Nicholas Senn.

Tahiti; the island paradise online

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O blissful poverty!
Nature, too partial, to thy lot assigns
Health, freedom, innocence, and downy peace, —
Her real goods, — and only mocks the great
With empty pageantries.

No sullen discontent nor anxious care.
E'en though brought thither, could inhabit there.


The Tahitian people, before they tasted the
questionable advantages of European civilization,
had much in common and lived happily in the
full enjoyment of Nature's varied and bountiful
gifts. Tribal life was family life, and public
affairs were managed to suit the wants of the
people, and if any one in power failed in his
duties, the people took the law in their own hands
and corrected the evil, usually without bloodshed.
If the people were not prosperous according to
our ideas of life, they were at least happy, and

We must distinguish between felicity and prosperity;
for prosperity leads often to ambition, and ambition to
disappointment. LanPOR.


The Tahitians have no corn or grain of any
kind out of which to make bread. They
found in the forests excellent substitutes for
bread, and more healthful for that climate, in
the form of breadfruit, wild plantain and tubers
rich in starch. This is the kind of bread they have
been eating for centuries, and which they prefer
to our bread to-day. When the island was
densely populated and the demand on nature's
resources exceeded the supply, the natives had to
plant trees, roots and tubers in vacant spaces in
the forest, high up on the mountainsides, where
they grew luxuriantly without any or little care,
and by these trifling efforts on the part of man
the food-supply kept pace with the increase of
the population. Trees and plants distributed in
this manner found a permanent home in the ncv/
places provided for them, and have since multi-
plied, and thus increased greatly the annual yield.
Evidences of dissemination of bread and fruit-
yielding trees and plants by the intervention of
man are apparent to-day throughout the island
by the presence of cocoa-palms, breadfruit and
other fruit trees, and plantains, in localities where
nature could not plant them, in places formerly
inhabited but abandoned long ago when the pop-
ulation became so rapidly decimated by the viru-




lent diseases introduced into the island by the
Europeans. To-day the fruit and fruit-supply is
so abundant that it is within easy reach of every
family and can be had without money and with-
out labor. We will consider here a few of the
most important substitutes for bread on which
the Tahitians largely subsist:

Breadfruit. — Breadfruit is the most important
article of food of the Tahitians. It is the fruit
of the breadfruit tree Arfocarpus incisiva
(Linne), a tree of the natural order, Artocar-
pacece, a native of the islands of the Pacific
Ocean and of the Indian Archipelago. This
fruit is one of the most important gifts of nature
to the inhabitants of the tropics, serving as the
principal part of their food, the inner tough bark
of the tree furnishing a good material for native
cloth, while the trunk of the tree is used as a
material for canoes. The exudation issuing from
cuts made into the stem, a resinous substance, is
in use for closing the seams of canoes. Several
varieties of breadfruit trees are to be found in
Tahiti, differing in the structure of their leaves
and in the size and time of ripening of the fruit,
so that ripe breadfruit is obtainable more or less
abundantly throughout the year. The foliage of
this tree is the greenest of all green, and it is
this deep green which distinguished this tree at
once from its neighbors. The male flowers are
in catkins, with a two-leaved perianth and one


stamen ; the female flowers are mide. The leaves
are large, pinnatifid, frequently twelve to eighteen
inches long, smooth and glossy on their upper
surface. The much branched tree attains a height
of twenty to fifty feet. The fruit is a sorosis,
a compound or aggregate the size of a child's
head, round or slightly oblong, light green, fleshy
and tuberculated on the surface. The rind is
thick, and marked with small square or lozenge-
shaped divisions, each having a small elevation
in the middle. The fruit hangs by a short, thick
stalk from the small branches, singly or in clus-
ters of two or three together. It contains a white,
somewhat fibrous pulp, which when ripe becomes
juicy and yellow, but has then a rotten taste.
The fruit is gathered for use before it is ripe, and
the pulp is then white and mealy, of the con-
sistence of fresh bread. The fruit is prepared in
many ways for food, roasted on hot coals, boiled
or baked, or converted by the experienced native
cook into complicated dainty dishes. The com-
mon practice in Tahiti is to cut each fruit into
three or four pieces and take out the core ; then to
place heated stones in the bottom of a hole dug
in the ground ; to cover them with green leaves,
and upon this place a layer of the fruit, then
stones, leaves and fruit alternately, till the hole
is nearly filled, when leaves and earth to the
depth of several inches are spread over all. In
half an hour th^ breadfruit i§ r^^dy ; the outsides


are, in general, nicely browned, and the inner
part presents a white or yellowish cellular sub-
stance. Breadfruit prepared in this manner and
by other methods of cooking is very palatable, as
I can speak from my own experience, slightly
astringent and highly nutritious, a most excellent
dietetic article for the tropics. The tree is very
prolific, producing two and sometimes three crops
a year. When once this tree has gained a firm
foothold in a soil it cherishes, and in a climate it
enjoys, it exhibits a tenacity to reproduce itself
to an extent often beyond desirable limits. Of
this Captain Cook writes:

I have inquired very carefully into their manner
of cultivating the breadfruit tree; but was always
answered tliat they never plant it. The breadfruit tree
plants itself, as it springs from the roots of the old
ones, so that the natives are often under the necessity
of preventing its progress to make room for trees of
other sorts to afford some variety in their food.

The timber is soft and light, of a rich yellow
color, and assumes when exposed to the air the
appearance of mahogany.

Manioc. — Manioc is another important article
of food in Tahiti and likev/ise serves as an excel-
lent substitute for baker's bread. It is the large,
fleshy root oi Manihot utilissima, a large, half-
shrubby plant of the natural order EuphorhiacecB,
a native of tropical America, and much cultivated
in Tahiti as an article of food. In this island the


plant has run wild in some of the ravines formerly
inhabited. The plant grows in a bushy form,
with stems usually six to eight feet high, but
sometimes much higher. The stems are brittle,
white, and have a very large pith; the branches
are crooked. The leaves are near the ends of the
branches, large, deeply seven-parted, smooth and
deep green. The roots are very large, turnip-
like, sometimes weighing thirty pounds, from
three to eight growing in a cluster, usually from
twelve to twenty-four inches in length. They
contain an acrid, milky juice in common with other
parts of the plant, so poisonous as to cause death
in a few minutes ; but as the toxic effect is owing
to the presence of hydrocyanic acid, which is
quickly removed by heat, the juice, inspissated
by boiling, forms the excellent sauce called
casareep; and fermented with molasses it yields
an intoxicating beverage called onycou; whilst
the root, grated, dried on hot metal plates and
roughly powdered, becomes an article of food.
It is made into thin plates which are formed into
cakes, not by mixing with water, but by the action
of heat, softening and agglutinating the particles
of starch. The powdered root prepared in this
manner is an easily digestible and nutritious
article of farinaceous food. The root is largely
made use of in the manufacture of starch and is
exported from Tahiti for this purpose to a con-
siderable extent. The starch made from this


root is also known as Brazilian arrowroot, and
from it tapioca is made. Manioc is propagated
by cuttings of the stem, and is of rapid growth,
attaining maturity in six months.

Sweet Cassava. — Sweet cassava is the root of
Manihot Aipi, a woody plant indigenous to trop-
ical South America, growing in great abundance
in the dense forest of the mountain valleys of
Tahiti. The plant grows to a height of several
feet and has large long leaves growing from the
foot of the stem. The root is reddish and non-
toxic; it can therefore be used as a culinary
esculent, without any further preparation than
boiling, while its starch can also be converted
into tapioca. The Aipi has tough, woody fibres,
extending along the axis of the tubers, while gen-
erally the roots of the manioc (bitter cassava)
are free from this central woody substance.

Arrowroot or Arru Root. — The commercial
arrowroot is prepared from different starch-
yielding roots, but the bulb of the Maranta
marantacece produces more starch and of a better
quality than any of the others. It is a native of
the West Indies and South America, and is culti-
vated quite extensively in Tahiti. Many little
patches of this plant may be seen along the road
from Papeete to Papara, where the lowland soil
is well adapted for its cultivation. The starch-
producing plant which is cultivated most exten-
sively in Tahiti and other South Sea Islands is


the Tacca pinnatifoUa. This perennial plant will
even thrive well in the sandy soil near the shore.
The stalk, with terminal spreading pinnatifid
leaves, is from two to three feet high and the root
is a tuber about the size of a small potato. The
tacca starch is much valued in medicine, and is
particularly used in the treatment of inflammatory
affections of the gastro-intestinal canal.

Taro or Tara. — Taro is another very impor-
tant food-product of Tahiti, as well as other
islands of the Pacific, notably the Hawaiian
Islands. It is the root of Colocasia macrorhiza,
a plant of the natural order AracecB, of the same
genus with cocoa. The plant thrives best in low,
marshy places. In all of the South Sea Islands
it is very extensively cultivated for its roots, which
constitute in these islands a staple article of food,
excellent substitutes for potatoes and bread. The
roots are very large, from twelve to sixteen
inches in length, and as much in circumference.
They are washed in cold water to take away their
acridity, which is such as to cause excoriation of
the mouth and palate. The roots are cooked in
the same way as the breadfruit, the rind being
first scraped off. Another very common way of
eating taro is in the form of poi. This method
of preparing the root was known to the Tahitians
when Captain Cook visited the island. He com-
pared poi with "sour pudding." It requires some
skill to make poi. The root, finely grated, is


allowed to ferment over night. It tastes sour and
is a refreshing, delicate and nutritious dish, when
served ice-cold. The plant has no stalk; the
petioled heart-shaped leaves spring from the root.
The flower is in the form of a spathe. The boiled
leaves can be used as a substitute for spinach.

Wild Plantain. — The wild plantain furnishes
its liberal share of food-supply for the
Tahitians. It is a tree-like, perennial herb (Miisa
paradisiaca) with immense leaves and large
clusters of the fruits. In its appearance it re-
sembles very closely the banana, but differs from
it as the hands and fingers of the bunches of fruit
are turned in the opposite direction. The fruit is
long and somewhat cylindrical, slightly curved,
and, when ripe, soft, fleshy and covered with a
thick but tender yellowish skin. This plant is in-
digenous to Tahiti and is found in abundance in
the forests. The fruit is cooked or baked and
is keenly relished by the natives.

All of the articles of food I have referred to
above are easily digested, palatable and nutritious,
and for the Tahiti climate more healthful than
bread and potatoes, on which the masses of
people living in colder climates subsist to a large
extent. I attribute the comparative immunity of
the South Sea Islanders from attacks of appen-
dicitis principally to their diet, which is laxative,
easily digested and not liable to cause fermen-
tation in the gastro-intestinal canal. Appen-


dicltis does occur in these islands, but this disease
is extremely rare as compared with the frequency
with which it is met in Europe, and more
especially in the United States. The Americans
are the most injudicious and reckless eaters in
the world, which goes far in explaining the
prevalence of gastric and intestinal disorders
among our people.



It is fortunate that the inhabitants of the
tropics have no special liking for a meat diet,
as the free indulgence in meat could not fail in
resulting detrimentally to the health of the inhab-
itants. The coutinuously high temperature be-
gets indolence, and indolence tends to diminish
secretion and excretion, conditions incompatible
with a habitual consumption of meat. Nature
has established fixed rules concerning the manner
of living in the tropics. She deprives man of the
appetite for meat and other equally heavy articles
of food, and supplies him with nourishment
adapted for the climate. It is under such climatic
conditions that we are made to realize that

The more we deny ourselves, the more the gods
supply our wants. Horatius.


We can not use the mind aright when the body is
filled with excess of food. Cicero.

For the preservation of health in the tropics,
it is necessary that the food should be laxative,
cooling, easy of digestion and nutritious. Fish
and fruit of various kinds meet these require-
ments. From observations and experience, the
ignorant natives have made a wise selection of



what is best for them to eat, and know what to
avoid. High Hving brings its dire results in
temperate and cold climates, but any one indulg-
ing in it in the tropics will curtail his life, as it
can not fail to be productive, in a short time, of
organic changes of a degenerative type in im-
portant internal organs, which soon begin to
menace life and never fail in diminishing the vital
resistance against acute diseases. Luxury in the
tropics in the way of eating and drinking is a
dangerous experiment, and it is well to remember,
especially when living in a hot climate, that

By degrees man passes to the enjoyments of a vicious
life, porticoes, baths and elegant banquets; this by the
ignorant was called a civilized mode of living, though
in reality it was only a form of luxury. Tacitus.

No such mistakes are made by the natives of
Tahiti as long as they remain true to their
ancient manner of living. With few exceptions,
indeed, they lack the means of imitating the
foreigners in living a life of luxury. Any native
who departs too far from the simple, natural life
of his ancestors will pay dearly for the doubtful
pleasures of a life of luxury. The average native,
fortunately, has no such inclinations; he is satis-
fied to live the simple, natural life his forefathers
led, and he follows the scriptural advice.

And having food and raiment, let us be therewith
content. I. Timothy vi:8.



Nature has provided for the South Sea
Islanders something better than beef and mutton
in the form of meat — fish and cocoanut. Fish
are very abundant all around the coast of Tahiti,
and the lagoons, where the fishing is mostly done,
are as quiet as inland lakes. More than two
hundred varieties of fish have been found in
these waters. But the real and best meat for the
Tahitians is the cocoanut. The meat of this
wonderful nut contains a large per cent, of oil,
which supplies the system with all the fatty
material it requires, and for the tropic climate
this bland, nutritious vegetable oil is far superior
to any animal fats. We will give here the
Gocoa-palm the liberal space it so well deserves:



Through groves of palm

Sigh gales of balm,

Fire-flies on the air are wheeling;

While through the gloom

Comes soft perfume,

The distant beds of flowers revealing.

Sir Walter Scott.

The cocoa-palm Is the queen of the forests of
the South Sea Islands. The tall, slender, branch-
less, silvery stem and fronded crown of this
graceful tree distinguish it at once from all its
neighbors and indicate the nobility of its race.
The great clusters of golden fruit of giant size,
partially obscured by the drooping leaves and
clinging to the end of the stem, supply the natives
with the necessities of life. The cocoa-palm is
the greatest benefactor of the inhabitants of the

It is meat, drink and cloth to us.


Fruits of palm-tree, pleasantest to thirst
And hunger both. Milton.

This noble tree grows and fructifies where hard
manual labor is incompatible with the climate, in
islands and countries where the natives have to
rely largely on the bounteous resources of nature
for food and protection. The burning shores of



India and the islands of the South Pacific are
the natural homes of the cocoa-palm. It has a
special predilection for the sandy beach of Tahiti
and the innumerable atoll islands near to and far
from this gem of the South Seas. The giant nuts
often drop directly into the sea and are carried
away by waves and currents from their native
soil to strange islands, where they are cast upon
the sandy shore, to sprout and prosper for the
benefit of other native or visiting tribes. By this
manner of dissemination, all of these islands have
become encircled by a lofty colonnade of this
queen of the tropics.

Beautiful isles! beneath the sunset skies
Tall silver shafted palm-trees rise between
Tall orange trees that shade
The living colonnade:
Alas ! how sad, how sickening is the scene
That were ye at my side would be a paradise.

Maria Brooks.

The cocoa-palm (Cocos nucifera), is a native
of the Indian coasts and the South Sea Islands.
It belongs to a genus of palms having pinnate
leaves or fronds, and male and female flowers on
the same tree, the latter at the base of each spadix.
It is seldom found at any considerable distance
from the seacoast, except where it has been
introduced by man, and generally thrives best
near the very edge of the sea. In Tahiti isolated
cocoa-palms are found on the lofty hilltops, pro-


jecting, with their proud crowns of pale green
leaves, far above the level of the sea of the dense
forest and impenetrable jungles. This trans-
plantation from shore to the sides and summits of
the foot-hills had its beginning before the discov-
ery of the island, when the overpopulation made
it necessary to provide for a more abundant food-
supply. There it has prospered and multiplied
since without the further aid of man, yielding its
rich harvests of fruit with unfailing regularity.
The frightful reduction in the number of inhab-
itants since the white man set his foot on the
island has made this additional food-suppfy
superfluous, as the palms within easier reach in
the lowlands along the shore more than meet the
present demands.

The cocoa-palm is a proud but virtuous tree.
Its dense cluster of delicate roots does not en-
croach upon the territory of other trees, but claims
only a very modest circular patch of soil from
which to abstract the nourishment for the un-
selfish, philanthropic tree. The base of the stem
is wide and usually inclined, but a few feet
from the ground becomes straight and cylindrical,
with nearly the same diameter from base to
crown. The curve of the stem is caused by the
effects of the prevailing winds on the yielding,
slender stem of the youthful tree, but with in-
creasing growth and strength, it rises column-like
into the air, balancing its fruit-laden massive


crown in uncompromising opposition to the
invisible aerial force. It is only in localities
exposed to the full power of strong and per-
sistent trade-winds that the full-grown trees lean
in the same direction in obedience to the unre-
lenting common deforming cause. The full-
grown tree is, on an average, two feet in diameter,
and from sixty to one hundred feet high, with
many rings marking the places of former leaves,
and having, at its summit, a crown of from six-
teen to twenty leaves, which generally droop, and
are from twelve to twenty feet in length. These
giant leaves furnish an excellent material for
thatched roofs, and in case of need, a few leaves,
properly placed, will make a comfortable, water-
proof tent. The fruit grows in short racemes,
which bear, in favorable situations, from five to
fifteen nuts ; and ten or twelve of these racemes,
in different stages of fructification, may be seen
at once on a tree, about eighty or one hundred
nuts being its ordinary annual product. For the
purpose of answering the requirements of prim-
itive man, the Creator has ordained that this tree
shall yield a continuous harvest from one end of
the year to the other. Flowers and fruit in all
stages of ripening grace the crown at all times
of the year. The young cocoanut contains the
delicious, cooling milk, and the soft pulp, a
nourishing article of food. The mature nut is
an excellent substitute for meat, as the kernel


contains more than seventy per cent, of a fixed,
bland, nutritious oil. The tree bears fruit in from
seven to eight years from the time of planting,
and its lifetime is from seventy to eighty years.
Its greatest ambition during youth is to reach the
clouds and equal its oldest neighbors in height.
Young trees, with a stem less than four inches in
diameter, rival their veteran neighbors in height,
devoting their future growth to the increase in
the dimension and strength of the stem, and their
vital vigor to the bearing of its perennial, unfail-
ing yield of fruit for the benefit of man and
beast. The stem, when young, contains a central
part which is sweet and edible, but when old,
this is a mass of hard fibre. The terminal bud
(palm cabbage) is esteemed a delicacy when
boiled or stewed or raw in the form of a veg-
etable salad. The sweet sap (toddy) of the
cocoa-palm, as of some other palms, is an es-
teemed beverage in tropic countries, either in its
natural state, or after fermentation, which takes
place in a few hours ; and, from the fermented
sap (palm wine), a strong alcoholic liquor
{arrack), is obtained by distillation. The root of
the cocoa-palm possesses narcotic properties.
Every part of this wonderful tree is utilized by
the untutored inhabitants of the tropics. The
dried leaves are much used for the thatch, and
for many other purposes, as the making of mats,
screens, baskets, etc., by plaiting the leaflets.


The strong midribs of the leaves supply the
natives with oars. The wood of the lower part
of the trunk is very hard, and takes a beautiful
polish. The fibrous centre of old stems is made
into salad. By far the most important fibrous
part of the cocoa-palm is the coir, the fibre of the
husk of the imperfectly ripened nut. The sun-
dried husk of the ripe nut is used for fuel, and
also, when cut across, for polishing furniture,
scrubbing floors, etc. The shell of the nut is
made into cups, goblets, ladles, etc., and these
household articles are often finely polished and
elaborately ornamented by carving. This, the
most generous of all trees, from the time of its
birth until it yields to the ravages of time, serves
man in hundreds of different ways, furnishing
him with food and drink, clothing, building-
material, fuel, medicine, most exquisite delicacies,
wine, spirits and many articles of comfort and
even of luxury. What other tree but the cocoa-
palm could have been in the mind of Milton when
he wrote:

In heav'n the trees
Of life ambrosial fruitage bear, and vines
Yield nectar.

The cocoa-palm is a peaceful, modest, virtuous
tree. It prefers its own kin, but is charitable to
its neighbors, irrespective of race. It towers

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Online LibraryNicholas SennTahiti; the island paradise → online text (page 9 of 14)