The Marquesas

We came into the Bay of Taiohae just after dawn, past the islets of Motu Nui and Matauapuna which guard the channel. We disembarked at the village of Taiohae, and later made our way over the mountain to Comptroller’s Bay and the village of Taipivai.

No, you are not reading a new Melville novel, but these names will be familiar to anyone who has read Typee, his epic story set on this very island, Nuka Hiva. Melville was here in the 1820s or thereabouts, deserting from a whaling ship anchored offshore at Taiohae and spending two weeks on Nuka Hiva before joining another ship and sailing away to fame and fortune. His narrator absconds in a similar way and then makes his way over the forested ridges to Taipivai, where he lives with cannibals for five months prior to escaping.

Caption: The hills to the Taipivai valley

Melville was not the first to succumb to the charms of the Marquesas Islands. A series of explorers, missionaries and ‘beachcombers’ all visited and wrote passionate accounts of their observations. The islands are named after Marqués de Cañete, a Viceroy of Peru and patron of a flotilla commanded by Alvaro de Mendaña, who sighted the southernmost island, Fatu Hiva, on 21 July, 1595. He saw the smoke from cooking fires but could not find a safe place to land and place a flag. When canoes full of warriors came out towards his ships, he fired a salvo from his cannons as a sign that he claimed and named the islands for Spain. One has to wonder what the people of Fatu Hiva thought of this, a fantastical vessel emitting a thunderous roar as it sailed past paradise. It was not until 179 years later that the next European showed up. This, as one might expect, was Captain Cook, in 1774. There is no record as to whether the people of Fatu Hiva had an oral history of the Mendaña visit and viewed Cook as something of a second coming.

In one of the worst examples of navigator error ever recorded, Mendaña actually thought he was in the Solomon Islands (about 3000 miles away) as he continued north and entered Vaitahu Bay on Tahuata Island (Suggs & Lichtenstein, 2001, p. 54). Here he landed, said mass, and sent his soldiers to hunt down Marquesans for target practice. He stayed eight days and killed over 200 residents, then left what he named Madre de Dios (Mother of God) Bay to try and find his proper destination. His landing area is a soccer field now. There is no monument to the massacre but as Dening (2004) puts it, “there is memory and there will be history” (p. 66). 

Caption: The football field at Vaitahu Bay, Tahuata

In 1797 a group from the London Missionary Society were supposed to preach the gospel in Tahuata but, on seeing the high crags and hearing the vivid and sensationalized accounts of cannibalism and warfare, decided to go elsewhere to spread the word. One rather loud and headstrong fellow, Harris, piously declared that he would face the dangers of the islands, even if nobody else could share his fervour. A young man in his early twenties, William Pascoe Crook,volunteered to accompany the braggart. 

The two were deposited on shore from their ship, The Duff, with promises that it would return to leave further supplies. Harris was greeted by the local chief and Crook was sent to an adjacent valley for the night. The chief apparently wished to offer Harris a proper island welcome and sent his wife and three of her sisters down to say hello in the traditional way. Harris was horrified and, brandishing his crucifix, filled their ears with prayers and exhortations as he sent them away. What was experienced by the younger man, Crook, out in his valley, was not recorded, but it is likely that he had a similar experience.

The women assumed that Harris was not a proper man, or perhaps might be a woman in disguise. They waited until the missionary was asleep and then crept quietly into the tent, deftly relieving him of his trousers and underwear and then surreptitiously checking his credentials, as it were. Harris awoke in terror and the women fled, taking his clothes with them as souvenirs. He spent the rest of the night huddled naked and terrified on a tea chest, hands wrapped around his knees, until he was found by Crook in the morning. Harris reboarded The Duff and sailed away back to Tahiti where, with the others, he decided to focus his evangelical efforts in a series of more benign atolls, which according to one account is how the Society Islands got their name.

Crook spent a year on Tahuata and another on Nuku Hiva. His subsequent book, while replete with Christian shock at the local lifestyles, nonetheless provides a good insight into those lifestyles as they existed at the end of the eighteenth century. A different lens was provided byEdward Robarts, an English absconder from a whaling ship who lived on Tahuata from 1798-1800 and then spent the next six years at Comptroller’s Bay, on Nuka Hiva. His journal, which admittedly must be taken with a grain of salt or two, gives a ‘common man’ insight into Marquesan life. It is tainted in that he wrote it from memory, after he left the Pacific and was living in India, and he inevitably presents himself as the hero of the tale.

Caption: Comptroller Bay’s, Nuka Hiva

During this same period a Frenchman with a chequered history (Kabris) and an Englishman with a secretive one (Walker) spent the turn of the nineteenth century on Nuka Hiva and Tahuata. Both were deserters from whaling ships and their origin stories are murky. Their accounts are difficult to access now but, together with Robarts’ story, provided Melville with many of his ideas. And now, here we are.

These are high islands, extrusions of basalt that rise up from the ocean. No glistening sand beaches here, no picturesque reefs providing safe harbour. Ships seek what shelter they might in the various bays, underneath forested crags where carved stone tikis keep a careful eye. The Marquesan peoples have a reputation as being a bit laid back. As Melville put it:

“One tranquil day of ease and happiness follows another in quiet succession, and with these unsophisticated savages the history of a day is the history of a life” (p. 149).

Caption: Hanavave Bay, Fatu Hiva

Like everywhere else, things have changed a bit in the past 200 years. Anthropologists speculate that there were already pressures caused by inter-tribal warfare, a culture of human sacrifice, periodic famine, and genetic in-breeding, and that these were exacerbated by the introduction of alcohol and firearms. Smallpox, dysentery and sexually transmitted diseases also took their toll, and the population dropped from the 80,000 estimated by Cook and others to a low of 2200 in 1920. Ravaged by the usual post-contact cocktail of disease and violence, there was an early 20thcentury prognosis that the population would be extinct in twenty years. The Marquesan people are nothing if not resilient, however, and a hundred years later, the six inhabited islands now support approximately 9,000 people. 

Bay of Taiohae, Nuka Hiva

There are paved – well, concreted – roads linking the various villages and the modern traveller can only cling on in terror as a four-wheel drive truck negotiates a series of steep hairpin bends. Some are so acute that the vehicle stops in the middle and backs up a little so it can actually make the curve. The slopes are precipitous, and it is awe-inspiring to imagine people actually climbing them on paths between villages. Yet on one ridge there is a human-made tunnel, cut through the basalt and known locally as ‘the love tunnel’ for the opportunities in inter-village romance it facilitated.

Caption: The ‘love tunnel’ cut through a basalt ridge, Tahuata

There are many other stories from the Marquesas Islands or, to be more accurate, from Te Fenua Enata, the ‘Land of Men’. Stories of poets and painters; stories of invasive species, whether vegetative or animal, including homo sapiens; stories of tikis, tapa, and tattoos; stories of one of the greatest human migrations ever known. But those are stories I shall save for other blogs.There has been so much to absorb over the past twelve days, it will take time for me to process the experience. 

Tonight we return to the real world, flying via Auckland on our way back to Australia. I have only just heard about the cyclone which struck the North Island last week and can only hope that our flight is still going ahead. I have heard nothing from Air Tahiti Nui to suggest otherwise. So hopefully we will be airborne at two o’clock tomorrow morning, lose a day as we cross the date line, then arrive in Sydney in time to catch our connecting flight to Melbourne. Where the next adventure begins.


Chester, S., Baumgartner, H., Frechoso, D., & Oetzel, J. (2004). The Marquesas Islands: MaveMai (2nd ed.). Tahiti, French Polynesia: CTPM.

Dening, G. (2004). Beach crossings: Voyaging across times, cultures, and self. Carlton, VIC (Australia): The Miegunyah Press.

Melville, H. (1968 / 1846). Typee: A peep at Polynesian life. [The Northwestern-Newberry edition]. Evanston & Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library.

Suggs, R. C., & Lichtenstein, B. (2001). Manuiota’a: Journal of a voyage to the Marquesas Islands. Papeete, Tahiti: Pa-eke Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s