National Geographic : 1962 Jul
down the verdant mountainsides; the brown girls smile as invitingly and laugh as happily as ever. But it is not quite the same. The rea son is simple: Tahiti is no longer remote, a misty isle of legend, a place untouched by the niggling realities of the outside world. Now it is as near as your airport. Let me make myself clear: I do not say that Tahiti is "finished"; far from it. On the contra ry, a new era is beginning for the island. I say only that the state of mind that was Tahiti, that drew Melville, Loti, Stevenson, and Gauguin to the island, has vanished, merely because the place is no longer far away, and no writer, painter, or plain escapist can any longer "get away from it all" there. I witnessed the metamorphosis of Tahiti. I was there when the first jet arrived and the green island of dreams took on the sharply etched outlines of a spectacular vacation is land. I had come to Tahiti by sea, as third mate of the new Bounty, a copy of the origi nal mutiny ship,which had been built by Met ro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a filming of Nordhoff and Hall's book Mutiny on the Bounty. We had sighted the lighthouse on Point Venus at night. At first light we worked into Matavai Bay, and instantly we were surround ed by a fleet of outrigger canoes. For me the scene had a dreamlike quality. We were an chored in the exact spot where Wallis, Cook, and Bligh had dropped their hooks, and I had become so steeped in the old accounts and had seen so many engravings of the scene, that the feeling of having been through it all be fore was overpowering. World's First Tattooed Sailors No longer, however, did the Tahitians shout taio! taio! (friend! friend!); the word, as well as the custom of blood brotherhood, has passed out of the language and life of the island. But the brown-skinned laughing girls clambered aboard as of old, and hung gar lands of tiare Tahiti,the sweet-scented single gardenia, around our necks. They did not rub noses; instead, they cried "Ia ora na!" (Health to you!) and kissed us on both cheeks. I watched a girl in a red-and-white pareu -a brightly printed cotton cloth wrapped round the body from breast to knees-trace with her finger the tattooed blue anchor on the sunburned arm of one of our seamen. The cycle was complete: When the first Europeans came to Tahiti, they found both men and women decorated with indelible designs. "Tattow as it is called in their language," wrote Captain Cook. It was done by pricking the skin with a sharpened bone dipped in soot and coconut oil. Sydney Parkinson, artist on Cook's ship lying in Matavai Bay in 1769, recorded: "Mr. Stainsby, myself, and some others of our com pany, underwent the operation, and had our arms marked." Doubtless these were the first seamen in history to wear what later became the traditional badge of the sailor. We lay in the lee of the long finger of Point Venus, northernmost point of Tahiti (page 4). Beneath coconut palms and feathery casu arinas, a steep black beach trembled under the hammer blows of green combers that broke in hissing foam on the lava sand. Crewmen Lured by Island Charms On this spit of land Capt. James Cook set up his telescopes to observe the transit of Ve nus, and Tahitians have been observing the transients of Venus ever since. For these are the Amorous Isles, sailor's dream of Elysium. Near me at the port gangway a small girl in a blue-and-white pareu, with a mane of glistening hair like a dark cloud, hooked arms with an able seaman and smiled up at him. "You like Tahiti? You stay?" she asked. With a dazed look my shipmate swallowed and nodded vigorously. Forgotten were the words of Tahitian earnestly practiced in the watches of the night. "Yes," he managed to croak. "Me like, me stay." The first navigators to touch these enchant ed shores faced a problem that has become classic: how to keep their crews from desert ing, or, at least, how to keep the men's minds on their work. Bougainville, the French cir cumnavigator who reached Tahiti only a few months after Wallis, wrote plaintively: "I ask, how is one to keep at their work, in the midst of such a spectacle, four hundred young Frenchmen, sailors who for six months had not laid eyes on a single woman? Despite all our precautions, a young girl climbed on "They are in generall handsom and engaging, their Eyes full and sparkling" JAMES MORRISON, BOUNTY MUTINEER Hibiscus thrust into the dark cloud of her hair, Tati with liquid eyes and coconut-frond fan embodies the dream of a South Seas paradise. Until recently her island home, Ta hiti, stood isolated beyond Pacific swells, a lodestone to writers, painters, and escapists. Airplanes now give fast access to its legendary allure. KODACHROMEBY LUIS MARDEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STAFF @ N.G .S .