1902 Encyclopedia > Tahiti Archipelago

Tahiti Archipelago

TAHITI ARCHIPELAGO. The eastern Polynesian island-group generally known as tke Society Islands (Isles de la Sociélé, or Taiti) lies between 16º and 18º S. lat. and 148º and 155º W. long., and stretches for nearly 200 miles in a north-west and south-east direction; the total area does not exceed 650 square miles, of which 600 fall to Tahiti alone. To the east and north-east a channel of only 140 miles in breadth, but over 2000 fathoms in depth, separates this group from the great chain of the Low Islands, beyond which the ocean extends unbroken to America. To the west as far as Fiji—the main islands of which group lie between the same degrees of latitude as those of Tahiti—there are 1500 miles of open water. About 300 miles south-west lies Cook’s Archipelago, and at the same distance south are the Austral Islands. To the north, excepting a few coral banks, there is open sea to Hawaii, a distance of 2600 miles.

Tahiti occupies a central position in the Pacific. Sydney lies about 3400 miles to the west and San Francisco about as far to the north-north-east. Honolulu, Noumea, and Auckland are each somewhere about 2100 miles away; Panama is at a distance of 4600 miles.

The archipelago consists of eleven islands, which are divided into two clusters—the Leeward and the Windward Islands—by a clear channel of 60 miles in breadth. The Leeward Islands, to which alone the name of Society Islands was given by Cook, are Tubai or Motu-iti, a small uninhabited lagoon island, the most northern of the whole archipelago; Maupiti or Mau-rua—"Double Mountain," the most western ; Bora-bora (Bola-Bola of the older navigators), or Fáarui; Tahaa; Raiatea or Ulietea (Boen-shea’s Princessa), the largest island of this cluster, and Huahine, which approach each other very closely, and are encircled by one reef. To the Windward Islands, the Georgian Islands of the early missionaries, belong Maiaiti or Tapamanu (Wallis’s Sir Charles Saunders Island and Boenshea’s Pelada); Morea or Eimeo (Wallis’s Duke of York Island and Boenshea’s San Domingo); Tahiti—Cook’s Otaheiti (probably Quires’s Sagittaria; Wallis’s King George’s Island, Bougainville’s Nouvelle Cythère, and Boenshea’s Isla d’Amat), the most southern and by far the largest of all the islands ; Tetuara. or Tetiaroa—"The Distant Sea" (? Quiros’s Fugitiva; Bougainville’s Umaitia and Boenshea’s Tres Hermanos) ; and Matia or Maitea (? Quiros’s La Dezana, Wallis’s Osnaburg Island, Bougainville’s Boudoir and Pic de la Boudeuse, and Boenshea’s San Cristoval), which is by a degree the most eastern of the archipelago. Bellinghausen, Scilly, and Lord Howe (Mopia) are three insignificant clusters of coral islets to the north-west and west, and, like Tubai and Tetuara, are atolls. The length of the Tetuara reef ring is about six miles; it bears ten palm-covered islets, of which several are in habited, and has one narrow boat-passage leading into the lagoon. With tho exception just named, the islands, which agree very closely in geological structure, are mountainous, and present perhaps the most wonderful example of volcanic rocks to be found on the globe. They are formed of trachyte, dolerite, and basalt. There are raised coral beds high up the mountains, and lava occurs in a variety of forms, even in solid flows ; but all active volcanic agency has so long ceased that the craters have been almost entirely obliterated by denudation. Hot springs are unknown, and earthquakes are slight and rare. Nevertheless, under some of these flows remains of plants and insects of species now living in the islands have been found,—a proof that the formation as well as the denudation of the country is, geologically speaking, recent. In profile the islands are rugged. A high mountain, usually with very steep peaks, forms the centre, if not the whole island; on all sides steep ridges descend to the sea, or, as is oftener the case, to a considerable belt of flat land. These mountains, excepting some stony crags and cliffs, are clothed with dense forest, the soil being exceptionally fertile. All voyagers agree that for varied beauty of form and colour the Society Islands, are unsurpassed in the Pacific. Innumerable rills, fed by the fleeting clouds which circle round the high lands, gather in lovely-streams, and, after heavy rains, torrents precipitate themselves in grand cascades from the mountain cliffs—a feature so striking as to have attracted the attention of all voyagers, from Wallis downwards. Round most of the islands there is a luxuriant coral growth ; but, as the roofs lie at no great distance, and follow the line of the coast, the inter-island channels are safer than those of the neighbouring Tuamotus, which exhibit the atoll formation in perhaps its fullest development, and in consequence have been justly called the "Low" or "Dangerous Archipelago." Maitea, which rises from the sea as an exceedingly abrupt cone, and Tapamanu appear to be the only islands which have not their fringing and more or less completely encircling barrier-reefs. [22-1] The coasts are fairly indented, and, protected by these reefs, which often support a chain of green islets, afford many good harbours and safe anchorages. In this respect the Society Islands have the advantage of most of the Polynesian groups.

The island of Tahiti, in shape not unlike the figure 8, has a total length of 35 miles, a coast-line of 120, and a superficial area of 600 square miles. It is divided into two distinct portions by a short isthmus (Isthmus de Taravao) less than a mile in width, and nowhere more than 50 feet above sea-level. The southern, the peninsula of Tairabu, or Tahiti-iti (Little Tahiti), alone as large as Raiatea, (after Tahiti the most important island of the group), measures 12 miles in length by 6 miles in breadth; while the northern, the circular main island of Porionuu, or Tahiti-uni (Great Tahiti), has a length of 23 miles and a width of 20. The whole island is mountainous. A little to the north-west of the centre of Great Tahiti the Society Islands attain their greatest altitude. There the double-peaked Orohena rises to 7340 feet, and Aorai, its rival, is only a few hundred feet lower. Little Tahiti cannot boast of such mountains, but its tower-like peaks are very striking. The flat land of the Tahitian coast, extending to a width of several miles—with its chain of villages, its fertile gardens, and its belt of palms, sometimes intersected by stream-fed valleys which open on the sea-shore—forms a most pleasing foreground to the grand amphitheatre-like mountain ranges. A good road surrounds the entire island, which is divided into eighteen districts, each under a chief and a municipal council of which he is president. A railroad is in contemplation. By the last census the population of the entire island was 9194, one-eighth being French and foreigners. The majority of the natives profess the Protestant religion. [23-1]

The extreme north of the island is formed by Point Venus, to the east of which lies the Bay of Matavai, and some miles still farther east Papeete, the European town and the seat of government. The beautiful harbour, of fair size and depth, is entered by two passages in the reef, Papeete to the north, 7 fathoms in depth, and Taunoa to the east, the wider and more convenient, though shallower. The town, in 1881, had a population of 3224, half of whom were French or French half-castes, but at least a dozen different nations were represented by the 800 whites. The little city is decidedly French in character. "Papeete is the emporium of trade for the products of the South Sea Islands east of 160° E. long. Small schooners of from 20 to 50 tons burden bring the produce of the various groups to Tahiti, whence they are shipped direct for Europe, either by Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, according to the season of the year. These schooners, of which about twenty fly the Tahitian flag, take back portions of the cargoes of vessels arriving from Europe for sale or barter amongst the islands. The chief exports are cocoa-nuts, mother-of-pearl, cotton, and some sugar, mainly to England and Germany, very little to France; and oranges, trepang (for China), and edible fungus to California." [23-2] Many whalers formerly visited Papeete harbour, but for some years there has been a steady diminution in their number. In 1845 forty-eight called there, in 1860 five, and none in 1874. Commerce has also in other respects decreased. Three sugar-mills with distilleries attached, two cotton manufactories, and a manufactory of cocoa-nut fibre were at work in 1886. Oranges and vanilla are profitably grown. The timber of the country is hardly used, great quantities of Californian pine being imported. Oxen and hogs are reared. The artificial culture of the pearl oyster is beginning to be discussed, but the pearls of the Society Islands are not to be compared in number or quality to those of the Tuamotus. A good deal of trading in fruit, fibre, shell, &c., is carried on with the natives, but still mainly by barter. The competition of the Chinese immigrants, of whom in 1886 there were already 400 on Tahiti and Eimeo, is beginning to be keenly felt. The importation of "labour," chiefly for the plantations, from other Polynesian islands was placed under Government control in 1862. The Tahitians themselves prefer handicrafts to agricultural work, and many are employed as artisans by European masters, who find them as handy and industrious as their own countrymen, but for domestic service they show no aptitude. Papeete is in direct sailing communication with San Francisco, and with Sydney by a Government steamer which calls every five months; also with France by Bordeaux steamers which touch on their way to Noumea. [23-3]

Climate.—The seasons are not well defined. Damp is excessive; there is little variation in the weather, which, though hot, is nevertheless not depressing, and the climate for the tropics must be considered remarkably healthy. Tlie rainfall is largest between December and April, but there is so much at other times of the year also that these months hardly deserve the name of the rainy season. During this period north-west winds are frequent, continuing at times for weeks, and there are thunderstorms and hurricanes, though they are not nearly so destructive as in some of the neighbouring islands. During the eight drier and cooler months south-east winds (corresponding with the trades) prevail, but there are southerly winds which bring rain, and even westerly breezes are not unfrequent. The mean temperature for the year is 77° F. ; maximum 84°, minimum 69°. The average rainfall from December to March (4 months) is 29 inches; from April to November (8 months), 19 inches. The above observations apply to the coast only.

Fauna.— Neither the zoology nor the botany of the archipelago has been thoroughly investigated. Mammalians, as in other Polynesian islands, are restricted to a few species of bats (mostly of the genus Pteropus}, rats, and mice, none of them peculiar. Of domestic animals, the pig and the dog—the former a small breed wliich quickly disappeared before the stronger European strains— were plentiful even in Wallis’s days. The ornithology is very poor as compared with that of the Western Pacific; and, in marked contrast to the isolated Hawaiian archipelago, the Society Islands possess no peculiar genera and but few peculiar species. They claim, however, a thrush, several small parrots of great beauty, doves, pigeons, rails, and a sandpiper. Of this sandpiper, Tringa leucoptera, which, with many of the birds here mentioned, was discovered as far back as Cook’s stay in the islands, only one specimen (now in the Leyden museum) is known to exist; and of the rest, their range being often limited to one portion of a small island, several species are (through the increase in the number of cats, &c.) threatened with extermination. A jungle-fowl (var. of Gallus bankiva) is found in the mountains, but as domesticated fowls were abundant, even when Tahiti was first discovered by Europeans, these wild birds are doubtless the offspring of tame birds, probably imported with the pigs and dogs by Malay vessels. There are no peculiar reptiles, and batrachians are entirely wanting. The lagoons swarm with fish of many species. Insects are poor in species, though some of them are indigenous. Crustaceans and molluscs, on the other hand, are well represented ; worms, echinoderms, and corals comparatively poorly. A noteworthy feature of Tahitian conchology is the number of peculiar species belonging to the genus Partula, almost every valley being the habitat of a distinct form. [23-4]

Flora.—This, though luxuriant, is not very rich. Like the zoology, it is much poorer than that of the more western groups of the Pacific. Metrosideros, Melastoma, and Acacia are the only links which this typically Polynesian region has retained to join it to Australia. Four genera are peculiar, of which three are claimed by the Compositae and Lobeliaceae, orders characteristic of Hawaii. It is rich in trees, shrubs, and hardwood plants, poor in the smaller undergrowth. Orchids, including some beautiful species, and ferns are abundant; but, here as in Polynesia generally, Rubiaceae is the order best represented. Remarkable are the banana thickets, which, chiefly on Tahiti, grow at an altitude of from 3000 to 5000 feet. Along the shore—in some places almost to the extinction of all native growth—many exotics have established themselves ; and a great variety of fruit-bearing and other useful trees have been successfully introduced into most of the islands. [23-5]

Inhabitants.—The Tahitians are a typical Polynesian race, closely connected physically with the Marquesans and Rarotongans, but widely divided from them in many of their customs. The dialects, also, of the three groups are different, the Tahitian being perhaps the softest in all Oceania. The women rank with the most beautiful of the Pacific, though the accounts given of them by early voyagers are much exaggerated; and for general symmetry of form the people are unsurpassed by any race in the world. Even now in its decadence, after generations of drunkenness and European disease and vice, grafted on inborn indolence and licentiousness, many tall and robust people (6 feet and even upwards in height) are to be found. The women, as a rule, are small in proportion to the men. Men and women of good birth can generally be distinguished by their height and fairness, and often, even in early age, by their enormous corpulence. The skin varies from a very light olive to a full dark brown. The wavy or curly hair and the expressive eyes are black, or nearly so ; the mouth is large, but well-shaped and set with beautiful teeth ; the nose broad (formerly flattened in infancy by artificial means); and the chin well developed. So long as the native costume was retained, the tiputa, an oblong piece of bark cloth with a hole in its centre for the head, and the paru, a plain piece of cloth round the loins, were worn alike by men and women of the higher classes. Men of all ranks wore, with or without these, the maro, or _ bandage. The women concealed their breasts except in the company of their superiors, when etiquette demanded tliat inferiors of both sexes should uncover the upper part of the body. The chiefs wore short feather cloaks, not unlike those of the Hawaiians, and beautiful semicircular breastplates, dexterously interwoven with the black plumage of the frigate bird, with crimson feathers, and with sharks’ teeth ; also most elaborate special dresses as a sign of mourning. The priests had strange cylindrical hats, made of wicker-work and over a yard in height. Circumcision, and in both sexes tattooing, were generally practised, and much significance was attached to some of the marks. The houses (vare) were long, low, and open at the sides. Household utensils were few—plain round wooden dishes, sometimes on legs, cocoa-nut shells, baskets, &c. Low stools and head-rests were used. Pottery being unknown, all food was baked in the "native oven" or roasted over the fire. Their chief musical instruments were the nose-flute (vivo)—often used as the accompaniment of song—and the drum (pahu). Of the latter, those kept in the marai were huge elaborately carved hollow cylinders of wood, the upper end of which was covered with sharks’ skin. Conchshells (bu) were also used. Tahitian stone adzes, which are greatly inferior in finish to those of the Hervey Islands, are, like the adzes of eastern Polynesia in general, distinguished from those of western Polynesia by their triangular section and adaptation to a socket.

Slings were perhaps the favourite weapons of the Tahitians ; they had also plain spears expanding into a wide blade, and clubs. The bow and arrow seem only to have been used in certain ceremonial games (tea). Their canoes (vaa), from 20 to 70 feet in length, were double or single, and provided with sail and outriggers. They were not well finished, but the high curved sterns, rising sometimes to a height of 20 feet, of those destined to carry the images of their gods, were carved with strange figures and hung with feathers.[24-1] Cannibalism is unknown in the Society Islands, though some ceremonies which were performed in connexion with human sacrifices may possibly be survivals of this practice. The staple food of the islanders consisted of the bread-fruit, the taro-root, the yam, the sweet potato, and in some districts the wild plantain (fei); but they also ate much fish (the turtle was considered sacred food), as well as pigs and dogs, though of the latter, as pets, the women were so fond as to suckle the puppies sometimes even to the exclusion of their own children. Popoi was a favourite dish made of bananas and cocoa-nut. Kava (ava), which was prepared in the usual Polynesian manner, was drunk, but in moderate quantities and only by the chiefs.

Tahitians were good fishermen and bold seamen. They steered by the stars, of which they distinguished many constellations. The land was carefully tended and the fields well irrigated. Three great classes were recognized:—(1) the huiari, of divine origin, which included only the suzerain (arirai), who bore a semi-sacred as well as a political character, and the reigning chiefs of districts; (2) the bue-raatira, proprietors and cultivators of inherited land, who also built canoes, made arms, &c.; to these two classes also belonged the priests (tahora), who were medicine-men as well; (3) the manahune, fishers, artisans, &c., and slaves (titi). As wars and infanticide depopulated the island this class gradually acquired land and with it certain privileges. Rank is hereditary and determined by primogeniture, not necessarily in the male line. The firstborn of an arirai received at birth the title of otu; the father, who was the first to pay homage to his own child, then abdicated, and henceforth took up the position of regent. It is easy to see that, while this custom tended to keep honours within a family, it may have encouraged the practice of infanticide, which was common in all grades of society when Tahiti was first visited by Europeans. The age at which the out’s authority became real varied according to his own abilities and the will of his subjects. Though arbitrary, the power of the arirai was limited by the power of his vassals, the district chiefs (raatiras), who ruled absolutely over their respective districts, and who might be of as good blood as the arirai himself. The arirai had a councillor, but was alone responsible for any act. The bi-insular form of Tahiti promoted the independence of the chiefs, and war was rarely declared or an army or fleet despatched without the raatiras being first summoned to council. Without their favour nothing could be accomplished, for their power over their own people was absolute. The form of government was thus strictly feudal in character, but it gradually centralized into a monarchy, which, in the person of Pomare II., the English missionaries greatly helped to regulate and strengthen. The arirai sent his commands by a messenger (vea) whose credentials were a tuft of cocoa-nut film. This tuft was returned intact as a sign of assent or torn in token of refusal. After the chief the wife ranked first, and then his brother. The arirai was carried on the shoulders of his subjects, and chiefs were not allowed to feed themselves. Women always ate apart. Their places of worship (marai)— national, local, or private—were square tree-surrounded enclosures. They each had a single entrance, and contained several small courts, within which were houses for the images and attendant priests. A pyramidal stone structure, on which were the actual altars, stood at the further end of the square. The marais were also used as places of sepulture of chiefs, whose embalmed bodies, after being exposed for a time, were buried in a crouching position. Their skulls, however, were kept in the houses of their nearest relations. In the great marai at Atahura the stone structure was 270 feet long, 94 feet wide, and 50 feet high, and its summit was reached by a flight of steps, built of hewn coral and basalt. Sacrificial offerings, including human sacrifices, formed a prominent part of Tahitian worship. An eye of the victim was offered to the arirai, and placed within his mouth by the officiating priest. Every household possessed its own guardian spirits (tii), but there were several superior divinities, of which, at the beginning of this century, Oro was the most venerated. The images, which are less remarkable than those of Hawaii, were rough representations of the human form carved in wood. Some were covered from head to foot with small human figures cut in relief; others were mere sticks clothed with feathers. The areoi, a licentious association of strolling players, men and women, which numbered among its ranks the highest chiefs, and practised infanticide, was a special feature of Tahitian society.

The Tahitians are light-hearted, frivolous, courteous, and generous; but with these traits are blended deceit, irritability, and cruelty, which formerly reached an unexampled degree of savage brutality. Their notions of morality were never, according to our ideas, very precise; and their customs, such as the tayo, or exchange of name with the rights which it carried over the wife of the giver of the name and all her female relations, seemed to the earlier European observer strangely revolting. It would appear, however, that with the introduction of the vices of civilization such limitations as their primitive morality recognized have disappeared and all self-respect has been lost. Especially characteristic were the elaborate costume-dances (heivas) performed by women. Besides dancing, the singing of songs (pehe), and the recitation of historical and mythical ballads (ubus), the natives had also a variety of sports and games. During the periodical seasons of rejoicing wrestling (maona), boxing (moto), and spear-throwing (vero patia) matches, with foot and canoe-races, were held; also sham fights and naval reviews. They had several games in which a ball was used,—one, apai, not unlike our bandy, while another, tuiraa (played chiefly by women), was a kind of football; but surf-swimming (faahee) was perhaps the most favourite sport with both sexes. Kites were known. Cock-fighting (faatitoraamoa) was much practised.

Discovery and Exploration.—There is little doubt that the main island and some other members of the group were visited by the Spaniard Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in February 1607. They were rediscovered in June 1767 by Wallis in the "Dolphin," who took nominal possession of Tahiti for George III. and named it after him. In the following year Bougainville visited Tahiti, claimed it as French, and called it La Nouvelle Cythère. With Tetuara (called by him Umaitia) and Eimeo it makes up the Archipel de Bourbon of his most inaccurate chart. Almost all we know of the early state of the islands is, however, due to Captain Cook’s visits in 1769, 1773, 1774, and 1777. The name of Society Islands was given to the Leeward group on his first voyage in honour of the Royal Society. In 1774 Tahiti was also visited by two Spanish vessels, which left two priests, who remained for ten months on the island. The Spaniards named it Isla d’Amat. The islands were again visited in 1788 by the "Lady Penrhyn." Bligh in the "Bounty" spent five months on the island in the same year, and it was revisited by that ship after the famous mutiny. At this time the leading chief was Pomare, whose family had been pre-eminent in the island for more than a century. Aided by sixteen of the "Bounty" mutineers, and armed with guns procured from Bligh and a Swedish vessel, Pomare greatly strengthened his power and brought to a successful close a long struggle with Eimeo. In 1791 the "Pandora" carried off fourteen of the "Bounty" mutineers, and from this time forward visits were frequent.

Missions.—The attempt of the Spaniards in 1774 was followed by the settlement of twenty-five persons brought in 1797 by the missionary ship "Duff." Though befriended by Pomare I. (who lived till 1805), they had many difficulties, especially from the constant wars, and at length they fled with Pomare II. to Eimeo and ultimately to New South Wales, returning in 1812 when Pomare renounced heathenism. In 1815 he regained his power in Tahiti. For a time the missionaries made good progress,—a printing press was established (1817), and coffee, cotton, and sugar were planted (1819); but soon there came a serious relapse into heathen practices and immorality. Pomare II. died of drink in 1824. His successor Pomare III. died in 1827, and was succeeded by his half-sister Aimata, the unfortunate "Queen Pomare." In 1828 a new fanatical sect, the "Mamaia," arose, which gave much trouble to the missions and whose influence is still felt. The leader proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ, and promised to his followers a sensual paradise.

French Annexation.—In 1836 the French Catholic missionaries in Mangareva attempted to open a mission in Tahiti. Queen Pomare, advised by the English missionary and consul Pritchard, refused her consent, and removed by force two priests who had landed surreptitiously and to whom many of the opposition party in the state had rallied. In 1838 a French frigate appeared, under the command of M. Du Petit-Thouars, and extorted from Pomare the right of settlement for Frenchmen of every profession. Other acts of interference followed, and at length, in 1842, Admiral du Petit-Thouars procured the signature of a document placing the islands under French protection, the authority of the queen and chiefs being expressly reserved. In 1843 Petil-Thouars reappeared, and, alleging that the treaty of 1842 had not been duly carried out, deposed the queen and took possession of the islands. His high-handed action was not countenanced by the French Government, but, while it professed not to sanction the annexation, it did not retrace the steps taken. Two years were spent in reducing the party in the islands opposed to French rule ; an attempt to conquer the western islands failed ; and at length, by agreement with England France promised to return to the plan of a protectorate and leave the western islands to their rightful owners. The London missionaries were replaced by French Protestants, but neither they nor the priests have been very successful, possibly because French is a compulsory subject in the Government schools. In 1880 Tahiti, including Eimeo, was proclaimed a French colony. It is the residence of the governor-general of the French dependencies in the Pacific.

Literature.—The following list Includes the books which seem most to deserve mention: Hawkesworth’s Voyages, especially Wallis’s Voyage, H.M.S. "Dolphin," in vol. i., London, 1773 ; Cook’s Three Voyages, with Forster’s account of the second voyage; Freycinet, Voyage de la Coquille, and Lesson’s account of the same voyage, Paris, 1839 ; Bennett, Whaling Voyage, London, 1840. For manners and customs of the natives, see Cook, Duff, Ellis. For modern statistics, see Desgraz, La Tahiti, Paris, 1845; Notices Coloniales, Paris, 1886, vol. ii. For the early history of the islands, see Ellis, Polynesian Researches, London, 1829; Vincendon-Dumoulin and Desgraz, Iles Taïti, Paris, 1844. For mission history, see Voyage of the Duff, London, 1799,; Ellis; Williams, Missionary Enterprise in the South Sea Islands, London, 1839. For the French occupation, see Moerenhout, Voyage aux Iles du Orand Ocean, Paris, 1837 ; Vincendon-Dumoulin and Desgraz; Pritchard, Polynesian Reminiscences, London, 1866. (A. v. H.)


22-1 Darwin, Structure of Coral.Reefs, London, 1842.

23-1 The best chart of Tahiti Is that published by the French Government in 1876, and corrected down to 1881. Morea is given on the same sheet.

23-2 Wallace, Australasia, London, 1884.

23-3 For fuller statistics, see Notices Coloniales, Paris, 1886, vol. ii.

23-4 Finsch and Hartlaub, Fauna Central-Polynesiens, Halle, 1867.

23-5 De Castillo, Illustrationes Florae Insularum Maris Pacific, Paris, 1886.

24-1 The museum of the London Missionary Society and the British Museum contain important collections of Tahitian images, dresses, weapons, &c.

The above article was written by: Baron Anatole von Hügel, Curator of the Museum of Archaeology, Cambridge.

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