Piercing the skin

One interesting item in the Banks chapter of The Age of Wonder is Banks’s account of witnessing a girl get a tattoo. Happily, his journal is online; it was July 5 1969 1769.

This morn I saw the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old, it provd as I have always suspected a most painfull one. It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth, every stroke of this hundreds of which were made in a minute drew blood. The patient bore this for about ¼ of an hour with most stoical resolution; by that time however the pain began to operate too stron[g]ly to be peacably endurd, she began to complain and soon burst out into loud lamentations and would fain have persuaded the operator to cease; she was however held down by two women who sometimes scolded, sometimes beat, and at others coaxd her. I was setting in the adjacent house with Tomio for an hour, all which time it lasted and was not finishd when I went away tho very near. This was one side only of her buttocks for the other had been done some time before. The arches upon the loins upon which they value themselves much were not yet done, the doing of which they told causd more pain than what I had seen.

Familiar, isn’t it, right down to the women holding her down.

It’s much less gruesome than genital mutilation, because it’s not harmful in the same way (unless, it belatedly occurs to me, there is infection, which there must have been at least sometimes)…but it’s gruesome enough. Holmes quotes Banks writing several years later, in a letter:

For this Custom, they give no reason, but that they were taught it by their forefathers…So essential is it esteemed to Beauty, and so disgraceful is the want of it deemed, that every one submits to it.

Quite – just like FGM, just like bound feet. The girl tried to bear it, but it got too bad, and she wanted it to stop – but the two women held her down.

It’s funny…I  went to a very small very academic girls’ school. At some point most of my classmates got their ears pierced, but I didn’t. It was kind of esteemed essential to Beauty, also sort of hip and new (our  mothers wore clip-on earrings), which I liked to be…but I never wanted pierced ears. I never wanted even such a minor mutilation – I remember really just not liking the idea of a hole in my ear lobes. It’s just as well I didn’t grow up in Tahiti in the 18th century.

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