by Whitt Birnie
Seldom has so little meant so much.
Just more pictures and reflections on a calm blue lagoon…? A thin strand of dark sandy beach with a healthy green tree growing by salt water, a few sailing craft pulled up on the dry land, colourful streamers, a distant off-shore island…?
In reality, here is Point Venus, Tahiti, with Moorea as a backdrop. Here, due to a visit in 1769, whole concepts of western civilization were questioned and overturned; new ideas about the extent and development of humanity were born. The intriguing belief that a supposedly savage people were actually quite noble emerged, thereby partially sparking the Enlightenment, so forth and so on… The E.Ts had arrived. The so-said greatest navigator of all time, James Cook, landed here in 1769, some 250 years ago, and the world changed.
Tahitians were in for quite a surprise. Overjoyed with anticipation, a personality trait which persists today, they behaved as anyone not steeped in religious constraints might, performing as generous hosts and hostesses to a ratty, smelly group of miserable men, tired of strict discipline, wanting to escape the confines of a crowded ship, lacking good food, missing the dearest and deepest human emotions and sensations, that of the unique soft sweet sound, smell, taste and touch of sublimely desirable female company. The kind, warm Tahitians shared their most precious treasures. In exchange, they received nothing but trouble.
Believe what you will. History is largely opinionated anyway. I for one first learned all this as a young pre-teen schoolboy in the ’50s, from a teacher who had always stressed the importance of respect for women. He was a fine teacher, and went about explaining a situation that fascinated me. I flipped. I mulled it over while walking in the woods and thought about it and the Indians in canoes. I wanted to go to sea too. I wished I’d been on the Endeavour. I wanted to run a ship and sail to magnificent islands where beautiful women with long wavy dark hair appear in dazzling costumes to put me in a trance with their native dance. I was a dreamer.
So, to make a long story short, here is the spot, 250 years on. The Polynesian Tahitians are still a noble people, true survivors, still living in the Fenua as they call their homeland. Compared to elsewhere, they do live in an earthly paradise, or at least visitors tell them so every day, year after year, century after century.
Today, the celebration concerned other navigators, courageous Polynesians, who roamed the seas in their large outriggers long before Cook arrived with his supposedly superior civilization. The good sister-ships Hokulea and Hikianalia of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hawaiian replicas of those double-hulled vessels, were due for a visit. Their voyages brought to mind further changes in early ocean voyaging, building on the balsa-raft Kon-Tiki model for ancient sea travel in the region. The Polynesian culture was being honoured with the arrivals in Matavai Bay.
In addition, the lighthouse, which guided navigators for generations, is celebrating its 150-year anniversary. Its loom and flashes provide security and joy after long weeks at sea, a sensation unknown to aircraft travelers.
Moreover, this was a Good Friday. The clever organizers of the festival were acknowledging the Christian idea that following the Ten Commandments is a worthy cause, finally accepting a philosophy that had caused serious disruption in their early ways but ultimately proved a calming, pacifying and socializing change.
And last, or perhaps first, but certainly not the least, was a Tahitian dance performance organized by Marguerite Lai. I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but she and her dancers opened my heart to the beauty of Tahitian Ori, the exceptional and unique native Tahitian dance. Their skill and talent are amazing.
It was an historical event, a beach party of sorts, a recreation to some, a godsend, a paradise, to others. Once again, they knocked me out, they made me dream.
On the first day of southern hemisphere Spring, thoughts turn to the bounty of nature and the beauty of Polynesian culture.
The Fenua, the Tahitian homeland, is a place crowned with bouquets of elegance, health, excitement and happiness, mainly due to the devotion and love of her inhabitants.
These few fleeting sights help me remember the exceedingly delightful days passed on this precious planet, often witnessing an exceptional people perform in ceremonies of their own invention. Their unique skill at creative expression often leaves me speechless; my admiration of their artistic abilities is apparently boundless.
Seldom has so little meant so much.
… to be continued.