oa in the Marquesas - Long Pig in the Land of Men
3 May 2008
Ocean > French Polynesia > Hiva Oa > Atuona
We have arrived to the legendary shores of
the Marquesas, a small group of islands
in the eastern portion of French Polynesia. This archipelago
is often the first landfall for sailors on the "Coconut
Milk Run" after the long 3000-mile passage from the
Galapagos - and are known as the farthest islands from any
The Marquesans are historically known for cannibalism,
tribal warfare, tattoos, sexual immorality and all sorts
of other cool stuff that beckons to the young, pleasure-seeking
adventurer! They stand out as a sort of Shangri-La of the
But alas, the good ol' days are long gone and the hedonistic
pagans of yore are dust in the ground. As the temples lay
lost and forgotten under the rotting leaves of the pandanus,
ones can only console themselves with $8 bottles of imported
beer and the sinful taste of pilfered breadfruit.
managed to find some abandoned ruins up in the forest and
laid down among them. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine
the war drums beating. I'm no writer, but lucky for me,
it turns out a REAL writer had found the same ruins about
100 years earlier, so I'll let him tell the story instead!
Exploring a Cannibal High Place
The following is an excellent excerpt, written in 1919
by Frederick O'Brien, in his book "White Shadows
in the South Seas".
"We climbed steadily, jumping from rock to rock
and clinging to the bushes. A mile up the valley we came
suddenly upon a plateau, and saw before us the remains of
an ancient Pekia, or High Place, a grim and grisly monument
of the days of evil gods and man-eating.
"This, in the old days, was the paepae tapu, or
Forbidden Height, the abode of dark and terrible spirits.
Upon it once stood the temple and about it in the depths
of night were enacted the rites of mystery, when the priests
and elders fed on the "long pig that speaks,"
when the drums beat till dawn and wild dances maddened in
it was built, no man can say. Centuries have looked upon
these black stones... created by a mysterious genius, consecrated
to something now gone out of the world forever. For ages
hidden in the gloom of the forest, it was swept and polished
by hands long since dust; it was held in reverence and dread.
It was tapu (origin of the word "taboo"), devoted
to terrible deities, and none but the priests or the chiefs
might approach it except on the nights of ghastly feasting.
"It stood in the grove of shadowy trees, which
even at mid-afternoon cast a gloom upon on the ponderous
black rocks of the platform and the high seats where chiefs
and wizards once sat devouring the corpses of their foes.
Above them writhed and twisted the distorted limbs of a
huge banian-tree, and below, among the gnarled roots, there
was a deep, dark pit.
"This was forbidden ground until the French came.
No road led to it then; only a narrow and dusty trail, guarded
by demons of Po and trod by humans only in the whispering
darkness of jungle night, brought the warriors with the
burdens of living meat to the place of the gods."
for an Eye?
Cannibalism due to starvation has occured in virtually
every single culture on the planet, yet according to O'Brien:
"(Marquesan) cannibalism, was due to a desire
for revenge, cooking and eating being the greatest of insults.
It was an expression of jingoism, a hatred for all outside
the tribe or valley, and it made the feud between valleys
almost incessant. It was in no way immoral, for morals are
the best traditions and ways of each race, and here the
eating of enemies was authorized by every teaching of priest
and leader, by time-honoured customs and the strongest dictates
The Arrival of the White Man
Since cannibalism was fueled by the desire of revenge (and
to gain the strength and courage of a foe in battle), it
is important to note that the white man was rarely eaten
here. Tell that to the 8 survivors of the Whaler Essex,
who shipwrecked near the Marquesas in 1820. The sailors
feared being killed and eaten - so floated all to Chile
in their lifeboats instead, enduring 3 months and 3000 miles
of open ocean. It was a cruel and ironic twist that 12 died
along the way and the survivors were forced to eat 6 of
the bodies out of starvation.
In fact, the white man's fear of the Marquesas was so powerful,
sail into the bays and open fire at the shore with their
cannons, destroying entire villages and their inhabitants.
Sailors claimed it "put the fear of God into their
hearts", but it is obvious that the white men were
terrified of cannibalism - they wanted the Marquesans not
to fear God, but the white men themselves.
The End of an Era
Smallpox changed everything in the Marquesas; it was by
far the largest killer of the old culture - even more than
the cannons and kidnappings from Peruvian slave ships. The
population dropped from 100,000 in the 16th century to 20,000
in the 19th, and even to 2,000 at the beginning of the 1900s.
The population is now farily constant at 8632 (August 2007),
and stable, at around 8600. A large portion also live in
An excerpt from O'Brien's encounter with one of the last
great man-eaters sums it up poeticly:
vanish like the small fish before the hunger of the Mako.
The High Places are broken, and the pahue (vines) cover
our paepaes (platform for dwellings or places of worship).
It does not matter. E tupu te fau; e toro to farero, e mou
te taata. The hibiscus shall grow, the coral shall spread,
and man shall cease."
Onward to Tahiti...?
Rob has decided to sail back to Canada. He is ready to
stop this madness and live on solid ground and perhaps even
buy a farm. So that leaves me in the most remote archipelago
in the world, looking for a ride headed west - and only
30 days to reach the opposite end of French Polynesia (which
is as wide as Europe itself) before the French Gendarme
kick me out! Stay tuned...