The Polynesians came from south-east Asia and after thousands years of migration first settled the islands of what is now known as French Polynesia. They went on exploring the ocean and settled on new lands among which Easter island, Hawai’i and New Zealand. This is the odyssey we want to tell you through a series of articles. In this issue, we embark on a journey in the wake of the Polynesian goddess named Pele…
Mai Kahiki ka wahine o Pele, Mai ka ‘āina i Polapola, Mai ka pūnohu ‘ula a Kāne, Mai ke ao lalapa i ka lani, Mai ka ‘ōpua lapa i Kahiki
From Kahiki came the woman Pele, From the land called Polapola, From the red rainbow of Kāne, From the high blazing clouds of the sky, From the flashing cloud at Kahiki
This is how the mele o Pele, one of the oldest traditional Hawaiian chants relates the arrival of the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands. According to it, Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, and her party came over to Hawai’i aboard big double-hulled canoes. Tradition has it that this fire goddess named Pere in Tahiti was born in the valley of Papeno’o to Haumea, the goddess of fertility, and Kāne. She had 7 brothers and 6 sisters ; the most famous are Hi’iaka, the patron goddess of hula -the hawaiian dance- and Nā-Maka-O-Kaha’i, a sea goddess with whom Pele was always at odds.
After a family dispute Pelehonuamea departed from Tautira, a district located on the lesser peninsula of Tahiti. These events are recorded in Tahitian place names, from Papeno’o on the north coast where the meteorite Te ‘Ōpūrei a Pere can be seen up to the Fenua ‘aihere on the southern limit. In the village of Tautira the gathering place still bears the name Ti’ara’a o Pere, which means Where Pele stands. Pele and her party fled their angry sister Nā-Maka-O-Kaha’i, and travelled to one island after another in search of new lands where they could settle. Their brother Ka-moho-ali’i the shark-god guided them and they stopped in many islands in the south – Tūpai in the Leeward islands, Fakarava in the Tuamotus, and Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas – before they finally headed North. Many gods were on board among whom Kū, the god of war, and Lono, the god of farming and fertility. The group survived Pele’s sister’s attacks, sailed across the Pacific ocean and finally discovered Hawai’i.
When they arrived there, Pele stopped on Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, Oahu, Moloka’i, then on Maui and finally on Hawai’i. On those islands, the hot-tempered goddess was tormented by her sister who sent big waves to smother the flames of her volcanic house obliging Pele to go even farther east until she eventually found a permanent residence in Kilauea, a volcano on the big island of Hawai’i.
Archeological and DNA evidence
Thanks to archeology and genetics technologies, the scientists proved that the Hawaiian islands were settled in several migratory waves from different islands and spaced in time. According to the most recent estimates the Hawaiian archipelago was peopled by Polynesians coming from the Marquesas islands and then from the Society islands between 800 AD-1200 AD during what scholars name « Foundation period ». The Polynesians, descendants of the Lapita people, arrived on board big double-hulled canoes on which women, children, pigs, fowl and plants were embarked.
Among those plants, there were useful, edible, tinctorial or medicinal plants that are still used on the islands. The kalo/taro (Colocasia esculenta) is one of them ; this tuber is still cultivated in taro patches called lo’i, in particular on Kaua’i and Maui, and every part of it can be eaten ; the roots, but also the stalks and leaves called laulau that are a local delicacy. The wauke/’aute (Broussonetia papyrifera) is the murlberry tree whose inner bark was beaten into tapa, a most favoured cloth in olden days. The Polynesians also brought along the ‘awa/kava (Piper methysticum) whose roots once mashed and put to soak in water provide a ceremonial drink, the sweet potato or ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas), and the calabash called ipu (Lageneria siceraria) ; contrary to the other plants the latter two are not native of Asia but of the American continent, and give further evidence, if need be, that the Polynesians definitely were great navigators !
The earliest known settlement ever studied in the archipelago is located on the south point of the big island of Hawai’i, also the southernmost point in the United States, in a place called Ka Lae. There, old canoe mooring holes drilled in the rocks can still be seen. The oral tradition has it that lots of canoes got drowned there where the ocean currents are particularly strong. Besides, the archeologists stated that the fishhooks found on the site are similar to those found in the Marquesas, in the Society islands and in Wairau in New Zealand.
Beyond myths and stories
Her journey from west to east is coherent with the chronology of the birth of the archipelago and comes along with feats like the creation of mountains or craters : Haleakala on the island of Maui, Kohe-lepe-lepe (Koko crater) and Leahi (Diamond Head) on Oahu, or Mauna Kea and Kilauea on Hawai’i. Beyond the fabulous narrative, the myth also relates the history of a clan coming from South Pacific searching for big volcanic islands, the clan of Pele, whose descendants are among the strongest proponents of Hawaiian culture who make it a point to collect the oral traditions in relation with this clan, to trace their history and perpetuate their old traditions. Some experts of the Hawaiian sky think that the mele o Pele applies to the stars and gives directions enabling to trace the path followed by the ancient navigators. According to them Kahiki/Tahiti which can be translated by the edge or the exterior could refer not to the island of Tahiti but to a point in the sky outside a specific zone. What’s more, on board a canoe, Polapola –Bora Bora- is the deck between the two hulls, and in the sky, it refers to the « deck » between two stars or two constellations. In addition to this the hardened stone plates floating on lava are called vaka –va’a in Tahitian-, meaning canoes…
The story of Pele is not the only one that hints at first settlements. The myth of the Menehune also evokes early people, supposedly small, dark-skinned and very skilled, in particular on the island of Kaua’i. There the Menehune are said to be the builders of huge works among which the large Alekoko fish pond and the Menehune ditch in Waimea on the west coast of the island. According to the same stories when new Polynesian immigrants arrived the Menehune had to seek refuge in the valleys. Similar stories can be heard elsewhere in Polynesia – Samoa, Tahiti…- where the Menehune are said to have first settled the islands. It’s worth noticing that menehune is the equivalent of the Tahitian manahune meaning commoners occupying the lowest social rung.
In the traditional Polynesian society, the manahune formed the lowest social class and they were assigned the most difficult tasks ; for these reasons the word was a disparaging one. When Cook and his men discovered the islands in late 18th century their local informants told them of the menehune, the humblest commoners. The Europeans may have mistaken those « low-grade » people for « small-sized » folks. This is at least the opinion of oral tradition experts who consider this somewhat recent myth as one of the many misunderstandings that often occur in a culture-clash context. Let’s also remember that one of those misunderstandings led to James Cook’s death in Kealakekua Bay on February 14th 1779…
A sense of belonging to a larger world
The links between Ra’iātea and the Hawaiian islands are a recurrent theme in folklore, in the stories of ari’i –chiefs- Hawai’iloa and Mo’ikeha for instance, but the Marquesan heritage is the most obvious, especially in the native language which makes use of k like the Marquesans when locals from the Society islands –except Maupiti- use t or the glottal stop. As an example, fish would be i’a in the Society islands, and ika in the Marquesas and in Hawai’i. The relations between Tahiti, the Society islands and Hawai’i are more recent as evidenced by the genealogies and also the presence of marae –places of worship- called heiau in Hawaiian. When Polynesian people migrated an important marae could be transposed on new lands via foundation stones from that marae. This was the case with marae Taputapuātea located in Ōpoā on the island of Ra’iātea and dedicated to ‘Oro, the god of fertility and war ; that’s why the name Kapukapuākea can be found in the Polynesian Trianle, for example in New Zealand and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
The Hawaiian islands are no exceptions ; there can be found the placename Kapukapuākea on Oahu, Kaua’i and Moloka’i. It sometimes refers to a heiau, a sacred place, of which, unfortunately, little remains. But what remains for sure is the feeling of belonging to a wider world the centre of which would be in the southern islands, probably in Hawaiki, Ra’iātea… In the light of these interpretations, one can easily understand that stories and History are always intertwined making it sometimes difficult to get access to the bare chronological scientific truth but, who cares ? As, in the end, the winner is always the reader who thus has the opportunity to imagine, dream and escape…
Text: Josiane Teamotuaitau / Pictures: Danee Hazama
The DJ Bob Sinclar performed in Papeete in front of a captivated audience of 3,000. This was a premiere and successful event that our airline was happy to support. The international star of dance music more than fell under the charms of our islands where he stayed for a vacation. Here is an interview.
Under which circumstances were you asked to perform in Tahiti?
Bob Sinclar: It was thanks to Florian and his Synergence agency that I was able to come here. My friend Joachin Garraud, DJ and David Guetta’s producer, had come a few months earlier to perform in Papeete with the same organization. He drove me crazy telling me about his experiences. As an artist, it is very important to team up with good partners in order to guarantee the success of an event.
Why did you accept knowing even though we are located so far away from Europe?
I love to explore new places and share my music throughout the world. There isn’t anywhere too far away these days. Traveling is easy and much more accessible. I have been wanting to come here for several years. I had to also coordinate the right time with the right sponsor in order to guarantee a great show. Even after I heard great things from my DJ friends who came to Tahiti, I still wondered if people would like my music. There is always an eager audience on islands. Huge events are rare so an artist must not ever ever miss such an opportunity.
What did Tahiti evoke for you before coming here?
In my head, Tahiti has always been paradise on earth—the ultimate destination for the voyage of a lifetime as told through stories, songs, photos and films with Brando, Brel, Lelouch and many others.
Did your discovery of our islands meet your expectations?
This went beyond anything I could have hoped for because the love I received is indescribable with words. I have played in a lot of places throughout my career, but I have never felt so much joy. From the airport to my last minute on the island, everything was a string of intense moments.
What struck you the most?
The simplicity and energy of the Tahitian people. Happiness was on the agenda—from curried mahi mahi at Coco Beach of Moorea to visiting the three waterfalls with the sublime Océane Duchemin, from swimming in the Bassin de la Reine to staying on the island of Tetiaroa, from eating sushi at the Vahinerii Tea House up until the craziness of the magical evening when I played my music. Every single moment was unforgettable.
Do you have any thoughts about our landscapes and environment?
The landscapes are idyllic. This is paradise, however there is a particular energy of completeness and well-being that is emitted from the island. I became captivated by the mana. I understand now why so many artists stayed and never returned home. You can sense a quality of life.
Which peak moments do you remember most from your stay?
How can I pick one when every minute was filled with joy! A sunset over Tetiaroa. My song “Love Generation” sung by 3,000 people. Locking eyes with a golden-skinned vahine. The perfume of a Tiare Tahiti flower in my hair. The giggles over a soufflé with Florian and Narii. A handshake from the mayor thanking me for being there. This is so much love for just one man and so many other moments…
Did your contact with the public go well?
Necklaces of flowers and a powerful Hakka when I arrived and necklaces of tears and shells for my departure! Every restaurant until the end of my performance and every minute was a magical experience
Are you satisfied with the concert you presented and was the public receptive to your music?
When I play in a new location, I always put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t ever forget that I am just a DJ and not a singer or part of a band. I only have a musical journey to offer but I want it to go as smoothly as possible. I want for that moment to be a communion and exchange of unique energy and each piece of music is programmed in this way. Open air events are challenging because I have to have the wow factor and captivate the energy without releasing the pressure. There are not just clubbers or fans of my music on the dance floor, but also people just out to have a good time. It is important to not let anyone down. On that particular night, there was a magnificent feeling of love.
Did you expect such enthusiasm? 3,000 people attended the show, which is quite a significant number considering the population of our islands.
I did not expect such a response. We had a limited capacity for 3,000 people, yet we could have sold 4,000 tickets. It is unbelievable. Thanks to Synergence, the Office of Tourism, the kindness of Michel Buillard and the mayor of Papeete and his entire entourage, we were able to create a fantastic event. I can’t wait to come back !
Are you surprised that your music is so popular here while in Tahiti we have musical history and traditions that are very different from Europe?
Music is love and all the feelings of life. It unites people throughout the entire world. I was not surprised because music from the islands is often based on percussions and traditional songs. My music has always been fused. I constantly seek to blend rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean and Jamaica as well as African-American beats that are often based on drums and Gospel music.
Speaking of traditional Polynesian music, did you have the chance to experience it a little?
When I arrived here, I was welcomed with ma’öhi songs, the pig dance and the bird dance. About fifty warriors sang one after another in perfect chorus. It was a tribal chant that will be perfect on one of my productions.
Are you satisfied with your voyage with Air Tahiti Nui?
Everything was perfect. I had the chance to travel in Business Class with all the advantages that go with it, including comfort and the kind welcome of the crew.
Would you like to come back?
I am coming back as soon as possible. It is a question of survival ! There is no doubt I will spend a year here as a tourist or as an artist, with all my heart. UA HERE VAU IA OUTOU TAHITI !
Interview compiled by Ludovic Lardière
The Tara Expeditions Foundation organizes scientific missions to study and understand the impact of climate change and the ecological crisis facing the world’s oceans. These scientific expeditions are led in collaboration with world-renowned scientific institutions and laboratories. Since 2003, ten expeditions have been led across the world. The foundation also strives to increase environmental awareness among the general public and young people, notably through several educational programs (http://oceans.taraexpeditions.org/m/education/). Further, the Tara Expeditions Foundation develops a long-term advocacy plan to mobilize society and encourage politicians to take action towards solutions that we all need for the wellbeing of the planet.
Since May 2016, the schooner Tara has been embarking on a new expedition entitled “Tara Pacific 2016-2018: the biodiversity of coral reefs in face of climate change.” After crossing the poles and all the planet’s oceans, the ship will travel the Pacific Ocean for more than two years with an interdisciplinary scientific team onboard, coordinated by the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) and the Scientific Center of Monaco (CSM). Their objective is to examine in an unprecedented way the biodiversity of coral reefs and their development in face of climate change and anthropic pressures, which means human-caused.
Interactions that challenge scientists
On coral reefs, Scleractinian (“hard-rayed”) corals are the foundation of the ecosystem, creating a 3-dimensional structure that is home to thousands of animal species. However, on the reefs, you can also find coralline algae, crust-forming red algae which follow hard coral as the second-largest reef-building organism. Laetitia Hédouin explains that, “These algae form a limestone slab that acts as cement, welding all the elements of the reef together. However, the importance of coralline algae goes much further—some species seem to attract coral larvae, enabling their recruitment.” If adult colonies are attached to a benthic substrate, i.e. at the bottom of the water, the younger life stages of the coral pass through a bentho-pelagic phase during which the coral larvae are able to stay in the water column from a few days to several weeks until they find the appropriate substrate to settle in and metamorphose.
Lagoons, external slopes of atolls and biodiversity
The second research team is intrigued by the connection between the lagoon and the external slopes. A typical Polynesian atoll formation consists of a coral ring that encircles a lagoon linked to the open sea via a pass. Numerous species of fish take advantage of the lagoon in order to develop. They enter the lagoon during the larval stage and leave it once they become adults. The lagoon also contains many nutrients, unlike the outer ocean environment. The following question was asked in terms of atolls: is there a connection between the presence of a lagoon and the particular varieties, or fish biomass, of the external slopes of the reef? Since the lagoon is the calmest and most accessible location, it is also most impacted by humans. If human activity were to become too congested in the lagoon areas, one might question the effect this would have on external slopes. French Polynesia offers the unique opportunity to study open atolls (traditional type), closed atolls (a lagoon without a pass) and filled atolls (no lagoon) within the same territory.
The atolls of French Polynesia: a multitude of unique islands
These two scientific components of the Tara Pacific Expedition were completed in October and it is still too early to discuss the final results. However, researchers are able to determine some very interesting initial assessments over our atolls. For Laetitia Hédouin, the preliminary observations led to an appreciation of the variability between the different explored atolls. Even though they were not too far from each other, these atolls possess a variety of underwater landscapes in terms of coral cover and an abundance and diversity of coralline algae that is strikingly different for each of them. For the first time, a list of 25 species of coralline algae was able to be compiled during this scientific mission. As far as the Valeriano team, it was able to assess that the three atoll morphologies did not display major differences as far as diversity of species or quantity of fish present. However, significant differences appeared in regards to the composition of species. In general, the atolls without a lagoon have a weaker biomass of larger species in comparison to atolls with a lagoon; especially those with an open lagoon, such as Haraiki and Motutunga. Valeriano’s hypothesis is that communication between the external slope and the lagoon could enable a more productive food chain, resulting in the presence of larger fish. These two missions highlight the identity of each atoll. These rings of sand and coconut trees, which all seem to look alike from the air, show us just how unique each atoll is through these scientific studies.
What is unique about this expedition is that first of all, it entails a transversal approach across a very wide geographical area containing more than 40% of the coral reefs on the planet. This type of approach has never been carried out on such a large scale. According to Serge Planes, CNRS researcher and scientific director of the expedition, “Tara Pacific will explore each reef’s genomic, genetic, viral and bacterial biodiversity in order to compare it to the biodiversity of the water surrounding it. The goal is to get a real sense of the overall diversity of a coral colony.” This research will also bring new insights into the still unknown role that the biological, chemical and physical setting can have on the life of coral colonies and their capacity to adapt to changes in the environment.
According to recent studies, coral larvae do not affix themselves just anywhere on the substrate and they prefer certain areas were coralline algae are present. Maggy Nugues (EPHE/CRIOBE), a specialist in benthic algae and co-director of the mission, reminds us that, “One of the objectives of the Tara Pacific Expedition throughout the Tuamotu Islands is to study these specific connections between coralline algae and coral. This is the first time that such a study has been led on location in French Polynesia. The main idea is to study all the microorganisms associated with coralline algae and to get a general understanding of the process through which the algae enable the binding of coral larvae.”
The scientific team led by Laetitia Hédouin consisted of six scientists with complementary expertise (from bacteria on coralline algae to molecular biology and ecology). For 15 days, they explored six islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago: Faaite, Tahanea, Katiu, Makemo, Marutea and Hikueru. A first team of two divers assessed the abundance and diversity of coralline algae by identifying the species present along a 10 meter-long segment. A second team of three divers collected young coral (coral recruits smaller than 2 cm) in a pre-defined area of 50 cm² and collected five samples of the four most common species of coralline algae. The collected samples were identified on board Tara to determine both the coral genus and the coralline algae species. The interaction was noted—was the coral attached to the coralline algae or within proximity? Some samples were also stored and sent to Genoscope (https://www.genoscope.cns.fr/spip/), the sponsoring analysis laboratory for the Tara Pacific Expedition, in order to identify the microbiome, which refers to all microorganisms living in association with coralline algae and corals. From his end, the mission led by Valeriano assembled 6 researchers who took samples from eight atolls from three morphologies: three with filled lagoons – Akiaki, Nukutavake and Tikei; three with closed lagoons – Vahitahi, Vairaatea, Hiti; and two open lagoons — Haraiki and Motutunga. Every day, the scientists covered 4 transects* 50X5m to 10 meters deep on the external slope of each atoll. They had to identify and count all the species of fish they encountered from the bottom all the way to the surface.
* A transect is a narrow section or corridor where measurements are taken, usually consisting of a surface between 25 or 50 meters long and 2, 4 or 5 meters wide, used to count fish species or marine invertebrates. There is also the transect line which is part of the substrate where everything located under the line is described (for example: Acopora from 0 to 15 cm; Porites from 15 to 50 cm, etc.). This same transect can be transformed into a transect point where instead of continuously re-counting, one point every 50 cm or every meter is taken into account.
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.
7 November 2017 in Culture
As capital of our islands and the heart of Tahiti, Papeete’s surprising assortment of architecture reflects its rich history as a melting pot, its evolutions and revolutions. Here is a discovery of Papeete.
Architecture in French Polynesia underwent major changes after the second half of the 19th century, notably with the urban planning of the city of Papeete for business and military reasons. Let’s go back even further in time. At the very beginning of the 19th century, the arrival of Christian missionaries on our islands was synonymous with major architectural upheavals that were only visible through religious buildings such as cathedrals, churches, and temples. However, these structures did use materials from nature such as coral, natural fibers, or earth. As far as dwellings, Polynesians have long preferred wood as a primary building material. The abundance and diversity of wood in most of the islands made it a readily available resource for people who took risks through building homes on stilts with large openings in areas near the ocean or rivers, and therefore prone to humidity. Climate conditions and French Polynesian industrialization led to using new types of materials, including concrete and sheet metal.
Puzzle, patchwork and melting pot…
Papeete can be compared to a giant puzzle, an architectural patchwork or melting pot, in which one can play a game to try and pinpoint all the different influences it has had, and all the different eras that the island has experienced. The buildings are somewhat stratified, and each building bore witness to the exact moment it appeared. This chaotic impression that spreads throughout the city may be difficult for many tourists to grasp at first glance, yet perhaps this is what adds to the city’s character and essence that make it so unique. Papeete is possibly one of the best examples of how its people live. In the words of epic poet Horace, only today counts, no one worries about tomorrow. Carpe diem. Seize the day! The architecture has three major influences. There is the Chinese influence due to the large number of French Polynesians who are of Chinese descent. Next is the historic colonial influence from November 6, 1843 when the Pomare Chiefdom became a French colony, until 1946 when Tahiti became a French overseas territory. Finally, there is the modern influence that has deeply etched the development of Papeete’s urban landscape with concrete, which was necessary to build very quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.
French Polynesia’s colonial past constitutes an important part of Papeete’s history. It in fact marked the architectural landscape of Tahiti and the islands in a lasting way. Today, it represents a legacy worth keeping at all costs because the remaining structures have become rare. Most of the few buildings that survived hurricanes and the 1914 bombing of Papeete by German warships in the Pacific have been restored. As far as French Polynesia’s colonial architecture, some elements are more or less constant, such as colonnades, which are usually out of metal, and a four-sloped roof covered with Romanesque tiles. There is also the use of two main colors for the façade, or even still, an accent color for the trim and angles.
The city of Papeete is far from being what most first time visitors to Tahiti expect. It is nothing like the clichés of the Polynesian straw dwellings, or fare, which are used to promote French Polynesia all over the world. Despite all this, Papeete still deserves the benefit of the doubt. Once visitors overcome any first impression of a disorganized city in which buildings seem to just exist for their own sake without taking into consideration what is around them, it still contains some little surprises for those who know how to look for them. A sneak peak follows.
French Polynesia underwent two waves of Chinese immigration. One occurred around 1863, and the other during the first quarter of the 20th century. This Chinese presence is easily identifiable when looking at Papeete. Numerous buildings are scattered around that have more or less pronounced Asian features.
7 November 2017 in Surf
Surfing is also a woman’s affair in Tahiti. Vahine, the Tahitian word for women, also have a special relationship with the ocean and nature. They are becoming more numerous in surfing, even if they have a preference for spots on the beach. Stand up paddle boarding is extremely popular with women. Local competitions are slowly starting to take place. The image of a vahine on a surf board or on a stand up paddle board is somewhat of a dream…
Tahiti is also the place where the stars of women’s surfing come to train, and they do not lack for anything. Hawaiian surfer Keala Kennely is seen as a distinctive surfer. She took a fall on a medium wave at Teahupo’o in 2012 and injured her face. She took a photo that created a buzz on the internet. This didn’t stop her from coming back to Teahupo’o in 2013 to do tow-in surfing…Another figure out of the norm of women’s surfing is Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton, the great promise in elite level surfing. She lost an arm in a shark attack in Hawai’i and still continues to surf with one arm.
On the competition side, Marie Christine Sanford shone during the 1990s in international challenges, then Patricia Rossi during the 2000s. Today, the next in line to these pioneers is assured by Lanikai Maro and Karelle Poppke. They want to stake their place on the international competition circuits, but competition is tough, because women’s elite level surfing is very well advanced. However, we must remember Karelle’s excellent performance in Nicaragua, when she recently finished second in the junior world championships.
In April 2013, the Vahine Pro Junior, an international competition, took place at Taharu’u beach in Papara. The Tahitians were up against the Australians, and it is the Australians who had the final word. Outside of competitions, the vahine can be seen at the surf spots. They definitely have the intention to make their place in this world, much to the admiration of male surfers. Michel Bourez tells us what he thinks about women’s surfing: “There are more girls surfing now. Back in my day, there were only about five. It was considered more of a masculine sport, and now local girls are killing it. They have more of a desire to succeed since the women’s surfing tour has become even bigger, and now they know they can make a living of it. I think they want to succeed financially, but I think it is harder for a girl coming from Tahiti.” “It was hard enough for me being a guy…with the girls, there are fewer competitions, so they have a smaller impact on the world of surfing. This is just the beginning. It has only been five years since women’s surfing has increased in popularity and become more interesting. [The vahine] need to travel. They need to move around, for if they just stay here, they won’t make it [in the surfing world]. Lanikai is a very good surfer, and so is Karelle Poppke. These are two names that jump out at me. I wish them, and women’s surfing in general, a great future.”
24 July 2017 in Culture
Present all over the world, Polynesian works of art expose our culture and allow it to shine far beyond our islands. Discover this chief’s no’oanga, a superb 19th century stool from the island of Rurutu. It was recently sold at auction at Sotheby’s Paris for a million Euros!
Recently many people have asked me, how is it possible that somebody, in their right mind, would pay ONE MILLION EUROS for a small wooden stool from Rurutu? For those of you, who do not know what I am talking about; on June 22th 2016 Sotheby’s, Paris, sold an early 19th Century no’oanga (a chief’s stool) coming from the Austral Island of Rurutu in French Polynesia. This piece was estimated 500,000-700,000 Euro. The hammer price was 900,000 Euros plus Sotheby’s commission, which brought the total price up to 1,083,000 Euros. I personally thought that it would sell for more…
Joseph Banks, the young very wealthy English botanist, paid 10,000 pounds to sail with Captain James Cook on his first voyage of enlightenment to the Pacific. In 1769, Cook and Banks discovered the island of Ohitiroa (long side), which the indigenes and their neighbors called Rurutu. Banks wrote: “Of the few things we saw among these people every one was ornamented infinitely superior to anything we had seen before.”
But, what are the important factors which determine the price of an object? First, the rarity of the piece in question: this is one of only seven known no’oangas. Second, the quality of the piece: this most elegant stool was cut from a solid block of wood. The legs have hemispherical feet and the ends of the seat have a most elegant everted curve. This masterpiece was carved with stone tools and shells. To accomplish the magnificent reddish brown patina, the surface must have been polished with sand and oil. This no’oanga was sculpted out of Calophyllum Inophyllum (Guttiferae Family), the Polynesians call this tree either tamanu or ati. It’s totally modern design reveals the avant-garde Polynesian techniques for that time and the purity of its lines, this is what makes it so very special. Third, the provenance of the piece. In 1821 the London Missionary Society decided to send a Deputation of two (Reverend Daniel Tyerman and a layman George Bennet of Sheffield, England,) around the world to report on the progress made in the mission fields.
From 1821 to 1829, Tyerman and Bennet traveled an amazing 90,000 miles, passing some three years in Polynesia. On September 30, 1822, Tyerman, Bennet and William Ellis (a missionary from Hawaii) arrived on Rurutu. Having survived the dangerous landing, they were welcomed by King Teuruarii (” aged about eighteen “), his queen, and the infant, their son – and by all the people of Rurutu, about three hundred individuals. The Rurutuans gave Bennet this no’oanga. On October 4th they returned to their base in Huahine (Society Islands.) Two days later Bennet wrote on the underside of this no’oanga, “Geo Bennet, Oct 6 1822 Rurutu made” (Montgomery 1831) This proves to me that he wanted to keep this piece in his collection, permanently. In 2006 this piece was exhibited in Norwich, England at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Pacific Encounters, Art and Divinity in Polynesia. Than in 2008, this piece was exhibited in Paris at the musée du quai Branly, Polynésie, Arts et Divinités 1760-1860. This Polynesian Masterpiece was purchased over the telephone, by an extremely happy private European Collector.
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff