Tahiti – Description Of Tahiti

It was a molten rock, fused in a subterranean furnace, and cast in some frightful throe of the cooling sphere, high up above the surface of the sea, the seething mass forming into mountains and valleys, the valleys hemmed in except at their mouths by lofty barriers that stretch from thundering central ridges to the slanting shelf of alluvial soil which extends to the sand of the beach. It is a mass of volcanic matter to which the air, the rain, and the passage of a million years have given an all-covering verdure except upon the loftiest peaks, have cut into strangely shaped cliffs, sloping hills, spacious vales, and shadowy glens and dingles, and have poured down the rich detritus and humus to cover the coral beaches and afford sustenance for man and beast. About the island countless trillions of tiny animals have reared the shimmering reef which bears the brunt of the breaking seas, and spares their impact upon the precious land. These minute beings in the unfathomable scheme of the Will had worked and perished for unguessed ages to leave behind this monument of their existence, their charnel-house. Man had often told himself that a god had inspired them thus to build havens for his vessels and abodes of marine life where man might kill lesser beings for his food and sport.

Always, in the approach to the island in steamship, schooner, or canoe, one is amazed and transported by the varying aspect of it. A few miles away one would never know that man had touched it. His inappreciable structures are erased by the flood of green color, which, from the edge of the lagoon to the spires of La Diademe, nearly eight thousand feet above the water, makes all other hues insignificant. In all its hundred miles or so of circumference nature is the dominant note —a nature so mysterious, so powerful, and yet so soft-handed, so beauty-loving and so laughing in its indulgences, that one can hardly believe it the same that rules the Northern climes and forces man to labor in pain all his days or to die.

The scene from a little distance is as primeval as when the first humans climbed in their frail canoes through the unknown and terrible stretches of ocean, and saw Tahiti shining in the sunlight. A mile or two from the lagoon the fertile land extends as a slowly-ascending gamut of greens as luxuriant as a jungle, and forming a most pleasing foreground to the startling amphitheater of the mountains, darker, and, in storm, black and forbidding.

Those mountains are the most wonderful examples of volcanic rock on the globe. Formed of rough and crystalline products of the basic fire of earth, they hold high up in their recesses coral beds once under the sea, and lava in many shapes, tokens of the island’s rise from the slime, and of mammoth craters now almost entirely obliterated by denudation—the denudation which made the level land as fertile as any on earth, and the suitable habitation of the most leisurely and magnificent human animals of history.

A thousand rills that drink from the clouds ever encirclingthe crags, and in which they are often lost from view, leap from the heights, appearing as ribbons of white on a clear day, and not seldom disappearing in vapor as they fall sheer hundreds of feet, or thousands, in successive drops. When heavy rains come, torrents suddenly spring into being and dash madly down the precipitous cliffs to swell the brooks and little rivers and rush headlong to the sea.

Tahiti has an unexcelled climate for the tropics, the temperature for the year averaging seventy-seven degrees and varying from sixty-nine to eighty-four degrees. June, July, and August are the coolest and driest months, and December to March the rainiest and hottest. It is often humid, enervating, but the south-east, the trade-wind, which blows regularly on the east side of the islands, where are Papeete and most of the settlements, purifies the atmosphere, and there are no epidemics except when disease is brought directly from the cities of America or Australasia. A delicious breeze comes up every morning at nine o’clock and fans the dweller in this real Arcadia until past four, when it languishes and ceases in preparation for the vesper drama of the sun’s retirement from the stage of earth.

Typhoons or cyclones are rare about Tahiti, but squalls are frequent and tidal waves recurrent. The rain falls more than a hundred days a year, but usually so lightly that one thinks of it as liquid sunshine. In the wet quarter from December until March there are almost daily deluges, when the an seems turned to water, the land and sea are hidden by the screen of driving rain, and the thunder shakes the flimsy houses, and echoes menacingly in the upper valleys.

Papeete, the seat of government and trade capital of all the French possessions in these parts of the world, is a sprawling village stretching lazily from the river of Fautaua on the east to the cemetery on the west, and from the sea on the north to half a mile inland. It is the gradual increment of garden and house upon an aboriginal village, the slow response of a century to the demand of official and trading white, of religious group and ambitious Tahitian, of sailor and tourist. Here flow all the channels of business and finance, of plotting and robbery, of pleasure and profit, of literature and art and good living, in the eastern Pacific. Papeete is the London and Paris of this part of the peaceful ocean, dispensing the styles and comforts, the inventions and luxuries, of civilization, making the laws and enforcing or compromising them, giving justice and injustice to litigants, despatching all the concomitants of modernity to littler islands. Papeete is the entrepot of all the archipelagoes in these seas.

The French, who have domination in these waters of a hundred islands and atolls between 8° and 27° south latitude, and between 137° and 154° west longitude, a stretch of about twelve hundred miles each way, make them all tributary to Papeete ; and thus it is the metropolis of a province of salt water, over which come its couriers and its freighters, its governors and its soldiers, its pleasure-seekers and its idlers. From it an age ago went the Maoris to people Hawaii and New Zealand.

Papeete has a central position in the Pacific. The capitals of Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and California are from two and a half to three and a half thousand miles away. No other such group of whites, or place approaching its urbanity, is to be found in a vast extent of latitude or longitude. It is without peer or competitor. in endless leagues of waves.

Yet Papeete is a little place, a mile or so in length and less in width, a curious imposition of European houses and manners upon a Tahitian hamlet, hybrid, a mixture of loveliness and ugliness, of nature savage and tamed. The settlement, as with all ports, began at the water-front, and the harbor of Papeete is a lake within the milky reef, the gentle waters of which touch a strip of green that runs along the shore, broken here and there by a wall and by the quay at which I landed. Coral blocks have been quarried from the reef and fitted to make an embankment for half a mile, which juts out just far enough to be usable as a mole. It is alongside this that sailing vessels lie, the wharf being the only land mooring with a roof for the housing of products. A dozen schooners, small and large, point their noses out to the sea, their backs against the coral quay, and their hawsers made fast to old cannon, brought here to war against the natives, and now binding the messengers of the nations and of commerce to this shore. Where there are no embankments, the water comes up to the roots of the trees, and a carpet of grass, moss, and tropical vegetation grows from the salt tide to the roadway.

Following the contour of the beach, runs a fairly broad road, and facing this original thoroughfare and the sea are the principal shops of the traders and a few residences. French are some of these merchants, but most are Australasian, German, American and Chinese. France is ten thousand miles away, and the French unequal in the struggle for gain. Some of the stores occupy blocks, and in them one will find a limited assortment of tobacco, anchors, needles, music-boxes, candles, bicycles, rum, novels, and silks or calicos. Here in this spot was the first settlement of the preachers of the gospel, of the conquering forces of France, and of the roaring blades who brought the culture of the world to a powerful and spellbound people. Here swarmed the crews of fifty whalers in the days when “There she blows!” was heard from crows’-nests all over the broad Pacific. These rough adventurers, fighters, revelers, passionate bachelors, stamped Tahiti with its first strong imprint of the white man’s modes and vices, con-tending with the missionaries for supremacy of ideal. They brought gin and a new lecherousness and deadly ills and novel superstitions, and found a people ready for their wares. An old American woman has told me she has seen a thousand whalemen at one time ashore off ships in the harbor make night and day a Saturnalia of Occidental pleasure, a hundred fights in twenty-four hours.

As more of Europe and America came and brought lumber to build houses, or used the hard woods of the mountains, the settlement pushed back from the beach. Trails that later widened into streets were cut through the brush to reach these homes of whites, and the thatched huts of the aborigines were replaced by the ugly, but more convenient, cottages of the new-comers.

The French, when once they had seized the island, made roads, gradually and not too well, but far surpassing those of most outlying possessions, and contrasting advantageously with the neglect of the Spanish, who in three hundred years in the Philippines left all undone the most important step in civilization. One can drive almost completely around Tahiti on ninety miles of a highway passable at most times of the year, and bridging a hundred times the streams which rush and purl and wind from the heights to the ocean.

The streets of Papeete have no plan. They go where they list and in curves and angles, and only once in a mile in short, straight stretches. They twist and stray north and south and nor’nor’west and eastsou’east, as if each new-comer had cleft a walk of his own, caring naught for any one else, and further dwellers had smoothed it on for themselves.

I lost myself in a maze of streets, looked about for a familiar landmark, strolled a hundred paces, and found myself somewhere I thought a kilometer distant. Everywhere there are shops kept by Chinese, restaurants and coffee-houses. The streets all have names, but change them as they progress, honoring some French hero or statesman for a block or two, recalling some event, or plainly stating the reason for their being. All names are in French, of course, and many are quaint and sonorous.

As the sea-wall grew according to the demands of defense or commerce the sections were rechristened. The quai des Subsistances tells its purpose as does the quai de l’Uranie. The rue de l’Ecole and the rue de la Mission, with the rue des Remparts, speak the early building of school and Catholic church and fortifications.

Rue Cook, rue de Bougainville and many others record the giant figures of history who took Tahiti from the mist of the half-known, and wrote it on the charts and in the archives. Other streets hark back to that beloved France to which these French exiles gaze with tearful eyes, but linger all their years ten thousand miles away. They saunter along the rue de Rivoli in Papeete, and see again the magnificence of the Tuileries, and hear the dear noises of la belle Paris. They are sentimental, these French, patriots all here, and overcome at times by the flood of memories of la France, their birthplaces, and their ancestral graves. Some born here have never been away, and some have spent a few short months in visits to the homeland. Some have brown mothers, half-islanders; yet if they learn the tripping tongue of their French progenitor and European manners, they think of France as their ultimate goal, of Paris their playground, and the “Marseillaise their himene par excellence.

One might conjure up a vision of a tiny Paris with such names in one’s ears, and these French, who have been in possession here nearly four-score years, have tried to make a French town of Papeete.

They have only spoiled the scene as far as unfit architecture can, but the riot of tropical nature has mocked their labors. For all over the flimsy wooden houses, the wretched palings, the galvanized iron roofing, the ugly verandas, hang gorgeous draperies of the giant acacias, the brilliant flamboyantes, the bountiful, yellow allamanda, the generous breadfruit, and the uplifting glory of the cocoanut-trees, while magnificent vines and creepers cover the tawdry paint of the facades and em-bower the homes in green and flower. If one leaves the few principal streets or roads in Papeete, one walks only on well-worn trails through the thick growth of lantana, guavas, pandanus, wild coffee, and a dozen other trees and bushes. The paths are lined with hedges of false coffee, where thrifty people live, and again there are open spaces with vistas of little houses in groves, rows of tiny cabins close together. Every-where are picturesque disorder, dirt, rubbish, and the accrued wallow of years of laissez-aller; but the mighty trade-winds and the constant rains sweep away all bad odors, and there is no resultant disease.

“My word,” said Stevens, a London stockbroker, here to rehabilitate a broken corporation, “if we English had this place, would n’t there be a cleaning up ! We ‘d build it solid and sanitary, and have proper rules to make the bally natives stand around.”

The practical British would that. They have done so in a dozen of their far-flung colonies I have been in, from Singapore to Barbadoes, though they have failed utterly in Jamaica. Yet, I am at first sight, of the mind that only the Spanish would have kept, after decades of administration, as much of the simple beauty of Papeete as have the Gauls. True, the streets are a litter, the Government almost unseen as to modern uplift, the natives are indolent and life moves without bustle or goal. The republic is content to keep the peace, to sell its wares, to teach its tongue, and to let the gentle Tahitian hold to his island ways, now that his race dies rapidly in the spiritual atmosphere so murderous to natural, non-immunized souls and bodies.

Many streets and roads are shaded by spreading mango-trees, a fruit brought in the sixties from Brazil, and perfected in size and flavor here by the patient efforts of French gardeners and priests. The trees along the town ways are splendid, umbrageous masses of dark foliage whose golden crops fall upon the roadways, and which have been so chosen that though they are seasonal, the round mango is succeeded by the golden egg, and that by a small purple sort, while the large, long variety continues most of the year. Monseigneur Jaussen, the Catholic bishop who wrote the accepted grammar and dictionary of the Tahitian language, evolved a delicious, large mango, with a long, thin stone very different from the usual seed, which occupies most of the circumference of this slightly acidulous, most luscious of tropical fruits. Often the pave is a spatter of the fallen mangos, its slippery condition of no import to the bare-footed Tahitian, but to the shod a cause of sudden, strange gyrations and gestures, and of irreverence to-ward the Deity.

Scores of varieties of fruits and flowers, shade-trees, and ornamental plants were brought to Tahiti by ship commanders, missionaries, officials, and traders, in the last hundred years, while many of the indigenous growths have been transplanted to other islands and continents by those whose interests were in them. The Mutiny of the Bounty, perhaps the most romantic incident of these South Seas, was the result of an effort to transport breadfruit-tree shoots from Tahiti to the West Indies. It is a beautiful trait in humankind, which, maybe, designing nature has endowed us with to spread her manifold creations, that even the most selfish of men delight in planting in new environments exotic seeds and plants, and in enriching the fauna of far-away islands with strange animals and insects. The pepper- and the gum-tree that make southern California’s desert a bower, the oranges and lemons there which send a million golden trophies to less-favored peoples, are the flora of distant climes. Since the days of the white discoverers, adventurers and priests, fighting men and puritans, have added to the earth’s treasury in Tahiti and all these islands.

Walking one morning along the waterfront, I met two very dark negresses. They had on pink and black dresses, with red cotton shawls, and they wore flaming yellow handkerchiefs about their woolly heads. They were as African as the Congo, and as strange in this setting as Eskimos on Broadway. They felt their importance, for they were of the few good cooks of French dishes here. They spoke a French patois, and guffawed loudly when one dropped her basket of supplies from her head. They were servants of the procureur de la Republique, who had brought them from the French colony of Martinique.

Many races have mingled here. One saw their pigments and their lines in the castes; here a soupcon of the French and there a touch of the Dane; the Chileno, himself a mestizo, had left his print in delicacy of feature, and the Irish his freckles and pug, which with tawny skin, pearly teeth, and the superb form of the pure Tahitian, left little to be desired in fetching and saucy allurement. Thousands of sailors and merchants and preachers had sowed their seed here, as did Captain Cook’s men a century and a half ago, and the harvest showed in numerous shadings of colors and variety of mixtures. Tahiti had, since ship of Europe sighted Orofena, been a pasture for the wild asses of the Wanderlust, a paradise into which they had brought their snakes and left them to plague the natives.

There were phonographs shrieking at one from a score of verandas. The automobile had become a menace to life and limb. There were two-score motorcars in Tahiti; but as the island is small, and most of them were in the capital, one met them all the day, and might have thought there were hundreds. Motor-buses, or “rubberneck-wagons,” ran about the city, carrying the natives for a franc on a brief tour, and, for more, to country districts where good cheer and dances sped the night. A dozen five- and seven-passenger cars with drivers were for hire. Most nights until eleven or later the rented machines dashed about the narrow streets, hooting and hissing, while their carefree occupants played accordions or mouth-organs and sang songs of love. Louis de Bougainville, once a French lawyer, and afterward soldier, sailor, and discoverer and a lord under Bonaparte, had a monument in a tiny green park hard by the strand and the road that, beginning there, bands the island. He is best known the world about because his name is given to the “four-o’clock” shrub in warm countries, as in Tahiti, which sends huge masses of magenta or crimson blossoms climbing on trellises and roofs. I walked to this monument from the Tiare along the mossy bank of a little rivulet which ran to the beach. It was early morning. The humble natives and whites were about their daily tasks. Smoke rose from the iron pipes above the houses, coffee scented the air, men and women were returning from the market-place with bunches of cocoanuts, bananas, and bread-fruit, strings of fish and cuts of meat in papers, Many of them had their heads wreathed in flowers or wore a tiare blossom over an ear.

The way in which one wears a flower supposedly signifies many things. If one wore it over the left ear, one sought a sweetheart; if over the right, it signified contentment, and though it was as common as the wearing of hats, there were always jokes passing about these flowers, exclamations of surprise or wishes of joy.

“What, you have left Terii?”

“Aita. No.”

“Aue! I must change it at once.”

Now, really there was no such idea in the native mind. It was invention for tourists. The Tahitian wears flowers anywhere, always, if he can have them, and they do express his mood. If he is sad, he will not put them on; but if going to a dance, to a picnic, or to promenade, if he has money in his pocket, or gaiety in his heart, he must bloom. Over one ear, or both, in the hair, on the head, around the neck, both sexes were passionately fond of this age-old sign of kinship with nature. The lei in Hawaii around the hat or the neck spells the same meaning, but the flood of outsiders has lost Hawaii all but the merest remnant of its ancient ways, while here still persisted customs which a century of European difference and indifference has not crushed out. Here, as there, more lasting wreaths for the hat were woven of shells or beads in various colors.

As I strolled past the houses, every one greeted me pleasantly.

“la ora na,” they said, or “Bon jour!” I replied in kind. I had not been a day in Tahiti before I felt kindled in me an affection for its dark people which I had never known for any other race. It was an admixture of friendship, admiration, and pity—of affection for their beautiful natures, of appreciation of the magnificence of their physical equipment, and of sympathy for them in their decline and inevitable passing under the changed conditions of environment made by the sudden smothering of their instinctive needs in the sepia of commercial civilization. I saw that those natives remaining, laughing and full of the desire for pleasure as they were, must perish because unfit to survive in the morass of modernism in which they were sinking, victims of a system of life in which material profits were the sole goal and standard of the rulers.

The Tahitians are tall, vigorous, and superbly rounded. The men, often more than six feet or even six and a half feet in height, have a mien of natural majesty and bodily grace. They convey an impression of giant strength, reserve power, and unconscious poise beyond that made by any other race. American Indians I have known had much of this quality when resident far from towns, but they lacked the curving, padded muscles, the ease of movement, and, most of all, the smiling faces, the ingratiating manner, of these children of the sun.

The Tahitians’ noses are fairly flat and large; the nostrils dilated ; their lips full and sensual ; their teeth perfectly shaped and very white and sound; their chins strong, though round ; and their eyes black and large, not brilliant, but liquid. Their feet and hands are mighty —hands that lift burdens of great weight, that swing paddles of canoes for hours; feet that tread the roads or mountain trails for league on league.

The women are of middle size, with lines of harmony that give them a unique seal of beauty, with an undulating movement of their bodies, a coordination of every muscle and nerve, a richness of aspect in color and form, that is more sensuous, more attractive, than any feminine graces I have ever gazed on. They have the forwardness of boys, the boldness of huntresses, yet the softness and magnetism of the most virginal of their white sisters. One thinks of them as of old in soft draperies of beautiful cream-colored native cloth wound around their bodies, passed under one arm and knotted on the other shoulder, revealing the shapely neck and arm, and one breast, with garlands upon their hair, and a fragrant flower passed through one ear, and in the other two or three large pearls fastened with braided human hair.

The men never wore beards, though mustaches, copying the French custom, are common on chiefs, preachers, and those who sacrifice beauty and natural desires to ambition. The hair on the face is removed as it appears, and it is scanty. They abhor beards, and their ghosts, the tupapau, have faces fringed with hair. The usual movements of both men and women are slow, dignified, and full of pride.