The Discovery of Tahiti

An English naval captain happened on the island, and thought himself the first
white man there, though the Spanish claim its discovery. The Englishman called it King George Island, after the noted Tory monarch of his day; but a Frenchman, a captain and poet, the very next spring named it the New Cytherea, esteeming its fascinations like the fabled island of ancient Greek lore. It remained for Captain James Cook, who, before steam had killed the wonder of distance and the telegraph made daily bread of adventure and discovery, was the hero of many a fireside
tale, to bring Tahiti vividly before the mind of the English world. That hardy mariner's entrancing diary fixed Tahiti firmly in the thoughts of the British and
Americans. Bougainville painted such an ecstatic picture that all France would emigrate. Cook set down that Otaheite was the most beautiful of all spots on the
surface of the globe. He praised the people as the handsomest and most lovable of humans, and said they wept when he sailed. That was to him of inestimable
value in appraising them.

About the beginning of the nineteenth century the first English missionaries in the South Seas thanked God for a safe passage from their homes to Tahiti, and for a virgin soil and an affrightingly wicked people to labor with. The English, however, did not seize the island, but left it for the French to do that, who first declared it a protectorate, and made it a colony of
France, in the unjust way of the mighty, before the
last king died. They had come ten thousand miles to
do a wretched act that never profited them, but had
killed a people.

the eighteenth century, for decades the return to nature had been the rallying cry of those who attacked the artificial and degraded state of society. The published and oral statements of the adventurers in Tahiti, their descriptions of the unrivaled beauty of the verdure, of reefs and palm, of the majestic stature of the men and the passionate charm of the women, the boundless health and simple happiness in which they dwelt, the climate, the limpid streams, the diving, swimming, games, and rarest food--all these had stirred the depressed Europe of the last days of the eighteenth and the first of the nineteenth centuries beyond the understanding by us cynical and more material people. The world still had its vision of perfection.

Tahiti was the living Utopia of More, the belle île of Rousseau, the Eden with no serpent or hurtful apple, the garden of the Hesperides, in harmony with nature, in freedom from the galling bonds of government and church, of convention and clothing. The reports of the English missionaries of the nakedness and ungodliness of the Tahitians created intense interest and swelled the chorus of applause for their utter difference from the weary Europeans. Had there been ships to take them, thousands would have fled to Tahiti to be relieved of the chains and tedium of their existence, though they could not know that Victorianism and machines were to fetter and vulgarize them even more.

Afterward, when sailors mutinied and abandoned their ships or killed their officers to be able to remain in Tahiti and its sister islands, there grew up in England a literature of wanderers, runagates, and beach-combers, of darkish women who knew no reserve or modesty, of treasure-trove, of wrecks and desperate deeds, piracy and blackbirding, which made flame the imagination of the youth of seventy years ago. Tahiti had ever been pictured as a refuge from a world of suffering, from cold, hunger, and the necessity of labor, and most of all from the morals of pseudo-Christianity, and the hypocrisies and buffets attending their constant secret infringement.

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