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Some say this singular complaint, which was unknown to their ancestors, has only prevailed since they have been visited by foreign shipping. It does not prevail among the inhabitants of the surrounding islands; but whether it be of recent origin or not, in Tahiti it is very affecting to witness the numbers that have suffered; and we cannot but hope that as industry and civilization advance, and their mode of living improves, it will in an equal ratio disappear from among them.
Blindness is frequently induced by the same disease that precedes the spinal curvature. The condition of the blind, when suffered to live, must, under the reign of idolatry, have been truly lamentable-they were generally objects of derision and neglect, if not of wanton cruelty.
Insanity prevailed in a slight degree, but individuals under its influence met with a very different kind of treatment. They were supposed to be inspired or possessed by some god, who, the natives imagined, had entered every one suffering under mental aberrations. On this account no control was exercised, but the highest respect was shewn them. They were, however, generally avoided, and their actions were considered as the deeds of the god, rather than the man. Under these circumstances, when the poor wretch became his own destroyer, it was not regarded as an event to be deplored. Deafness was sometimes experienced; and there are a few persons in the islands who can neither speak nor hear distinctly.
In their application to particular diseases, the priests manifested considerable acquaintance with the medicinal properties of the herbs, and their adaptation to the complaint, to relieve which they were employed; but their practice must have been
very uncertain and ineffectual, though they were held in high esteem by all ranks. Convulsions being sometimes experienced, were considered to result from the direct power of the god. Sudden death was also attributed to the same cause-and an attack so terminating, was called rima atua, "hand of god." Those who died suddenly were also said to be haruhia e te atua, or uumehia e te atua: seized by the god, or strangled by the god." Indeed, the gods were supposed to send all the diseases with which they were afflicted.
Whatever mystery they might attach to the preparation and use of medicine, their practice of surgery, and application of external remedies, were more simple and straightforward. They did not apply friction in the same manner as the Sandwich Islanders sometimes do, viz. by placing the patient flat on the ground, and rolling a twelve or fourteen pound shot backwards and forwards along the back; but in a far more gentle manner, by rubbing with the hands the muscles of the limbs, and pressing them in the same way as the Indians practise shampooing.
The natives had no method of using the warmbath, but often seated their patients on a pile of heated stones strewed over with green herbs or leaves, and kept them covered with a thick cloth till the most profuse perspiration was induced; something like that produced by the fashionable vapour bath. In this state, to our great astonishment, at the most critical seasons of illness, the patient would leave the heap of stones, and plunge into the sea, near which the oven was generally heated. Though the shock must have been very great, they appeared to sustain no injury from this transition.
There were persons among them celebrated as oculists, but their skill principally consisted in removing foreign substances from the eye; and when applied to for this purpose, they, as well as others, received the payment or fee before they commenced their operations; but if the present did not please them, they, to satisfy their employers, sometimes took one splinter, &c. out of the eye, and left another in, that they might be sent for again. Their surgeons were remarkably dexterous in closing a cut or thrust, by drawing the edges carefully together, and applying the pungent juice of the ape, arum costatum, to the surface. This, acting like caustic, must have caused great pain.
A fractured limb they set without much trouble; applying splinters of bamboo-cane to the sides, and keeping it bound up till healed. A dislocation they usually succeeded in reducing; but the other parts of their surgical practice were marked by a rude promptness, temerity, and barbarism, almost incredible. A man one day fell from a tree, and dislocated some part of his neck. companions, on perceiving it, instantly took him up one of them placed his head between his own knees, and held it firmly; while the others, taking hold of his body, twisted the joint into its proper place.
On another occasion, a number of young men, in the district of Fare, were carrying large stones, suspended from each end of a pole across their shoulders, their usual mode of carrying a burden: one of them so injured the vertebræ, as to be almost unable to move; he had, as they expressed it, fati te tua, broken the back. His fellow-workmen laid him flat on his face on the grass; one grasped and pulled his shoulders, and the other his