In 1813, the frigate USS Essex, after having raided British merchant shipping around the coast of South America, needed to find an island where it could retrofit without fear of being set upon by the Royal Navy. So its captain, the brave and impetuous David Porter, ordered a 2,500-mile voyage to the Marquesas Islands, a chain of fourteen volcanic islands located in the South Pacific about 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. He arrived in the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Nuku Hiva on October 25, 1813, and soon set up camp on the shore. He dubbed the bay Massachusetts Bay and built a small fort he called Madisonville. He even tried to annex the islands for the United States—a proclamation that Congress ignored when lawmakers learned of it months later, thereby missing the chance to make the United States a Pacific power decades before California was granted statehood.
Before long, Porter and his men were embroiled in the violent politics of this Edenic island. Having aligned themselves with the Taaehs, the tribe which controlled the harbor where they landed, the American sailors found themselves drawn into conflict with the Taaehs’ local rivalries. The savage fighting, which traditionally ended with the victors eating the vanquished warriors, inflicted a number of casualties among the Americans. It was, in some ways, a harbinger of what the United States would encounter as its military forces ventured into the Asia-Pacific region to places such as the Philippines and Vietnam, where our involvement in local politics proved even more deadly.
I wrote about Captain Porter’s expedition in my 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace. But until now I had never visited Niku Hiva. Not many Americans have, aside from the contestants and crew of “Survivor: Marquesas” which was filmed here in 2001. I was intensely curious to find out how the island had fared in the years since Porter’s arrival, but I had not been able to arrange a journey until now. It is still not an easy place to visit: Getting there required multiple flights, first from New York to Los Angeles, then to Tahiti, then to Hiva Oa (another island in the Marquesas chain), and finally a puddle-jumper to Niku Huva.
Arriving 202 years after Porter, I was at no risk of being drawn into a war. The islands, having been claimed by France in 1842, are a peaceful if hardly bustling part of French Polynesia. The natives have long since giving up head-hunting in favor of tamer pursuits such as farming and selling tikis (carved wooden idols) to the small number of tourists who come here, mainly from France. The beauty of Nuku Hiva remains striking even if it is more tamed, less wild than it must have been in Porter’s day. (Hiva Oa, where Gaugian died in 1803, is less visited and hence its tropical vegetation is less under control.)
You can still pick bananas, coconuts, grapefruit, and much else off the trees free of charge. You can still hike treacherous mountain trails through the jungle similar to those that Porter and his men must have taken on their expeditions against the warlike Typees (made famous by another visitor: Herman Melville). And of course you can enjoy the striking beauty of the harbor where Porter first set foot.
The major difference since Porter’s day is not only the elimination of cannibalism but also the elimination of most of the local inhabitants. When Porter arrived, there were an estimated 80,000 people in the Marquesas. By 1926 the figure had fallen to just 2,000. Today the total population is still under 9,000 and many of the islands are entirely unpopulated. Nuku Hiva is the most populous of the Marquesas chain, but it has only 2,650 people — as many as live within a few blocks of me in New York.
What happened? Where did all the people go? In brief, what happened here is the same thing that happened to the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas: They were wiped out after the arrival of the Europeans. Some were killed in battle. Many more were killed by diseases to which they had no resistance that the Europeans brought with them. This was not a conscious genocide of the part of the Europeans, but the effect was no different than if it had been. The Polynesians were wiped out as thoroughly as the Sioux or Seminoles.
It is melancholy to reflect on this sad yet probably unavoidable chapter in the interchange between Europe and the non-European world. Polynesian attitudes toward France, their colonial master, have also been colored by the open-air nuclear testing that France regularly undertook in the South Pacific in the 1960s, sending radioactive clouds over these islands. As if in repayment, France heavily subsidizes these islands and provides for infrastructure — schools, hospitals, roads, an airline — that they would probably not be able to afford otherwise.
French Polynesia has the highest per capita GDP in the South Pacific — $14,500 compared to $4,300 in Fiji. Polynesia is not entirely independent as Fiji is, but it is largely autonomous in its internal affairs, with much of the bill footed by French taxpayers. Not a bad deal. Some forty percent of the workforce is employed by the government; on Hiva Oa, I was told by an expatriate French hotelier (a figure who seemed to have wandered out of a Somerset Maugham novel) that almost every family survives on the salary provided by one member who has been hired by the civil service.
Somehow, despite all the travails of the last two centuries, the Marquesans have managed to preserve major elements of their culture. They still speak their traditional language (Marquesan is distinct from Tahitian), usually complemented by French, the language of instruction in the schools. They still get tattoos — a Polynesian invention. They still partake in traditional festivals and celebrations. And they still eat many of their traditional dishes, such as goat in coconut milk curry (delicious!).
But they no longer worship the old gods; most have long since been converted to Christianity by missionaries who in the 19th century made the near-naked women wear unbecoming Mother Hubbard dresses. Marquesans now dress pretty much like everyone else in the tropics: t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops are the standard uniform. And like everywhere else around the world, their homes now feature TV sets blaring a daily diet of mindless fare.
But of all the places I have visited around the world the Marquesas are among the least spoiled. Certainly they have been considerably less touched by the modern world than tourist hubs such as Bora Bora or Moorea, to say nothing of Hawaii, which dwarves them all in the number of visitors. There are simply not a plethora of great beaches here, and hence no resort hotels, and hence few tourists.
Hoping to get a glimpse of what Captain Porter and his men had seen in 1813, I was not disappointed. But in addition I also got to meet, however briefly, some of its contemporary inhabitants — the distant offspring of the men and women that Porter met — who are struggling to hold onto the ways of their ancestors amid the inexorable forces of globalization.