image by phyllis galembo
“Tahiti is insular, full of peace & joy, but fully encompassed
by the horrors of life beyond its beaches. Push not off from
that isle, for thou canst never return.”--Herman Melville.
There is a wide wonderful archipelago
of 118 islands in the South Pacific--
referred to as French Polynesia.
is the largest island,
populated by Polynesians before Christ,
called it Otaherte.
In 1606 the Spanish called it Sagitaria.
In 1767 the English named it King George Island.
In 1772 the French called it New Cythera.
By the 1800’s it became known as Tahiti.
In 1788 the island was visited by the HMS Bounty.
In the 1820’s the English converted the natives
to Protestantism, introducing alcohol, firearms,
prostitution, venereal disease, & illness to them,
decimating the population, killing 60% of it.
The French moved in with their Catholic missionaries
in tow, & for a bloody decade the new Catholics waged war
against the Protestants.
The French won, of course, proclaiming Tahiti
as an official colony of France.
Gauguin resided there in the 1890’s.
In 2007, I visited Tahiti for my firm,
on a quest to buy up some black pearls,
indigenous only to the Tuomota Islands
in French Polynesia.
I flew into the Capitol at Papeete,
& stayed in a hotel there, having to deal
with Chinese pearl dealers, finding out
that the Chinese were called
the “Jews of Tahiti”, being the
majority merchant class.
French was the primary language there,
but plenty of English was spoken too.
I loved hearing smatterings of the old Tahitian
language, the Reo Maohi, in the cafes,
bistros, & marketplaces.
They say that the island of Hawaii
in just 10 days gets more tourists
than Tahiti in a year, & that even
an average Las Vegas hotel has more rooms
available than in all 118 islands.
My last day there, my purchases concluded,
I wandered into the central park, & was
confronted with Gaston Temara, who stood
on a steamer trunk & gave political speeches.
He wore fake chains on his wrists,
& a ceremonial bag-mask on his face;
fierce & fascinating, he had led
an unsuccessful bid for independence
the year before, but
his hardy black band of freedom fighters
was quickly put down by French troops
sent by President Jacques Chirac,
who claimed, after freeing the dissidents,
that France did not believe that the majority
of Tahitians wanted independence.
Flying home to California, my company satchels
crammed with precious black pearl jewelry,
I could not get Temara out of my head.
Would something akin to liberty find a way
to flourish one day in Tahiti?
Something deeply American in me
truly hoped so.
Posted over on dVerse Poets Poetics
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