Escaping the Past
When Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña discovered the archipelago in 1595, he named them Las Marquesas after his patron the Marquis of Cañete, Viceroy of Peru. Back then, the islanders wore their hair long, were covered in tattoos and still practised cannibalism. Warriors hung the skulls of their enemies from their loincloths – no doubt something of a shock to the Europeans. Consequently, nerves were already on edge when 400 islanders in va’as (canoes) welcomed Mendaña’s ship. Fascinated by the glass, iron and guns on board, they started taking things – as they were free to do unless the chief forbade it – and, in a panic, Mendaña ordered his men to shoot. They raised anchor two weeks later, leaving behind a date carved into a tree and over 200 dead Polynesians. I hoped to make a better impression.
For centuries, visitors had brought nothing but trouble to the islands. At the end of the 1700s, groups of Catholic missionaries arrived. Horrified at the locals’ tattoos, uninhibited sex lives, nakedness and lewd dancing, they forbade all of it and convinced many islanders to convert by offering free education. Later, whalers – hunting sperm-whale oil to light London street lamps – taught the locals how to make alcohol from fermented coconut flowers and spawned an epidemic of alcoholism. And in 1863, Chilcan-Peruvian slavers arrived to round up Polynesians to work in their guano mines. Those that returned brought back small pox, decimating the islands’ population. It’s a wonder that Te Henua’Enana (or ‘The land of Men’) had any men left at all. “We’re relearning our culture,” explained Johann, and once again I thought of Mahalo and his ink.
When I looked out my porthole on the third day, I saw something altogether more alluring than fish: a sweeping amphitheatre of untamed wilderness, where the cobalt-blue ocean pounded against steep green hillsides streaked with waterfalls. We had anchored in Taiohae Bay in Nuku Hiva – the largest of the Marquesas Islands. Not much had changed here since a 23 year-old Herman Melville jumped ship in 1842 to escape his job on a whaling boat. It was certainly the least-busy capital I had ever visited. There were a few shops, a post office, a bank and a pretty Catholic church built from stones found on all six inhabited islands, and rush hour consisted of three or four men descaling the catch of the day on the docks.
I was soon bundled into a 4×4 and driven inland to Kamuihei, a me’ae (sacred ceremonial complex) that had been cleared of ferns and trees. Together with the guide and my fellow passengers, we trip-trapped across a log bridge that led to an open rectangle of grass framed by giant stone blocks beneath the trees.
“This part is called the marae,” explained our guide Charlotte. “It was used for feasts, important meetings and dancing. Now it hosts the Marquesas Art Festival every four years.” I climbed up a series of slippery moss-covered stone platforms, then my eye caught a pit hewn into the rocks. “It’s where humans were kept before being sacrificed,” Charlotte interceded with an eerie whisper. She then pointed to a shallow groove in another rock. “This was for tattooing. They’d grind noix de bancoule (candlenuts) here and mix its black dye with coconut water because it was a natural anti-bacterial. Smart, eh? It would have been beaten into the skin using ‘combs’ made from pigs teeth, bird bones or even human teeth. Tattoos were used as a kind of identity card.”
Stamped out by the missionaries for over 150 years, the art form would have been lost forever were it not for the sketchings of a German doctor who visited in the 1890s and made records of the full -body tattoos of one of the islands’ last warriors. Today, tattoos are found across Polynesia, but all its traditional designs hail from the Marquesas. One of the crew had joked earlier that I should have one done, and suddenly it didn’t seem so amusing.