What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Kristina Thompson

[Editor's Note] The Marquesas Islands are located in a part of French Polynesia and are the farthest archipelago from Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, and one of the farthest island groups from any mainland. The painter Gauguin died on the island of Shivaiva in the archipelago after a long illness. Herman Melville's novel "Tepi" is also set on the island of Nuku Hiva in the archipelago. The Marquesas Islands were inhabited as early as 150 B.C. Ethnographic observations and linguistic affinities suggest that these earliest aborigines came from Samoa and Tonga.

The island was first discovered in 1595 by the Spanish navigational explorer Alvaro de Mendanha de Nera and was named after the title of Marqués de Cañete, then governor of Peru. Their initial contact with the islanders was marked by curiosity and friendliness, but also by mistrust and plunder. This article is an excerpt, with the permission of the publisher, from the relevant chapter of the book "Children of the Sea".

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Marquesas Islands

The first Polynesian island to be discovered by Europeans belonged to the Marquesas Islands, if we disregard for the moment the two small atolls that Magellan saw, both uninhabited at the time.

This group of islands, located south of the equator and about four thousand nautical miles west of Peru, is located on the eastern edge of the Polynesian Triangle and exists alone in a relatively open sea. Neighboring islands can be found within a few hundred nautical miles to the west and south, but if one sails north or east from the Marquesas Islands along a one hundred and eighty degree arc, one cannot encounter any land at all for thousands of nautical miles.

The islands of Pornicia come in all shapes and sizes, with the Marquesas being the so-called "High Islands". To the uninitiated, this means that the islands are mountainous and, in some cases, rise thousands of feet from sea level. But to geologists, it means that the islands were formed by volcanic eruptions.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Historical photos of the indigenous people of the Marquesas Islands

Where one plate subducts beneath another, a number of arc-shaped high islands are raised. But the high islands in the Central Pacific are thought to have been formed by "Hot Spots", which are columns of molten rock rising directly from the mantle.

These islands are usually distributed in a chain, clustered along a northwest-southeast axis, with the oldest occurring at the northwest end and the youngest at the southeast end, a pattern that can be explained by the movement of the Pacific plate toward the northwest. This theory suggests that islands formed over millions of years and continued to move as the crust on which they are located drifted, while in their wake, new islands rose and rose in the ocean.

A typical example is the Hawaiian Islands: the large islands with active volcanoes are located at the southeastern end of the island chain, and these islands extend all the way to the northwest, gradually lowering and sinking, eventually forming a series of submarine mountains. Meanwhile, to the southeast of the Big Island, a new volcano is forming, which will surface sometime in the next 100,000 years.

The view of Takashima has a yin and yang. These volcanic islands are composed almost entirely of basalt and have suffered erosion in a rather spectacular manner, revealing huge stone bars, walls and peaks. On the windward side, the mountains become lush as they absorb moisture from the passing air. On the leeward side, in the rain shadow area, the mountains are barren and dry. Perhaps the greatest contrast occurs between the dark, thick mountains and the bright, open sea. Freed from the shadow of the peaks, the clutter of trees and vines on the high ground gave way to a refreshing landscape of green grass, verdant coconut trees, and rustling branches of mullein trees. Sharp ridges gradually flatten out and morph into coastal plains. Waterfalls on the mountains form slow, calm rivers.

On the tide line, rocks and ponds are lined up, punctuated by light-colored crescent-shaped beaches. The sea stretches far into the distance, and the waves endlessly pound on the reefs, creating rows of white foam, while the reefs are silent, separating the turquoise lagoon from the vast deep sea, which is a little duller in color.

In some ways, the Marquesas are typically high islands, with towering rocky pedestals, oddly shaped pinnacles, deeply eroded crevices and fertile valleys.

But in other respects, it is nothing like the Polynesian Islands depicted in tourist brochures. Being in the path of the "Humboldt Cold Current", which brings cold water to the South American coast, the Marquesas Islands have never had any coral reef ecosystems.

There are no lagoons, very few secluded bays exist, and only a few beaches. The jagged roughness of the volcanic island extends all the way to the shore, and the side by the sea has a largely shadowy vertical form.

The Marquesas Islands also lack the coastal plain terrain that is the easiest and most natural place to live on a volcanic island. Anyone who has been to the Hawaiian Islands knows that the standard method of travel for a volcanic island is, naturally, to travel around the coast. It's easy to see how important this part of the island's topography is - allowing people to move and interact, providing space for gardens, plantations and housing. In the Marquesas, however, none of this is possible; the only habitable land is located in the valleys that radiate outward from the center of the island, which are surrounded and separated by the arms of the mountains.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Writer Robert Louis Stevenson (second from left) in the Marquesas Islands

For many Europeans, the Marquesas Islands seem to have an unspeakable romance. In 1888, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area and found the grandeur of the mountains to be daunting.

The massive dark ridges and towering cliffs, "at any time of day," he writes, "bring a new aesthetic and a vague sense of fear to the viewer's heart."

It is not difficult to imagine that the first Polynesians may have had similar mixed impressions when they arrived here. The discovery of any volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean could be considered a triumph: it meant land, fresh water, security and a source of food. However, archaeological sites in the Marquesas show a wide variety of fish hooks from the very beginning of human settlement, perhaps suggesting that the original ancestors may have engaged in a great deal of experimentation and innovation due to the realization that fishing techniques introduced from the more coral-rich islands were simply not useful in the deep coastal waters of the Marquesas. Nevertheless, the animals brought to the islands (except perhaps the dogs) branched out and the breadfruit trees flourished, allowing the people to flourish - when the first Europeans arrived, the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands were "dense" and they When the first Europeans arrived, the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands were "thick" and they came out in groups to welcome the unexpected strangers.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Breadfruit Tree

In 1595, the Spaniard Alvara de Mendaña accidentally discovered the Marquesas Islands while on his way to the Solomon Islands with a party. Although it can be said that Mendania "discovered" the Marquesas Islands, this is not strictly speaking true. The claim that European explorers found anything in the Pacific - especially in Polynesia - is clearly problematic. As the French, who claimed sovereignty over the Marquesas for the later King Louis XV, said, it is hard to imagine anyone seizing an island that was already occupied by its local inhabitants. This is even more true of discovery than of occupation: in what sense can a piece of land that is already inhabited be discovered? But in the context of the eighteenth-century French or sixteenth-century Spanish, the word "discovery" did not mean "the first discovery in human history", but more like "the first time that people outside the region were made aware of it. " .

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Álvara de Mendanha de Nera, Spanish navigator.

This was Mendania's second crossing of the Pacific Ocean. About thirty years ago, he had led another expedition in search of the unknown southern continent, successfully reaching the Solomon Islands, and then hastily returned to Peru in the midst of chaos. Despite all the hardships: hurricanes, the spread of scurvy, sailors fighting for their lives, and a shortage of food and water - with daily rations of "half a pint of water and half of the food32 being crushed cockroaches" - Mendania was determined to try again. -But Mendania was determined to try again. For twenty-six years, he pestered the Spanish crown for support, and in 1595, the crown finally agreed.

In comparison, the second expedition was even more ill-fated than the first. From the beginning, the voyage seemed chaotic, violent and disputatious. Mendania had a fanatical religious mission, hoping to convert ignorant pagans to God; his wife, an unpopular shrew, was a source of trouble wherever she went; and many of Mendania's soldiers were self-serving, brutal and cruel.

Neither the commander, nor any of his subordinates, seemed to know exactly how far away their destination was, although at least for Mendania, he had been there before. In fact, the expedition never reached its destination. They set up their colony on "Santa Cruz Island", which was a disaster, full of robberies, murders, ambushes, and even a few beheadings.

Mendania became very ill, had a nervous breakdown and "fell into a state of religious numbness". He died of a high fever, in a tragic state reminiscent of the movie "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Aguirre, the Wrath of God). Afterwards, the expedition was disbanded and the survivors sailed for the Philippines.

We learned the above story from Pedro Fernandez de Quirós, the navigator of Mendania, and he recorded that the explorers saw the first land only five weeks after they set out from the coast of South America.

Believing that this was the island he was looking for, Mendanias ordered the crew to kneel down and sing the Te Deum laudamus to thank God for making the voyage so swift and smooth. Of course, this was an absurd delusion - the Solomon Islands were still 4,000 nautical miles away and at least another five weeks' voyage was required. But it does show how little these early European navigators knew about the size of the Pacific Ocean, and were thus very easily misled. Finally, Mendania realized her mistake and after some reflection concluded that this was in fact a completely new place.

Known to the islanders as Fatu Hiva, it is located at the southernmost tip of the Marquesas Islands. As the Spaniards approached, a fleet of about seventy canoes sailed from the shore. Kiros noted that the boats were fitted with outboard brackets. This is a novel wooden structure that he carefully describes: attached to the sides of the hull and "pressed" against the water to prevent the canoe from capsizing. For many Europeans, this was something new and unprecedented. In fact, outboard brackets date back to the islands of Southeast Asia in the second millennium B.C., and were a key innovation in ensuring the safe navigation of long, narrow, relatively shallow-draft boats (i.e., canoes) in the open sea.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Hull with outboard bracket installed to prevent capsizing

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Marquesas Islanders

Each Marquesas canoe carried anywhere from three to ten people, with many more islanders clinging to the sides of the boats to float along with them - about four hundred, according to a rough estimate by Kiros. He writes that they paddled their canoes "with great speed and fury," pointing at the land and hissing what sounded like "Atalot.

Anthropologist Robert C. Suggs, who conducted field research in the Marquesas Islands in the 1950s, believes that the locals were telling Mendanias to bring their boats closer to shore, as if one group of voyagers were offering "some friendly advice" to another group of voyagers. Or perhaps it was a ploy to get the outsiders to an area that could be more effectively controlled by the islanders.

Kiros writes that the islanders showed little nervousness as they rowed straight to the Spaniards' boat, offering coconuts, plantains, some kind of food rolled in leaves (probably fermented bread and fruit paste), and large bamboo joints filled with water. "They looked with smiles on their faces at the boats, the men, and the women who had slipped out of the ship's galley to watch the fun." One of the islanders was convinced to board the boat, and Mendania put a shirt and hat on him, much to the delight of the others, who laughed and shouted to their friend. After that, about forty more islanders climbed aboard and began to "strut about the ship, seizing everything around them, many of them trying to touch the arms of the soldiers on board, touching several parts of their bodies with their fingers, examining their beards and faces." They seemed confused by the European clothing until some of the soldiers dropped their stockings and rolled up their sleeves to reveal their skin, and then, Kiros writes, they " quieted down and were very happy."

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Marquesas Islander tattoos

Mendania and some of his officers distributed shirts, hats and small ornaments to the islanders, and the Marquesas took them away by hanging them around their necks. They continued to sing and shout, and as they grew bolder, the racket became more and more excessive. This, in turn, annoyed the Spaniards, who began to signal the islanders to leave, but it was clear that the latter did not intend to say goodbye. On the contrary, they intensified, taking up anything they saw on deck, even using bamboo knives to slice thin slices from the bacon that served as the crew's meal. Finally, Mendania ordered a shot to be fired. The islanders jumped into the sea at the sound, with the exception of one young man who, not knowing whether out of fear or out of stubbornness, still clung to the side of the ship and refused to let go until a Spaniard cut him with his sword.

The tone of this encounter changed instantly. An old man with a long beard stood in a canoe and hissed loudly, casting a fierce glance in the direction of the boat. Other islanders blew their conch horns and kept slapping their wooden paddles on the sides of the canoe. Some picked up spears and waved them at the Spaniards, or put rocks in their slingshots and threw them at the boats.

The Spaniards, for their part, aimed their firearms at the islanders, but were unable to fire them for a time because the powder was damp. Kiros wrote, "How the natives kept closing in amid the noise and shouting was definitely considered a sight worth seeing." Eventually, the Spanish soldiers managed to fire, hitting a dozen islanders, including the old man - who was hit in the forehead and died instantly. Witnessing the tragic situation, the islanders immediately turned and fled back to the shore. After a while, a canoe carrying three men returned to the Spaniard's boat. One of them extended a green branch and made a long speech to the Spaniards; it seemed to Kiros that this man was asking for peace. The Spaniards did not respond, and after a while, the islanders left, leaving behind some coconuts.

The encounter between the Maksas and Mendanias was fraught with confusion and misunderstanding, and Kiros writes that many "evil things" happened, but "it could have been avoided if someone had made us understand each other. In this respect, many of the early contacts between Europeans and Polynesians were similar: everything that happened made sense to one side, but to the other, many things were incomprehensible and repulsive, and even fatal. In one case, for example, four "very bold" Marquesas escaped with a dog on board. On another occasion, a Spanish soldier opened fire on several canoes, killing a man with a child. On shore, Mendania ordered a Catholic Mass, where the islanders knelt in imitation of strangers and prayed. Two Marquesas were taught how to draw a crucifix and recite the words ("Jesus, Mary"). The Europeans also sowed corn in the hope of a harvest. Doña Isabel, Mendania's wife, attempted to cut locks of hair from the head of an indigenous woman with particularly beautiful hair, but was forced to stop because of the woman's strong objections - hair was absolutely forbidden to the islanders and was considered to be used for witchcraft. It was not allowed to be touched because it was considered to be used for witchcraft.

Three islanders were shot and their bodies were hung in public to make the Marquesas "aware of what the Spaniards could do". Mendania envisioned a colony and decided to leave behind thirty male soldiers and the wives of some of them. But the soldiers firmly refused this task. They understood that it could cost them their lives, because when the Spaniards finally left, they had killed more than two hundred men, many of whom, according to Quirós, died inexplicably.

Kiros was pained by the cruelty and recklessness of Mendania's men. However, in the islanders he finds much to admire. Indeed, it is through Kiros' eyes that we see for the first time the people who would become the epitome of the pinnacle of human beauty in the minds of many Europeans. One visitor later described the Marquesas as "exquisite" and the "most beautiful people" he had ever seen. Even Captain Cook, a man who never exaggerated, called them "as good as any people on this ocean or on this earth".

Kiros writes that the island's inhabitants are elegantly mannered, well-built, leggy, with long fingers and bright eyes and teeth. The islanders' skin is translucent, "almost white," and the men's long, fluffy hair is "like that of a woman." When they first encountered the Europeans, the islanders were mostly naked, as they were swimming, and their faces and bodies were decorated with what Kiros mistook for blue paint. This is, of course, tattooing, which is quite common in Polynesia - the English word for "tattoo" comes from the Polynesian word "tatau" --- and perfected on the Marquesas, where every inch of skin, including eyelids, tongues, palms, and even the insides of nostrils, may be beautifully carved. Kiros found that the women of Marquesas, with their charming eyes, slender waists and beautiful fingers, were even lovelier than the Lima ladies, who were known for their beauty. In his writing, the male islanders here are tall and stout, handsome and fit. Some are so tall that they dwarf the Spaniards; others can actually lift their legs near their ears, impressing visitors.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived


From an ethnographic point of view-and remember, this is the earliest record of Polynesian society-what Kiros describes is not much, but it is interesting. He writes that the Marquesas kept pigs and chickens, the so-called "Castilian poultry," and grew plantains, coconuts, gourds, nuts, and plants that Europeans had never seen before (they described them as green fruits the size of a boy's head). This was the breadfruit that became a legend in the Pacific two centuries later when the crew of the Bounty, commanded by William Bligh, mutinied on Tofua (Bligh was trying to bring breadfruit seedlings to the West Indies so that British colonists could obtain a more economical way to feed African slaves).

The islanders live in large communal houses with neatly laid stone platforms and worship what the Spaniards call "oracles" - an enclosure decorated with wooden statues to which the locals make food offerings. Their tools are mostly made of stones or shells, and their main weapons are pike darts and stone throwers. The most important means of transportation for the islanders is the canoe. They built canoes of various sizes: small ones with outboard brackets for three to ten paddles, and larger ones "of such fine workmanship and prodigious length" that they could hold thirty or more people. Kiros writes: "They told us that they would travel to other lands in these large canoes if they needed to."

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

A large canoe made by Marquesas Islanders

However, where exactly these lands are remains a mystery. Once, very strangely, the Marquesas saw a black man on a Spanish ship and made a sign to the south that "there were people like him in that direction, who had gone there to fight, with bows and arrows". This is a puzzling statement, but not unusual in a time when misinformation and misbelief were common. Although this statement could be interpreted as describing people living on islands in the far west, the bow was never used as a weapon in Polynesia. The only places south of the Marquesas were the Tuamotu Islands and, of course, Easter Island further away, all of which were populated by people who were very similar to the Marquesas, culturally and physically. They may well be considered enemies, but definitely not archers, and not blacks.

However, while it is not clear which island Kiros is referring to, we do know that there are "other lands" in the Marquesan concept of the world. Later, European visitors heard of "islands that the locals take for granted and of which we are completely unaware. It was also reported that during the dry season, "the natives would sail out in canoes in search of other islands," which may help explain why when Cook arrived in the Marquesas in 1775, the islanders wanted to know if he came from "some country where food was in short supply. " .

Mendania stayed in the Marquesas for about two weeks, during which time he discovered and named the four southernmost islands of the archipelago (the northern part of the second island, then undiscovered).

In his own way, he named the four islands Santa Magdalena, San Pedro, La Dominica and Santa Cristina. These names are now long forgotten and have been replaced by the customary Polynesian names of Fatu Hiva, Motane, Hiva Oa and Tahuata.

In honor of his patron, the Marques de Mendoza, then Governor of Peru, Mendania named the entire archipelago as a whole. Since 1595, the Marquesas Islands have never been called by any other name. Except, of course, for the islanders - who collectively called the islands they inhabited "Te Fenua", meaning "land". And they themselves, the inhabitants of Te Fenua, are called Te Enata, which simply means "the people".

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

After the Mendanias' fleet finally drew anchor and set sail, the Marquesas Islands once again disappeared from the European world for nearly two hundred years. It seems that the map of the Marquesas Islands was never rigorously drawn from the beginning, and that information about their location was further blocked by the Spaniards, who were bent on preempting the competition for the discovery of the southern continent.

If the Spaniards came to any conclusion, it was that the large numbers of vigorous, good-looking Marquesas, the pigs and chickens they raised, and the large canoes they built, testified to the existence of the southern continent. Kiros concludes that these islanders could not have made the long cross-sea voyage without "navigational skills and heavy vessels. This means that somewhere nearby, there must have been "a chain of other islands or a continent, otherwise the people living on these islands would have had nowhere to go but for a divine manifestation". Thus, the irony of the first contact between Polynesia and Europe is that it reinforces the illusory belief in the existence of an imaginary continent, while obscuring the more interesting reality of the Marquesas themselves.

What happened to this group of islands in the heart of the Pacific when Europeans first arrived

Children of the Sea; [US] by Christina Thompson, translated by Li Lifeng Li, Beijing University Press

Editor:Ying Xu