Forty Years On The Pacific/Tahiti

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Summer Isles of Eden
Lying in dark purple spheres of sea.

EVERY traveler has extolled the beauty of Tahiti. The Society Islands, of which Tahiti is the principal, are among the most picturesque in the world, and form one of the earliest posts of the London Missionary Society, which began work there in 1796.

Called Otaheite, which means "From Tahiti," by Captain Cook, history has thrown a halo of romance around this interesting group. Cook made a long stay in the Society Islands, and took away with him on his first visit a young Tahitian named Omai. He went to England with his distinguished patron; was presented at court; was introduced to the fashionable society of the day; was shaken by the hand by George III, and was taken back by the great navigator, after all this grandeur, to Tahiti in 1776.

Two years later Bligh came to Tahiti in the Bounty to collect bread-fruit trees, which it was intended to transplant in the West Indies. The Bounty stayed in Tahiti for nini months, and at last sailed away, but the majority of the crew had left their hearts in the keeping of the beautiful belles of that Pacific paradise. When twenty-four days out from Tahiti, the celebrated mutiny occurred. Bligh was sent adrift in the Bounty's cutter with eighteen of the ship's company who remained faithful to him, and after enduring terrible hardships, eventually safely reached the Dutch East Indies. The mutineers returned to Tahiti and its seductive pleasures, its plenty, love, luxury and idleness, and then some of them, with a number of young Tahitian women, sailed far away to hide themselves on Pitcairn Island, about which I shall have more to say in a later chapter.

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Tahiti has become an appendage of France, mainly as the result of conquest during the reign of Louis Philippe. History tells us that early in January, 1844, Captain Bruat landed a strong force, hauled down Queen Pomare's standard and hoisted the French flag. The islands have now become the chief French colony in the eastern Pacific, with Tahiti as the center of Gallic authority.

Tahiti is formed by two distinct mountains of great elevation, which are connected by a long, narrow isthmus of about three miles in width. Consisting as it does of volcanic ridges of inexhaustible fertility, and valleys watered by abundant streams, this island is of much commercial value. Its delightful climate brings to maturity all the products of the tropics, which are nowhere to be found in greater fulness and perfection. Papeete, the capital, is a gay little town, remarkably cosmopolitan in its elements and Parisian in its tone and manners. The main thoroughfare, which passes -through Papeete, continues right round the island. The most beautiful boulevards in the town are opposite the post office and the Governor's residence.

In the square is a rotunda, and it is here that the residents and natives assemble to hold their fete on July 14th—the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastile, the national holiday of France. A week before the fete, the Governor sends a small steamboat to bring the natives to the festival, which is opened on the 13th with an official ceremony. The natives march in procession, carrying, on bamboo poles, supplies of live pigs and poultry, as well as all kinds of fruit and other products of the islands.

In an open space in the Parliament Buildings a show of all the articles mentioned is held and prizes are awarded by the Governor. Canoe races are a feature of the festival. The natives are a fine and handsome people; but civilization, disease, liquor and admixture with Chinese coolies have sadly deteriorated the race "surpassing all others in physical beauty" that excited Cook's admiration. Of late years the native population had been stationary, neither increasing nor decreasing, but large drafts of young men volunteered for service at the front with the French Colonial troops, and this, I am afraid, will have the effect of greatly reducing the population. They traveled to New Caledonia via Sydney to undergo drill. The poor fellows were not used to wearing-boots, so they went barefoot and carried their boots across their shoulders and often caught cold. Also, the recent ravage of the influenza in Tahiti has sadly depleted the native population.

Tahiti and the adjacent islands were swept by a great hurricane in February, 1906, and many lives were lost, and much damage done. Shortly after the war broke out the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (which afterward were sunk by the British in the battle off the Falkland Islands) bombarded Papeete, destroying a number of the principal buildings and sinking the shipping in the harbor (see illustration).

Tahiti is twelve days' sail from San Francisco by steamer. The Union Steamship Company, of New Zealand, maintains a line of steamers between the Dominion and San Francisco, calling at Papeete. Tropical fruits grow in abundance, and copra, sugar and cotton are exported. . The animals consist of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and horses (a small breed), which thrive well. In years gone by, some means of communication must have existed between various groups of islands, as all old Maoris, Tahitians and Raratongas understand each other and their Saga preserves the legends of such voyages.

To the east of Tahiti, the Tuamotu, or Low Archipelago, extends for many miles and affords rich pearl-shelling grounds. Owing to the introduction of diving-machines, the pearl shell was obtained in such immense quantities by scooping the lagoons, that the French Government introduced a closed season. In recent years no diving machines are allowed, and native divers are only permitted to dive for four months in the year. In visiting pearling grounds in various parts of the world, I have heard almost incredible statements as to the depth to which divers can go. In Torres Straits, Japanese divers reach greater depths than any other pearl divers engaged. Female divers in Ago Bay, Japan, who cultivate pearls, dive to an incredible depth, but in the Tuamotu group, the Tahitians are credited with diving nineteen fathoms. When descending, they take a chunk of lead in each hand, and upon reaching the bottom, drop the lead and grap a pearl shell between their fingers. In 1899 an old man dived in seventeen and one-half fathoms, at Hikuen, and returned to the surface in two minutes and forty-five seconds, bringing up two pearl shells.

Black pearls are frequently found here. Jack London, in one of his novels, accuses a red-headed storekeeper at Papeete of dyeing pearls black and selling them to tourists. Steps were taken by the storekeeper to prosecute London for libel; but the author had such convincing proofs that the case was dropped.

The island of Morea, about twelve miles from Tahiti, is claimed to be the most beautiful island paradise in the world, rich in flowers, trees, streams and jagged mountains. Alert to its beauties, a moving picture company sent operators from Los Angeles to obtain pictures.

The Gambier Islands, or Mangareva, are also a part of the French possessions. A party of Mormons first attempted the civilization of the people. They were replaced by some French Catholic missionaries, who arrived in 1834. The members of the United States surveying expedition, who visited the islands some years ago, reported that they were much impressed by the beauty of the Roman Catholic Cathedral on Mangareva. The candlesticks were of pure gold and the altar and reading desks were composed almost entirely of pearls of great value. The pearl-fishers upon returning from their excursions donate tithes to their church.

The Marquesas Islands are a very beautiful group, and the natives were in the old days accounted one of the handsomest of the races in the South Seas, but they are dying off with appalling rapidity; European and Chinese vices, disease and change of customs having done their work. In 1850 the islands were estimated to contain 50,000 inhabitants. Now there are less than 3,000. If this rate of decrease goes on, it is only a matter of a very few years when the Marquesans will have vanished altogether.

I cannot conclude this chapter on Tahiti without referring to a remarkable character who lived there, or did, till a little while ago—Ernest Wilfred Darling, the "nature man," as he styled himself, who abandoned the customs, food and clothing of everyday civilization of American cities, for the open air, the fruit diet, and the simple life of Tahiti. The story goes that in his youth Darling became deeply interested in the Bible. He read and pondered over it, and the more he read and pondered, the clearer he believed that man—the present day man .—did not live naturally as the Lord intended him to live. Darling decided that he would eat the fruits off the trees, abandon the clothing that generations had developed, and go about just as created. So he set about to find his Eden, and decided that Tahiti fulfilled his demands. Thither he went.

The Governor presented the "crazy" American with a piece of land high up on the mountains, with the clear understanding that he would stay there with his peculiar ideas. Fruits and herbs grew there in plenty. The air was balmy and fine, and the view delightful. There he could play "Adam in Paradise" to his heart's content. Darling, acquiescent, sallied forth and claimed the mountains. Here, indeed, was his dream of paradise. In this world-forgotten place he could find ample time for his meditations. On the top of his mountain he built a simple hut of palm leaves and branches. He changed the virgin soil of his domain from a wilderness of tropical waste to a food-yielding garden. In a short time he grew independent of the natives, as his plantations became very productive. He lived in absolute solitude. His skin became the color of bronze—his hair and beard grew long.

When Darling had lived his lonely life for more than a year, he took a wife, a comely young native girl. After four years of this life came the test of Darling's convictions. An uncle of his died and willed him a fortune of $500,000 under the conditions that he leave his island-wife, return to his native land, and live like a normal being. But Darling smiled a superior smile at the suggestion.

"Why," he explained, "what do I want with money?" "What could money procure me better than I've got—happiness, health and peace of mind, from the knowledge of leading the life that I know God intended man to live?"

His inheritance went elsewhere. But the philosopher did not regret his decision. He was still happy as ever on the top of his mountain on the lovely tropical island, until influenza killed him, December 18, 1918. To the end the natives worshiped him, and the Frenchmen debated over him at their afternoon absinthe on the veranda of the Club des Etrangers in Papeete.