In the Marquesas

“The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoanut—coral reefs—tattooed chiefs—and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—HEATHENISH RITES AND HUMAN SACRIFICES.” – From a novel dated 1846

As you can imagine, Eric and I were immensely happy to sight the mountainous outlines of the Marquesas after 4,000 miles and 32 days at sea from Panama. But we were also tremendously tired. It took a full three days after we anchored in Hiva Oa to catch up on our sleep and recover our equilibrium. The ground rolled so badly each time I stepped ashore, I had to clutch Eric’s arm to keep from falling off the dinghy dock. Then gradually, it began to sink in. We did it, we’re in French Polynesia, we’re here.

A month’s worth of laundry on Hiva Oa

In a three-week stay, Corroboree visited three of the six main islands: Hiva Oa, Ua Pou and Nuku Hiva. Poetic names for poetic places. Still other fabled islands—Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora—lie ahead. And there’s no denying that the first image almost everyone has of the South Pacific is a paradise of sunshine, palm trees and white sand beaches. No wonder people flock here on honeymoons and vacations, or, like us, on private boats.

As you can see by the above quote, however, the Marquesas in particular didn’t always have such a benign reputation. In the 18th-20th centuries, six famous people, American and European, came to this remote island group search of adventure and inspiration. One of them penned those lines. Two left their bones here. How many of them can you name? While you’re pondering, here is some background:

The original inhabitants of the Marquesas came from Tahiti via the Tuamotus, rowing in swift outrigger canoes. That migration is believed to have taken place between about 1190-1290 C.E., an amazing feat of seamanship and navigation and part of an ongoing journey that carried the Polynesians throughout the Pacific islands. The new arrivals settled in the lush green valleys and lived in tribal communities that were often at war.

Views of Nuku Hiva

The Marquesans did indeed practice human sacrifice, using prisoners of war as their victims. As we learned on a tour of Nuku Hiva with a local guide, they kept the captives confined in narrow, chest-high stone pits, drugged on local plants to render them docile and oblivious of their impending doom. How considerate. Then they bashed in the unfortunate’s head with a club on an altar-like stone. The priests and chiefs consumed the victim’s eyes (for wisdom), heart (for strength) and liver (for courage). Only men were ever sacrificed, women being considered impure. Sometimes it pays to be female.

Archaeological site with replicas, Nuku Hiva

The first outsiders to happen upon the Marquesas were Spanish explorers in 1595, but regular contact with westerners didn’t begin until the late 18th century when whaling and trading ships of various nations began to call. Commodore David Porter claimed the Marquesas for the United States in 1813, but Congress failed to act on the claim, and in 1842 the islands ended up going to the French. The foreign ships brought two other invaders, the first being diseases such as measles and smallpox which, in an all-too-familiar story, decimated the natives. From a possible high of 75,000 precontact, the population plunged to 20,000 by the mid-19th century and to just 2,000 in the 1920s. Today, the total population is approximately 9,000.

The second invaders were the missionaries, who destroyed native sites of worship and built churches on top of them. The Marquesans today are predominantly Catholic with an impressive cathedral built of wood and stone on Nuku Hiva. Smaller, well-kept churches of various denominations serve other villages throughout the islands. But the Marquesans are also striving to reclaim their heritage, establishing regular festivals to celebrate their arts and culture and to reteach the Marquesan language, which was in danger of merging with Tahitian. 

Cathedral, Nuku Hiva

Meanwhile, the Marquesans are hardly lost in time. They drive brand-new trucks on narrow but paved mountain roads, buy Heineken, Fruit Loops and Nutella in the little supermarkets, and row shiny fiberglass outrigger canoes in racing competitions. The yellowing palm fronds that roof the restored structures at the archaeological sites turn out to be plastic when you touch them. It’s a maintenance issue—the plastic lasts much longer than natural fronds.

Nevertheless, life is definitely laid back. In May alone, the islands celebrated five holidays, during one of which Eric and I came upon a field day in the village center of Hiva Oa. Cheered on by an eager crowd, kids and young adults ran an obstacle course that included stations for pull-ups and push-ups and worked in teams that anyone could join at will to roll huge, wobbly truck tires across the field. It didn’t seem to matter who won or lost. It was all about the laughs.

The people are often beautiful. Many of the men and a number of women bear tattoos in traditional geometric patterns. The intricate black designs on bronze skin have a richness and complexity that begs a closer look, if only it weren’t impolite to stare. It was especially nice to see the women going about their daily affairs in vivid print dresses, a flower tucked behind their ear or a wreath of leaves and flowers crowning their dark hair. Never mind that the blossom, like the palm fronds, is sometimes artificial. With few tourists around, the women dress this way to please no one but themselves. It was all the more disturbing, therefore, to see some of these same women puffing cigarettes and to have our tour guide confirm that western foods are contributing to a growing obesity rate.

For us as cruisers, the Marquesas had a few drawbacks: limited fresh provisions, high prices, and not much in the way of restaurants, almost none of which offered any kind of vegetarian fare. But with a few exceptions like Tahiti, that’s typical throughout the South Pacific islands, which must rely on supply ships to bring in most fresh produce and manufactured goods. Locating potable water also took some effort. On the plus side, freshly baked French bread is available almost every morning at a mere 68 cents for a long, crusty baguette. On the negative side, that seemed to be the only kind of bread there was.

We had also been forewarned about crowded, rolly anchorages, and indeed the three places we stopped lived up to that description. In the largest bay, on Nuku Hiva, the incoming ocean swell forced us to reanchor to escape the violent rocking, while around us we counted 62 transient boats. When we toured the island, we saw more calmer, more isolated bays for those with time for an extended visit, but maybe we cruisers are the next wave of invaders.

The endless quest for Internet, office of Nuku Hiva Yacht Services

We had one minor, yet jarring incident of theft. One day on Hiva Oa, on returning from town to the dinghy dock, we found one of our oars missing. We searched the shoreline in case it had been bounced overboard, but since the remaining oar was snug beneath the seat where we had left them, we had to conclude it was stolen. We reported it to the gendarmerie, though we all acknowledged the chances of recovery were slim. Why someone would steal just one of our oars, we have no idea. In the Caribbean, where dinghy theft is common, it’s the outboard motor or the whole dinghy that is the prize. But after recounting our loss to a French couple who happened to be on the dock, they spontaneously gave us their spare set of oars. We offered to buy them, but they insisted on it being a gift. Thank you, Olivier and Marina! We promise to pay your generosity forward whenever we can.

We also refuse to let the actions of one individual spoil our impression of the friendly Marquesan people. On Hiva Oa they were quick to give us and every other sailor a lift from the anchorage into town. Also on Hiva Oa, we watched several men attempt to return a beached dolphin to the sea. The gendarmes had even driven to the anchorage in hopes of finding a motorboat capable of towing the thrashing animal through the surf. They were unsuccessful—it would have been dangerous for a boat to get that close to shore in any case—and the dolphin, its belly suffused red with blood from grating on the volcanic sand, died. The sorrow on the men’s faces was evident.

On leaving the Marquesas, Corroboree stopped at Fakarava in the Tuamotus and is now in Tahiti—more on that soon. And no, I wouldn’t leave you without revealing the six famous people who came to the Marquesas.

In chronological order, they are:

1774 – On his second voyage of Pacific exploration, Captain James Cook on Resolution paid a brief visit to Tahuata, one of the smaller islands. There he traded with the natives, bartering nails and spikes for much-needed provisions such as breadfruit, chickens, pigs and plantains. One of Cook’s officers shot and killed a native who stole an iron stanchion, but Cook restored harmony by gifts and persuasion. Trade ended abruptly when the Marquesans demanded red feathers instead of nails, and Cook sailed on.

1842 – When the New Bedford whaling ship Acushnet arrived in Nuku Hiva, it carried a “green hand” by the name of Herman Melville. Young Melville was out for adventure, and he found it, jumping ship with a friend and fleeing to the mountains. A month later, he reached Tahiti on another vessel and eventually made his way home. His first novel, Typee, quoted above, is based on his sojourn on Nuku Hiva and was an instant bestseller when published in 1846. A carved wood monument to Melville stands on the black sand beach on Nuku Hiva, facing the sea.

Melville monument, Nuku Hiva

1888 – Seeking health and pleasure, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed from San Francisco to the South Pacific with his family aboard a chartered yacht. He called at the Marquesas among other islands and recorded his experiences in the posthumously published In the South Seas. In 1890 he settled on Samoa and died there—not in the Marquesas—in 1894. Beloved by the Samoans as Tusitala, “Teller of Tales,” he is buried on a mountaintop overlooking the sea.

1901 – Previously resident in Tahiti, artist Paul Gauguin established himself on Hiva Oa, where he continued to paint gorgeous pictures, irritated both the French administrators and the missionaries by speaking up for the rights of the native people, and fathered a daughter by one of the young women. He died there in 1903 and is buried in the hillside cemetery above the town.  The Gauguin Cultural Center recounts the story of his life and displays replicas of many of his paintings.

Grave of Paul Gauguin, Hiva Oa

1937 – A decade before his voyage in Kon-Tiki, a young zoology student by the name of Thor Heyerdahl arrived in the Marquesas, ostensibly to study how various animal groups had made their way to these isolated islands. He spent most of his 18-month stay on Fatu Hiva and wrote of his experiences in Hunt for Paradise, published in Norway in 1938.

1975 – When he arrived in Hiva Oa with his family aboard their yacht Askoy II, Belgian singer and actor Jacques Brel was already suffering from lung cancer. Over the next three years, he made several trips by plane back to Europe for medical treatment and to record his final album, Les Marquises, featuring songs he wrote in the Marquesas. Each time he returned to his Hiva Oa home. He died in France on a last medical trip in 1978, and his remains were flown to Hiva Oa where he is buried in the cemetery near the grave of Paul Gaugin.

Grave of Jacques Brel, Hiva Oa