Poets and Painters

I woke up just after midnight, heavy seas causing the Aranui to roll noticeably. We had left the sanctuary of our anchorage and were traversing the 100-kilometre passage across to Hiva Oa. This unnamed strait is a long slide between the northern and southern groups of the Marquesas and allows the Pacific swells that began off South America to pass unhindered, pushed along by the South Equatorial Current. The Aranui, of course, was crossing the line of the swell, and was strenuously rocked about by the waves.

I managed to go back to sleep, dreaming that I was in a plane and being slip-slided around by turbulence, then woke when my alarm clock told me we were getting close. The seas eased a little as we came down the west coast of Hiva Oa and into the Canal du Bordelais, the narrow passage which separates the island from Tahuata. I had never heard of him but one of the speakers on the ship referred to Bordelais as the French navigator who first charted the channel.

Further research (Victoria University of Wellington, 2016) suggests that wasn’t the case at all, and in fact it was named after the second French ship to ply these waters. In the same vein as Marchand, this was a commercial rather than scientific enterprise. The idea was to trade French goods for seal skins and furs on northwest coast of the United States and Canada; take those skins and furs to China to trade for ‘exotic’ Chinese merchandise; and then return the Chinese goods to France and sell them for a profit. This commercial triangle was a common way for Europeans to do business in the Pacific during the early 1800s and ships that survived the journey made quite a lot of money.

The name Bordelais, of course, means from or of Bordeaux, and one of the ships that was bought, equipped, and stocked by a merchant from that city was given the name. The ship was placed under the command of Camille de Roquefeuil and left on a voyage that lasted from October 1816 to November 1819, more or less three years. Midway through they spent December 1817 to February 1818 in the Marquesas, where de Roquefeuil charted the passage between Hiva Oa and Tahuata and named it after his ship. Not his navigator. Now you know.

We came into Atuona Bay in the early light just after dawn. The bay opened into two channels, that on the left leading to town and the one on the right to the harbour. To the left there was what looked like a bowl-shaped beach, black sand or gravel, in a fine arc before the town. In the bay on the harbour side bay there were a dozen or so yachts and catamarans, six fishing boats, and two dories tied up at the breakwater / pier. I noted that the lights on the pier each had a small solar panel attached, the first time I’d seen solar power used in the Marquesas.

Atuona in the early light

Atuona in the early light

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity on the freight deck, and two whaleboats were dropped over the side. They raced off ahead of us and, through binoculars, I watched as they hailed one of the touring yachts at anchor in the harbour. A couple came blearily on deck, listened, then hastened to lift anchor and start their auxiliary motor. The good yacht ‘Esmerelda’ got out of the way just before the Aranui came round the breakwater and eased over what had probably seemed like a pretty good anchorage.

Launch of the whaleboat

Hiva Oa is a ‘proper’ tropical island. Palm, banana and other trees cascaded down the hillsides almost to the basalt edges of the sea. The upper slopes of the mountain are clad in mixed forest, with exposed bands of rock. It is quite a green landscape, not the acacia grey or burned brown of the Northern Marquesas Islands. Tidy white houses with green or brown roofs are well spaced on the hillside. I could hear the lapping of water against the ship, the distant crash of a light surf upon the shore, and a cockerel crowing somewhere. The crags on the caldera are clear and distinct. This might well be paradise.

Nestled in a beautiful valley with the peak of Temetiu looming overhead, Atuona used to be the administrative capital of the Marquesas Islands and still shows elements of early colonial chic. It reminded me very much of the old trading towns we used to frequent when we lived in Papua New Guinea in the mid-seventies, places like Alotau and Samarai, Wewak and Madang. The streets were well proportioned and many of the houses had beautiful gardens.

Atuona street scene

Which may have been part of the attraction for its two most famous residents, both now deceased, and one of whom was the spark that initiated this trip. I have long held a deep admiration for the work of Paul Gauguin, a friend of Van Gogh, and one of the most important French post-impressionist painters [see https://www.theartstory.org/artist/gauguin-paul/ for more on his life and work]. He lived the last decade of his life in French Polynesia, passing away in Atuona in 1903. A bus took us up the hill of Hueakihi to the cemetery where Gauguin is buried. It was a very special moment for me when I stood by his grave to pay my respects.

Gauguin’s grave

The Belgian poet and singer Jacques Brel discovered Atuona in the mid-1970s and is buried just down the hill from Gauguin. Indeed, most of the French women from the Aranui pretty much ignored Gauguin and instead clustered around the lower grave. I didn’t really know anything about Brel, who wrote and sang mainly in French, and was surprised to learn of his influence. Anybody whose songs have been covered by artists from Shirley Bassey to Nirvana, Judy Collins to Sting, and Marianne Faithful to David Bowie, can’t be that bad! I’m going to have to look him up when I get home. Meanwhile, you can read all about him online, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Brel

Brel’s grave

We walked down the hill and rested a while under a hibiscus tree, then wandered along the shore past a pensive tiki. The valley of Atuona, although beautiful, is a place with a dark history. When the likes of Cook, Bougainville, and Bligh sailed these waters, the island had an estimated population of 100,000 people. Within a hundred and fifty years, that had dropped to 3,000.

Pensive tiki, Hiva Oa

We ended up at the Gauguin Museum and Cultural Centre, where there is a replica of his famous Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure), although how much pleasure he actually got there is debatable. It was towards the end of his life, when he was in ill-health and in constant acrimony with both the political and religious leaders of the Island, and the name may well have been a statement of intent rather than one of actuality. The house is raised on posts, to allow the breeze to circulate beneath, and is surprisingly small.

The museum is valuable in that it has copies of all his paintings on display. Admittedly, these are not very good copies, but it is good to see them all in one place. It seems that a fairly poor art forger was caught by the French police and, in an effort to reduce his sentence, agreed to produce the paintings that are now in the museum. A small note next to each bears a photograph of the original, and a statement as to its current location.

Gaugin’s Paintings

I left the museum and walked across the street to buy a t-shirt. I met some of the other passengers and we waited in the shade under a tree for our bus to finish the school run. There were only two buses on the island, it seemed, and although they ‘moonlighted’ by driving tourists around, their main purpose was taking children to school and then dropping them home for their lunch. Eventually it turned up and took us back to the ship for ours.

Victoria University of Wellington. (2016). Explorers of the Pacific: European and American discoveries in Polynesia. New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa. https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BucExpl-t1-body-d19-d4.html

One thought on “Poets and Painters

  1. Cheers Tim …. Fascinating and clearly an iconic trip! However hearing about that boat movement, I know I would have struggled!!
    Of course Brel is a god here in France… glad you got to say Hi xx


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