Nicholas Senn.

Tahiti; the island paradise online

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storm area. Darkness prevails. Gigantic drops
of rain strike the deck and patter upon the canvas
awning, the harbingers of a drenching rain.

And now the thick'ned sky-
Like a dark ceiling stood; down rush'd the rain im-
petuous. Milton.

The cloud and darkness are left behind, and a
clear sky and smooth sea ahead greet the passen-
gers. Did you ever see a rainbow at midnight?
Such an unusual nocturnal spectral phenomenon
greeted us in midocean : the full moon in the east,
the delicate rainbow in its infinite colors painted


on the clouds in the west. Our captain, who had
lived on the tropic sea for a quarter of a
century, had never seen the like before. It was
reserved for us to see a rainbow painted by the
moon. With such pleasant diversions, by day
and by night, we soon forget the ocean desert,
and yet on the last day of the voyage we welcome
the sight of land.

Be of good cheer, I see land.


The vastness of the ocean and the smallness of
Tahiti are in strange contrast. How the mariner,
in setting the compass on leaving the harbor of
San Francisco, can so unerringly find this little
speck in the ocean nearly four thousand miles
away, is an accomplishment which no one, not
versed in the science of navigation can fully com-
prehend. We sighted Tahiti during the early
part of the forenoon. The peaks of the two
highest mountains in Tahiti, Oroheua and Aorii,
seven to eight thousand feet in height, projected
spectre-like from the surface of the ocean. These
peaks appeared as bare, sharp, conical points in the
clear sky above a mantle of clouds which envel-
oped the balance of the island. This misty drap-
ing of the two highest mountains takes place
almost every day, as the clouds are attracted by
the constant moisture of the soil, due to the
dense forests and luxuriant tropical vegetation.


The next sight of land brought into view the
rugged mountains of Moorea and a group of
small atoll islands. Moorea is in plain view from
Papeete, and is the second largest of the Society
Islands. Before we look at Tahiti at close range,
let us examine the group of atoll islands which
the steamer passes close enough to give us - a
good idea of their formation.


The atoll islands, so numerous in the South
Seas, have a uniform conformation, and are of
coral, deposited upon submerged summits of
mountains of volcanic origin. The floor of the
Pacific, like many other parts of the earth's
surface, is undergoing constant changes, increas-
ing or diminishing its level. Here and there, at
certain intervals, volcanic eruptions have created
mountains, v^hich, in Hawaii, rise to nearly four-
teen thousand and, in Tahiti, to over seven thou-
sand feet. Around each of these innumerable
islands and islets in the great Pacific Ocean the
coral polyps have a fringing reef of rock. As
these minute creatures can live only at a depth
of twenty to thirty fathoms, and die as soon as
exposed to the air, their life-work is confined to
the coast of volcanic islands. Whenever, as it
often happened, the island upon which they had
congregated was slowly sinking, they would
elevate their wall to save themselves from death
in deep water. It is evident that if this process
continued long enough, the land would entirely
disappear and leave a submerged circular wall of
coral just below the level of the low tide. The
effects of the waves in breaking ofif the coral
formation, large and small, in elevating them,
would, in course of time, produce a ring of



sanely beach, rising above the sea surrounding
the central basin, filled with salt water entering
through one or many open channels. Upon the
beach, cocoanuts, washed ashore, would find a
favorable soil for germination, and, ere long,
stately palms would fringe the rim of the enclosed
lagoon. Every atoll island has a peripheral
fringe of cocoa-palms and a central lagoon which
communicates with the ocean by one or more
channels. Such an island is an atoll, the final
stage in the disappearance of a volcanic islet
from the surface of the sea. Such islands are
numerous in the Society Islands, and the
Paumotuan Archipelago consists exclusively of
such atoll islands. ,

It is interesting to know how these minute
coral polyps manage their work of island-build-
ing, or, rather, island-preservation. Coral form-
ation is a calcareous secretion or deposit of many
kinds of zoophytes of the class Anthozoa, which
assumes infinite and often beautiful forms,
according to the different laws which govern the
manner of germination of the polyps of various
species. The coral-producing zoophytes are com-
pound animals, which multiply in the very
swiftest manner, by germination or budding,
young polyp buds springing from the original
polyp, sometimes indifferently from any part of
its surface, sometimes only from its upper cir-
cumference or from its base, and not separating


from it, but remaining in the same spot when
the original parent or polyp is dead, and pro-
ducing buds in their turn. The reproductive capac-
ity of these polyps is marvelous and explains the
greatness of their work in building up whole
islands and the countless submerged reefs so
much dreaded by the mariners of the South Seas.
The calcareous deposition begins when the zoo-
phytes are still simple polyps, owing their exist-
ence to oviparous reproduction, adhering to a
rock or other substance, to v/hich the calcareous
material becomes attached, and on which the
coral is built up, the hard deposits of past gen-
erations forming the base to which those of the
progeny are attracted. The coral formation takes
place with astonishing rapidity; under favorable
circumstances, masses of coral have been found
to increase in height several feet in a few months,
and a channel cut in a reef surrounding a coral
island, to permit the passage of a schooner, has
been blocked with coral in ten years. Coral
formations have been found immediately attached
to the land, whilst in many other cases the reef
surrounds the island, the intervening space, of
irregular, but nowhere of great width, forming a
lagoon or channel of deep water, protected by
the reef from wind and waves. According to
Darwin, this kind of reef is formed from a reef
of the former merely fringing kind, by the
gradual subsidence of the rocky basis, carrying


down the fringe of coral to a greater depth;
whilst the greatest activity of life is displayed by
polyps of the kind most productive of large
masses of coral in the outer parts which are
most exposed to the waves. In this manner he
also accounts for the formation of true coral
islands, or atolls, which consist merely of a
narrow reef of coral surrounding a central
lagoon, and very often of a reef, perhaps half a
mile in breadth, clothed with luxuriant vege-
tation and the never-absent cocoa-palms, bor-
dered by a narrow beach of snowy whiteness, and
forming an arc, the convexity of which is toward
the prevailing wind, whilst a straight line of reef
not generally rising above the reach of the tide,
forms the chord of the arc. The reef is gen-
erally intersected by a narrow channel into the
enclosed lagoon, the waters of which are still and
beautifully transparent, teeming with the greatest
variety of fish. Its surface is enlivened by water-
fowl, and the depth of water close to the pre-
cipitous sides of the reef is almost always very
great. The channels are kept open by the flux
and reflux of the tide, the current and waves of
which are often so swift and high as to become
a menace to schooners attempting entrance into
the lagoon. On the beach, soil most conducive
to the growth of cocoanut-palms is formed by
accumulation of sand, shells, fragments of coral,
seaweeds, decayed leaves, etc. The giant cocoa-


nuts planted in this soil either by the hcind cf man
or by the waves washing them ashore, germinate
quickly, and in a few years the narrow circular
strip of land enclosing the lagoon is fringed with
colonnades of tall fruit-bearing palms. These
islands rise nowhere more than a few feet above
the level of the sea. Sometimes the upheaval of
coral formation by volcanic action results in the
making of a real island, in which event the lagoon
disappears. Islands with such an origin some-
times rise to a height of five hundred feet and
often exhibit precipitous cliffs and contain ex-
tensive caves. I had read a description of the
Paumotu atoll islands by Stevenson, and conse-
quently I was much interested in the little group
of atolls we passed before coming into full view
of Tahiti. As these islands, like all true atolls,
are only a few feet above the level of the sea,
they can not be seen from the sea at anything like
a great distance. When they were pointed out
to us by an officer of the steamer, we could see
no land; they appeared like oases in the desert,
green patches in the ocean, due to the cocoa-
palms which guarded their shores. As we came
nearer, we could make out the rim of land and
the snow-white coral beach. The smallest of
these atoll islands are not inhabited, but regular
visits are made to them in a small schooner or
native double canoe to harvest and bring to
market the never-failing crops of cocoanuts.


As we left the atolls behind us and neared
Tahiti, we could see more clearly the outlines of
the rugged island, disrobed, by this time, of its
vestments of clouds. From a distance, the carpet
of green which extends from its base to near the
summit of the highest peaks is varied here and
there by patches of red volcanic earth, thus add-
ing to the picturesqueness of the scene. What at
first appears as a greensward on the shore, on
nearer view discloses itself as a broad fringe of
cocoa-palms, extending from the edge of the
ocean to the foot of the mountains, and from
there well up on their slopes, where they are lost
in the primeval forest. Above the tree-line, low
shrubs and hardy grasses compose the verdure
up to the bare, brown mountain-peaks. The
largest trees are seen in the mountains' deep
ravines, which are cut out of the side of the
heights by gushing of cold, ;clear waters, which
drain the very heart of the mountains, bounding
and leaping over boulders and rapids in their race
to a resting-place in the near-by calm waters of
the lagoon. As we came nearer to the island we
were able to make out the white lighthouse
on Point Venus, seven miles from Papeete. Here,
Captain Cook, during one of his visits to the
island, was stationed for a considerable length of



time for the purpose of observing the transit of
Venus ; hence the name of the point.

Near the harbor, a native pilot came on board,
and, by careful maneuvering, safely guided the
ship through the very narrov^ channel in the reef
into the harbor, v^ith the tricolor flying from the
top mast. From the harbor, the little city of
Papeete and the island present an inspiring view.
A charming islet on the left as v^e enter the
harbor, looks like an emerald set in the blue
water. It serves as a quarantine station, and
the little snow-white buildings upon it appear like
toy houses. The small city is spread out among
cocoa-palms, ornamental and shade trees. The
green of the foliage of these trees is continuous
with the forest-clad mountains which form the
background of the beautiful platfeau on which the
city is built. The harbor of Papeete is land and
reef-locked, small, but deep enough to float the
largest steamers plying in the Pacific Ocean. As
the came up slowly to the wharf, hun-
dreds of people, a strange mixture of natives,
half-castes, Europeans and Chinese, old and
young, dressed in clothes of all imaginable colors,
red being by far the most predominant, crowded
the dock. Many of the children were naked,
and not a few of the men and boys were unen-
cumbered by clothing, with the exception of the
typical, much checkered Tahitian cotton loin-
cloth. A number of handsome carriages brought


the elite of the city to take part in this most
important of all monthly events.

They come to see ; they come to be seen.


Custom-house officers, uniformed native police-
men, government officials, French soldiers and
merchants, mingled with the dusky natives and
contributed much to the uniqueness of the land-
ing-scene. The dense, motley crowd was anxious
to see and be seen, but was orderly and wxU
behaved. The custom-house officers were accom-
modating and courteous, and passed our hand-
baggage without inspection. On the wharf was
a small mountain of cocoanuts, in readiness to
be loaded as a part of the return cargo of the


Papeete is the [capital of Tahiti, the seat of
government of the entire archipelago, and the
principal commercial city of the French posses-
sions in Oceanica. It is a typical city of the
South Sea world, as it is viewed from the deck
of the steamer and while walking or riding along
its narrow, crooked streets. From the harbor,
little can be seen of its buildings, except the
spire of the cathedral and the low steeples of two
Protestant churches, the low tower of the gov-
ernor's palace, formerly the home of royalty, the
military hospital, the wharf, and a few business
houses loosely scattered along the principal
street, the Quai du Commerce that skirts the
harbor. The residence part of the city is hidden
behind towering cocoa-palms and magnificent
shade-trees among which the flamboyant (burau)
trees are the most beautiful. It is situated on
a low plateau with a background of forest-
clad mountains, the beautiful little harbor, the
spray-covered coral reef, the vast ocean and the
picturesque outlines of Moorea in front of it

Papeete has no sidewalks. The streets are
narrow, irregularly laid out, and none of them
paved. Most of the houses are one-story frame
buildings, covered with corrugated iron roofs.
There are only two or three large stores; the



remaining business-places are small shops, many
of them owned and managed by Chinamen. The
present population, made up of natives of all
tints, from a light chocolate to nearly white, six
to eight hundred whites and about three hundred
Chinese, numbers in the neighborhood of five
thousand, nearly half of the population of the
entire island. There are about five hundred
Chinese in the island, who, by their industry and
knowledge of business methods, have become
formidable competitors of the merchants from
other foreign countries. Their small shops and
coffee-houses in Papeete and the country districts
are well patronized by the natives.

Papeete is the commercial center of Oceanica.
There are no department stores there. Business
is specialized more there than perhaps in any
other city. All of the shops, even the largest, look
small in the eyes of Americans. There are dry
goods stores, grocery stores, millinery shops, two
small frame hotels, the Hotel Francais and
another smaller one, both on the Quai, a few
boarding-houses, two saloons, and no bank. The
scarcity of saloons can be explained by the fact
that the natives are temperate in their habits.
According to a law enforced by the government,
the native women are prohibited from frequent-
ing such places.

The public wash-basin, supplied with running
fresh water from a mountain stream, is a sight
worth seeing. From a dozen to twenty native


women, and a few soldiers, may be found here
almost any time of the day, paddling knee-deep
in the water, using stones in place of washboards
in performing their arduous work. This prim-
itive way of washing gives excellent results,
judging from the snow-white, spotless linen gar-
ments worn by the Europeans and well-to-do

The little plaza or square in the center of the
city is used as a market-place where natives con-
gregate at five o'clock in the morning, to make
their modest purchases of fish, plantain, pine-
apple, melon or preserved shrimp done up in
joints of bamboo. This is the place to learn what
the islanders produce, sell and buy.

The public buildings are well adapted for a
tropic climate. The most important of these is
the palace of the last of the Tahitian kings, now
used as the office of the government. It is a
handsome white building, surrounded by ample
grounds well laid out, and beautified by trees,
shrubs and flowers. The government school-
house is an enormous frame building, resting
upon posts, several feet from the ground, with
more than one-half of its walls taken up by
arched windows, the best lighted and most
thoroughly ventilated building in the city, an
ideal schoolhouse for the tropics. Among the
churches of dififerent denominations, the Catho-
lic cathedral is the largest and best, although in


the States it would not be considered an ornament
for a small country village.

The city is well supplied with pure water from
a mountain stream, but lacks a system of sewer-
age. The gardens and grounds of the best resi-
dences of the foreigners present an exquisite
display of flowers that flourish best in the tropic
soil, under the invigorating rays of the tropic
sun, and the soothing effects of the frequent
showers of rain, which are not limited to any
particular season of the year.

Papeete, like all cities in the equatorial region,
is a city of supreme idleness and freedom from
care. The citizens can not comprehend that
'The great principle of human satisfaction
is engagement" (Paley). This idleness is in-
herent in the natives, and under the climatic
conditions, and I suppose to a certain extent by
suggestion, is soon acquired by the foreigners.
Contentment and absence of anxiety characterize
the life of the Tahitian. He has no desire to
accumulate wealth ; he is satisfied with little. He
is "shut up in measureless content" (Shake-
speare) ; he is inspired with the good idea that
''he that maketh haste to be rich, shall not be
innocent" ( Proverb xxviii : 20). The merchants
open their shops at sunrise, lock the doors at ten,
retire to their homes for breakfast, take their
two-hour siesta, return to their business, suspend
work at five, and the remainder of the day and


the entire evening are devoted to rest, social visits
and divers amusements. The social center of
the foreigners is the Cercle Bougainville, a small
frame building which serves the purpose of a
club house. Bicycling is a favorite means of
travel and sport for the Europeans as well as the
natives of all classes. This vehicle has found its
way not only into the capital city but also into the
country districts throughout the island. The
splendid macadamized road which encircles the
island furnishes a great inducement for this sport.
Two of the wealthiest citizens travel the prin-
cipal streets in the city and the ninety-mile drive
in the most modern fashion by riding an auto-

There are tew if any door locks in private
residences, hotels and boarding-houses, the best
possible proof that the inhabitants are law-
abiding citizens. In the boarding-house in which
I lived, the main entrance was left wide open
during the night, and none of the door locks
was supplied with a key. The native women wear
Mother Hubbard gowns of bright calico; the
better class of men dress in European fashion,
while the laborers and men from the country
districts wear a pareu (loin-cloth) of bright
calico, with or without an undershirt. The
average Tahitian does not believe in :

We are captivated by dress.








o ^




Into the silent land !

Ah, who shall lead us thither?

Von Salis.

There is no spot on earth more free from care,
worry and unrest than the island of Tahiti. The
abundance with which nature here has provided
for the wants of man, the uniform soothing
climate, the calmness of the Pacific Ocean, the
pleasing scenery quiet the nerves, induce sleep
and reduce to a minimum the efforts of man in
the struggle for life. It is the island of peace,
contentment and rest, a paradise on earth.

No writer has ever done justice to the natural
beauties of this gem of the South Seas. The
towering mountains, the tropical forests, the
numerous rippling streams of crystal water,
shaded dark ravines, the palm-fringed shore, the
lagoons with their quiet, peaceful, clear waters
painted in most exquisite colors of all shades of
green, blue and salmon by the magic influence of
the tropical sun, their outside wall of coral reef
ceaselessly kissed by the caressing, foaming,
moaning surf, the near-by picturesque island of
Moorea, with its precipitous mountains rising
from the deep bed of the sea, the flat basin-like,
palm-fringed atolls in the distance, and the vast
ocean beyond, make up a combination of pictures


of which the mind never tires, and which engrave
themselves indeHbly on the tablet of memory.

Tahiti is a typical mountain island, protected
against the aggressive ocean by a coral reef
which forms almost a complete wall around it,
enclosing lagoons of much beauty, which teem
with a great variety of fish. It is thirty-five
miles in length, and on an average twelve miles
in breadth. It is shaped somewhat in the form
of an hourglass, the narrow part at Isthmus
Terrawow. The circuit of the island by follow-
ing the coast is less than one hundred and twenty
miles. The ninety-mile drive which engirdles the
island cuts ofif some of the irregular projections
into the sea. The interior is very mountainous
and cut into ravines so deep that it has never been
inhabited to any extent. The highest peaks are
Orohena and Aorii, from seven to eight thousand
feet in height, the former cleft into two points
of rock which are often draped with dark masses
of tropic clouds. Numerous other peaks of
lesser magnitude are crowded together in the
center of the island, their broad foundations en-
:croaching upon the plain. The people live on the
narrow strip of low land at the base of the
mountains and running down to the shore, where
the soil is exceedingly fertile and always well
watered by numerous rivers, brooks and rivulets.
Numberless cascades can be seen from the ninety-
mile drive, leaping over cliffs and appearing like


silver threads in the dark green of the mountain-
sides. The strip of arable land at the base of the
mountains varies in width from^ the bare pre-
cipitous cliffs, without even a beach, to one, or
perhaps in the widest places, two miles. The
larger streams have cut out a few broader valleys.
It is this narrow strip of land which is inhabited,
the little villages being usually located near the
mouth of a river on the coast-line, insuring for
the inhabitants a pure water-supply and facilities
for fresh-water bathing, a frequent and pleasant
pastime for the natives of both sexes and all

Wherever there is sufficient depth of soil, vege-
tation is rampant. The fertility of the soil and
the stimulating effect of constant moisture on
vegetable life are best seen by the vitality exhib-
ited by the fence-posts. I have seen fence-posts
a foot and more in circumference, after being
implanted in the soil, strike root, sprout and
develop into trees of no small size. The moun-
tains, and more especially the ravines, are heavily
timbered. There is no place on earth where the
scenery is more beautiful and sublime than at
many points along the ninety-mile drive. The
lofty mountains, the fertile plain, the many rivers,
brooks, rivulets and glimpses of foaming cas-
cades, lagoons, of the surf beating the coral reef
in the distance, the limitless ocean beyond, the
luxuriant rampant vegetation, the beautiful


flowers, the majestic palm-trees, the quaint villages
and their interesting inhabitants, form a picture
which is beautiful, and, at the same time, sublime.
As a whole it is sublime ; in detail, beautiful.

Beauty charms, sublimity awes us, and is often
accompanied with a feeling resembling fear; while
beauty rather attracts and draws us towards it.


Let us see how Captain Cook was impressed
with Tahiti when he first cast his eyes upon this
gem of the Pacific:

Perhaps there is scarcely a spot in the universe that

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Online LibraryNicholas SennTahiti; the island paradise → online text (page 2 of 14)