

'Speckled Bodies': Russian Voyagers and Nuku Hivans, 1804

He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow

Ecclesiastes 1:18

The world of te patu tiki — Marquesan tattoo — has attracted scholars for more than two centuries. After the detailed examination and inventory published by Karl Steinen in the 1920s, the modern ethnological study by Alfred Gell and the most complete recent work by Pierre and Marie-Noelle Ottino-Garanger,[1] it might be thought that this theme had been explored in full. Nevertheless, my attempt to look more closely at the inception of the rich body of information on tattoo in a particular part of the Marquesas - the island of Nuku Hiva - brought to light unexpected discoveries that in some respects go beyond this limited area and raise a number of more general questions.

The object of my study is the first Russian round-the-world expedition on the sloops Nadezhda and Neva, which spent twelve days at Taiohae Bay at Nuku Hiva in May 1804. The accounts by its principal members - the commander and captain of the Nadezhda, Adam Krusenstern (Ivan Kruzenshtern in Russian), the captain of the Neva, lury Lisiansky, and the naturalist Georg Langsdorff - translated into Western languages and the visual imagery published in their works belong to the corpus of so-called classical sources about Nuku Hiva.[2] But numerous materials were not translated: being scattered in Russian periodicals and locked in Soviet archives, they remained almost inaccessible to Western scholars. During a recent research trip to Russia, I was able to copy little-known accounts by Langsdorff, the artist-naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau (including his original sketchbook), Makar Ratmanov, Fedor Romberg, Fedor Shemelin, Nikolai Rezanov, Nikolai Korobitsyn, Archpriest Gedeon and Vasily Berkh, as well as a Russian translation of the diary of four Japanese men who had been shipwrecked in Russian waters in 1790 and who were being returned to Japan on board the Nadezhda. The German manuscript of the voluminous journal of Lieutenant Herman Loewenstern (Ermolai Levenshtern in Russian) has recently been published in Russian translation, while many of his drawings are held by the Estonian Historical Archives.[3] Langsdorff's original drawings are extant, while Tilesius and Langsdorff also published accounts of the voyage in early nineteenth-century German periodicals. The written and pictorial accounts of over a dozen members of the expedition have been brought together here for the first time, including works by at least three artists - Tilesius, Langsdorff and Loewenstern.

None of the other early voyages to the Pacific, including Cook's, produced such numerous and diverse accounts. My research so far has not only brought to light new material but permits the juxtaposition of different genres, each of which enhances the others. My textual analysis of the English versions of the classical accounts by Krusenstern, Langsdorff and Lisiansky in tandem with their Russian/German originals helped eliminate numerous misreadings in translations. The process raises the general problem of the contingency of the early texts that are used for ethno-historical reconstructions, but this chapter deals mainly with pictorial representations, including the portraits of several well-known personalities, most of whom are depicted with more or less elaborate tattoo.

Tilesius made the important remark that he 'had drawn portraits of... the members of the king's family.[4] Indeed, the selection of people whom the Russians drew and the way they were represented did not occur by chance. Plate xv in Kruzenshtern's Atlas entitled 'Depiction of the faces of Nuka Hivans' is an engraved collective portrait of 'King Ketenue's court', where each person occupies a corresponding position (illus. 30). This 'court' at the time of the Russian visit was not numerous. It included about a dozen close family members to whom the visitors constantly referred and who became the models for their drawings. In total, the three Russian artists produced detailed drawings of more than 20 individuals, whom I try here to identify with particular named persons.

The central figure in the Russians' interactions with the Nuku Hivans was 'king' Keatonui, called 'Ketenue' by the Russians. He was described by many voyagers, including the London Missionary Society missionary William Pascoe Crook, the beachcomber Edward Robarts, and the US Navy captain David Porter, but no particular visual imagery has previously been associated with him. Russian visitors broke the ground in this respect. Tilesius' drawing of the 'king' in his sketchbook,[5] inscribed 'Kettenue', uses classical conventions to an anthropological end - to represent a typical member of a particular ethnic group rather than an individual personality (illus. 31). The drawing was engraved in Kruzenshtern's Atlas as the central figure in the upper row of plate xv (illus. 30). The engraver, I. S. Klauber, added tattoo designs to the shoulder that were lacking in Tilesius' drawing but which presumably were meant to contribute to the solemnity of the 'king'. The most interesting representation of Keatonui is the full-length portrait drawn by Loewenstern (illus. 32). Not an artist by profession, he nevertheless managed to catch the individuality of this important man. The solemn, imposing, slightly corpulent, probably late middle-aged man depicted in the act of presenting a kava plant (piper methysticum) is certainly more than a curiously decorated savage. Although naked, he seems to be richly dressed - in tattoos. The picture refers to the particular moment when Keatonui visited the Nadezhda for the first time. Lieutenant Romberg briefly remarked in a letter to his friends: 'The naked king with a sapling in his hand made a visit to us'.[6] Tilesius provided further details:

a big pirogue pulled up to our ship. There was an exceptionally corpulent and completely tattooed man with a thick neck standing at the front. His body was of dark-blue colour. This fat man was called the king of the valley... His name is Kettenue, Tapega. The latter is his title which means right hand. In the right hand he was carrying a pepper plant, from which an intoxicating drink is made, signifying by this peace and friendship.[7]

Shemelin, the supercargo on the voyage, wrote about Keatonui with respect, sympathy and some humour. Shemelin was not shocked by the naked tattooed body of 'the king', but the density of his tattoos so darkened his skin as to remind Shemelin of an African - a common analogy in the early literature on Polynesian tattoo (see Douglas, this volume):

The king seemed to be over fifty already, he was stately and of a large stature. Unlike his retinue, bold and talkative, he was distinguished by modesty and reticence which imparted him a spirit of some dignity...

His questions about the things around him were brief, his answers even briefer.... The things which he saw probably for the first time in his life had little effect on his curiosity. He preferred to all practical things he saw a big mirror in the Captain's cabin, to which he came up with a joyful air and looked at himself in it from top to bottom, outstretching hands, bending to all sides, turning to it with his sides and back and seemed to admire with delight his patterned skin which was all speckled with circles, ovals, wide and narrow strips and lattices so thickly that there was not even a nail sized spot clear of black dots left on his body, so that the King under his foppish dress seemed to be a true native of Angola.[8]

Loewenstern, who referred to Keatonui's tattooed skin as 'dark-blue, nearly black',[9] managed to convey this impression in his drawing, in which, however, the details of the tattoos on the face are indistinguishable and schematic. Tilesius, on the contrary, attempted to trace the pattern of the tattoo in his drawing of Keatonui's head.

There is tantalizing information about one more portrait of Keatonui done by the artist of the expedition Stepan Kurliandtsev, a Russian portraitist. It surfaced in the documents of the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg at least twice. In 1818 Kurliandtsev applied for financial assistance, referring to his work on the portrait of 'Katenue, king of Taiogai'. In the following year he submitted the painting as a gift to the tsar, Alexander I. The officials considered that it was 'rather weak' and returned it to Kurliandtsev. Its further destiny, as well as that of his entire pictorial legacy, remains unknown.[10]


Excerpt from 'Speckled Bodies': Russian Voyagers and Nuku Hivans, 1804. - In: N. Thomas et al, eds., Tattoo. Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West, London, Reaktion Books, 2005, pp. 53-71.


[1] Karl Steinen, Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst (Berlin, 1925), vol. 1, Tatauierung; Alfred Gell, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia (Oxford, 1993); Pierre Ottino-Garanger et al, Le Tatouage aux lies Marquises: te patu tiki ([Papeete, Tahiti], 1998).

[2] Adam J. von Krusenstern, Voyage Around the World in the Years 1803,1804,1805 & 1806. .. on Board the Ships Nadeshda and Neva . . . , trans. Richard Belgrave Hoppner (London, 1813); Urey Lisiansky, A Voyage Round the World in the Years 1803, 4, 5 & 6... (London, 1814); George H. Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World... (London, 1813); Ivan F. Kruzenshtern, Atlas k puteshestviiu vokrug sveta kapitana Kruzenshterna [Atlas to Captain Krusenstern's Voyage around the World] (St Petersburg, 1813).

[3] Ermolai E. Levenshtern, Vokrug sveta s Ivanom Kruzenshternom: Dnevnik leitenanta 'Nadezhdy' (1803—1806) [Around the World with Ivan Kruzenshtern: Journal of a Lieutenant of the Nadezhda], ed. A. V. Kruzenshtern et al, trans. T. K. Shafranovskaia (St Petersburg, 2003).

[4] [Wilhelm] Tilezius, 'Izvestie o estestvennom i politicheskom sostoianii ostrova Nukaivu ...' [News of the Natural and Political Conditions of Nukaivu Island ... ], Tekhnologicheskii zhurnal, 111/4 (1806), p. 95. Except where otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

[5] [Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau], 'Skizzenbuch des Hofrath Dr Tilesius v. Tilenau Naturforschers der Krusenster-nischer Reise um die Welt in den Jahren 1803-1806', Russian State Library, Moscow, Manuscripts Department, fond 178, M 10693b.

[6] Fedor Romberg, 'Pis'mo druz'iam 16 avgusta 1804 g. iz Petropavlovska-na-Kamchatke' [Letter by Fedor Romberg to his friends 16 August 1804 from Petropavlovsk-on-Kamchatka], Russian National Library, St Petersburg, Manuscript collection, Collection of Titov, okr. no. 791 (no. 2272), fol. 37.

[7] Tilezius, 'Izvestie', pp. 106-8.

[8] Fedor Shemelin, Zhurnal pervogo puteshestviia rossiian vokrug zemnogo shara ... [Journal of the First Russian Voyage around the World] (St Petersburg, 1816), vol. 1, p. 108; Fedor I. Shemelin, 'Zhurnal Rossiisko-Amerikanskoi Kompanii... prikazchika Fedora Ivanovicha Shemelina' [Journal of the Commissioner of the Russian-American Company Fedor Shemelin], Russian National Library, St Petersburg, Manuscript collection, F.iv.59, fols 116v-117.

[9] Levenshtern, Vokrug sveta, p. 116.

[10] V. P. Tokarev, Khudozhniki Sibiri, xix vek [Siberian Artists, xix century] (Novosibirsk, 1993), p. 28; Sbornik materialov dlia istorii Imperatorskoi Sankt-Peterburgskoi Akademii khudozhestv za 100 let ee sushchestvovaniia [Collection of Materials for the History of the Imperial St Petersburg Academy of Arts for 100 years of its Establishment] (St Petersburg, 1864), pp. 133-4.