The Marquesas Islands

Michael Pitts charts the rise and fall of the Marquesas Islands, which lie well off the main Pacific shipping lanes

7 mins

On Hiva Oa – forests of escaped hothouse experiments, red soil, black cliffs, little rock of harsh, terrifying beauty ploughing the Pacific – is a museum to Paul Gaugin. Actually it’s more of a souvenir shop, that comes to life like one of those desert plants waiting for rain. It may look dead: but here are the tourists, a few dozen a month in sudden bursts, and the windows and doors open, the card racks and woodcarvings come out and, hopefully, the cash piles up. There are photos of Gaugin’s drawings, diary extracts, a mingling smell of must and fresh-inked pareos (long, coloured fabric wraps).

For a brief moment, three paintings seem to be original Gaugins: but of course, market values would prohibit hanging the real things. A closer look reveals small plaques. These reproductions are gifts of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique. 3,500 km from Hawaii and Easter Island and 1,300 km from Moruroa, the Marquesas weep like orphaned children.

You may not be able to place the Marquesas Islands without a little hesitation (on the map of my current issue of Wanderlust, they are somewhere between the editorial credits and the office cat). On the other hand, you are probably familiar with at least some of its western visitors – Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jacques Brel, Thor Heyerdahl and Gaugin himself among them. Recently Gavin Young (in Slow Boats Home) and Paul Theroux both made the northerly detour from Tahiti required to reach these remote isles of French Polynesia. For they are still not on an international route.

If you think about it, this is a remarkable roll-call of writers and artists for a dozen islands that few have heard of. The men were all escapees. Theroux left behind a broken marriage and an operation for possible carcinoma. Stevenson fled bronchitis, Brel – epitome of romantic Parisian club singer and poet, a hero in France but little known in the English speaking world – ran from the cancer that nonetheless followed him out. Heyerdahl was supposed to be conducting a botanical survey for his sponsors, but instead played native with his new wife. Melville literally jumped ship, four years later arguing, in a Hawaiian court, the injustices of an American whaler.

Whatever their personal stories, they were all, too, escaping Western society. The Marquesas, distant and perhaps the most beautiful islands anywhere (certainly there can be none more so), have been the ultimate foil to grey-skied urban sophistication. “I am leaving for peace,” sighed Gaugin, “to be free of the influence of civilisation.” A double tragedy, then, to find tears in the surf and blood in the hibiscus blooms.

Sex and survival

“It is rather curious,” wrote Ralph Linton in a now classic archaeological study, “in view of the sexual habits of the Marquesans, that their [stone] figures are singularly free from obscenity.” A Marquesan transported to the Christian West might have found an opposing contradiction, with an iconography of bestiality, sadism, erotic fantasy and more lurking behind a puritanical mythology.

But don’t underestimate sex. Partly by learning their language, the American Robert Suggs and his nurse wife between them gained the confidence of locals when they were conducting archaeological excavations in the 1950s. What to many outsiders seemed immoral or just bizarre behaviour, they found to have its own rules and logic. And humour, too. The Suggs’s heard how boys kept the sliver of bamboo over which their foreskin was stretched for incision. Buried upright just below the ground, the bamboo gave powers over any woman who walked over it; a power which a boy could recognise from the instant erection he would get at the sight of an ensnared girl. The key was to find the right hiding place for maximum effect. The Suggs’s were told that several generations of bamboos were buried in the churchyard on Nuku Hiva – unknown to any missionaries, who were no doubt pleased with the size of their female congregations.

In fact, the impact of Europe in the Pacific could be written as a tale of pornographic intrigue. Early ships’ crews were greeted by parties of naked women eager to bestow sexual favours. Incidents of gang rape and murder followed. Alien mores were imposed, traditional sex went underground, and people were forced into prostitution until diseases nearly saw them all off. At which point, enter the romantic French poet and sun-loving travel writer.

The full story, however, begins with the arrival of the first people of all, then Polynesians from Tahiti and the other Society Islands (perhaps via the Tuamotus), only later to become ‘Marquesans’. The current view among archaeologists is that this colonisation would have resulted from deliberate, highly organised voyaging (no disappearing over the horizon with a bag of fresh water, a few sandwiches and a “I’ll let you know if I find land”).

The push for this island grabbing, an extended episode unparalleled in human history, came from the west. Reaching Fiji some three and a half thousand years ago, outrigger canoes found the Marquesas a millennium later: the oldest dated archaeological sites in eastern Polynesia are on Nuku Hiva and Ua Huka. A thousand years after that, it is thought, Marquesan explorers discovered the Hawaiian archipelago to the north, and Easter Island to the south. These people knew about navigating the Pacific.

They also knew about survival. Animal remains from excavations in the Marquesas indicate a pattern common to many Pacific islands. The first settlers relied heavily on the sea for food, eating fish, turtles, porpoises and birds. The Marquesas have no fringing lagoons or coral reefs, so new deep-sea fishing techniques were experimented with. But the local marine ecology was not adapted to such an aggressive carnivore, and within a few generations, people had to rely increasingly on their own grown crops and reared animals – all imported, the latter including pigs, dogs, and (perhaps a stowaway on the first canoes, but nonetheless apparently eaten) rats.

Unlike several Pacific islands, the Marquesas suffer only rarely from cyclones. But they are peculiarly subject to major droughts, and the converse, heavy flooding, is common. To cope with the resultant unpredictability of food crops, a system was developed for long-term storage of one of the staples, breadfruit. Naturally fermented mush could last for decades in leaf-lined pits. As the population grew, the need for these pits must have increased. Marquesan terrain is precipitous. A pattern of settlement developed centred on the deep valleys. Intervening ridges were often so steep and high that communities thrived in isolation from each other, dependent on what they could grow for themselves. Forest can cling to almost anything, but the most ingenious terracing has its limits, and cultivable land would have been rapidly used up. When a people outgrew their valley’s capacity, they had to fight it out. Breadfruit pits then acquired a new siege role in ridge-top fortifications.

Forgotten in the forest

For the modern visitor, the former extent of settlement in the islands is striking. Today a village or two cling to a landing bay or jetty, scanning the horizon for the next freighter, while dense jungle hangs menacingly behind. Go exploring in that forest, however, and you find remains everywhere: massive stone house platforms, terraced tracks, forts, indecipherable engraved messages on mossy black boulders.

Tikis, the stone figures which Linton found curiously sexless (or, as Theroux has it, suffered the removal of pertinent protrusions by missionaries) guard deserted temples like well-trained but forgotten dogs. They are variable in size and appearance (the largest, at Puamau on Hiva Oa, stands more than 2m tall), but have in common a bug-eyed frog look, and with their bent knees and exaggerated heads are typical of carvings more usually found in wood over a wide area of Polynesia: a tradition that had its final megalithic fling on Easter Island.

According to early reports, the me’ae, as the temples were known, were witness to human sacrifice and cannibalism. Sometimes they are found in vast ceremonial grounds, or tohua, where anything from harvests to new tattoos were celebrated with singing and dancing. At Taipivai (Melville’s “Typee”), on Nuku Hiva, there is a ritual terrace 170m long cut into the hillside. In the dripping, mosquito infested semi-darkness, these overgrown monuments make a deep impression on a mind more attuned to clipped grass, neat labels and turnstiles. The determined explorer could, without doubt, discover sites whose importance has been unrecognised since their abandonment. So where did all those people go?

European arrivals

Old colonial and missionary churches often have a special charm. Remote sitings imposed severe restrictions on available building materials (these days, of course, helicopters take out the whole granite and concrete works). Compromises with lightweight sheet iron, local timbers and thatch, produced some gorgeously delicate structures, which might still stand furnished with no more than their sparse nineteenth century altar, pedal organ and hand-hewn utility pews stained with generations of gecko droppings.

The church on Tahuata, the smallest of the six inhabited Marquesan islands, does not have this charm. Polygonal walls are ill-proportioned, windows misplaced and wooden fittings clumsily designed: this is municipal architecture with a heavy hand. The humidity is as overpowering inside as out. I scan the walls in vain for a gesture of elegance, and find only a framed history, punched out on an antique typewriter with much use of capital letters and exclamation marks.

It starts on 5 August 1595, honouring The First Mass in Polynesia, celebrated by the Spanish who named the islands after their Peruvian viceroy’s wife, la Marquesa de Mendoza. In 1838, the first French Catholic missionaries arrive. King Maheono and his spouse are baptised in 1844 (two years after France’s annexation). “but the situation remains difficult.”

“1849. the cross is beaten. the island plunges back into paganism.” In 1874, coconut alcohol ravages, but by the end of the 19th century, despite everything, the “archipelago becomes christian and french is spoken better than in tahiti!” Finally, in 1988, the present church is consecrated.

Stuck on the wall above the typed history is a much-faded hand written note – like the former, in French. “This is not,” I struggle to read, “a general history of our island or its people, its culture and its events.”

Back to frame one. Sailing from Peru in the San Jeronimo, Alvaro de Mendaña came across the southern Marquesas in July 1595. For reasons that are now impossible to describe, his crew shot dead over 200 islanders. And to encourage the rest, three were strung up in the bay where the church now stands. As a further souvenir of the mass held on 5 August, three tall wooden crucifixes were planted in the land that had never before seen an European. And then began the fall.

Missionaries gutted religion; colonial bureaucracy strangled traditional values; trade depleted food reserves, and alcohol and diseases stole lives. The Marquesans were already fighting each other over resources when the hungry European machine intruded, and were just not in a position to defend themselves. Ceremonies that taught social and sexual behaviour collapsed.

Venereal diseases (a traditional footprint of whaling crews) were endemic in entire communities for over a century before the French government made any serious attempt at eradication. On one occasion in 1863, some smallpox-infected crew from an European ship were dumped at Taiohae on Nuku Hiva. An epidemic swept the islands, leaving 40% of the population dead. Records for 1894 show 6% of all Marquesans had leprosy. What to us are relatively innocuous diseases, like flu and tuberculosis, wreaked havoc. During the first quarter century of French administration, alcohol killed around 500 islanders.

Robert Suggs estimated an 18th-century population peak of 100,000. This plummeted throughout the next century, until in 1929 a census could barely find 2000 Polynesians. Although the total numbers have grown since then, some observers believe there may now be no pure native Marquesans at all. The story can be matched in many details elsewhere in the Pacific: but the horrific scale of the decline may be unique.

The nuclear age

This century, critical attention has focussed on France’s nuclear testing programme, with claims of radioactive leaks and ecological disruption. The immediate impact of the industry on Polynesians, however, has been economic. Ironically, now that testing has ended (probably permanently) the damage will become more apparent. And it is islands furthest from Papeete, the capital on Tahiti, that will suffer most. Islands like the Marquesas.

To maintain its testing facility on Moruroa, France poured money into the territory. The purpose was not to ‘develop’ Polynesia so much as to buy out protest or independence movements. The entire economy rests on import duties. Electronic goods of the type needed at your local nuclear testing plant attracted the highest rates – 250%. Supplemented by aid grants, these taxes supported an exceptional standard of living for Polynesians in work, and the huge contingent of French expatriates.

Tahitians have to face no income tax, no VAT (despite the fact that technically French Polynesia is part of the European Union) and no inheritance tax. Healthy chicken scratch around the yard, but the Marquesan cook will buy frozen legs from battery-reared Californian hens. “Eat those birds?” an islander replied to my question. “We’re not savages now.”

In 1992, French Polynesia took around £250 million in compensation for lost revenue following the suspension of nuclear tests the previous year. How will people cope if recession-hit France decides it no longer needs to bail out an anachronistic colonial legacy?

The long term problem is that real industry virtually became extinct in the testing era. People do not know how to run a business. Neither do they know how to grow food. Gardens are for parking 4WD vehicles on strimmed lawns. The breadfruit pits are all empty.

Postscript: South Sea Images

The three of them used to come down to the beach every morning on horseback, the little boy with the sun in his frizzed hair (it shone even in the rain) cupping the dog in his lap, pressing his pudgy arms around his father’s back.

The dog and the boy had to be lowered down onto the cobbles. The mongrel sat amongst the chicken and the coconut husks heaped under the trees, while the little boy and the square-shouldered man picked their way out through rocks into the surf. And then they swam. Huge waves rose and sucked and threw white spray into the air. A hundred metres or more out to sea, a three-year-old boy dived, giggling, into walls of marine muscle.

Even in the drizzle, with mist hiding the peaks, the bay stuns with its beauty. It’s harsh, with unclimbable ridges, impenetrable jungle and thin white pencils of water that fall from invisible streams into unseen pools. There are ruins, up there, hiding in the forest, where drums once played. Sacred trees planted on temples now throw out the stone blocks with their swollen roots.

In a place like this, you don’t ask for whom the isles weep. You just watch the boy and his father swim, and the dog chase the hens among the coconut husks and think: this is paradise.

Michael Pitts

Related Articles