The Story of James O’Connell and his Pohnpeian Tattoos

James O'Connell

The picture featured here is that of a sign that once hung in the entrance of the former Village Hotel on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. On it is James F. O’Connell, the “tattooed Irishman”, a foreigner who washed up on the beaches of Pohnpei in the early 1800’s. The tattoos that can be seen on O’Connell’s arms are traditional Pohnpeian tattoos. In my 23 years of living I have never seen a Pohnpeian tattoo on a living Pohnpeian. The practice of tattooing gradually stopped when the missionaries came to my island, but that’s a story for another day.

My favorite tale of James O’Connell is one I heard in a Pacific Island history course I took last year. My professor was none other than Dr. David Hanlon, a Micronesia Historian who was the chair of the Department of History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (the university I currently attend) at the time and author of Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1890. Before I get into the tale, here’s a little context on James O’Connell.

There aren’t many sources about O’Connell, I was taught that neither you nor I can even be sure that that’s even his real name. Dr. Hanlon mentioned that the sources that are available are ones written by O’Connell himself which are laden with details that are inconsistent with other credible sailing records (source: O’Connell, J.F. 1972. A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands. Canberra: Australia University Press. reprint of 1836 edition). One other source I found in the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s extensive Pacific Collection was an ad of O’Connell in circus acts that he performed in when he lived in the U.S after living on the islands.

O’Connell ended up stranded on a beach on Pohnpei either as a shipwrecked sailor or the more likely scenario, an escapee from a prison vessel on its way to a penal colony in Australia. When he landed on the beach, he found himself surrounded by Pohnpeian men. In an attempt to save himself from what he thought was surely impending death, he began to perform an Irish jig (as can be seen in the image above). This would gain him favor with a Pohnpeian chief, saving his life and integrating him into the Pohnpeian village community. He would later receive a traditional tattoo and marry the daughter of a chief. He stays on Pohnpei for what could be 3 or 5 years. The next anyone sees of O’Connell is when he begins his life in the U.S. as a circus performer showing off his Pohnpeian tattoos and reenacting his life in Pohnpei, not so accurately, through plays he wrote. He was featured in the famous P.T. Barnum’s freakshow American Museum as “the U.S’ first tattooed showman” ( a great example of the commodification of my culture that inevitably did not help in saving its practice, but this is also a story for another day).

Now that I’ve given you some context, here’s the tale. It takes place after O’Connell has been tattooed and was written by O’Connell himself.

Pohnpeian tattoos are used as a source of identity. The tattoos are a permanent, physical representation of ones lineage, ones clan, and other historical details pertaining to ones identity. Tattoos are the Pohnpeian way of recording our history. One day, O’Connell was sitting in a nahs (community hut) reading a book. This book was Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter. I know what you’re thinking — how does O’Connell even have a book? Well, O’Connell says he salvaged it from a shipwreck. A few curious, Pohnpeian women asked O’Connell what it was he was holding. O’Connell began to explain to these women what a book was and what its purposes were — the “english method of tattooing”. Just as Pohnpeians record their history in ink on their skin, englishmen record their history in ink on paper. O’Connell handed the women the book so that they could see it, and to his horror the women began ripping apart the pages of his book. They then proceeded to sew these pages onto their shoulder wraps which were worn in the event of rain. They did this because they wanted to incorporate O’Connell’s history onto their bodies the same way they had tattooed O’Connell with theirs. These women then proudly paraded their new found histories around the village when suddenly, as it does on a tropical, rainforest, island, it began to rain really hard. I bet you can imagine the dismay on the faces of these women when the ink of the book pages they had so lovingly sewn onto their clothing began to run. When the rain eventually let up, the ink on the pages were no longer visible. In anger, these women returned to O’Connell and bitterly complained “You, white man. Your history is no good because it washes away with the rain.” O’Connell could only concede their point because his tattoos were definitely still on his skin after that downpour.

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6 thoughts on “The Story of James O’Connell and his Pohnpeian Tattoos

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  1. Thank you for reading my shortened version of his story. If you would like a copy of the book, I would more than happy to share the PDF copy with you. Just shoot me your email and your request in the contact section found on the homepage of this site.

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    1. There are people who take old pictures of the clan tattoos and use them as designs. As for if there are still authentic Pohnpeian tattooers, I cannot be sure, but tattooing was stopped when the missionaries came. The last person I ever saw who had a Pohnpeian tattoo was my great-great grandmother, but even that was only in a picture. Kalahngan.

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