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Tahiti Historical Aspects - "Tahiti of the Golden Haze"


Tahiti of the Golden Haze

"LA NOUVELLE CYTHERE," was the name the French explorer Bougainville gave Tahiti when his ships anchored at Hitiaa in 1768. Ancient native bards called their country "Tahiti marearea," which some have translated "Tahiti of the golden haze" and some, "Tahiti of the jolly good time." The language is prolific in such ambiguities, arising from the difficulty of determining, in names of antiquity, whether the elided consonant was originally k or the one we render, rather lamely, as ng. In Tuamotuan, which retains both, there would be less uncertainly. Both interpretations can be justified by experience; as we trekked farther afield we often marked the beauty of distant mountains shimmering in that "golden haze.:

Tahiti is a double island, like Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago; one extinct or dormant volcanic mass to the northwest and a smaller one, connected with it by an isthmus, on the southeast. Natives distinguish between them as "Great" and "Little" Tahiti - Tahiti-nui and Tahiti-iti. Around the shores stretch fringing reefs of coral; a little way out, barrier reefs, and between them a lagoon of varying width and of depth ranging to a hundred feet or more, into whose calm waters numerous passes lead through the outer coral.

Along the shore lies a narrow strip of fertile land, putting forth slender tentacles into deep-cut valleys through which the rain that falls on the sharp interior mountains flows to the sea. Behind this coastal zone the land lifts steeply to the wild, untenanted central masses of volcanic rock. The people live along the coast and in the lower parts of the valleys. Even in pre-discovery times this was probably largely true. We found traces of ancient settlements in the interior, but the Polynesian is a shore-dweller, if the mountain villages were places of permanent abode, it is likely that their inhabitants had been driven there by overpopulation or by defeat in war.

Around all of Great Tahiti and part way into Little Tahiti runs the Broom Road, which King Pomare, according to tradition, built of alcohol. That is, those of his subjects who imbibed too freely were sentenced to construct sections of the road. Colour was lent to this bit of purported history by the gangs of blue-clad convicts whom we saw working in a leisurely manner at the maintenance of the highway. A good deal of repair is necessary, especially in the districts that receive the heaviest rains. There the government, after sad experience of repeated washouts, gave up building bridges and simply threw in stretches of heavy concrete that damned the numerous streams, rather than bridging them. These causeways were under water in the wet season, when highway travel became a species of navigation. 

I have traversed long stretches of that road on foot, idly speculating on the odd circumstance that a kilometer, which should be approximately five-eighths of a mile, unaccountably seems to extend itself to at least eight-fifths when walked, and answering the courteous but puzzled greetings of neatly dressed children on their way to or from school. These enfants are taught to say "Bon jour, Monsieur," to a Popaa, a white man. But here was a white man walking like a native, with his overnight things tied up in a pareu slung over his shoulder; he wore white trousers, so he must be a Popaa, but white men don't walk! I have covered those same kilometers more swiftly in a snorting Citroen that lurched over the highway like a schooner at sea. But the jolliest way is by the bus that once a day starts from the market place in Papeete for the tour of the island with passengers, mail, and miscellaneous freight - a public conveyance, delivery truck, and social club combined.

"Le truc" is scheduled to start early in the morning, but it fusses about - darting around corners to pick up freight, waiting while the driver gossips with friends - until one begins to think it never will actually embark on the journey. 

When it does get under way, the bus is loaded full: interior, top, running boards jammed to capacity and more. The passengers are mostly Tahitians - ample women in shapeless, gaily-flowered dresses, with wide-woven hats of pandanus or sugar-cane; men in dungarees and singlets, each with his bundle done up in a pareu, the fruits of his marketing wrapped in ti leaves or arranged in a coconut-leaf basket, and perhaps a roll of sleeping-mat; and all talking, laughing, and joking with the bubbling good humor that is characteristic of the high-island Polynesian. There may be a few small, cool-looking Chinese, quiet but smiling; and occasionally a Frenchman or American who lives in the "districts" and has no car. Under, over, and around the passengers and their belongings are stowed the miscellaneous packages which the bus is delivering to country residents who haven't come to town. Yesterday some one shouted to the driver, from his gate: "Bring me a dozen eggs," or "two chickens," and the driver, though he took no written notes, has remembered the errand to-day.

At last the vehicle slides around the last corner and launches out on the road westward past the garden-enclosed brick Chinese temple, the small Chinese truck gardens, and the iron-roofed frame houses of Faaa clustering around its two churches, its little schoolhouse, and the Chinese store. Seaward stretches the broad lagoon, glowing in delicate colors beneath the sun, with the yellow sand of the islets contrasting with the green and blue and purple of the water.

Father on, the lagoon narrows and a continuous grinding roar comes from the rounded pebbles which are rolled up and down the beach by the waves. Along here is the district of Punaauia, where Gauguin lived and where most of the Americans who seek a refuge in Tahiti from the turmoil of the world have made their homes. There are many stops in this neighborhood. The driver drops a scrawny chicken, a sheaf of vegetables, or a basket of eggs at some one's gate, and the bus rolls on toward Punaruu and Paea. Meanwhile the talk and the laughter go on, punctuated by broad but good-natured jests in Tahitian at the expense of the foreigner who is squeezed between two excessively fat native women, with a large pig at his feet and the natives' bundles overflowing upon his lap. Now and then some one starts a song: a himene with frank Tahitian text imposed upon a French, American, or Hawaiian popular melody or hymn tune; or an ute, of varying text but always to the same skirling cadence.  

The house where Paul Gauguin lived is still pointed out at Punaauia, fronting the lagoon. He may have lived there, but it can not have been his only home at Punaauia, for residents relate that the house which he occupied longest was burned, after he left, by natives who feared the "spirits" of the carvings and paintings with which the artist had adorned it. His son, Emile, who lives in the neighborhood, is a mighty fisherman in the native style and a stout gatherer of mountain oranges and the fei or wild banana. Emile's mother, who served as the model for the nude in Gauguin's painting, "Nevermore," was also still living at the time of our visit. Two other models of the famous escapist dwelt near by. But hardly a trace of Gauguin's art was left in Tahiti. After the artist had been posthumously "discovered," collectors had combed the island of virtually everything that had escaped the fires kindled by his uncomprehending native associates. Taurua, the widow, would not discuss Gauguin. But Emile protested against the story that the artist had deserted his Tahitian family. He said Taurua's father would not permit her to join Gauguin when he went to the Marquesas, because the Marquesas were "a country of cannibals."

The ghost of Gauguin, the native say, returns to stare in at the windows of the remaining house. He is disturbed, perhaps, by the efforts of artists who troop to Tahiti, trying to paint like Gauguin instead of like themselves.

The vogue of Gauguin has passed its crest; critics have complained of his faults of composition, contending that his work is neither three-dimensional nor two-dimensional throughout, but mixed, and not always successfully; that he relied on subject matter as a source of emotion, exploiting its exotic quality; that his painting is "flat" and "posterish," and so on. But I feel that no other has so successfully conveyed in colour and form the feeling of the islands: not only the surface aspect of tropical lushness, but the mystery beneath, the legendary atmosphere in which the tupapau - the spirits of the dead - walk in the shadows of the forest and monstrous grinning carved gods, like "The Sea Wreathed in Clouds," look down upon the islanders at play.

Above the stream at Punaruu stands what is left of one of the forts where the French withstood the Tahitian warriors in the turbulent times before the protectorate was confirmed, and in the mountains above the road gape the mouths of the burial caves that received the native dead.

The road worsens in these rural districts, although here is Paea and Papara and Punaruu are the homes of several of the more wealthy and permanent foreign residents: rambling houses, some of them roofed with thatch, almost hidden in riotous tropical gardens - spots, one would think, where one might be content to take one's ease and let the world go by on its sorry, tangled way.

The bus rattles past arbors of glossy-leaved vanilla vines and curves out along a coastal slope between the sea and the cliff that encloses the fabulous water-grotto of Maraa. An underground stream flows out of the mountains to fill a cavern with cold, clear, fresh water, brilliantly blue. The mouth of the cave is curtained with hanging vines: blue native morning glories, air plants, mosses, maidenhair fern. Within, the cavern opens into a vast domed space, dripping incessantly into a deep blue pool that in native tradition is an entrance to paradise.

I was reminded of that other cavern pool in the mountainous headland Ka Lae o ka Oio, on Oahu. Of one has the courage to dive there, inhabitants of that haunted land assert, he will emerge in a hidden treasure chamber, piled with gorgeous feather cloaks, mats, and tapas of the ancient time. But in Tahiti the legend is more elaborate. Dive into the pool of Maraa, it is said, and swim under water mountainward, and you will enter a secret valley, blessed with all the fruits of Polynesia, a valley where no one ever grows old or ill - a land of the gods, like the hidden floating island of the Hawaiians where flow the living waters of Kane and Kanaloa: "those who are dead and their bodies ashes, by that water regain life."

"Do you believe this?" I asked Tu the son of Rai.
"It must be true," he replied, "For no one who has dived to that hidden valley has become discontented and returned."  

Swinging around the west coast, the road proceeds along the wild, wet, and fertile south shore. Through the village of Papara, with its bamboo community house gleaming yellow in the sunlight, and its memories of the Tahitian kings and the conventions of that ancient caste of professional merrymakers, the Arioi. They were the players and mummers of their time, disseminators of news as they wandered from district to district enacting dramas of island history, and slaying their children at birth, so as not to be encumbered in their profession.

For the ancient native life was not all beauty and ease: it had its cruelties of custom and of warfare, its op9pressions at the hands of rapacious chiefs, its sanguinary rites of human sacrifice. Man is so constituted that he must always torture himself in one way or another - "primitive" man, by fear of gods and spirits, "civilized" man by racial hatreds and economic oppression, by manias of speed and efficiency and social or business ambition and a crowded, fevered life. Our species seems never content to live altogether simply and without envy or fear.

Here at Papara and farther on, at Mahaiatea, remain the stones on which human blood was spilt to appease the gods. The marae of Mahaiatea, the Far Wandering, was the largest in Tahiti - built by Purea, the chiefess who befriended the explorers Wallis and Cook. It is now only a pile of rocks, in which its original form is barely discernible. At the end of a paved court, as Cook described it, rose an oblong step-pyramid in ten or eleven terraces to a height of about fifty feet. Trees surrounded it and grew up between the flagstones of the enclosure. Awesome were the ceremonies that took place there. "When the great marae was built at Mahaiatea," Hiro-i-te-maro-ura told me, "twelve hundred warriors laid down their spears and were buried alive under the stones, that their spirits might guard the sacred place."

With all due allowance for Hiro's exaggeration, there still remains no doubt that the corner stone, at least, was consecrated with blood, as the surviving lines of the dedicatory chant attest:

Teie te taata ei tapu haamoa na matou....

"Here is the man as a mark of consecration from us before thy face, O God, here is the sacred corner stone of the house we shall build for thee and for the host of gods who will come here as thy guests."

And on momentous civic or ritual occasions, victims were sacrificed on the stone altar before the terraces.

The altars and the leaning-stones of the chiefs are down, the royal burial vaults are broken, the carved gods burned or carried away to museums. Many of the sacred stones themselves were wrenched from their settings to build a bridge - and the floods tore the bridge away.

"Obariea," as Cook called her, was high chiefess of this district when Captain Wallis, with Cook as his lieutenant, arrived at Tahiti in the ship Dolphin in 1767, and she was the first of the nobility to give them a friendly welcome. She had the sick men of the expedition treated in her guest house and formally received Wallis with a speech which he interpreted as a cession to him not only of her own district, but of the entire island. Purea's attentions to Wallis and afterward to Cook on his second visit appear to have surpassed what a commonly regarded in European countries as mere courtesy, and her observance of traditional Polynesian hospitality has been interpreted in history as a tender passion for the English explorers. The aura of romance, however, is somewhat clouded by Cook's description in his journal:

 "Obariea must be about forty years of age and like most women here, very masculine. Oamoa (her husband) and Obariea do not at this time live together, he not being able to endure with her troublous disposition."

Between Cook's first and second visits the power of Amo and Purea was broken by an invasion from the northern districts of Pare and Haapape, and Purea moved to Matavai Bay, on the other side of the island, where Cook landed. It was in the course of these disturbances that Tu, chief of Pare, rose to the ascendancy which enabled him to become king of all Tahiti under the name Pomare the First. By the time Cook returned on the third and last voyage in the Pacific, Purea had died in relative obscurity and Tu had acquired most of her possession.

Not far from the ruins of Mahaiatea, the blue-green blades of sugar cane - a familiar sight to us voyagers from Hawaii - rippled along a mile or more of coastal land running up into the mouth of a valley, where stood the mill in which the cane was ground. Chinese men and a few Tahitian women were working in the fields. This, we were told, was the only sugar plantation in Tahiti, and it had started as a cotton plantation. At the time of the Civil War in the United States, one Stewart, a Briton, took advantage of the scarcity and consequent high price of cotton to grow that crop here at Atimaono. Natives of the Gilbert Islands were brought in to do the work, and later Chinese - the first Chinese in Tahiti. Here he lived like a baron in his mansion on the hill where the mango trees wave over the disordered foundations.

Stewart made a fortune, it is said. After the war, however, cotton was no longer so profitable, and the land was planted to sugar. Here again history intervened. When the Panama Canal was opened, cheaply produced sugar from the French West Indies competed with the local product, and the plantation declined. At the time of our visit, a syndicate of Chinese and Europeans had taken over and was increasing the production which, however, amounted to only about five hundred tons of sugar a year. Most of the work-planting, hoeing, irrigating, stripping the leaves, cutting and so on - was done by hand, but the mill was powered partly by water and partly by steam. The fields themselves furnished the fuel. The cane stalks, after the molasses was squeezed out of them were dried and thrown into the furnace under the boiler. Most of the sugar produced was used in the islands, and I think some of the rum we bought in Papeete, for the preparation of Tahitian rum punches, came from Atimaono.

At Mataiea, along this coast, sojourned Rupert Brooke, and there he wrote some of his most haunting poems. Brooke loved Tahiti, and the natives loved him, whom they called Pupure, the Blond. "Tiare Tahiti" was dated as written in Papeete in February, 1914, but in January he had been at Mataiea, and certain lines of the poem are eloquent of the atmosphere of that spot.

Something of that life may be recaptured in this neighboring district of Papeari--

O water of enchantment,
many the trails in that land!

There were one or two lackadaisical hotels on the Papeari shore, and native houses that welcomed visitors who were not too exacting about accommodations. There one could swim and fish in the lagoon, go torch-fishing with the natives on the reef, and, if sufficiently energetic, accompany them into the jungled mountains in search of wild oranges and fei, or just let the days wind themselves lazily about the golden spool of time.

One of our number spent several such delicious weeks at Mauu's, on the lagoon that divides the Great from the Little Tahiti. Behind the warm, quiet lagoon and the narrow strip of alluvial plain rise the precipitous mountains, dripping with moisture, and covered with vegetation. And among the coconut palms near the shore stands the thatched house of Mauu, prince of hosts.

"I don't send nobody away," he told a visitor. "Not even dog or cat. he starve while I have food. I think that wrong."

Indeed, cats, dogs, fowl, and pigs wandered or will through Mauu's house and grounds, stepping over or around the mats on which reposed Mauu's numerous relatives and friends and the castaways whom he had taken in. American and European guests dwelt in half a dozen detached thatched houses along the lagoon. Mauu prepared or oversaw the preparation of food, in delicious native style, and arranged fishing trips by canoe and horseback rides on mountain trails. Somehow, roast pork never tastes so good as when Mauu bakes it, slowly, for hours, on hot stones underground.

In Papeari, too, on a promontory overlooking the bay, overgrown with trees and shrubs, stands what is left of the house where Robert Keable wrote "Numerous Treasure." It was comfortable built and luxuriously furnished, in Keable's time, the gardens then were trimmed and cultivated, there was water in the pool where the marble nymph crouched beneath the honeysuckle vines that clambered over the trellis. The place has been haunted since his death, the natives say. Ina, the lovely heroine of his book, abandoned the house and went to Paris after Keable died, and the home and its surro0undins fell rapidly into tropical decay.

The road splits at the isthmus of Taravao, one branch running part way down each side of Little Tahiti and another crossing the isthmus to return to Papeete. In Tautira, the district at the northeast corner of Tahiti-iti, and in Teahupoo, on the reef-fringed southern shore, Tahitian life flourishes perhaps as nearly unspoiled as anywhere on the island. White intruders, with some notable temporary exceptions, have avoided this part of the island, where the dampness encourages the mosquitoes that transmit elephantiasis. The natives remain - some of them suffering the disfigurement of that grotesque ailment, but living close to sea and land, subsisting on the fruits of them, with small thought for the hurried, hurried world outside.

Here they still hew their canoes from logs of the breadfruit tree; here they gather great hauls of fish by the hukilau method familiar to us in our own islands: dragging across the lagoon a net fringed with coconut leaves strung on strips of purau bark. The shadows of the leaves make dark, if insubstantial, bars in the water, the fish will not pass them, but huddle together and are drawn into the shallows to be scooped up by hand or pierced with spears.

Tautira was the temporary refuge of some of the Bounty mutineers who did not go with Fletcher Christian to Pitcairn. Here they built a boat, but they tarried too long and failed to escape in it before the avenging Captain Edwards arrived from England.

Near Tautira, too, Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time in an oval Samoan-style house, before he returned to Vailima in Samoa to die. The site is a beautiful spot where the Vaitipiha River runs parallel to the sea, separated from it by a bar of gleaming sand. Above, the mountains thrust into the polished sky, and a fresh breeze blows in from the Pacific. A beautiful spot, but unhealthful - again, those mosquitoes. Herman Melville reported that these pests had not always infested the islands. He said that a whaling captain from Nantucket introduced mosquitoes on the neighboring island of Moorea in revenge after a quarrel with the natives, and they spread rapidly among the islands.

The name of Teahupoo commemorates one of the harsher incidents of pre-European times. It means the heap (or monument) of heads. As the natives tell the story, the chiefs of the northern districts of this part of the island and those of the southern districts disputed the boundaries of the tribal lands. A battle was fought, and the southerners won. And they piled up the heads of their slain enemies to serve as a boundary mark. The skulls are gone now. but the village that stand there keeps the name of Teahupoo.

Tautira is an almost all-native village, compact and tidy, its streets lined with breadfruit trees and its houses surrounded by hedges of a yellow-foliaged shrub. Its people fish with nets and lines and traps and grow a little produce in the fertile soil. Yet even here, as nearly everywhere in the islands, there is a Chinese bakery and store.

Beyond Tautira the road fails, unable to assault the ramparts of precipitous cliffs, like those of the Pali coast of Kauai, that rise sheer and furrowed from the sea. The few natives who live beyond Tautira clamber over a rude trail, in some places dipping down into ravines, in others skirting the tops of the cliffs, and in still others traversing shallow stretches of sea.

The road back toward Papeete clings to the sides of steep ridges, coils and twists around abrupt headlands, and follows narrow ledges between sheer cliff-walls and the sea. From one hillside may be glimpsed the cascades of the Faatautia River, one of which plunges through an almost vertical tunnel of rock to a deep pool, hidden from the sun. This district of Hitiaa is a land of old battles; high in the valleys the bones of ancient warriors lie in virtually inaccessible caves. In one such cavern, the natives say, rests the skeleton of a giant, and the frontal bone still bears the traces of tattooing.

The village of Hitiaa dreams on the shore, in the memory of its legended past. The warriors of Hitiaa, the tale tells, captured a princess of Paea and her retinue and held them captive in a great hall of bamboo. The chief, to celebrate his victory, gave a feast, at which so much of the narcotic beverage 'ava was consumed that he and all his men sprawled in a stupor on the mats. Then the princess, like the Hamlet of one of Shakespeare's sources, set fire to the hall, and she and her captors died together in the flames. Their spirits, says the never-failing Tahitian imagination, reassemble on the third night of the full moon and rekindle the torches of the feast.  

The road dips into stream after stream; passes through Mahena, where a native village was built for a motion picture; and through Paienoo, a real native village of bamboo staves and pandanus thatch, with the cooking-sheds adjacent, and the interiors bare of furniture but snugly carpeted with mats. Steep lack cliffs guard the shore between Papenoo and Orofara, and the beaches are of that same sullen black, but the sand is soft and fine.

Orofara itself is a reminder of another of the blights that corrode tropical life. For it is the abode of lepers. A white picket fence encloses a settlement of neat little houses, over which their own chief presides. About a hundred were living there at the time of our visit. They had their own motion picture theater, and an annual fest given by the people of Papeete, and they seemed happy despite the devastations of the disease and the pain of treatment by a remedial oil for which great hopes had been entertained. rumor had it that they were not very strictly confined, but occasionally climbed over the fence and went to town. One was as likely as not, it was said, to find an Orofara inmate, in one of the less advanced stages of the malady, sitting next to one in the theater at pipette. Leprosy continues to be not fully understood, but despite the horror with which it is regarded, medical men tell me it is not very readily contracted. It is supposed to have entered Polynesia with the Chinese and made great inroads among the natives because of their gregarious habits. Years of eating with the fingers out of common dish, together with the lack of resistance of the Polynesians, who had not been accustomed to the ills of other peoples and thus had not acquired immunity, are said to account for its spread among them.

Beyond Orofara are the broad-verandaed country houses of Papeete residents, sugar and vanilla plantations, coffee and banana groves, fields of small, tough, but sweet pineapples. Near the road stand the Moana and the Lafayette, famous roadhouses, and Matavai Bay glistens in the sun- a gleaming new moon of water where Wallis anchored, and after him Bougainville and Cook, Bligh of the Bounty, and Christian, and Edwards of the Pandora. At the tip of the high point east of the bay, Cook observed the transit of Venus for the Royal Society for whom he named the islands. A monument, half hidden in a thicket of pandanus, oleander, and purau, marks the supposed site, and some distance away stands a tamarind tree said to have been planted by Cook himself.

Past the firm black sands of Arue, where Pomare I lived, and past the pyramidal coral tomb of the last king, the road winds between palm groves to Papeete. 

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