Marquesas - A Voyage to the Marquesas
It was very hard for me to board a ship for the Marquesas Islands where Paul Gauguin lay buried, and not squint at the passengers and recall the title of the painter's enigmatic picture, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Perhaps it was premature to size them up, but I couldn't help attempting to spot the smokers, the drinkers, the boaters, the fanatics, the Germans. this looked like a honeymoon couple and surely that one was an escape and why was that skinny old man - Gandhi to his fingertips - wearing such a skimpy bathing-suit and nothing else? The two butch women looked rather fearsome in their iron pants and their tattoos. The mother and her middle-aged son seemed rather touching, sharing a cigarette by the rail. but those big beefy Australians with the flowers behind their ears were certainly a bit worrying. The more nervous among us reverted: it became an assertion of national characteristics, the French pushing, the Germans snatching, the Australians drinking, the Americans trying to make friends, the Venezuelan couple holding hands.
How wrong I was about most of them. The "honeymoon couple" had been married for three years, the "escapee" was simply a dentist, "Gandhi" was an elderly fresh-air fiend, the butch women were mother and daughter, the "mother and son" were a married couple - Americans, and the fellows from Melbourne lovably challenged me with their tolerance. I would say something critical of a passenger and when I was through they'd disagree, saying, "We think she's fabulous!" But that was later. In the meantime we were settling in for a longish voyage of eighteen days in the Marquesas. True, Herman Melville was in the islands for about tend days longer, but he wrote an entire book about it - his first, and by far his most successful, Typee. Named after a valley on the island of Nuku Hiva where Melville claimed to have lived (the exaggerated subtitle of the book is, "A Four Months' Residence"), Typee appeared in 1846 and was an instant hit. It had everything - sex, nakedness, fresh fruit, warfare and cannibalism. It was the ultimate South Sea Island adventure and further confirmation that Polynesia was paradise. Melville, thinly disguised as the narrator Tommo, flees a brutal captain by jumping ship at the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva. He first travels among the friendly Happar people, but soon finds himself among the cannibalistic Typees, and being pursued. the book combines anthropology, travel and adventure, and even today it is not merely enjoyable but informative. Melville practiced a little cannibalism himself in writing the book, but hacking out and serving raw and still bleeding many passages and incidents from other writers who had published eye-witness accounts of the Marquesas.
The most compelling feature for most of its readers was that it was also a love story, Melville's passion for the dusky, delectable Fayaway. The book was frankly physical, particularly in the unexpurgated first edition - scenes of Tommo swimming and frolicking with island girls, smoking and eating with Fayaway who sometimes wore a piece of bark cloth, but was usually clothed in the "garb of Eden" - starkers. The incident that whipped up the blood of most readers was the one in which Tommo takes Fayaway on an idyllic canoe trip across a lake in the Typee valley. Feeling impish, Fayaway stands erect in the canoe, unknots her tapa cloth robe and unfurls it until it fills with wind and becomes a sail. And there she stands, this "child of nature," her naked body a "little mast," and holding the sail with her arms upraised, making the canoe glide along, and "the long brown tresses of Fayaway streamed in the air."
Historical and Cultural images available upon request only
I did not know much more about the Marquesas than this, and the fact that Gauguin had more or fess chosen another island in the group, Hiva Oa, as a place to die. the Marquesas were far and few; way beyond the Tuomotu chain, three days' sailing from Tahiti, a dozen high islands, six of them populated, and only 7,000 people on them altogether. the3wse details don't make a picture, but I heard better arguments for going there. With greater justification for being the most beautiful islands on the face of the earth. Because of their steep cliffs and poor anchorages and few good harbors, only a handful of yachts called there. The islands were filled with the same so-called "tabu-groves" that Melville had described: they had never been excavated and so the islands were an archaeological treasure house. Distant, and difficult to traverse, the Marquesas were seldom visited. That did it. The fact that few people go there is one of the most persuasive reasons for travelling to a place.
The Aranui was one of several ships that made the inter-island trip; there were two other cargo ships that carried some passengers, there was a luxury vessel, the Wind Song - very chic, very expensive, nice boutiques, no cargo. The Aranui had a hold full of cargo, forty-odd passengers amidships in cabins, and an indefinite number - it varied according to the run - sleeping on mats on the stern decks and sharing a rudimentary head. But nothing is cheap in French Polynesia - the fellows from Melbourne were paying almost $1,400 apiece to sleep on the bridge deck and although this included meals their nights were noisy with humming ventilators, winds in the ratlines, the sloshing sea - and one said to me, "Earplugs are a must." I was paying about $2,000 to share a tiny cabin, near the plimsoll line, with Senor Pillitz, a young man from Argentina. On rougher days when the porthole was awash with the sudsy ocean it was like being in a laundromat. I had so little space in my cabin that I was told that I could not bring my collapsible boat, but it was emphasized that this was a handsome favour to me, because it removed a fatal temptation: if I tried to paddle anywhere around these islands, with their notoriously bad anchorages and rough seas, I would probably drown.
The lights were twinkling on the slopes of Orohena as we left Papeete harbour and headed northeast through Matavai Bay. A few miles further on, we rounded Point Venus. Captain cook camped here in 1769 in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, and this was also the spot where Captain Bligh collected the breadfruit trees he stowed on the Bounty. As soon as we were at sea I went below and raided the ship's library. By this time the South Equatorial Current rose against the hull of the Aranui, and the wind picked up, and my stomach rose and fell. The movement of the ship convinced me to eat sparingly, and after dinner I went back to the library and read An Angel at My Table, the second volume of the autobiography of the New Zealand novelist, Janet Frame. The central part of the book concerns her committal to an asylum, and I was held by her story, which was written entirely without bitterness or self-pity. As I read on about her suicide attempt, her treatment, her matter-of-fact madness - she uses the word "loony" to describe her condition - the ship pitched and rolled. some other passengers discovered the seclusion of the library, and when one of them gulped, went glassy-eyed, and then noisily and messily puked onto the floor, I went on deck for air.
I did not feel so wimpy when Senor Politz added that he had worked his way on a ship, chopping vegetables, from Buenos Aires to Rotterdam, so he knew a thing or two about sea conditions. During breakfast, dishes slid to the floor, bottles fell and smashed. Mr Werfel tripped and fell at the feet of Dennis and Bev, from Vancouver. Later in the morning, a man who had been full of complaints ("Hws do I got my faucet to work?" "Suppose I want to shut off my hot water?" "What's the story with my fan?") fell off his chair in the library and moaned. He lay on his side. He said he could not get up.
It was my distinct impression that he was faking, and when people began to ignore him he crept to his feet and went away. he was happier after the captain gave him a tour of the britch and on most days he was the first to examine what he called the vezza shart to see whether we were in for another gale. That second day, as the sea moderated, a succession of green stripes appeared on the horizon. There were the outer islands of the Tuomotus, a chain of flat coral atolls of which Mururoa is one. Since 1966, the French have been using Mururoa as a testing site for their nuclear devices and they have just about succeeded in making that atoll unsafe for human habitation for generations to come. More than 160 nuclear devices have been detonated, atomic and hydrogen bombs as well as neutron bombs; and there have been atmospheric tests - fastening nuclear devises to French balloons and exploding them over the atolls. Recently the explosions - averaging eight a year - have taken place in the core of the coral reef, or underwater, and the more France has been criticized for the danger and contamination, the less willing the French government has been to allow any sort of inspection to take place. There have been leakages of plutonium and radioactive debris, notably in 1979 and 1981. But the French did not abandon testing at Mururoa when they saw how they had damaged the atoll; they simply detonated fewer bombs there and switched their heavy testing to the neighboring atoll of Fangataufa.
Even the most user-friendly travel guide becomes Francophobic when the question of testing is raised. "French radioactivity will remain in the Tuomotus for thousands of years," David Stanley writes in The South Pacific Handbook, with justified indignation; "the unknown future consequences of this program are the most frightening part of it. Each successive blast continues the genocide committed by the Republic of France against the people of the Pacific." Elsewhere on the Tuomotu archipelago, the many shoals and poor anchorages have given it the reputation of being one of the most notorious ship-swallowers in the Pacific. Under a cheddar-coloured moon that rose through black shreds of cloud and glimmered in shattered light on a rippling tropic sea, the crew began emptying clattering barrels overboard - waste paper and plastic bottles and crushed tins and vegetable peelings - but it hardly disturbed the sea, because the radiant rubbish was bobbling in the moonglow in this remote and peaceful place, and the junk and detritus had a lively phosphorescence all its own.
I woke to shouts and the sound of cranes the third day. I could see the whaleboat through my porthole, ferrying cargo to the tiny village on the harbour at the croissant-shaped atoll of Takapotou. It was too deep to anchor, and there was no harbor here, and so we were pitching just offshore as the whaleboats came and went. Ihn the whole voyage only once was the ship moored alongside a quay, with a gangway from the deck to dry land. In every other instance we were brought ashore in the whaleboats, which necessitated a delicate (and at times wet) transfer. It should have been hell for the elderly passengers, but it wasn't the powerful Marquesan crew members lifted the feebler ones bodily into the whaleboats and at the edge of the pounding surf hoisted them again like kids and carried them to shore - little twittering women and men in big tattooed Marquesan arms.
These same crewmen also hauled the cargo - thirteen hours repeatedly going from the ship to the quay and back again, that same quarter-mile - the twenty-foot whaleboats always piled high. the cargo cover3ed all aspects of human activity - loaves of bread, sanitary napkins and toilet rolls by the crate, mineral water, breakfast cereal, a large pea-green three-piece suite, and in a place that teemed with live fish, crates of canned fish. Two whaleboat-loads contained cardboard boxes of Tyson's frozen chicken pieces (from Arkansas). The rest was predictable - building materials, lumber, bricks, pipes, cement, and rice, sugar, flour, gasoline, and bottled gas. (Many of these staple items were heavily subsidized by the French government. The rice, for example, cost twelve dollars for ten kilos, which was not much more than thirty-six cents a pound.) There was crate after clanking crate of soft drinks. Budweiser beer, bottles of Hinano, Arnott's "Cabin" Biscuits in ten-pound tins, and cartons of snacks, including immense quantities of Planter's Cheez Balls.
A cloying odor of decayed copra hung over the quay at Takapotou, where it was stacked in bulging sacks, quietly humming, like a mountain of last week's dessert. Copra has the look of brown rinds and is in fact chunks of dried coconut meat that is later processed into coconut oil. the French heavily subsidize the copra crop (paying $650 a ton), making it profitable for the grower. but the islanders shrug, the harvest is in decline and the shortfall is made up by copra imported from Fiji (where growers are paid $100 a ton). Forget copra, the locals say - the great business today in Takapotou is black pearls. The seed pearls are slipped between the valves of the giant black-lipped oyster which is happiest in the lagoons around Takapotou and, if the transplant is successful, in about three years a pearl-fisher could become very wealthy. The Japanese have thrust themselves into the black pearl industry and now - to no one's surprise - almost totally dominate it, from sending the oysters to stringing the pearls and selling them. Even so, fortunes have been made by Tuomotuans on some atolls that are little more than desert islands - a coral beach, a few palm trees and cringing dogs.
I had hardly been in Takapotou an hour when a woman named Cecile called up to me and asked me in French whether I wanted to buy some black pearls. She said they were from Takaroa, a neighbouring atoll where the best colored pearls are found.
"This is my son," Cecile said.
But he didn't hear anything he was listening to a rock music cassette on earphones, and it was presumably turned loud - I could ear it - to overwhelm the sound of the pounding sea. And the dogs - we were being followed by nine barking dogs.
Cecile was in no hurry, nor was she interested in bargaining - haggling is not a habit in Polynesia. She did open a matchbox and showed me the four pearls - a tear drop, a polyp, and two round ones - and she mentioned the price. that same amount would have bought three loud Tahitian shirts or two meals in Papeete.
I wanted to be delicate. "In the Marquesas the people eat dogs."
It turned out that food was not a problem on an atoll like this, where fish and coconuts were plentiful. There were pigs in the place too. They could have managed without dogs, but as Cecile said, they ate them because they tasted good. The rest of the time they subsisted on fish and rice and coconuts. When the Aranui called they had carrots and onions. No one on Takaotou had a garden - the soil was too poor, it was hardly soil at all, but rather crumbled coral, and all that grew were palms and feathery Australian pines.
Such a strange, recent-looking piece of land, a few feet above sea-level in the middle of the ocean, so flat, so thinly wooded - no grass, few people. If it were not for the pearls it might have been forgotten long ago and left to itself. Seeing the entire population gathered there at the landing in the failing light I thought of people clinging to coral, frail people holding on to the frailest and most crumbly living rock. the whole place was like a small fragile organism. It was dark when the last of the copra was brought about and by then I was sitting with some of the Marquesan passengers, Therese, a medical worker, Charles, a powerfully-built former soldier in the French army (he had seen section in Chad and had the scars of bullet wounds to prove it: "The Africans are real savages") - none the less, he had tiny white tiare blossoms in his shoulder-length hair; and Jean, who claimed that he was descended from the last king of the Marquesas and was just returning from Tahiti where he had been combing through the birth records and genealogies to establish his royal connection.
In a way it was true, the Marquesas were a world apart. It was a thirty-six-hour run from Takapotou to the first of these high islands.
In that time I got acquainted with more of the other passengers. Senor Pillitz had once trained as a waiter at the Ritz in London, but one night he spilled an entire tureen of onion soup down a woman's back ("She was wearing a lovely green dress") and that convinced him that he should take up photography. the Germans kept to themselves and hogged the best seats, the most food, and with an instinct for invasion went up and down the ship, claiming the prime areas for themselves. Carmelo and Amelia from Venezuela had been around the world several times, India was their favorite country, "for cultural reasons." Ross and Patrick, on their first foray out of Melbourne, found everything just fabulous. Horace, a neurosurgeon from Sarasota, held me spellbound when he described the process of removing a brain tumor, which was his business. After a person's head was opened (the cut was made behind the ear, at the base of the skull) the tumor was taken out with unbelievable slowness, "like removing sand, one grain at a time, and at the end of the operation, when you are very tired, there's a chance you might slip and cut vital nerves. Phillipe, who was also a doctor, was doing his National Service at Papeete Hospital, and had a Tahitian grandmother. Pascale, a young and pretty Frenchwoman, who was usually topless except at mealtimes, worked as a nurse at the Papeete hospital and had helped delivery Cheyenne Brando's little boy. "This Brando is a strange woman - she will not let anyone touch her. You think it is possible to have a baby and not be touched?" A woman from Chicago who called herself Senga (she hated the name Agnes and so spelled it backwards) said she was seventy years old and had come on this trip, "because I want to do everything before I die." There was a sunburned Frenchman we called Pinky who, when he got drunk, which was eve3ry evening, at eight in the bar on C deck, praised the racist French politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Pinky's nemesis was Madame Wittkop, whom we called The Countess; she often said, "I'm outrageous," but so far she had seemed unprepossessing. That was most of them.
Four and a half days after leaving Papeete, we reached the first of the Marquesas, the little island of Ua-Pou. Several passengers on board said that Ua-Pou did not look anything like a South Seas island. Melville had anticipated that reaction. "Those who for the first time visit the South Seas, generally are surprised at the appearance of the islands when beheld from the sea. From the vague accounts we sometimes have of their beauty, many people are apt to picture to themselves enameled and softly swelling plains, shaded over with delicious groves, and watered by purling brooks," he wrote in Type. "The reality is very different," he went on, and he was speaking of Nuku Hiva but it might have been Ua-Pou he was depicting: "Bold rockbound coasts, with the surf beating high, against the lofty cliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open to the view thickly wooded valleys, separated by the spurs of mountains clothed with tufted grass, and sweeping down to the sea from an elevated and furrowed interior."
The rock, most of all, and the way it was arrayed in pinnacles - that was the most unexpected feature. It was high and where it was wooded it was dark green. some of the mountains were shaped like witches' hats and others like steeples and domes - everything eroded and slender and perpendicular, and the cliffs of black rock plunging straight into the sea and foaming surf,. where are the sandy beaches? Where are the translucent lagoons? There are not many in the Marquesas, and they are hard to find. It is almost impossible to overstate the ruggedness of the islands - the almost unclimbable steepness of their heights or their empty valleys. And at the head of every valley was a great gushing waterfall, some of them hundreds of feet high. We went ashore at Hakehau - a tiny town on a snug harbor - and Senor Pillitz and I, egged on by a Frenchman desperate for customers, went for a two-hour ride to the stony beach at Hohoi, where we saw a brown horse. "And two crazy cats," Senor Pillitz said, snapping a picture. Several minutes later the Frenchman said we must leave. the road was muddy. the Land-Rover got bogged down. I wrenched my spine helping to push the thing. Back in Hakehau he charged each of us twenty dollars and tried to sell us for another twenty dollars framed photographs he had taken of the volcanoes. We were just in time for the dancing - fifteen young men doing "The Pig Dance" - snuffling and oinking and nimbly lurrying on all fours. They finished with a great shout and then we feasted on langouste, and octopus, breadfruit, bananas, and raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, the raw fish (ia ota) that the French call poinson cru.
Strolling back to the ship I found myself walking among flowering bushes which exuded a delicious fragrance, a moa-noa, and then I came upon a big family behind a hibiscus hedge hacking a dead cow apart with axes and machetes. they were skinning and butchering it at the same time, while seven dogs fought over the scraps. Just before we set sail I saw these same people running up the gangway, with bulky sacks of the butchered cow slung over their shoulders. They were off to another island with enough meat to last them a month. In the afternoon, the Aranui sailed to the other side of the island, to another village on a bay, Hakehetau, where whaleboats brought bottled gas and provisions ashore. the sky was full of birds - brown noddies, white terns, grayish-yellow finches, and - two or there at a time - the slowly soaring frigate birds. On the high slopes of Ua-Pou there were flocks of wild goats, which had nibbled the mountainsides bare. Then, in a puddly golden sea, that was calm and mild in the same golden sunset, with the scent of lowers carrying from shore, we sailed to Nuku Hiva, and at night we anchored off Taipivai, where there was a bay - but no mooring, no quay, no landing-stage, nothing but a stinking sandbar at the river mouth.
We went ashore the next day to the village of Taipivai, the whaleboats sputtering up the deep river valley. This was in the southeast of Nuku Hiva. At the sacred site nearby, the passenger I thought of as Gandhi displayed for the first time his uniquely obnoxious habit. At every ancient platform, and at all the stone tikis, he turned his back on the rest of us and yanked his swimsuit down and, sighing with pleasure, relieved himself against the noble ruins. I noticed this first at Taipival, and thereafter, for reasons that are still obscure to me, Gandhi desecrated every marae in every tabu-grove we visited in the Marquesas.
Perhaps he was no worse in his way than the missionaries who had castrated these very statues. There is not a dick that has not been hacked off, nor a statue that has not been tipped over, in the name of God Almighty. "But what matters all this?" Melville remarks sarcastically, "Behold the glorious result! The abomination of Paganism have given way to the pure rites of the Christian worship - the ignorant savage has been supplanted by the refined European!" Some of the people struck back, and even statues were said to be rebellious. All tikis are "live" and they can be vindictive, the Marquesans say. Anger these fat black demons that look like the gods of constipation and you will be cursed with bad luck or death. It was up this path in Taipival that Melville had spent most of his month. Here it was that he had got the title for his book: Typee was just another way of writing Taipi, and "vai" or the variation of it means "water" all over Polynesia. The ruins and the tikis in the marae just above the village were only part of the story. There were ruins all over the valley, which was fragrant with wild vanilla, and they were practically invisible until you looked closely into the jungle. Then you could see stone walls, platforms, altar-like structures, carvings and petroglyphs, tangled in the vines, and with trees - very often a banyan, associated with sacredness in the Marquesas - bursting through them.
And this was true of the Marquesas generally. entire hillsides, covered in jungle, hid enormous ruins made of black boulders. It was in this respect like Belize or Guatemala - full of huge tumbled structures, strange statues and walls. where the walls were intact the construction was like Mayhan stonework. These jungles had once been full of villages and big houses, the population must have been immense - estimates are that it was more than ten times larger (80,000 is one guess) at the time of their initial contact with the outside world. this first emissary was Captain Ingraham of Boston, Massachusetts, though the islands were first sighted by the ubiquitous Spaniard Mendana and named Las Marquesas after his patron, the Marquis of Mendoza.
What had happened to all those Marquesans? the Pacific historians, Peter Bellwood, has an explanation in his book The Polynesians. "The Marquesans, together with their close cousins the Maoris, were by all accounts the hardiest and most robust of the Polynesians, and life was never pervaded with the indolence associated with an island such as Tahiti. Heavily dependent on the breadfruit - a tree which fruits seasonally proportions, and these naturally increased the incidence of warfare. Many early visitors reported that impoverished and defeated Marquesan families would set off in canoes to find land over the horizon." Now most of the ruins were buried and all of them overgrown, some had been documented, but very few had been excavated. Except for the jungles of Belize and Guatemala, I had never been been in a place where the foundations of so many stone structures existed, covered with moss and ferns. All around them were petroglyphs, of birds and fishes, and canoes, and turtles, finely incised in the rock. In the damp shadows of the tall trees, and teeming with mosquitoes, the sites had all the melancholy of lost cities. It was exciting to see them sprawled in the gloom, on those muddy slopes - the immense terraces, the altars, the gloom, on those muddy slopes - the immense terraces, the altars, the scowling, castrated tikis. to anyone who believes that all the great ruins of the world have been hackneyed and picked over I would say that the altars and temples of the Marquesas await discovery.
A woman I met in Taipivai, Victorine Tata, had just bought a pick-up truck. She drove, riding the brake like my grandmother, but never mind; what bothered me most was that she had floated a loan from the bank to finance the vehicle on the installment plan, and it had cost her $35,000. Would she ever pay off her debt? Victorine just laughed. The Aranui sailed to the administrative center of Nuku Hiva, Taiohae, where it would be unloading cargo for a few days, and so I stayed in Taipivai, and asked Victorine, for a fee, to drive me around Taipivai in her new truck. She said she would be delighted. she was a big bulky woman, with a square jaw and heavy legs. She was impassive, but she was honest, and seated in her truck she was so huge and immovable she seemed to give the vehicle enough extra weight to hold it firmly on the precipitous narrow curves of Taipavai's height.
The Taipivai hills were empty. In Tonga and the two Samoas, In Fiji and on other islands, I had become used to seeing concentrated populations - crowded towns, and hillsides filled with huts, and every twenty feet of shoreline claimed and occupied. this place was extraordinarily depopulated - there was no one in sight. This was simply a great empty island of dense trees and the deserted magnificence of the black stone ruins.
We sometimes enjoyed ... recreation in the waters of a miniature lake, into which the central stream of the valley expanded, Melville had written. This lovely sheet of water was almost circular in figure, and about three hundred yards across. Its beauty was indescribable.
That was where the naked Fayaway had mischievously played at being Tommo's mast, and where Tommo had splashed among the dusky bathing beauties.
Her face was blissful. I imagined Victorine traversing these roads from Taipi to Taiohae and back, dropping off eggs, picking up passengers, and on every trip, listening to these arias, and Rejoice greatly and I know that my Redeemer liveth from the Messiah, and the others - perhaps looking forward to listening, and mumbling the words that might become familiar.
And so after a while I said, "You can have the tape. A present."
She was pleased, she started to speak, then thought a moment. Finally she spoke in English, "Sank you."
Victorine dropped me nine miles above Taiohae, because after the confinement of her little truck, I craved a walk. I hiked across a high ridge and on a switchback road down to the main town of Nuku Hiva, where the Aranui was still discharging cargo. although it was also the main administrative center of the Marquesas, it was a small settlement, a few grocery stores selling expensive canned food and some imported vegetables. In Taiohae I saw nine-dollar cabbages, from California, and that same day there appeared carrots and onions from the Aranui. The ship was headed to a village on the north coast of the island, Hatiheu, and as I could get there myself by road I lingered in Taiohae, enjoying the novelty of walking. I had begun to dislike the sedentary voyage, and all the meaty food. In Taiohae I felt better for missing meals, and although I stayed in a hotel, I occasionally bought a litre of fruit juice (from Australia) and a can of baked beans (from France) and a baguette (from Papeete), and sat under a tree on the seafront and made my own meal. All canned goods were luxuries in the Marquesas. The people grew breadfruit and mangoes, and they caught fish. If they had spare money they treated themselves to a can of Spam or one of the crunchy snacks they liked so much.
"A girl might work as a waitress simply to be able to buy cigarettes," rose Corson told me. She ran a small hotel on the western side of Taiohae's pretty harbor. "At five dollars a pack the cigarettes would take most of her salary." The Marquesans I met were big and ponderous. they were noted for their gloom and their heavy moods, and unlike the Tahitians they were not at all quick to play music and sing. At sundown, fat men in T-shirts gathered at the seafront in Taiohae, near the jingoistic French memorials, and coiled their toes in the breeze and shared Family Size cans of Cheez Balls. One plaque said, A la Memoire des Officers, Soldats et Marins Francais morts aux Marquises 1842-1925, but no mention of the thousands of Marquesans who had died fighting in vain to keep possession of the homeland. Another, ignoring the fact that the islands had been discovered by brave Polynesian navigators who had probably crossed the ocean from Samoa about eighteen hundred years ago, extolled the spurious claim of a "discoverer" - Au nom du Roy de Rance le 23 Juin 1791 Etienne Marchand decourier du groupe N.O. de Marquises prit possession de I'lle Nuku Hiva. This also took no account of the fact that Captain Ingraham had claimed it two months before.
Nuku Hiva was annexed in 1813 for the United States by Captain David Porter. He put up a fort and renamed Taiohae after James Madison, who was president. but Madisonville was no more than an impulsive gesture, and as Congress never ratified the act it had no force. the French would have fought us for it in any case, battling just as fiercely as they did in 1842 when they slaughtered thousands of islanders in order to gain possession. Melville witnessed the shelling. His Marquesan jaunt coincided with the French adventure, and in his book he mocks the French part in the affair. "Four heavy double-baked frigates and three corvettes to frighten a parcel of naked heathen into subjection! Sixty-eight pounders to demolish huts of coconut boughs, and Congreve rockets to set on fire a few canoe sheds." After my two days alone in Taiohae, I made my own way across the island to Hatiheu, where the Aranui was moored in the pretty bay - there was no dock for the ship; the whaleboats brought the cargo through the surf to a crumbling pier. Hatiheu was a small exquisite village at the foot of three steep mountains, and in a meadow at the center of the village was a large church, with two steeples and a red tin roof, dedicated to Joan of Arc. Horses cropped grass in the churchyard. And standing under a tree outside Hatiheu's tiny post office, with dogs barking and the waves breaking on the black sand beach, I made a telephone call to Honolulu.
Later, I found Senor Pollitz, and we walked into the woods behind the village, through the palm plantations - and the palms were interspersed with kapok trees, laden with bursting pods, kapok had once been cultivated commercially here. but now all this farming was outdated. Beyond the plantation was a ceremonial area, called a tohua, which was about the size of a football field and enclosed stone platforms, and altars and carved statues. Such an area tended to be avoided by the local people, who believed the tohua to be haunted and that it had a mana, or spirit, that was at odds with their Christianity. There was an enduring fear, if not horror, among locals for these ancient sites. Most of all it was a fear of the spirits of the dead that haunted these glades after dark, the malevolent tupapau. Deeper in the forest there was another site that was larger but much harder to see, because it had all been tumbled apart - the terraces, the altars, the boulders cut with petroglyphs. It was overgrown with banyans, several of them giant trees. In an earlier time, the Marquesans had placed the skulls of their enemies among the exposed tree roots, and there on a higher slope was a round pit, lined with stone, where captives were held in order to be fattened before they were killed and eaten.
"Zey wair cooking zem wiz breadfruit," a Chinese woman told me later. Her name was Marie-Claire Laforet. Her father had dropped his Chinese surname ("The French didn't want foreign words." Marie-Claire said) in the great Tahitian name-change of 1964. It was an appropriate choice. His Cantonese name, Lim (Lin in Mandarin), in the character for wood or trees. That same day I went with Philippe and Senor Pillitz across a ridge beside Hatiheu to Anaho Bay. Well enclosed, with extensive ruins, a white sand beach and a coral shelf - one of the few reefs in the Marquesas, the only lagoon - it was the loveliest spot I saw in the Marquesas, combining the color and gentleness of a tropical beach with the ruggedness of surrounding mountains. Robert Louis Stevenson had stopped in this very bay in 1888 in the Casco with his wife and his two stepchildren and his elderly mother. It was the sight of Anaho Bay, and his dealing with the tattooed Marquesans, whom Stevenson believed still to be cannibals, that convinced him of the rightness of his decision to spend the rest of his life in the Pacific. Anaho had a profound effect on him - and on his mother, too: for the first time in her life this fastidious Edinburgh matron gave up wearing stockings, and often shoes as well." Bewitched by Anaho, the whole family went native. Anaho was - and still is - the apotheosis of the South Seas, distant, secluded, empty, pristine - ravishing, in fact.
They left a machete behind. I knocked some coconuts from a low palm tree and slashed them open. We drank the sweet water and ate the meat. Waling back past the scattering of fishermen's shacks and through the humid forest we were followed by a small so-called demi, a Chinese-Marquesan boy, about ten years old.
"I am happy here in Anaho," he said stumblingly in French. "I would not like to go to France. there are no langouste there and no breadfruit. here we have food. We have fish. We can build a house anywhere in the woods. I can swim, I can fish from my father's pirogue, I would not be happy in France."
In the early evening we sailed to the island of Tahuata, anchoring off the black sand beach of the village of Vaitahu. In the morning we were taken ashore by whaleboats. Vaihau was typical of most of the larger Marquesan towns in a number of respects: a Catholic church, a canned-food shop, wonderful ruins at the edge of town, steep green valley walls, flowering trees, and fruit trees - avocadoes and grapefruit trees in the gardens of little wooden bungalows, hairy black pigs, fretting mongrels, a new church, and an insulting plaque on the seafront speaking of all the Frenchmen who had given their lives battling to take possession of the place. The monument in Vaitahu spoke of the French soldiers and sailors who had "died on the field of honour" in the battle for Tahuata in 1842. Melville had ironized about this very place, and how the French had prided themselves on the good order they had brought to the Marquesas, though it had caused human fatalities, and "to be sure, in one of their efforts at reform they had slaughtered about a hundred and fifty at Whitihoo (Vaitahu)."
I was overheard jeering at the plaque by the woman known on board as The Countess. she was half French, half German and often strolled along, holding a tape recorder to her lips and nagging into it. She said she was somewhat struck by my sarcasm. It so happened (she went on) that she was a travel writer. thus the tape recorder. "I am writing a story about this trip for the best and most brilliant newspaper in the world" - and she named a German daily paper. "They respect me so much that in seventeen years they have changed only one sentence of mine."
Dolphins riding our bow wave preceded us the next day as we plowed into Traitors Bay, to enter Atuona Harbor, on Hiva Oa. Tahuata was clearly visible beyond the bay, in a nameless channel, and to the southeast was the tiny Marquesan island of Mohotani. an old red Citroen was swung out of the hold of the Aranui and driven away. Then the crates were unloaded - sacks of farina, cases of beer, gasoline, building blocks, snack food. A Hiva Oa man picked up a parcel that had been shipped to her and then drove off in her Toyota. Three Mormons, two of them islanders, watched the unloading, and surveyed the disembarking passengers as though looking for possible candidates for conversion. I asked them whether they had saved any souls.
Hiva Oa was Gauguin's last island.
Gauguin is often represented as a bourgeois stockbroker who suddenly upped and left, abandoning his job and his wife and five children and recklessly fleeing to Tahiti, where his artistic genius flowered. but he had always been reckless, and he began painting only a few years after his marriage. And he knew something of the wide world: he had spent part of his childhood in Peru (his mother was half Peruvian Creole); he had gone to sea at the age of seventeen and sailed as an ordinary seaman for six years. His marriage was unhappy, and it was not he who quit the stock market but rather the other way around, for when it went bust he began painting full-time - there was a stock market crash in 1883. by then he was already accepted as an Impressionist. Rejecting Europe, he tried Martinique, in the West Indies, and when that didn't work for him he went to Tahiti, thanking it to be Cytherean. It was the opposite: Pepeete was bourgeois and westernized, full of puzzling colonial snobberies and irritating bureaucrats, sanctimonious missionaries and corrupt townies; and people were generally so unsympathetic towards him there as anyone might have been, seeing a long-haired Impressionist, in metropolitan France. His hair was long - shoulder length - and he wore a velvet cowboy hat. They loathed him for his repulsive manners and his mode of dress. The Tahitians were more tolerant but still they called him taata vahine, "man-woman," because of hair. He moved to a seaside village, painted madly and wrote letters home grumbling about the colonials and about life in general. After two years he packed his things and went back to Paris, where the exhibition of his paintings was a critical and financial disaster.
In Noa-Noa, he celebrates island life and the beauty of the people, but Noa Noa was written by a man who was eager to convince himself, and others, that he had been resident in paradise. It is vastly at odds with his letters. But the love affair in Noa_Noa had a basis in fact, for Gauguin had met his Fayhaway in Tahiti. Her name was Tehaamana and she was thirteen ("this was an age Gauguin was greatly drawn to in females," the Pacific historian, Gavan Daws, has observed); and Gauguin painted her over and over until she became the embodiment of his South Seas fantasy.
In this two-year interval in Europe he was miserable. "Literally I can only live on sunshine," he said and returned to Polynesia, and although he intended to head straight for the Marquesas he procrastinated. He still hated the colonial life in Tahiti, the bureaucracy, the tyranny of the Church - hated these aspects of Tahitian life so deeply that they never appear on his canvases. You look in vain in a Gauguin painting for anything resembling details of the colonial life he must have seen most days in Tahiti: no ships, no sailors, no traders, no officials - nor their wives or children; no roads or wagons, or mechanical contraptions, no folks, and not only whites by Chinese. the islands had endured sixty years of colonial rule, and yet in Gauguin's paintings - in the fragrant vision he created for himself - Polynesia is inviolate. the only indication we have of foreign influence is the bedstead in several of the paintings. Tahitians slept on mats, not on beds. "In Gauguin, a need to persuade always went hand in hand, with a desire to offend," one of his biographers has written Living in the bush with yet another Tahitian teenager, Pauura, he quarreled constantly with the authorities (his starting a little newspaper did not endear him to them either), and eventually - still seeking savagery - he set sail for the Marquesas, leaving Pauura and their son, Emil, who was destined to become a tourist attraction.
He arrived in Hiva Oa in 1901 and died less than two years later, having spent ten years altogether in Polynesia - two extended visits, during which he fathered numerous children between painting masterpieces. Here in the little village of Atuona, under the great green Matterhorn of Temetiu he had built a fine two-storey house, which he called The House of Pleasure, and having carved on the wooden frames his favourite maxims, "Sayez mysterieuses" (Be mysterious") was one, and "Soyez, amoureuses of vous serez heureuses" ("Be in love and you will be happy") was another, he took a fourteen-year-old girl, Vaeloho, as his mistress. He had come to some sort of arrangement with her parents. Gauguin was in his mid-fifties, and Vaeloho was soon pregnant. Their child, who had become an old woman, was still living in the valley in the 1980s.
(Below are some examples of the work of Paul Gauguin)
It is surprising, given the heat, the disorder, the difficulties of living, all his enemies and the simple necessities of stretching and preparing canvases - never mind buying materials - that Gauguin painted at all; yet his output was large, and he was a steady worker, sometimes turning from his painting to wood-carving or pottery. Gauguin was also plagues by bad health - he drank, he took drugs, he had syphilis and stress and a fractured leg. The Church authorities in Atuona hated him, and he had protracted legal problems there, too - a libel action against him. He suffered, and one day a Marquesan neighbour, Tioka, ventured into his house and found the farani stretched out and apparently lifeless. Following Marquesan custom, Tioka bit Gauguin's head. The man did not stir.
Gauguin lies buried high on a slope in the cemetery above the village. Near him are the graves of Therese Tetua, David Le Cadre, Jean Vohi, Josephine Tauafitiata, Anne Marie Kahao and Elizabheth Mohuho, who were alive at the turn of the century and died in Atuona and must have known the strange wild painter. Gauguin's grave is simple, made of pockmarked volcanic rocks and shaded by a large white-blossomed frangipani. Garlands of flowers were strewn over the grave. The grave marker was his own statue of a wild woman, lettered "Oviri." Some children were playing nearby. I spoke to them in French, and then asked them, "What does oviri mean?" They said they didn't know. I had to look it up. It is a little ambiguous but appropriate. the word means "savage." Gauguin applied the word to himself in the bronze self-portrait of 1895-6, his face in profile. He wrote in 1903 to Charles Morice (who had collaborated with him on Noa-Noa), "You were wrong that day when you said I was wrong to say I was a savage. It's true enough. I am a savage. And civilized people sense the fact ... I am a savage in spite of myself." but eh goddess Oviri-moe-aihere is not only a savage; it is she who presides over death and mourning. As with the paintings, the grave was a colourful mixture of truth, imagination, suggestion and rough brilliance. The faces in the paintings can be encountered all over Tahiti and the Marquesas, but the backgrounds and landscapes are idealized and dream-like. Gauguin needed to believe he was a savage - and perhaps he was, but of a different kind entirely from the gentle islanders he had wished himself upon.
Gavan Daws tells a lovely story about Gauguin in A Dress of Islands, his wonderful account of the numerous men who came to Oceania to revisit and verify their fantasies. "One night at sunset (Daws writes) Gauguin was sitting on a rock outside his house on Hivaoa, naked except for his pareu, smoking, thinking about not very much, when out of the gathering darkness came a blind old Marquesan woman, tapping along with a stick, completely naked, tattooed all over, hunched, tottering, dry-skinned, mummy-like. she became aware of Gauguin's presence and felt her way toward him. He sat in inexplicable fear, his breath held in. without a word the old woman took his hand in hers, dust-dry, cold, reptile-cold. Gauguin felt repulsion. Then in silence she ran her hand over his body, down to the navel, beyond. She pushed aside his pareu and reached for his penis. Marquesan men - savages - were all supercised, and the raised scarred flesh was one of their great prides as maker of love. Gauguin had no savage mark on his maleness. He was uncovered for what he was. The blind searching hand withdrew, and the eyeless tattooed mummy figure disappeared into the darkness with a single word, 'Pupa' she croaked - White man."
The ship was anchored for the night, so I walked with Senor Pillitz over the ridge to the next wide bay, Taaoa, about four miles up and two down, but by the time we came to the archeological dig the day had grown too dark for us to see anything. Walking back in the dust to Atuona we passed two parked cars. There were half a dozen people in them, Tahitians and Marquesans and French, having a wonderful time. Footsore, we asked for a lift. They said no. It was inconvenient.
Historical and cultural Images available upon request only
We sailed to the north coast of Hiva Oa, and anchored and went ashore. There at Puamau, at a marae at the end of a muddy path in the jungle, was a vast ruin. finding such a place unmarked in the jungle behind a remote village was one of the singular pleasures of cruising the Marquesas. This one was a jumble of overgrown and scattered stones, and many carvings, some beheaded and castrated by sourvenir-hunters or missionaries. Others were fiercely intact, one of which is the largest tiki in Polynesia - a seven-foot monster, grimacing and clutching its belly - and another the strangest and most beautiful frog-faced creature, horizontal on a pedestal. It had a jack-o'-lantern mouth and donut eyes and fat extended legs, and it was apparently flying.
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