Read Chapter XVI of Mystic Isles of the South Seas., free online book, by Frederick O'Brien, on

A journey to MataieaI abandon city lifeInteresting sights on the routeThe Grotto of MaraaPapara and the Chief TatiThe plantation of AtimaonoMy host, the Chevalier Tetuanui.

Life in the country made me laugh at myself for having so long stayed in the capital. The fever of Papeete had long since cooled in my veins. A city man myself, I might have known that all capitals are noxious. Great cities are the wens on the body of civilization. They are aggregations of sick people, who die out in the third generation. Greed builds them. Crowded populations increase property values and buy more manufactured luxuries. The country sends its best to perish in these huddlements. In America, where money interests boom cities and proudly boast their corruption in numbers, half the people are already in these webs in which the spider of commerce eats its victims, but ultimately may perish for lack of food. Brick and steel grow nothing.

I had made excursions from Papeete, but always carrying the poisons of the town with me. At last my playmates deserted me. Lying Bill and McHenry sailed on their schooner for the Paumotu and the Marquesas islands, Landers left for Auckland, and Count Polonsky for a flying visit to America. Llewellyn, though an interesting study, learned in native ways, and with comparisons of Europe and America, was too atrabilious, and, besides, had with his young partner, David, abandoned himself to the night life, the cinema bars, with their hilarious girls and men, the prize-fights, and the dancing on the beach in the starlight. Schlyter, the tailor, an occasional companion, was busied cutting and sewing a hundred uniforms for a war-ship’s crew.

I bethought me of the letter Princess Noanoa Tiare had given me to the chief of Mataiea, and with a bag I departed for that village at daybreak, after taofe tau for four sous at Shin Bung Lung’s Fare Tamaaraa. The diligence was open at the sides and roofed with an awning, and was drawn by two mules, with bells on their collars.

On the stage I paid twenty centimes a kilometre, or six and a half cents a mile. It carried the mail, passengers, and freight. In every district there was a mailbox on the fence of the chefferie, the chief’s office, and on the trees alongside the road at regular intervals, and the driver took mails from people who hailed him. Arriving at a chefferie, the stage halted, the district mutoi, or native policeman-postman, appeared leisurely, opened the locked box on the diligence, looked at ease over the contents, took out what he liked, and put back the remainder, with the postings of the chefferie.

A glance at the map of Tahiti shows it shaped like a Samoan fan, or, roughly, like a lady’s hand mirror. It is really two islands, joined by the mile-wide isthmus of Taravao. The larger island is Poroiunu or Tahiti-nui (big Tahiti), and the smaller Taiarapu, or Tahiti-iti (little Tahiti). Tahiti-nui is almost round; and Tahitiiti, oval. Both are volcanic, distinct in formation. They are united by a sedimentary piece of land long after they were raised from the ocean’s bed.

Mataiea is twenty-seven miles from Papeete, and well on toward the isthmus.

Most of our passengers were Chinese, and I realized the Asiaticizing of Tahiti. They were store-keepers, small farmers, or laborers. The Broom Road lay most of the way along the beach, back of the fringe of cocoanut and pandanus-trees, and between the homes and plantations of Tahitians and foreigners. I saw all the fruits of the islands in matchless profusion, intermingled with magnificent ferns, the dazzling bougainvillea, the brilliant flamboyant-tree, and a thousand creepers and plants. Every few minutes the road rushed to the water’s-edge, and the glowing main, with its flashing reef, and the shadowy outlines of Moorea, a score of miles away, appeared and fled. Past villages, churches, schools, and villas, the shops of the Chinese merchants, the sheds for drying copra, rows of vanilla-vines, beaches with canoes drawn up and nets drying on sticks, men and women lolling on mats upon the eternal green carpet of the earth, girls waving hands to us, superb men, naked save for pareus, with torsos, brown, satiny, and muscled like Greek gladiators, women bathing in streams, their forms glistening, their breasts bare; and constant to the scene, dominating it, the lofty, snakelike cocoanuts and their brothers of less height and greater girth.

At Fa’a a postwoman appeared. Before opening the mail-box she tarried to light a cigarette and to chat with the driver about the new picture at the cinema in Papeete. She commented laughingly on the writers and addressees of the letters, and flirted with a passenger. The former himene-house, which had been the dance-hall of Kelly, the leader of the fish-strike, was vacant, but I heard in imagination the strains of his pagan accordion, and the himene which will never be forgotten by the Tahitians, “Hallelujah! I’m a bum!” Kelly had gone over the water to the jails of the United States, where life is hard for minstrels who sing such droll songs.

In Punaauia, the next district to Fa’a, was a schoolhouse and on it a sign: 2 x 2 = 4.

M. Souvy, a government printer of Tahiti, had given the site out of his humble savings. By the sign, in his blunt way, he struck at education which does not teach the simple necessity of progresscommon sense.

“Cela saute aux yeux,” he had said.

He was long dead, but his symbol provoked a question from every new-comer, and kept alive his name and philosophy. I never saw it but I thought of an article I had once written that led to the overturning of the educational system of a country. How all guide-posts point to oneself! Near the school-house, a dozen yards from the salt water, was a native house with a straw roof, a mere old shell, untenanted.

M. Edmond Brault, the government employee and musical composer, a passenger on the diligence, had with him his violin, intending to spend the day in company with it in a grove. He remarked the tumbledown condition of the house, and said:

“I have sat under that toil de chaume, that straw roof, and talked with and played for a painter who was living there quite apart from the world. He was Monsieur Paul Gauguin, and he had a very distingue establishment. The walls of his atelier were covered with his canvases, and in front of the house he had a number of sculptures in wood. That was about 1895, I think. I can see the maitre now. He wore a pareu of red muslin and an undershirt of netting. He said that he adored this corner of the world and would never leave it. He had returned from Paris more than ever convinced that he was not fitted to live in Europe. Yet, mon ami, he ran away from here, and went to the savage Marquesas Islands, where he died in a few years. He loved the third etude of Chopin, and the andante of Beethoven’s twenty-third sonata. You know music says things we would be almost afraid to put in words, if we could. If Flaubert might have written ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Salambo’ in musical notes, he would not have been prosecuted by the censor. We musicians have that advantage.”

“In America,” I replied, “we have never yet censored musical compositions, and many works are played freely because the censors and the reform societies’ detectives cannot understand them. But if our inquisitors take up music, they may yet reach them. For instance, the prelude of ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ and Strauss’ ‘Salome.’”

“No,” returned the Frenchman, quickly; “music would make them liberals.”

A little farther on, in the valley of Punaruu, the amiable violinist and pianist showed me the ruins of defense works thrown up by the French to withstand the attacks of the great chieftain, Oropaa of Punaauia, who with his warriors had here disputed foot by foot the advance of the invaders. These Tahitians were without artillery, mostly without guns of any sort, but they utilized the old strategy of the intertribal wars, and rolled huge rocks down upon the French troops in narrow defiles.

We saw from our seats through the shadows of the gorge of Punaruu two of the horns of Maiao, the Diadem. In the far recesses of those mountains were almost inaccessible caves in which the natives laid their dead, and where one found still their moldering skeletons. M. Brault touched my shoulder.

“Rumor has it that the body of Pomare the Fifth is there,” he said; “that it was taken secretly from the tomb you have seen near Papeete, and carried here at night. There are photographs of those old skeletons taken in that grotto of the tupapaus, as the natives call the dead and their ghosts. The natives will not discuss that place.”

It was from Punaauia that Teriieroo a Teriierooterai had gone to Papenoo to be chief. This was the seat of his ancienne famille. Here he had been a deacon of the church, as he was in Papenoo, because it meant social rank, and was possible insurance against an unknown future. The church edifice was the gathering-place, as once had been the marae, the native temple. This was Sunday, and I passed a church every few miles, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant vying. They had matched each other in number since the French admiral had exiled the British missionary-consul, and compelled the queen to erect a papal church for every bethel.

Along the road and in the churchyards the preachers and deacons were in black cloth, sweating as they walked, their faces beatudinized as in America.

Many carried large Bibles, and frowned on the merry, singing crew who went by on foot, in carriages and automobiles. Everywhere, in all countries, the long, black coat and white or black cravat are the uniforms of evangelism. In Tahiti I saw ministers of the gospel, white and brown, appareled like circuit-riders in Missouri; hot, dusty, and their collars wilted, but their souls serene and sure in their mission. They associated God and black, as night and darkness.

The sound of sermons echoed from chapels as we progressed, the voices raised in the same tone one heard in a Methodist camp-meeting in Kansas, and the singing, when in French, having much the same effect, a whining, droning fashion; without spirituality or art.

But why look for a moment at these unfortunates or listen to their dull chants when marvels of nature unfolded at every step! There was never such luxuriant vegetation, never such a riot of color and richness of growth as on every side. The wealth of the bougainvillea’s masses of lustrous magenta was matched by the dazzling flamboyant, trees forty feet high, and their foliage a hundred in circumference, a sheen of crimson. Clumps of bamboo as big as a city lot and towering to the sky, with the yellow allamanda framing the bungalows, and a tangle of bananas, lantana, tafeie, cocoas, and a hundred other fruits, flowers and creepers, made the whole journey through a paradise.

Around many cocoanut-palms were bands of tin or zinc ten or twenty feet from the earth. These were to foil the rats or crabs which climb the trees and steal (can a creature steal from nature?) the nuts. Every available piece of thin metal was used for this. The sheets were often flattened kerosene- and gasoline-cans and were drawn taut and smooth. These are impasses for the wily climbers.

“Ils ne passeront pas,” said the French; “Aita haere!” the Tahitians.

The road was good, but narrow, in few places room for two to pass except by turning out, skirting the beach at the water’s-edge, crossing causeways over inlets, and in admirable curves clinging to the hillsides, which bathed in the sea. Moving over a small levee we came to the pointe de Maraa, where was the Grotto of Maraa, a gigantic recess worn in the solid wall of rock, a dark mysterious interior, which gave me a momentary surge of my childhood dread and love of caves and secret entrances to pirates’ lairs. The diligence halted at the request of M. Brault, and he and I jumped out and ran to the grotto. In it was a lake with black waters, and down the face of the cliff, which rose hundreds of feet straight, dripped a million drops of the waters of the hills, so that the ground about was in puddles. The inside walls and arched ceiling were covered with a solid texture of verdant foliage, wet and fragrant. We found a little canoe fastened to a stone, and adventured on the quiet surface of the pond until at about eighty yards of penetration we came to a blind curtain of stone.

“This grot,” said M. Brault, “was for centuries the retreat of those conquered in war, sacred to gods, and a sanctuary never violated, like those cities of refuge among the Hebrews and Greeks. Now it is a picnic rendezvous, very dear to Papeete whites and to tourists. C’est la vie.”

Tahitian women passengers were adorning their heads with wreaths of maiden-hair and rare ferns from the cavern. Great lianas hung down the walls, and these they climbed to reach the exquisite draperies of the chamber. The farther we left behind the capital, the more smiling were the faces, the less conventional the actions and gestures of the people.

Papara was at hand, the richest and most famous of all the districts of Tahiti. The village was a few Chinese stores, a Catholic and a Protestant church, a graveyard, and a scattered collection of homes. I bade au revoir to my delightful companion, Edmond Brault, having determined to walk the remaining kilometers, and to send on my inconsiderable bag of clothing.

Lovaina had given me a note to the chief of Papara, Tati, whose father was Salmon, an English Jew, and whose sister was Marao, the relict of the late king, and known as the queen. His father was the first white to marry formally a Tahitian noblewoman. Pomare IV had generously granted permission for the high chiefess of Papara to ally herself with the shrewd descendant of the House of David, and their progeny had included the queen, Tati, and others celebrated in Tahitian life.

Tati welcomed me with the heartiness of the English gentleman and the courtesy of the Tahitian chief. He was a man of large parts himself, limited in his hospitality only by his means, he, like all natives, having thrown away most of his patrimony in his youth. He was the best-known Tahitian next to Prince Hinoe, but much abler than he. He knew the Tahitian history and legends, the interwoven tribal relations, the descents and alliances of the families, better than any one else. Such knowledge was highly esteemed by the natives, for whom chiefly rank still bore significance. The Tatis had been chiefs of Papara for generations, and had entertained Captain Cook.

He lived in a bungalow near the beach, handsome, spreading, and with a mixed European and indigenous arrangement and furnishing that was very attractive. I met his sons and daughters, and had luncheon with them. Tati, of course, spoke English fluently, yet with the soft intonation of the Tahitian. Some of the dishes and knives and forks had belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson, who, said Tati, had given them to him when he was departing from Tahiti. Tati’s sister, a widow, was of the party, and together we went to the Protestant churchyard to her husband’s tomb. It was imposing and costly, and the inscription read:

In Memory of Dorence Atwater, beloved husband of arii inoore Moetia Salmon. Born at Terryville, Conn., Fe, 1845. Died at San Francisco, Cal., November 28, 1910. As a last tribute to his name there was erected in his native state a monument with this inscription:

This memorial is dedicated to our fellow townsman, Dorence Atwater, for his patriotism in preserving to this nation the names of 13,000 soldiers who died while prisoners at Andersonville, Ga.

He builded better than he knew; some day, perchance, in surprise he may wake to learn:

He builded a monument more enduring than brass.


The name given Atwater when he married Moetia Salmon was Tupuataroa, which means a wise man. Mrs. Atwater was rich and melancholy. She mourned her dead. Atwater had come to Tahiti as American consul, and had piled franc on franc in trade and speculation, with great dignity and success. He had been the leading American of his generation in the South Seas, and had left no children.

Tati said that when the church was dedicatedit was a box-like structure of wood and coral, whitewashed and red-roofedthree thousand Tahitians had feasted in a thatched house erected for the arearea. The himene-chorus was made up of singers from every district in Tahiti and Moorea. Tati had presided.

“We ate for three days,” he related to me. “More than two hundred and fifty swine, fifteen hundred chickens, and enough fish to equal the miraculous draft on the shores of Galilee. We Polynesians were always that way, Gargantuan eaters at times, but able to go fifty miles at top speed on a cocoanut in war.”

Tati would have me stay indefinitely his guest, but I had written to Mataiea of my intended arrival there, and though there were insistent cries that I return soon, I said farewell.

Tati himself walked with me to the bridge over the Taharuu River, one of the hundred and fifty streams I crossed in a circuit of Tahiti.

“My ancestor, the old chief Tati,” he told me, “cut down the sacred trees of our clan marae near by, the aitos, tamanus, and miros. He had become a Christian, as was fashionable, and at the instigation of the English missionaries destroyed many beautiful and ancient trees, statues, carvings, and buildings. The Tahitians who mourned his iconoclasm had a chant which said that the Taharuu River ran blood when their gods were dishonored.”

From the stream the vast domain of the plantation of Atimaono stretched to Mataiea. It had been planted in the sixties, when British demands for cotton, and the blockade and laying waste of the South in the American Civil War caused a thousand such speculations all over the world.

It was for this plantation, the most celebrated in Tahiti, that Chinese were imported, and a thousand had their shanties where now is brush. Those were the times that the Marquesas had their cotton boom, and lapsed, too. Upon a hill of this plantation the English manager, a former cavalry officer, had built himself a palatial mansion, and lived like a feudal lord, the most powerful resident of Tahiti. Travelers from all the world were his guests. Fair ladies danced the night away upon his broad verandas and drank the choicest wines of France. Scandal wove a dozen strange stories of intrigues, of a high official who sold his wife to him, of Arioian orgies, and all the associations of semi-regal rule and accountability to none. Cotton prices declined, the bubble burst in bankruptcy, the miserable death of the aristocrat, and the fury of cheated English investors.

The plantation was now owned by a storekeeper of Tahiti, prosy and disliked, who had fattened by ability to outwit the natives; but the glory had departed, and the place languished, ruins and jungle, the prey of guava and lantana. The neighborhood was known as Ati-Maono, “The Clan of Maon.”

The lines between village and country were not rigid, and often the hamlet straggled along the road for much of the district. Every kilometer there was a stone marking the distance from Papeete. One knew the villages more by the Chinese stores than by any other feature.

“You will find the Papara country full of oranges,” Fragrance of the Jasmine had said.

The fruit was as sweet and delicious as any I had eaten, and the trees larger than their parents of Sydney, Australia. I strolled along the road eating, speaking all who passed or were in sight within their gardens, and came to Mataiea, where I was to live months and to learn the Tahitian mind and language.

Ariioehau Amerocarao, commonly known as Tetuanui Tavana, or Monsieur lé Chef de Mataiea, Tetuanui, and his wife, Haamoura, were the salt of the earth. The chief was a large man, molded on a great frame, and very corpulent, as are most Polynesians of more than thirty years. He was about sixty, strong and sweet by nature, brave and simple. His vahiné was very stout, half blind from cataracts, but ever busied about her household and her guests. As chief and roadmaster of his district, Tetuanui received a small compensation, but not enough for the wants of his dependents, so a few paying white guests were sent to him by Lovaina. The house was set back from the Broom Road in a clearing of a wood of cocoanuts, breadfruits, badamiers, and vi-apples. The father of Haamoura had given the land to his daughter, and they had built on it a residence of two high stories, with wide verandas.

The chief and his wife had no children, but had adopted twenty-five. They had brought most of these to manhood and womanhood, and many were married. Perhaps their care, dots for the daughters, and estates for the sons, had made the parents poor. One was the blood son of Prince Hinoe, and was now a youth, and worked about the plantation of the chief. His christened name was Ariipaea Temanutuanuu Teariitinorua Tetuanui a Oropaa Pomare. He was a prince and very handsome and gentle, but he gathered the leaves from the volunteer lawn for the horses. There was an atmosphere of affection and happiness about the home I have not sensed more keenly anywhere else.

The Duke of Abruzzi’s photograph and one of the Italian war-ship Liguria, were on a wall in the drawing-room, with others of notable people whom the chief had entertained. He himself wore the cross of the Legion of Honor, which had been presented to him in Paris when he visited there many years before.

The house was raised ten feet from the earth, and the ground below was neatly covered with black pebbles from the shore. Shaded by the veranda-floors, which formed the ceilings of their open rooms, the family sat on mats, and made hats, sewed, sang, and chatted. They laughed all day. A dozen children played on the sward where horses, ducks, geese, chickens, and turkeys fed and led their life. When rice or corn was thrown to them, the mina-birds flocked to share it. These impudent thieves pounced on the best grains, and though the chickens fought them, they appeared to be afraid only of the ducks. These hated the minas, and pursued them angrily. But the minas can fly, and, when threatened, lazily lifted themselves a few feet out of reach of the bills, and returned when danger was over.

The chief’s plantation extended from the sea to the mountain, altogether about ten acres, which in Tahiti is a good-sized single holding. Cocoanuts, breadfruit, limes, oranges, badamiers, mangoes, and other trees made a dense forest, and a hectare or more was planted with vanilla-vines that grew on the false coffee of which hedges were usually made. A hundred yards away a stream meandered toward the sea, and there women of the household sat and washed clothes.

They had no taro planted, though there was much about. Taro, the staple food of Hawaiians, either simply boiled or fermented as poi, was not a decided favorite in Tahiti. The natives thought it tasteless compared with the fei, so rich in color and flavor. The taro is a lily (Arum), and its great bulbs are the edible part, though the tops of small taro-plants are delicious, surpassing spinach, and we had them often on our table.

Our customary meals at eleven and at six were of raw oysters, shrimp, crabs, craw-fish, or lobsters; fish of many kinds, chicken, breadfruit, vi-apples stewed, bananas, oranges, feis, cocoanuts, and sucking pigs. The family ate sitting or squatting on the ground, but I had a table and silver, glass and linen. It is the way of the Tahitian. The big house, well furnished, was not inhabited by the chief’s family. It was their monument of success. They slept in one of several houses they had near by, and their elegant dishes were unused except for white guests.

On the beach at the river’s mouth the heron sat or stalked solemnly, and the tern flew about the reef. The white iitae lived about the cocoanut-trees.

From the broad veranda in front was a view of the sea, and all day and night the breakers beat upon the reef a mile away, now as soft as the summer wind in the lime-trees of Seville, and again loud as winter in the giant pine forests of Michigan. The fleecy surf gleamed and shimmered in the sun as it rolled over the coral dam, and when the sea was strong, there was another sound, the lapping of the waves on the sand a hundred yards from me. A little wharf had been built there by the Government, and a schooner arrived and departed every few days, with people and produce.

I ate alone mostly, at a table on the veranda in front of my chamber, waited on by Tatini, a very lovely and shy maiden of fourteen years. To her I talked Tahitian, as with all the family, in an effort to perfect myself in that tongue.

I was happy that I had pulled up anchor in Papeete, and as contrast is, after all, comparative, I felt like a New-Yorker who finds himself in Arcadia, though I had thought Papeete, on first sight, the garden of Allah. In Mataiea I realized the wonder of the Polynesian people, and found my months with the whites of the city a fit background for study of and ardent delight in the brown islanders I was to know so well.