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Otahitie. So the natives called it in their harmonious tongue, and so did we. Only later did we learn that the O serves as an article and that we should call it Tahiti. There was much that we would learn later on from Ahutoru, the young Tahitian who at the last minute decided to ship out with us for the voyage back to France.
Back on that unforgettable afternoon of April 6, the ship was in an uproar. Figure in your mind's eye some three hundred and thirty Frenchmen who had been at sea for six months, who had not seen a presentable woman since our departure from Montevideo, and who all at once were surrounded by voluptuous nymphs risen from the sea.
And the oarsmen who had brought these nymphs alongside the ship were now engaged in a pantomime whose meaning was quite transparent: they were showing us how we were to make acquaintance with the women. They were simply putting on a dumb show of lovemaking. To be sure, the women who were being offered in this fashion looked a bit abashed. A dozen of them were standing naked in their canoes, their arms at their sides, shy smiles on their faces. Tayo, tayo! called their male companions, a word we understood, correctly as it turned out, to mean friend.
Meanwhile, the nymph who had come on board by the gunports now stood on the afterdeck, stark naked, surrounded by a circle of admirers. With M. de Bougainville present, no one dared reach out to touch her. But Bournand looked as though his eyes would fall out from gazing. Bouchage was already perspiring. My own mouth went dry; suddenly I found I was wholly aroused. Couldn't be helped.
Even now, in the twilight of my lifar as I know, no one noticed that one of the crew -- it was M. de Bougainville's own cook -- had slipped into one of the canoes, evidently lying flat within it. Thus he was the first of us to make it to shore, illicitly. Had he been one of the seamen, his offense would surely have been punished by a flogging. As it turned out, M. de Bougainville considered that he was sufficiently reprimanded by what happened to him on shore.
He was there only an hour, and when he was brought back to the ship, his red face was dripping with sweat, his clothes dishevelled, and his hair mussed, and he wore a most woebegone expression. Though normally he was a rather voluble man, we had trouble making him give a coherent account of what had happened. It turned out it was simply this: As soon as he set foot on shore, he was surrounded by a group of natives -- men and women -- who at once, without any ceremony, began stripping off his clothes. Off came his white jacket and shirt, his shoes and trousers. The further the stripping went, the more he resisted. But the natives would stop at nothing. Off with his undershirt and his underdrawers. They were not satisfied until he stood entirely naked amidst them. Then began a minute examination of his body -- which I gladly spare you, since I have never seen nor hope to see it -- and especially of his private parts, which they turned over and around and studied with the greatest glee. They turned out the pockets of his jacket, examined everything there, replaced all the objects, handed back his clothes -- and then offered him a naked girl, with all encouragement to make use of those parts of his they had so carefully appraised. It was as if they had to make sure that the visi tor was equipped in the same way they were, and could perform in the same way. But our bashful cook was by now in no state to fulfill their expectations. After a while, perceiving him to be useless to the task at hand, they led him back to the boat. Dressing himself as best he could, he tumbled in, and they paddled him back to the Boudeuse. So our master of French cuisine met defeat at the hands of natural desire. I realized later that there was something of a lesson in all this.
It was mid-afternoon when we dropped into the launch. Before us stretched the most magnificent beach I have ever seen, fringed with coconut palms and breadfruit trees, behind which rose verdant meadows, and then mountains, climbing in unimaginable forms, straight up to end in high rounded cones, yet covered to the top in rich vegetation. Never had my eyes taken in so grateful a sight. And as our boat drew closer to the shore, the breeze brought us wafts of perfumed air, rich with the scent of orchids, of hibiscus, of gardenias, and of that flower Commerson named for our Captain: the bougainvillea. Along the shore a crowd of natives was gathering for our arrival. It was evident that this was to be an occasion. I glanced back at M. de Bougainville, seated in the stern sheets. I must say that I was pleased that the arrival of the old world on the shores of this unknown island was represented by so fine a figure. He had dressed himself in his best blue surcoat with silver epaulettes, over his frogged waistcoat and nankeen breeches and white stockings. As a sole concession to the heat, he had left behind his wig, which indeed I had not seen him wear since Buenos Aires. With his short-cropped black hair graying at the temples, he looked no less a perfect exemplification of command, and a perfect representation of our mission of peaceful embassy.
Next to me, d'Oraison was bathed in sweat under his serge jacket, and behind us the marines, Suzannet and de Kerhué, looked roasted in their blue and scarlet uniforms. I was hot and sweaty myself. I had dressed in the lightest garments I owned, with waistcoat and jacket of linen, but even that was too much. One longed to be naked in this climate. The oars dipped and glinted as they rose to the surface of the clear water. Now from behind the stern of the Etoile came her launch, M. de La Giraudais seated in the stern, Commerson and Véron on the thwart before him. Etoile. Nantes. One could just read the name and home port inscribed on the ship's stern from here. From the mouth of the Loire, where that river that runs through the heartland of France widens into an estuary before pouring itself into the Atlantic Ocean, to this island, lying somewhere between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, at some point of longitude that must place it somewhere in the middle of that vaster western ocean. From our homeland, graced by its arts and civilization; its polished manners and its renowned savants; its corruptions and its addiction to luxury, property, and social rank; to this world unknown, where nature and art seemed destined to have formed some other kind of alliance.
My solemn thoughts owed something to the gathering visible on the shore, where well over a hundred natives had now collected. It wasn't simply a ragged crowd, as with the Chaouans and the Pecherais. There was some sort of order here, a people massed according to some principle. I could detect that a kind of hollow space had been left for us in the midst of the group. Another five minutes, and I could see bottom, with the flashing of brightly colored fish scattering from our bows. Five more minutes, and the oarsmen rested, to let us glide onto the fine white sand. D'Oraison and I glanced at one another. "Go ahead," he murmured. So I stepped first onto the Tahitian strand.
D'Oraison followed me, then the two marine officers, their muskets held at present arms, then the oarsmen, then Bournand and La Porte. We fell into a double file, so that when M. de Bougainville stepped ashore he walked between us toward the massed crowd of natives.
There was a moment of silence. I remember I could hear a bird call -- of a kind strange to me -- coming from the palms behind the beach. The sun was intensely hot, but a breeze from offshore fluttered our clothing and cooled the back of my neck. Then came the cries: tayo, tayo! The crowd surged forward toward us. The men, tall, well-built, clad in that gracefully draped cloth that we came to know as the pareu, knotted at the waist and falling to mid-thigh, held up their hands clasped together. Many of them held branches of banana leaves, evidently in sign of peace. The women nearest us let fall the wrap that covered their shoulders, to stand bare-breasted. A sign of respect and greeting, we later learned, as if in the manner that European men doff their hats. Now the men one after another threw their banana branches at our feet, so the ground between us and our hosts was strewn with green fronds.
How to recount what followed. From the head of the hollow square a middle-aged man, robust, broad-shouldered, wide of girth but gr aceful, clad in a deep red pareu, advanced toward us, his hands extended, open palms forward. Yet, at the same time the crowd pressed in from the two sides, the boldest reaching out to touch us. I felt hands reaching under my jacket, and quickly grasped the butt of my pistol, thrust into the sash around my waist. Other hands reached under my waistcoat; one even followed the contours of my genitals. It was as if they wanted to make sure, as with our cook, that under our clothes we were the same as they. On one hand, confusion reigned as we strived to maintain our decency. On the other hand, a solemn greeting was being exchanged between the chieftain and M. de Bougainville, who bowed low and introduced himself.
"Tayo. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, sent by His Majesty the King of France on a mission of peace. Tayo."
The women struck their bare breasts with the flat of their hands. "Tayo, tayo!" they cried.
The faces around us were illuminated with joy. Suddenly an atmosphere of festival surrounded us. Of danger there appeared not to be a trace. A glance at our men showed that the momentary tension had passed. The marines lowered their muskets to parade rest. La Porte stripped off his heavy jacket and let two natives carry it off. Now the launch from the Etoile was landing, and a group rushed to greet it. I saw Commerson spring ashore, his specimen bag flying at his side.
Ereti -- for such apparently was the chieftain's name -- now grasped M. de Bougainville by the hands and began to lead him up the gentle slope of the beach. I followed, one hand on the pistol butt -- I now wished I had left it on board ship -- and the other grasping the hands stretched out to me, all the while feeling a quickening in my groin as soft hands ran over my trousers. M. de Bougainville must have had much the same thought, for now he turned to Suzannet and de Kerhué, and I saw them hand their muskets over to the oarsmen, to keep in the longboat. Up the beach and through the stand of palms we were led, till we came to a large open house, some twenty-four by twenty feet, open at the sides and with a mansarded roof thatched in coconut palms descending low, so that when one entered under its eaves the roof was high above one, and the shade grateful. There was no furniture, simply mats piled on the ground, and some idols -- things woven in wicker, with bird feathers sticking from them -- hanging from the rafters, along with red and yellow tassels made from braided cords, and one idol carved in wood, five feet tall, leaning against one of the trunks supporting the roof. He was clearly a male divinity -- not very pleasant-looking, I thought, but aggressive, mean. Across from him, standing at the far corner of the house, was the goddess, with round belly and sharply pointed breasts, taller than the male god, reaching above the lower edge of the roof.
The crowd had followed us but did not enter the house. Still, we were surrounded by a dozen men and women, tugging at our clothing and our shoes. We glanced at M. de Bougainville. When we saw him unbend to remove his coat and his shoes, we gratefully did the same. In stocking feet and waistcoats, then, we stood in the middle of the house, as mats were spread for us. Then Ereti came forward, his hand holding that of a venerable old man -- perhaps his father? The old man's head was crowned with a white mane and he ha d a long, thin white beard, yet his body was astonishing in its muscular youth. No flabby muscles, no protruding belly, scarcely a wrinkle to be seen. This, I thought, is the dignity of old age in a happy natural state. Yet, the old man did not greet us. Of all the natives, he alone seemed disinterested in us. Far from sharing the joy of Ereti and the others, his brow appeared furrowed, his countenance thoughtful, even anxious. After gazing at us for a moment, he withdrew. Did he resent this intrusion into the society in which he had lived many contented and respected decades? Did he -- alone of his Tahitian people -- sense that something historic and irreparable had occurred? That from now on, these blessed isles would no longer be able to maintain their happy isolation from the world? O respectable patriarch, I murmured to myself, may your fears never be realized! We come in peace.
Now mats were spread outside the house, and Ereti invited us to sit. The women had disappeared. Young men then came with wooden bowls full of fruit -- mangoes, they were, and bananas and plantains -- and then flat wooden platters with grilled fish, of what kind I do not know. But when we followed Ereti's example and took up pieces of the fish with our hands, the meat fell away easily from the backbone, and it was delicious. Pitchers of water were passed, along with coconut-shell cups for drinking. Then came mounds of roasted breadfruit, thick and pasty, followed by juicy roast pork. Then we were served a thick sweet paste called mahi, which our hosts deftly dipped up with a swirling finger and which we got stuck all over our hands. But vases of water were passed to rinse our hands in. As the feast continued, Er eti spoke to his serving men. One of them disappeared, and returned carrying pieces of woven cloth -- apparently of some vegetable matter -- and another then fetched two magnificent collars made of wicker and ornamented with black feathers and sharks' teeth. I thought they looked a bit like those ruffled collars worn by our ancestors in the time of François Ier. Ereti himself placed one round the neck of M. de Bougainville, and the other went to d'Oraison; the rest of us received presents of the cloth, amazingly supple and finely worked. We expressed by smiles and signs our gratitude. D'Oraison had furnished himself with one of our bags of trinkets, and distributed some earrings and fake pearls, which were gravely accepted.
So the feast went forward. When, late in the afternoon, M. de Bougainville rose from his mat and indicated that he must take his leave, we took up the clothes and shoes we had discarded in the house. No problem there, but then Suzannet discovered that his pistol was missing. Someone as adroit as our pickpockets in the Ile de la Cité must have slipped it from his belt on the way to the house. Here was a serious problem: a native with a loaded firearm. M. de Bougainville's face was tense with anxiety as he tried to make Ereti understand that something important had disappeared from Suzannet's side. I stepped forward, slapped the pistol in my belt. Ereti nodded. Then I pulled it out, and went "boum, boum!" with my mouth. Ereti nodded again.
"Suzannet. I don't think they understand. Show them what it means to be shot. Play dead when I pretend to fire on you."
I aimed the pistol at Suzannet. "Boum, boum!"
I hadn't known that our marine had the talent of a Boulevard actor. His eyes rolled up, his head whipped back, he staggered in a circle grunting aie, aie; then his knees buckled under him, he threw up his arms, and fell full-length on the mat before him. An impressive job.
M. de Bougainville's face was caught somewhere between hilarity and a frown. He nodded vigorously at the prostrate Suzannet, then closed his own eyes and folded his hands in prayer on his chest, as if in imitation of the sculpted portraits that ornament royal tombs.
Ereti nodded again and looked with distress at Suzannet, who now rose looking a bit sheepish. Then began the interrogation of his serving men. All looked blank, and were clearly denying the allegation. One of them Ereti even grabbed by the shoulders and shook vigorously, but to no result.
"We can only hope for the best," said M. de Bougainville. "Gentlemen, to the launch."
As we trooped back toward the beach, the crowd began to gather around us again, at first quietly and at a respectful distance, then pressing closer and becoming mirthful. They seemed an irrepressible people. As we came down through the coconut grove, two young men, one holding what looked like one of our blockflutes, arrested our progress with a gesture and invited us to sit on a grassy patch beneath a palm. I could see that M. de Bougainville was anxious to be back on board, but he feared disobliging. So after a moment's hesitation, he accepted. We sat in a circle. Then began a song. To our astonishment, the man with the flute put it not in his mouth but in one of his nostrils. It produced a sweet and plaintive sound, confined, I think, to three notes. The song unfolded slowly, gracefully. No doubt this was the local Anacreon, sing ing of the pastoral bliss of his people in their Golden Age. The scene was charming beyond the fantasies of our most imaginative painters in France. O Watteau, O Boucher, I said to myself, where are you? Never did you dream that your imaginings and desires could be so realized on this earth!
The song came to its quiet end. We sat in silence. It was M. de Bougainville who spoke first: "Et in Arcadia ego." He did have a talent for finding the appropriate phrase.
We rose and completed our walk to the shore. But as we loaded the boats the natives continued to press round, then to clamber in. The launches were quickly overloaded. M. de Bougainville's order came, quick and decisive.
"No more than four per boat," he called.
So d'Oraison and I counted four men who had established themselves amidships -- they included our singer -- and firmly escorted the others over the side. They obeyed docilely. Then we were off.
Captain's mess that night was a strangely festive affair, with each of us trying to demonstrate every politeness to our visitors. We showed them our sextants, our compass, our spyglasses, our cutlasses, and our plumed dress hats. They walked in a daze round the cabin, fingering everything. We said the name of everything they touched. They quickly understood the game and started giving us their names for parts of the body and the face. But of course we only grasped a tenth of what they said; real communication was impossible. Things kept disappearing into their hands and the folds of their robes, but were restored as soon as we demanded them back. They were light-fingered, evidently, but all in innocence. They just didn't seem to have our sense of personal property.
As the meal was ending, M. de Bougainville asked Véron, Commerson, and La Porte to give us some music, as they had occasionally done during our stay at Montevideo. The flute, the violin, and the cello kept in a locker were brought out and tuned, and the three of them scraped their way through some version of a divertimento by Lully. Our guests seemed pleased. Then all hands were brought on deck, and M. de Bougainville ordered a fireworks display, composed of the rockets and fireballs he had, with his usual resourcefulness, stowed on the ship.
Up whizzed the rockets into the soft starry night sky. Then they burst into an umbrella of red, white, and blue tracers that rained over the tranquil lagoon, illuminating for a split second the beach -- where we could see natives massed along the water -- and giving a confused glimpse of the majestic wall of palms and the fantastic mountains behind. Then they fell, making the calm water dance with myriad points of light. Our guests were trembling, their mouths open, their faces expressive of both fear and delight.
What a night. Here we were at the ends of the earth, entertaining with those delicious artifices used to amuse the Court at Versailles a people we had met only that afternoon. Our guests gave every sign of polite manners, of wanting to be friends, of wanting to please. Yet, at the same time they stood at the rail nearly naked, wrapped only round the waist with the pareu, while we were swathed in clothing. And while our intercourse with them was courteous, full of smiles and deferential gestures, we could not speak together. We did not know them.
Copyright © 1999 by Peter Brooks