Tahiti - Papeete And Moorea
( Originally Published 1921 )
Gossip in Papeete—Moorea, a near-by island—A two-days' excursion there —Magnificent scenery from the sea—Island of fairy folk—Landing and preparation for the feast-The First Christian mission—A canoe on the lagoon—Beauties of the sea-garden.
MY acquaintances of the Cercle Bougainville, Landers, Polonsky, McHenry, Llewellyn, David, and Lying Bill, were at this season bent on pleasure. Landers, the head of a considerable business in Australasia, with a Papeete branch, had time heavy on his hands. Lying Bill and McHenry were seamen-traders ashore until their schooner sailed for another swing about the French groups of islands. Llewellyn and David were associates in planting, curing, and shipping vanilla-beans, but were roisterers at heart, and ever ready to desert their office and warehouse for feasting or gaming. Polonsky was a speculator in exchange and an investor in lands, and was reputed to be very rich. He, too, would leave his strong box unlocked in his hurry if cards or wassail called. These same white men were sib to all their fellows in the South Seas except a few sour men whom avarice, satiety, or a broken constitution made fearful of the future and thus heedful of the decalogue.
These merry men attended to business affairs for a few hours of mornings, unless the night before had been devoted too arduously to Bacchus, and the remainder of the day they surrendered to clinking glasses, converse, Rabelasian tales, and flirting with the gay Tahitian women in the cinemas or at dances. There was a tolerance, almost a standard, of such actions among the men of Tahiti, though of course consuls, high officials, a banker or two of the Banque de l'Indo -Chine, and a few lawyers or speculators sacrificed their flesh to their ambitions or hid their peccadillos.
A chorus of wives and widows—there were no old maids in Tahiti—condemned scathingly the conduct of the voluptuaries, and the preachers of the gospel lashed them in conversation or sermon now and then. But on the whole there was not in Tahiti any of the spirit of American towns and villages, which wrote scarlet letters, ostracized offenders against moral codes, and made Philistinism a creed. Gossip was constant, and while sometimes caustic, more often it partook of curiosity and mere trading of information or salacious prattle.
Tahitian women concealed nothing. If they won the favors of a white man, they announced it proudly, and held nothing sacred of the details. One's peculiarities, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, physical or spiritual blemishes, all became delectable morsels in the mouths of one's intimates and their acquaintances. One's passions, actions, and whisperings were as naked to the world as the horns on a cow, Every one knew the import of Polonsky's dorsal tattooings, that Pastor had a case of gin in his house, and that the governor, after a bottle or two of champagne, had squeezed so tightly the waist of an English lady with whom he waltzed that she had cried out in pain. Though bavardage accounted for much of the general knowledge of every one's affairs, there was an uncanny mystery in the speed at which a particular secret spread. One spoke of the bamboo telegraph.
It was proposed at the Cercle Bougainville that we have a series of. jaunts to points some distance away. I was promised that. I would see fully the way my acquaintances enjoyed themselves in the open. Llewellyn was given charge of the first excursion. It was to Moorea, an island a dozen miles or so to the northwest from Papeete, and which; with Tetiaria and Mehetia and Tahiti, constitute les iles de Vent, or Windward Islands of the Society archipelago.
In clear weather one cannot look out to sea from Papeete, to the north or west, without Moorea's weird grandeur confronting one. The island of fairy-folk with golden hair, it was called in ancient days. by the people of other islands. A third of the size of Tahiti, it was, until the white man came, the abode of a romantic and gallant clan. Eimeo, it was called by the first whites, but the name of Moorea clings to it now. Over it and behind it sets the sun of Papeete, and it is associated with the tribal conflicts, the religion, and the journeys of the Tahitians. Now it is tributary to this island in every way, and small boats run to and from with passengers and freight almost daily.
We met at seven o'clock of a Saturday morning at the point on the coral embankment where the Potii Moorea was made fast, the gasolene-propelled cargo-boat which we had rented for the voyage. A hundred were gathered about a band of musicians in full swing when I appeared at the rendezvous on the prick of the hour. The bands-men, all natives but one, wore garlands of purau, the scarlet hibiscus, and there was an atmosphere of abandonment to pleasure about them and the party.
A schooner swung at her moorings near by, under a glowing, flamboyant tree, and her crew was aboard in expectation of sailing at any hour. Another small craft, a sloop, was preparing to sail for Moorea, also. She was crowded with passengers and cargo, and all about the rail hung huge bunches of feis, the mountain bananas. Most of the people aboard had come from the market-place with fruit and fish and vegetables to cook when they arrived at home. A strange habit of the Tahitians under their changed condition is to take the line of least resistance in food, eating in Chinese stores,or buying bits in the market, whereas, when they governed themselves, they had an exact and elaborate formula of food preparation, and a certain ceremoniousness in despatching it. Only feasts bring a resumption nowadays of the ancient ways.
The crews of the schooner and of the other Moorea boat besides our own had a swarm of friends awaiting the casting off. Even a journey of a few hours meant a farewell ceremony of many minutes. They embrace one another and are often moved to tears at a separation of a few days. When one of them goes aboard a steamship for America or Australasia, the family and friends enact harrowing scenes at the quay. They are sincerely moved at the thought of their loved ones putting a long distance between them, and I saw a score of young and old sobbing bitterly when the Noa-Noa left for San Francisco though they stormed the stokers lustily when aroused. Their life is so simple in these beloved islands that the dangers of the mainland are exaggerated in their minds, and to the old the civilization of a big city appears as a specter of horrible mien. The electric cars, the crowds, the murders they read of and are told of, the bandits in the picture-shows, the fearful stranglers of Paris, the lynchers, the police, who in the films are always beating the poor, as in real life, the pickpockets, and the hospitals where willy-nilly they render one unconscious and remove one's vermiform appendix—all these are nightmares to the aborigines whose relations are departing.
When heads were counted, Landers's was missing, and jumping into Llewellyn's carriage, an old-fashioned phaeton, I drove to Lovaina's, where he occupied the room next to mine in the detached house in the animal-yard. He was sound asleep, having played poker and drunk until an hour before; but when I awoke him I could not but admire the serenity of the man. His body was in the posture in which he had lain down, and his breathing was as a child's.
"Landers, get up !" I shouted from the doorway. He opened his eyes, regarded me intently, and without a word went to the shower-bath by the camphor-wood chest, returned quickly, and dressed himself. I fancied him a man who would have answered his summons be-fore a firing-squad as calmly. He had a perfection of ease in his movements; not fast, for he was very big, but with never an unnecessary gesture nor word. He was one of the finest animals I had ever seen, and fascinating to men and women of all kinds.
The Potii Morea had taken on her passengers when we returned, and we put off from the sea-wall at once; with two barrels of bottled beer, and half a dozen demijohns of wine prominent on the small deck. Often the sea between Tahiti and Moorea is rough in the daytime, and passage is made at night to avoid accident, but we were given a smooth way, and could enjoy the music. We sat or lay on the after-deck while the bandsmen on the low rail or hatch maintained a continuous concert.
During the several days between our first planning the trip and the going, a song had been written in honor of the junketing, and this they played scores of times be-fore we set foot again in Papeete. It was entitled: "Himene Tatou Arearea," which meant, "Our Festal Song."
One easily guessed the meaning of the word himene. The Polynesians' first singing was the hymns of the missionaries, and these they termed himenes; so that any song is a himene, and there is no other word for vocal music in common use.
The bandsmen were probably all related to Llewellyn, or at least they were of his mother's clan. His own son and nephew by unmarried mothers were among them ; so that they were of our party, and yet on a different footing. They were our guests, we paying them nothing, but they not paying their scot. They did not mingle with us intimately, although probably all the whites except myself knew them well, and at times were guests at their houses outside Papeete.
The air to which the himene was sung eluded me for long. It was, "Oh, You Beautiful Doll!" They had changed the tune, so that I had not recognized it. The Tahitians have curious variations of European and American airs, of which they adapt many, carrying the thread of them, but differentiating enough to cause the hearer curiously mixed emotions. It was as if one heard a familiar voice, and, advancing to grasp a friendly hand, found oneself facing a stranger.
None of these island peoples originally had any music save monotones. In fact, in Hawaii, after the missionaries, Kappelmeister Berger, who came fifty years ago from Germany to Honolulu, was largely the maker of the songs we know now as distinctively Hawaiian. He fitted German airs to Hawaiian words, composed music on native themes, and spontaneously and by adaptation he, with others, gave a trend to the music of Hawaii nei that, though European in the main, is yet charmingly expressive of the soft, sweet nature of the Hawaiians and of the contrasts of their delightful gaiety and innate melancholy. These native tongues of the South Seas, with their many vowels and short words, seem to be made for singing.
The voyage from Tahiti to Moorea was a two-hours' panorama of magnificence and anomalism in the architecture of nature. Facing my goal was Moorea, and behind me Tahiti, scenes of contrary beauty as the vessel changed the distance from me to them. Tahiti, as I left it, was under the rays of the already high sun, a shimmering beryl, blue and yellow hues in the overpowering green mass, and from the loftiest crags floating a long streamer-cloud, the cloud-banner of Tyndal.
Moorea was the most astonishing sight upon the ocean that my eyes had ever gazed on. It was as if a mountain of black rock had been carved by the sons of Uranus, the mighty Titans of old, into gigantic fortresses, which the lightnings, temblors, and whirlwinds of the eons had rent into ruins. Its heights were not green like Tahiti's, but bare and black, true children of the abysmal cataclysm which in the time of the making of these oases of the sea thrust them up from the fires of the deep.
Far up near the peak of Afareaitu, nearly a mile above the wave, in one of the colossal splinters of the basalt rocks, was an eye, an immense round hole through which the sky shone. One saw it plainly from Tahiti. It was made by the giant Pai of Tautira when he threw his spear a dozen miles and pierced a window in the solid granite that all might know his prowess. One felt like a fool to rehearse to a Tahitian, telling one the tale, the statement of scientists that the embrasure had been worn by water when Afareaitu was under the ocean during its million-year process of rising from the mud. It would be like asking Flammarion, the wisest of French astronomers, to cease believing in the mystery of transubstantiation. He would smile as would the autochthon.
There was one picture in murky monochrome which never could be forgotten—a long sierra of broken pinnacles and crags which had all the semblance of a weathered and dismantled castle. It stood out against the tender blue of the morning sky like the ancient stronghold of some grisly robber-baron of medieval days; towers of dark sublimity, battlements whence invaders might have been hurled a thousand feet to death, slender minarets, escarpments and rugged casements through which fleecy clouds peeped from the high horizon. I once saw along the Mediterranean in Italy or France the fastness of a line of nobles, set away up on a lonely hill, glowering, gloomy, and unpeopled, the refuge, mayhap, of the mountain goat, the abiding-place of bats and other creatures of the night. Moorea's fortress conjured up the vision of it, its wondrous ramparts and unscalable precipices strangely the counterpart of the Latin castle.
But if one dropped one's eyes from the hills, gone was the recollection of aught of Europe. There was a scene which only the lavish colors of the tropics could furnish. The artist had spilled all his shades of green upon the palette, and so delicately blended them that they melted into one another in a very enchantment of green. The valleys were but darker variants of the emerald scheme.
The confused mass of lofty ridges resolved into chasms and combes, dark, sunless ravines, moist with the spray of many waterfalls, which nearer became velvet valleys of pale green, masses of foliage and light and shadow. The mountains of Moorea were only half the height of Tahiti's, but so artfully had they been piled in their fantastic arrangement that they seemed as high, though they were entirely different in their impress upon the beholder. Tahiti from the sea was like a living being, so vivid, so palpitating was its contour and its color, but Moorea, when far away, was cold and black, a beautiful, ravishing sight, but like the avatars of a race of giants that had passed, a sepulcher or monument of their achievements and their end.
As about Tahiti, a silver belt of reef took the rough caresses of the lazy rollers, and let the glistening surf break gently on the beach. Along this wall of coral, hidden, but charted by its crown of foam, we ran for miles until we found the gateway—the blue buckle of the belt, it appeared at a distance.
Within the lagoon the guise of the island was more intimate. Little bays and inlets bounded themselves, and villages and houses sprang up from the tropic groves. The band, which so far as I knew had not been silent a moment to awaken me from my adoration of the sculpture and painting of nature, now poured out the "Himene Tatou Arearea" in token of our approaching landing, which was at Faatoai, the center of population. All its hundred or two inhabitants were at the tiny dock to greet us, except the Chinese, who stayed in their stores.
Headed by the pipe and accordion, the brass and wood, now playing "Onward, Christian Soldier,"-which, if one forgot the words, was an especially carnal melody,—we tramped, singing a parody, through the street of Faatoai, and into a glorious cocoanut grove, where breakfast was spread.
A pavilion had been erected for our feasting. It was of bamboo and pandanus, the interior lined with tree ferns and great bunches of scarlet oleander, and decorated with a deep fringe woven of hibiscus fiber. The roof was a thatch of pandanus and breadfruit leaves, the whole structure, light, flimsy, but a gamut of golds and browns in color and cool and beautiful.
A table fifty feet or longer was made of bamboo, the top of twenty half sections of the rounded tubes, polished by nature, but slippery for bottles and glasses. A bench ran on both sides, and underfoot was the deep-green vegetation that covers every foot of ground in Moorea except where repeated footfalls, wheels, or labor kills it, and which is the rich stamp of tropic fertility.
The barrels of beer were unheaded, the demijohns from Bordeaux were uncorked, and from the opened bottles the sugary odor of Tahiti rum permeated the hot air. The captain of the Potii Moorea and the hired steward began to set the table for the dejeuner and to prepare the food, some of which was being cooked a few feet away by the steward's kin. The guests disposed themselves at ease to wait for the call to meat, the bands-men lit cigarettes and tuned their instruments or talked over their program, while they wetted their throats with the rum, as admonished by the "Himene Tatou Arearea."
I strolled down the road along the shore of the lagoon. Here was erected the first Christian church in this archipelago. British Protestant missionaries, who had led a precarious life in Tahiti, and fled from it to Australia in fear of their lives, were induced to come here and establish a mission. The King of Tahiti, Pomare, had fled to Moorea after a desperate struggle with opposing clans, and he welcomed the preachers as additions to his strength. The high priest of the district, Patii, collected all the gods under his care, and they were burned, with a Bible in sight, to the exceeding fear of the native heathen, and the holy anger of the other native clergy, who felt as Moses did when he saw his disciples worshiping a golden calf. On the very spot I stood had been the marae, or Tahitian temple, in which the images were housed, now a rude heap of stones. A hundred years ago exactly this exchange of deities had been made. Alas ! it could not have been the true Christ who was brought to them, for they had flourished mightily under Oro, and they began almost at once to die. Not peace, but a sword, a sword of horrors, of frightful ills, was brought them.
There was a little canoe under a noble cocoanut-tree on the shell-strewn and crab-haunted coral beach, the roots of the palm partly covered by the salt water, and partly by a tangle of lilac marine convolvulus. I pushed the tiny craft into the brine, and paddled off on the still water of the shining lagoon.
No faintest agitation of the surface withheld a clear view of the marvelous growths upon the bottom. I peered into a garden of white and vari-colored flowers of stone, of fans and vases and grotesque shapes, huge sponges and waving bushes and stunted trees. Fish of a score of shapes and of all colors of the spectrum wove in and out the branches and caverns of this wondrous parterre.
Past the creamy reef the purple ocean glittered in the nooning sun, while the motionless waters of the lagoon were turquoise and bice near by and virescent in the distance. Looking toward the shore, the edge of milky coral sand met the green matting of moss and grass, and then the eye marked the fields of sugar-cane, the forests of false coffee on which grew the vanilla-vines, the groves of cocoanuts, and then the fast-climbing ridges and the glorious ravines, the misty heights and the grim crags.