Tahiti – Discovery Of Tahiti

WHAT did Tahiti hold for me? I thought vaguely of its history. The world first knew its existence only about the time that the American colonies were trying to separate them-selves from Great Britain. An English naval captain happened on the island, and thought himself the first white man there, though the Spanish claim its discovery. The Englishman called it King George Island, after the noted Tory monarch of his day ; but a Frenchman, a captain and poet, the very next spring named it the New Cytherea, esteeming its fascinations like the fabled island of ancient Greek lore. It remained for Captain James Cook, who, before steam had killed the wonder of distance and the telegraph made daily bread of adventure and discovery, was the hero of many a fireside tale, to bring Tahiti vividly before the mind of the English world. That hardy mariner’s entrancing diary fixed Tahiti firmly in the thoughts of the British and Americans. Bougainville painted such an ecstatic picture that all France would emigrate. Cook set down that Otaheite was the most beautiful of all spots on the surface of the globe. He praised the people as the handsomest and most lovable of humans, and said they ept when he sailed. That was to him of inestimable value in appraising them.

About the beginning of the nineteenth century the first English missionaries in the South Seas thanked God for a safe passage from their homes to Tahiti, and for a virgin soil and an affrightingly wicked people to labor with. The English, however, did not seize the island, but left it for the French to do that, who first declared it a protectorate, and made it a colony of France, in the unjust way of the mighty, before the last king died. They had come ten thousand miles to do a wretched act that never profited them, but had killed a people.

All this discovery and suzerainty did not interest me much, but what the great captains, and Loti, Melville, Becke, and Stoddard, had written had been for years my intense delight. Now I was to realize the dream of childhood. I could hardly live during the days of the voyage.

I remembered that Europe had been set afire emotionally by the first reports, the logs of the first captains of England and France who visited Tahiti. In that eighteenth century, for decades the return to nature had been the rallying cry of those who attacked the artificial and degraded state of society. The published and oral statements of the adventurers in Tahiti, their descriptions of the unrivaled beauty of the verdure, of reefs and palm, of the majestic stature of the men and the passionate charm of the women, the boundless health and simple happiness. in which they dwelt, the climate, the limpid streams, the diving, swimming, games, and rarest food—all these had stirred the depressed Europe of the last days of the eighteenth and the first of the nineteenth centuries beyond the under-standing by us cynical and more material people. The world still had its vision of perfection.

Tahiti was the living Utopia of More, the belle ile of Rousseau, the Eden with no serpent or hurtful apple, the garden of the Hesperides, in harmony with nature, in freedom from the galling bonds of government and church, of convention and clothing. The reports of the English missionaries of the nakedness and ungodliness of the Tahitians created intense interest and swelled the chorus of applause for their utter difference from the weary Europeans. Had there been ships to take them, thousands would have fled to Tahiti to be relieved of the chains and tedium of their existence, though they could not know that Victorianism and machines were to fetter and vulgarize them even more.

Afterward, when sailors mutinied and abandoned their ships or killed their officers to be able to remain in Tahiti and its sister islands, there grew up in England a literature of wanderers, runagates, and beach-combers, of darkish women who knew no reserve or modesty, of treasure-trove, of wrecks and desperate deeds, piracy and blackbirding, which made flame the imagination of the youth of seventy years, ago. Tahiti had ever been pictured as a refuge from a world of suffering, from cold, hunger, and the necessity of labor, and most of all from the morals of pseudo-Christianity, and the hypocrisies and buffets attending their constant secret infringement.

One morning when we were near the middle of our voyage I went on deck to see the sun rise. We were that day eighteen hundred miles from Tahiti and the same distance from San Francisco, while north and west twelve hundred miles lay Hawaii. Not nearer than there, four hundred leagues away, was succor if our vessel failed. It was the dead center of the sea. I glanced at the chart and noted the spot: Latitude 10° N.; Longitude 137° W. The great god Ra of the Polynesians had climbed above the dizzy edge of the whirling earth, and was making his gorgeous course into the higher heavens. The ocean was a glittering blue, an intense, brilliant azure, level save for the slight swaying of the surface, which every little space showed a flag of white. The evaporation caused by the blazing sun of these tropics made the water a deeper blue than in cooler latitudes, as in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans the greens are almost as vivid as the blues about the line.

I watched the thousand flying-fishes’ fast leaps through the air, and caught gleams of the swift bonitos whose pursuit made birds of their little brothers. Then, a few miles off, I saw the first vessel that had come to our eyes since we had sunk the headlands of California more than a week before. She was a great sailing ship, under a cloud of snowy canvas, one of the caste of clippers that fast fades under the pall of smoke, and, from her route, bound for the Pacific Coast from Australia, The captain of the Noa-Noa came and stood beside me as we made her out more plainly, and fetching the glasses, he glanced at her, started, and said in some surprise:

“She ‘s signaling us she wants to send a boat to us. That ‘s the first time in thirty years in this line I have ever had such a request from a windjammer. She left her slant to cross our path.”

Half a mile away a beautiful, living creature, all quivering with the restraint, she came up into the eye of the wind, and backed her fore-yard. A boat put off from her, and we awaited it with indefinable alarm. It was soon at the gangway we had hastily lowered, unknowing whether woman or child might not be our visitor. It was a young Russian sailor whose hand had been crushed under a block a fortnight before, and who, without aid for his injury other than the simple remedies that make up the pharmacopoeia of sailing vessels, was like to die from blood-poisoning. Had our ship not been met, he would undoubtedly have perished, for no other steamer came to these points upon the chart, and, as we were to learn, his own ship did not reach her port for many weeks. He was a mere boy, his face was drawn with continued pain, but, with the strong repression of emotion characteristic of the sailor, he uttered no sound. The passengers, relieved from silent fears of any catastrophe aboard the sailing ship, and perhaps salving their souls for fancied failure toward the drowned Leung Kai Chu, crowded to fill the boat with books, fruit, and candy, and to help the unfortunate boy. When he had been made comfortable by the surgeon, he was overwhelmed with presents.

My vis-a-vis at table, Herr Gluck, a piano manufacturer of Munich, was a follower of Horace Fletcher, the American munching missionary. Unlike the Swiss, who craved raw food, Herr Gluck ate everything, but each mouthful only after thorough maceration, salivation, and slow deglutition. At breakfast he absorbed a glass of milk and a piece of toast, but took longer than I did to bolt melon, bacon and eggs, toast, coffee, and marmalade. He sold the pianos his family had made for a hundred years, and munched all about the world. He professed rugged health, and never tired of dancing; but he looked drawn and melancholy, and had naught of the rugged masculinity of the bolters. Once or twice he drank in my company a cocktail, and he munched each sip as if it were mutton. He would occupy the entire dinner-time with one baked potato. I was endeared to him because I had known his master, Fletcher, and with him, too, had chewed a glass of wine in the patio of the Army and Navy Club in Manila. I longed to pit the Swiss and Herr Gluck in argument, but in sober thought had to give the laurel to the latter, because, in case of stress, one might, with his system, live on a trifle, while raw, nourishing food might be difficult to get in quantity.

Most of the passengers were Australians and New-Zealanders returning home, and only a few were bound for Tahiti—the Tahitian women, the Swiss, Hallman and his son, and M. Leboucher, a young merchant, born there, of a Spanish mother. William McBirney of County Antrim, but long in Raratonga, an island two days’ steaming from Tahiti, was going back to his adopted home.

“Sure,” he said, “I ‘m never happy away from the sound of the surf on the reef and the swish of the cocoa-nuts. I was fourteen years in the British army in England when I made up my mind to quit civilization. I put it to the missus, a London woman, and she was for it. I ‘ve had nearly ten years now in the Cook group.

D ‘ye know, I ‘ve learned one thing—that money means very little in life. Why, in Aitutaki you can’t sell fish. The law forbids it, but do you suppose people don’t fish on that account? Why, a man goes out in his canoe and fishes like mad. He brings in his canoe, and as he approaches the beach he ‘s blowing his pit, the conch-shell, to let people know he has fish. Fish to sell or to barter? Not at all. He wants the honor of giving them away. Now, if he makes a big catch, do you see, he has renown. People say, `There’s Taiere, who caught all those fish yesterday.’ That ‘s worth more to him than money. But if he could sell those fish, if there was competition, only the small-minded, the business souls, would fish. I ‘m not a socialist, but Aitutaki shows that, released from the gain, man will serve his fellows for their plaudits. And, mind you, no person took more fish than he needed. There was no greed.”

“That ‘s rot!” broke in Hallman, who entered the smoking-room. “The natives are frauds. You’ve got to kick ‘em around or bribe ‘em to do any work. haven’t I lived with ‘em twenty years? They ‘re swine.”

“It depends on what you bring them and what you seek,” said McBirney. “Ah, well, it ‘s getting too civilized in Raratonga. There ‘s an automobile threatening to come there, though you could drive around the island in half an hour. And they ‘re teaching the Maoris English. I must get away to the west’ard soon. It ‘s a fact there are two laws for every inhabitant.”

Would I, too, “go native”? Become enamored of those simple, primitive places and ways, and want to keep going westward? Would I, too, fish to be honored for my string? Would I go to the Dangerous Archipelago, those mystic atolls that sent to the Em-press Eugenie that magnificent, necklace of pearls she wore at the great ball at the Tuileries when the foolish Napoleon made up his mind to emulate his great name-sake and make war? Would I there see those divers who are said to surpass all the mermen of legend in the depths they go in their coral-studded lagoons in search of the jewels that hide in gold-lipped shells? Was it for me to wander among those fabulous coral isles flung for a thousand miles upon the sapphire sea, like wreaths of lilies upon a magic lake?

The doldrums brought rain before the southeast wind came to urge us faster on our course and to clear the skies. Now we were in the deep tropics, five or six hundred miles farther south than Honolulu, and plunging toward the imaginary circle which is the magic ring of the men who steer ships in all oceans. Our breeze was that they pray for when the wind alone must drive the towering trees of .canvas toward Australia from America.

The breeze held on while games of the formal tournaments progressed, and prizes were won by the young and the spry.

One night I came on deck when the moon had risen an hour, and saw as strange and beautiful a sight as ever made me sigh for the lack of numbers in my soul. A huge, long, black cloud hung pendent from midway in the sky, with its lower part resting on the sea. It was for all the world of marvels like a great dragon, shaped rudely to a semblance of the beast of the Apocalypse, and with its head lifted into the ether, so that it was framed against the heavens. The moon was in its mouth; the moon shaped like an eye, a brilliant, glowing, wondrous orb, more intensely golden for its contrast with the ominous blackness of the serpentine cloud. I felt that I had found the origin of the Oriental fable. Some minutes the illusion held, and then the cloud lowered, and the moon, alone against a pale-blue back-ground, the horizon a mass of scudding draperies of pearly hue, lit the ocean between the ship and the edge of the world in a tremulous and mellow gilded path.

There was dancing on the boat-deck, the Lydian measures of the Hawaiian love-songs, those passionate melodies in which Polynesian pearls have been strung on European filaments, filling the balmy air with quivering notes of desire, and causing dancers to hold closer their partners. The Occident seemed very far away; even older people felt the charm of clime that had come upon them, and laughter rang as stories ran about the group in the reclining-chairs.

The captain, though grim .from a gripping religion that had squeezed all joy from his scripture-haunted soul, added an anecdote to the entertainment.

“Passing from Fiji to Samoa,” he said, “I had to leave the mail at Nivafou, in the Tongan Islands. It is a tiny isle, three miles long by as wide, an old crater in which is a lagoon, hot springs, .and every sign of the devastation of many eruptions. The mail for Nivafou was often only a single letter and a few newspapers. We sealed them in a tin can, and when we met the postmaster at sea, we threw it over. He would be three miles out, swimming, with a small log under arm for support, and often he might be in company with thirty or forty of his tribe, who, with only the same slight aids to keeping afloat, would be fishing leisurely. They carried their tackle and their catch upon their shoulders, and appeared quite at ease, with no concern for their long swim to shore or for the sharks, which were plentiful. They might even nap a little during the middle afternoon.”

“When our people wanted to sleep at sea,” said McBirney, “if there were two of them, though we never bothered to take along logs, one rested on the other’s shoulder.”.

One listened and marveled, and smiled to think that, had one stayed at home, one might never know these things. Forgotten was the wraith of Leung Kai Chu, the jungle trail of Hallman, and even the trepidation with which we had awaited the sailing ship’s boat. I was soon to be in those enchanted archipelagoes, and to see for myself those mighty swimmers and those sleepers upon the sea. I might even get a letter through that floating postmaster.

There was a Continental duchess aboard, whom I pitied. She was oldish and homely, and could n’t forget her rank. She had a woman companion, an honorable lady, a maid, and a courier, but she sat all day knitting or reading poor novels. She had nothing to do with the other passengers, eating with her companion at an aloof table, and sitting before her own cabin, apart from others. The courier and I talked several times, and once he said that her Highness was much interested in a statement I had made about the origin of the Maori race, but she did not invite me to tell her my opinion directly. Poor wretch! as Pepys used to say, she was entangled in her own regal web, and sterilized by her Continental caste.

For days and nights we moved through the calm sea, with hardly more than the sparkling crests of the myriad swelling waves to distinguish from a bounded lake these mighty waters that wash the newest and oldest of lands. It seemed as if all the world was only water and us. The ship was as steady in her element as a plane in those upper strata of the ether where the winds and clouds no longer have domain. The company in a week had found themselves, and divided into groups in which each sought protection from boredom, ease of familiar manners, and opportunity to talk or to listen.

Often when all had left the deck I sat alone in the passage before the surgeon’s cabin to drink in the coolness of the dark, and to wonder at the problem of life. If a man had not his dream, what could life give him? In his heart he might know by experience that it never could come true, but without it, false as it might be, he was without consolation.

One night, the equator behind, I saw the Southern Cross for the first time on the voyage, its glittering crux, with the alpha and beta Centaur stars, signaling to me that I was beyond the dispensation of the cold and constant north star, and in the realm of warmth and ever changing beauty.

Tahiti, the second Sunday out, was a day off. I arose Monday with a feeling of buoyancy and expectancy that grew with the morning. I was as one who looks to find soon in reality the ideal on earth his fancy has created. The day became older, and the noontide passed. I had gone forward upon the forecastle head to seize the first sign of land, and was leaning over the cathead, watching the flying-fish leaping in advance of the bow, and the great, shining albacore throwing themselves into the rush of our advance, to be carried along by the mere drive of our bows.

I drew a deep breath of the salt air when there came to me a new and delicious odor. It seemed to steal from a secret garden under the sea, and I thought of mermaids plucking the blossoms of their coral arbors for the perfuming and adornment of their golden hair. But sweeter and heavier it floated upon the slight breeze, and I knew it for the famed zephyr that carries to the voyager to Tahiti the scents of the flowers of that idyllic land. It was the life vapor of the hinano, the tiare and the frangipani exhaled by those flowers of Tahiti, to be wafted to the sailor before he sights the scene itself, the breath of Lorelei that spelled the sense of the voyager. No shipwrecked mariner could have felt more poignancy in his search for a hospitable strand than I on the plunging prow of the Noa-Noa in my quest through the bright sunshine of that afternoon for the haven of desire. I strained my eyes to see it, to realize the gossamer dream I had spun since boyhood from the leaves of beloved poets.

It was shortly after three o’clock that the vision came in reality, more marvelous, more exquisite, more unimaginable than the conception of all my reveries-a dim shadow in the far offing, a dark speck in the lofty clouds, a mass of towering green upon the blue water, the fast unfoldment of emerald, pale hills and glittering reef. Nearer as sailed our ship, the panorama was lovelier. It was the culmination of enchantment, the fulfilment of the wildest fantasy of wondrous color, strange form, and lavish adornment:

The island rose in changing shape from the soft Pacific sea, here sheer and challenging, there sloping gently from mountain height to ocean sheen; different all about, altering with hiding sun or shifting view its magic mold, with moods as varied as the wind, but ever lovely, alluring, new.

I marked the volcanic make of it, cast up from the low bed of Neptune an eon ago, its loftiest peaks peering from the long cloud-streamers a mile and a half above my eyes, and its valleys embracing caverns of shadow. It was a stupendous precipice suspended from the vault of heaven, and in its massive folds secreted the wonders I had come so far to see. Every minute the bewildering contours were transmuted by the play of sun and cloud and our swift progression toward the land.

Red spots appeared rare against the field of verdure where the mountain-side had been stripped naked by erosion, and the volcanic cinnabar of ages contrasted oddly with the many greens of frond and palm and hill-side grove. Curious, fantastic, the hanging peaks and cloud-capped scarps, black against the fleecy drift, were tauntingly reminiscent of the evening skies of the last few days, as if the divine artist had sketched lightly upon the azure of the heavens the entrancing picture to be drawn firmly and grandly in beetling crag and sub-lime steep.

Most of all, as the island swam closer, the embracing fringe of cocoanut-trees drew my eyes. They were like a girdle upon the beautiful body of the land, whose lower half was in the ocean. They seemed the free-waving banners of romance, whispering always of nude peoples, of savage whites, of ruthless passion, of rum and missionaries, cannibals and heathen altars, of the fierce struggle of the artificial and the primitive. I loved these palms, brothers of my soul, and for me they have never lost their romantic significance.

From the sea, the village of Papeete, the capital and port, was all but hidden in the wood of many kinds of trees that liesbetween the beach and the hills. Red and gray roofs appeared among the mass of growing things at almost the same height, for the capital rested on only a narrow shelf of rising land, and the mountains descended from the sky to the very water’s-edge. Greener than the Barbadoes, like malachite upon the dazzling Spanish Main, Tahiti gleamed as a promise of Elysium.

A lighthouse, tall minister of warning, lifted upon a headland, and suddenly there was disclosed intimately the brilliant, shimmering surf breaking on the tortuous coral reef that banded the island a mile away. It was like a circlet of quicksilver .in the sun, a quivering, shining, waving wreath. Soon we heard the eternal diapason of these shores, the constant and immortal music of the breakers on the white stone barrier, a low, deep, resonant note that lulls the soul to sleep by day as it does the body by night.

Guardian sound of the South Seas it is, the hushed, echoic roar of a Jovian organ that chants of the dangers of the sea without, and the peace of the lagoon within, the reef.

A stretch of houses showed—the warehouses and shops of the merchants along the beach, the spire of a church, a line of wharf, a hundred tiny homes all but hidden in the foliage of the ferns. These gradually came into view as the ship, after skirting along the reef, steered through a break in the foam, * a pass in the treacherous coral, and glided through opalescent and glassy shallows to a quay where all Papeete waited to greet us.

The quay was filled with women and men and children and dogs. Carriages and automobiles by the score attended just outside. Conspicuous above all were the Tahitian and part-Tahitian girls. In their long, graceful, waistless tunics of brilliant hues, their woven bamboo or pandanus hats, decorated with fresh flowers, their feet bare or thrust into French slippers, their brown eyes shining with yearning, they were so many Circes to us from the sea. They smiled and looked with longing at these strangers, who felt curious thrills at this unknown openness of promise.

Louis de Bougainville wrote in his diary at his first coming to -Tahiti a hundred and fifty years ago :

The boats were now crowded with women, whose beauty of face was equal to that of the ladies of Europe, and the symmetry of their forms much superior.

Leboucher called to his mother. “Madre mia! Como estas to?”

Cries rang out in French, in Tahitian and in English. Islanders, returning, demanded information as to health, business ventures, happenings. Merry laughter echoed from the roof of the great shed, and I felt my heart suddenly become joyous.

The girls and women absorbed the attention of passengers not of Tahiti. The New-Zealanders of the crew called excitedly to various ones. Most of the men passengers, tarrying only with the vessel, planned to see a hula, and they wondered if any of those on the wharf were the dancers.

A white flower over the ear seemed a favorite adornment, some wearing it on one side and some on the other. What struck one immediately was the erect carriage of the women. They were tall and as straight as sunflower-stalks, walking with a swimming gait. They were graceful even when old. Those dark women and men seemed to fit in perfectly with the marvelous back-ground of the cocoas, the bananas and the brilliant foliage. The whites appeared sickly, uncouth, beside the natives, and the white women,, especially, faded and artificial.

The Noa-Noa was warped to the wharf, and I was within a few feet now of the welcoming crowd and could discern every detail.

Those young women were well called les belles Tahitiennes. Their skins were like pale-brown satin, but exceeding all their other charms were their lustrous eyes. They were very large, liquid, melting, and indescribably feminine—feminine in a way lost to Occidental women save only the Andalusians and the Neapolitans. They were framed in the longest, blackest, curly lashes, the lashes of dark Caucasian children. They were the eyes of children of the sun, eyes that had stirred disciplined seamen to desertion, eyes that had burned ships, and created the mystery of the Bounty, eyes of enchantresses of the days of Helen.

“Prenez-garde vous!” said Madame Aubert, the invalid, in my ear.

Mixed now with the perfumes of the flowers was the odor of cocoanuts, coming from the piles of copra on the dock, a sweetish, oily smell, rich, powerful, and never in foreign lands to be inhaled without its bringing vividly before one scenes of the tropics.

The gangway was let down. I was, after years of anticipation, in Tahiti.