Isolated in the heart of the South Pacific with island landscapes as stunning as they are rugged, the Marquesas are fascinating and magnetic. This reputation is due in part to famous writers and artists who, by the mid-19th century, had already spread the word about these lands. Let’s follow in their footsteps to revisit the origin of the myth.
In 1595, the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña accidentally fell upon Fenua Enata which he named the Marquesas after his patron the Marquis de Cañete. Sailing into the bay of Vaitahu at Tahuata in the southern isles, the Spanish crew interpreted the islanders’ curiosity towards their strange objects as nothing less than thievery. Consequently, the Spanish crew left Vaitahu killing 200 of the islanders. In 1774, the next foreigner, Captain James Cook, arrived 179 years later. In 1779, the English ship Duff brought over the first missionaries from The London Missionary Society. They were sent to the Marquesas to deliver the message of the Lord’s salvation. The missionaries viewed Marquesans as “poor creatures,” sub-humans needing to be shown the true light.
Herman Melville was the first true genius writer to visit the Marquesas, although he was not a writer when he arrived there. Shortly after his father’s death, the family business went bankrupt. In 1841, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, he wanted to get far away. Melville found work onboard the American whaling ship, Acushnet. This was his big chance to escape everything he knew and hated. Unfortunately, he was not happy with the daily routine onboard this ship. In 1842 when he and a fellow shipmate Richard Tobias Greene arrived in the bay of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, they deserted the ship. Unbeknownst to them, a French fleet was completing France’s annexation of the islands on the other side of Nuku Hiva. For four months, they divided their time between Taioha’e and the nearby valley of Taipi. In 1846, Melville’s first book Typee (the name he gave to the Taipi valley) was published. It was more or less the autobiography of his time spent there, combined with information he read from Captain James Cook and others. This book was promoted as Melville’s “authentic adventures in this cannibal valley” and established his reputation as a writer. During his lifetime, Melville was best known for Typee. This was the first book to romanticize and promote the myth of the Marquesas. It was filled with the most exotic images of Marquesans and the beautiful Vahiné Fayaway, who was the first Polynesian maiden to make men dream. Why, you even sat in on a wild cannibal feast. Today Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick is considered the great American classic novel. He believed that once upon a time, “Marquesans were barbaric heathens who were given these titles by the first arriving Westerners, both those colonizing and those documenting.” He believed that a horrendous crime had been committed against these people and thought that their happiness had come to an end. He was anti-missionary, anti-colonialism and positively in favor of Rousseau’s “noble savage.” For Herman Melville, the Marquesas was a great source of inspiration for his writing.
As a child, Pierre Loti (born Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud, 1850- 1923) became obsessed with Polynesia through the letters he received from his older brother Gustave, a French naval doctor who lived in Tahiti for two years. These letters told of the “paradise-like landscape with coconut trees lining the shore and everlasting tropical weather.” The future Pierre Loti was quickly lured by the charm of Tahiti. At 17, he joined the French Navy. As part of his naval training, he was sent to the South Pacific. In 1872, he lived in Papeete, Tahiti for two months. During this time, he visited the Marquesas where he produced some fabulous drawings of Queen Vaékéhu. People said that it was at this time he “went native.” Even though he only spent sixty-three days in Polynesia, it was long enough to inspire him with sufficient material for his first book The Marriage of Loti. Some people see this book as a romantic love story, others as Colonialism at its height. Actually, he was mourning the disappearance of the old Tahiti, starting with the arrival of Western Civilization. This first book, a bestseller, helped introduce him to the grand public. The name Loti was bestowed upon him by Queen Pomare of Tahiti after his mispronunciation of “roti” (a rose) and the name Pierre was given to him by Sarah Bernhardt. He was the youngest person ever elected to the French Academy, the highest French honor given in the field of literature, beating Emile Zola…
A Journey to the Marquesas…
This year, I visited the Marquesas. I wanted to see for myself how well these four people who put the Marquesas on the map were remembered. My research was rather simple. I only asked four questions: Have you ever heard of Herman Melville? Have you ever heard of Pierre Loti? Have you ever heard of Robert Lewis Stevenson? Have you ever heard of Paul Gauguin? My research started on board an Air Tahiti plane when I flew from Papeete to the island of Hiva Oa, Gauguin’s final resting place. His tomb and the tomb of the Belgian singer Jacques Brel are what most tourists ask to see first. The name of the Hiva Oa airport is Tohia Manu Hiva Oa-Jacques Brel. Jacques Brel once said, “Time stops still in the Marquesas.” I started my research with a beautiful twenty year-old Marquesan girl who sat next to me on the plane. She was studying Economics at the university in Tahiti. She knew who Gauguin was, but for the three others, she shook her head smiling, replying “I don’t know.” During the next five days, I questioned boys, girls, men and women ranging from 22 to 75 years old. In total, I asked thirty people. With the exception of four people, not one knew the three writers, and the other four might have been bluffing! Every person I questioned on Hiva Oa knew Gauguin and everyone told me that he was a kind, good man, somebody you could ask for help and never be refused. My next stop was Nuku Hiva, the largest island in the Marquesas. Even with a Herman Melville stele in the center of town, only the guides seemed to know him and nobody I questioned knew Loti or Stevenson. A Marquesan steward (48) on my Air Tahiti Nui flight to Paris explained that the schools never taught Marquesan or Tahitian history! Students were only taught the magnificence of France and the French. If they were caught speaking Marquesan between themselves, their hands were physically punished. On the next leg of my trip to Paris, I met four young Marquesan men 22-26 years-old with the same answer. But these men wanted to know all about Melville, Loti and Stevenson. One even went as far as to say, “Maybe one day I could teach this part of our history in our schools.” Another laughingly replied, “No, our ancestors were Gaulois.” Every Marquesan knows Chief Iotete of Tahuata, Chief Kiatonui of Taiohae, Pakoko, and Chief Keikahanui of Hatiheu. Do you know any of these four famous Marquesans?
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff
Often I am asked: “Why during the second half of the nineteenth century, did so many writers and painters go to the Marquesas, a remote Archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean?” Five words say it all: “the ultimate escape from civilization.” Once there, they could see “the other” and witness the demise of this endangered “species!” I have chosen three famous writers, Herman Melville, Pierre Loti, Robert Louis Stevenson and the most famous artist, Paul Gauguin, who all visited the Marquesas and helped create the Marquesan myth. What were their reasons for going to this remote lost Archipelago?
Robert Lewis Stevenson
Robert Lewis Stevenson arrived in the Marquesas in 1888. He was hired by a New York newspaper, the New York SUN, to write about his South Sea travels. He was hoping that the mild tropical climate would improve his poor failing health condition. He spent more than one month in the Marquesas and consequently devoted the first part of his book In the South Seas to this Archipelago. Once there, the Marquesas became a source of inspiration for his writing. In the South Seas is a travelogue telling of his incredible adventures and the amazing stories of Marquesan history, ethnology and folklore that he collected from local Marquesans. “Its infamous repute perhaps affected me; but I thought it the loveliest, and by far the most ominous and gloomy spot on earth,” quoted Robert Louis Stevenson.
Without any doubt, Paul Gauguin was the most famous visitor to the Marquesas.
This 1892 painting, Mata Mua (In Olden Times), exemplifies Gauguin’s vision of a happy, idyllic pagan worshipping world which unfortunately disappeared before he arrived in Polynesia. In the foreground, two women with lost looks on their faces reflect upon how fabulous life was before the Missionaries arrived in Polynesia. Reminiscent of the olden times, three happy women dance in the background in front of a statue of Hina (the Goddess of the moon). The Missionaries banned idol worship and dancing. All throughout his life, Gauguin searched for something he could never find. That something was a primitive lifestyle, far away from the industrial revolution and its lifestyle changes. First he thought that he could find that primitive way of life in a French artist colony in Pont Aven, France. By the time he left, Pont Aven tourists were arriving daily in buses. He wanted “to get away from everything which was fake.” His good friend Vincent van Gogh told him about a best selling book he had just read by Pierre Loti, The Marriage of Loti. This seemed to be exactly what he was looking for all of his life. Loti described Polynesia as tropical islands where nobody worked, all the fish in the sea were free and fruit on the trees was free. There were topless women and free love! Upon leaving for Polynesia, Gauguin wrote the following “I am leaving in order to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilization. I want only to do simple, very simple art, and to be able to do that, I have to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thought in mind but to render, the way a child would, the concepts formed in my brain and to do this with the aid of nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true.” In June 1891 when Gauguin first arrived in Tahiti, he was extremely disappointed. Papeete was like a small French town in some secluded part of France, ruled under a strict French Administration. In fall 1901, Gauguin made his second voyage to Tahiti. This time he settled in Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, nine hundred miles away from Tahiti. This is where he died and is buried.