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Lorie Karnath

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Melville's Mysterious Marquesas Then And Now

Posted: 07/02/2012 7:00 am

Despite being one of the most remote archipelagoes on the planet, the rugged Marquesas Islands have attracted more than their fair share of luminaries. The far-flung Marquesas are comprised of a group of 14 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, part of French Polynesia. Located at 9° 00S, 139° 30W, the islands lie just under 1400 km northeast of Tahiti and approximately 4800 km from Mexico's west coast, the closest continental land mass. The islands' native name "Henua Enata" means "The Land of Men", and these are distributed between a northern grouping Eïao, Hatutu (Hatutaa), Motu One, together with the islands centered around the large island of Nuku Hiva and a southern one clustered around the main island of Hiva `Oa . With a combined land mass of about 1049 km squared, all are of volcanic origin except for Motu One.

Over the centuries the Marquesas' allure has proven particularly compelling to adventurers, artists, musicians and writers.

In 1841 Herman Melville sailed from Massachusetts aboard the whaler Acushnet, on an 18 month journey which later served as the template for his classic whaling tale Moby-Dick. Upon reaching the Marquesas, Melville's first perusal of the island's striking coastline, dramatically punctuated by spectacular spiraling peaks that appeared to vanish amongst the clouds, enthralled him. Once ashore, the islands copious vegetation, including a plethora of tropical fruits, cascading waterfalls, perpendicular cliffs and tumultuous streams further inspired the writer. So much so, in fact, that he abruptly abandoned ship. Having done this Melville voluntarily took up residence amongst the Typee natives, who were, at the time, considered to have a proclivity towards cannibalism. The sojourn inspired the author's book named after these indigenous people, which captured the public's imagination and served for many as an initial personification of primitive cultures.

Other authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, would also fall under the islands' captivating spell. The post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, a key figure in the development of modern art, spent his latter years furthering his mastery of flat congruent color planes influenced by the tropical palette that he discovered on the Marquesas. The Belgian singer Jacques Brel also spent time there and was later buried on the main island of Hiva Oa, not far from Gauguin's final resting place.

The population of the isolated islands is approximated hovers around 9000 although it is estimated that it was once more than ten times this number. The drastic reduction was triggered by diseases carried by the early western explorers, further aggravated by subsequent slave trade, cultural genocide and war. Documentation indicates that the islands were first settled by the Polynesians most likely from Samoa and Tonga, these are supposed to have reached the region sometime before 100 AD. A visit to the Marquesas today reveals a land full of enchantments and much unchanged from earlier times. The Marquesan people have stayed true to their distinctive history cultures and customs. These friendly and hospitable people embrace the future with an eye towards accommodating the spirits of their ancient past.

A few roads have been built or are under construction and some of the main villages even boast a handful of street lamps, however the majority of the islands' topography remains untamed. The best way to discover the many secluded beaches is via sailboat. To access much of the mountainous regions and luxuriantly vegetated valleys, or best penetrate the islands' thick forests, often requires a journey by foot or horseback. There amongst luxuriant vegetation one will find numerous archeological sites, replete with remnants of ancient dwellings many of these representing ancient sacred ceremonial sites, ruins of stone temples and carved tiki statues often of human form, rooted in Polynesian mythology. Amongst the greenery one may stumble across carved primitive petroglyphs frequently representing species indigenous to the region in particular sea creatures which appear to have held special fascination for the carvers.

At the ends of the earth, the Marquesas Islands still hold the magical fascination which lured early explorers. Through proud and vigilant stewardship the Marquesan people today still offer the intrepid traveler a unique glimpse of one of the earth's most preserved cultural heritages.

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