Tahiti lives up to its reputation. Aphrodite’s Island it has been called, and it has attracted travellers for centuries – explorers, writers, artists. Gauguin famously came here to escape the petty bureaucracies of Paris, as did Matisse, who somewhat dismissively noted: “it was the light that interested me. I never thought of Gauguin” (Laudon, 1999, p. 22). It is a heart-stoppingly beautiful place, full of colour and vivacity. We have driven every major road on both Tahiti and Tahiti Iti, to the ends of each, and have explored gardens and galleries, reefs and roulettes – the latter a sort of mobile food truck.

Two days ago, I achieved a long-held dream. We turned left at the roundabout in central Mahina, following the arrow on the small brown tourist sign. At the end of a paved road littered with speed-bumps we found a lighthouse that had been built in 1867, the same year that Canada was founded. The lighthouse was designed by the famous Stevenson family from Scotland and marks the Point Venus, which is where Captain James Cook (then still only a Lieutenant) brought the Endeavour in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Hence the name. 

It’s a beautiful place. Waves crash in onto a black sandy beach. There are coconut palms, what the son of the lighthouse designer, Robert Louis Stevenson, called “the giraffe of vegetables”, breadfruit trees, and flowering tub-like bushes of hibiscus. There is the lighthouse, and the narrow spit of land which provides the point in question. People play in the surf, and offshore kite boarders zip between outrigger canoes and sailing dinghies. 

Cook built his observatory here and conducted the observations required by his mission. Joseph Banks, the botanist, appears to have paid more attention to the pleasures of Venus on land than to the planet itself. His journal entry for June 3, 1769, has fewer than a hundred words that refer to the scientific purpose of their visit ( Banks is much more interested in a visit from Tarroa, a ‘King of the Island’, and his sister Nuna, together with some attendants. Following an afternoon of looking for breadfruit trees, he returned to his sleeping quarters:

Soon after my arrival at the tent 3 hansome girls came off in a canoe to see us, they had been at the tent in the morning with Tarroa, they chatted with us very freely and with very little perswasion agreed to send away their carriage and sleep in [the] tent, a proof of confidence which I have not before met with upon so short an acquaintance. 


That they experienced such friendliness is perhaps a surprise, for there is a darker history here. A few years earlier, in June 1767, Matavai Bay was the scene of the ‘Dolphin massacres’ (Salmond, 2003, pp. 43-50). A British ship, HMS Dolphin, under the command of Samuel Wallis, ‘discovered’ Tahiti but had a series of misunderstandings with the islanders. This culminated in the use of cannon to destroy a number of canoes, and a bombardment of a crowd onshore that resulted in at least two hundred deaths. 

A year later, Bougainville ‘discovered’ Tahiti and called it “the true utopia” (Salmond, 2003, p. 53). Twenty years later, HMS Bounty appeared and over a five month stay Captain Bligh collected a cargo of 1015 young breadfruit trees, which were intended to be transported to the Caribbean ( On 28 April 1789, three weeks after leaving Matavai Bay, both the breadfruit and the Captain were tossed overboard and the ship returned to the bay. The mutineers found (persuaded? kidnapped?) women who would accompany them to Pitcairn Island, where they established a small ‘utopia’ of their own. The community has survived the centuries; the utopia has not.

Pitcairn Island is at the far southeastern end of the Tuamotu archipelago, almost 2400 kilometres from here. I’m not going there, sadly, even though it is over half-way back to Rapanui (Easter Island; see The Gods who walked and other deities, my blog from April 2019). I am going to the atolls of the Tuamoto archipelago, though, or rather through them. In a few hours we shall be leaving Papeete on the Aranui 5, bound for the Marquesas Islands. Here I plan to pay homage to Paul Gauguin, who is buried on Hiva Oa, and to explore what have been called the most isolated islands in the world. They were settled some two thousand years ago and form the centre of Polynesian triangle – from here people went north to Hawai’i, south to Tahiti, east to Rapanui, and west to New Zealand. 

But the Marquesas Islands – Enata – is the heartland. And that will be another blog.


Laudon, P. (2001). Matisse in Tahiti. [Original in French, 1999]. Paris: Vilo International.

Salmond, A. (2009). Aphrodite’s Island: The European discovery of Tahiti. Berkely, CA: University of California Press.

Salmond, A. (2003). The trial of the cannibal dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Stevenson, R. L. (1998 / 1896). In the South Seas. [Penguin Classics edition]. London: Penguin Books.

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