The History of the Marquesas Islands

The Marquesas Islands are a group of 12 ancient volcanoes, which are divided into two distinct groups. The two groups are 98 km apart. The northern group comprises three inhabited islands and four uninhabited islands; the southern group 5 islands, two of which are uninhabited. The Marquesas are a small group of islands having a total surface area of 1300km2 (492 sq miles), which is less than the total area of Tahiti. The islands are quite far apart and the distance has limited trade between them. Thus each island has its own personality customs and dialect.

The Marquesas were first discovered and colonized about 2,000 years ago, by Polynesian voyagers. They named the Island group “Henua Enana” or “Ground of the Men”. Although they had no written language the Polynesians developed a culture rich in oral traditions, folk law and decorative arts. Today the many archeological sites around the islands bare witness to a two thousand year old civilization.

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A Marquesan warrior

Artifacts from the earliest period of settlement (150BC t0 100AD) indicate that the first settlers lived near the sea and depended heavily on marine resources for survival, rather than on farming or livestock. Few utensils for preparing vegetables for cooking have been found from this early period but there are numerous fishhooks, sinkers, and adzes. Pottery fragments suggest the first settlers came from Western Polynesia, or at least that there was contact between Western and Eastern Polynesia at this time. The discovery of the bones of fish and turtle, as well as seabirds such as the shearwater, petrel and booby indicate that these animals were probably the main sources of protein.

From 100AD to 1200AD the settlers began to spread inland. A greater number of peelers, scrapers, and pounders for land-grown vegetables suggest that they became more reliant on agriculture for food. For the first time the Breadfruit plant became an important part of the diet.

By 1400AD the population had spread to all the habitable space, including the interiors of the valleys. Raised platforms (paepae) for houses begin to appear, and fortified sites suggest competition for resources may have led to warfare. Human bones have been found indicating that the natives had turned to cannibalism.


Warriors hung the sculls of victims from their loincloths

After 1400, terraces and irrigation ditches were built in an attempt to provided food for the expanding population. Religious and ceremonial structures, some of monumental size, were erected; these include Tohua (paved public plazas for dancing and festivals) and large stone Tiki (of the kind we photographed in Taiohae Bay). According to ancient culture, the god “Tiki” is known as the ancestor men - brought about by union with a heap of sand, which he piled up on the seashore.

The Marquesans continued to live happily, if not peacefully - there were frequent wars between tribes where the slain victims were eaten as an act of revenge - with no knowledge of the outside world, until the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mandana blundered across the islands during his search for the legendary land of Ophir. Mendana believed that in Ophir he would find King Solomon’s mines - the source of gold for King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

Medana did not find gold on the Marquesas - but he did come across a great number of longhaired, ornately tattooed savages, and he found conflict. The Marquesians or Hivans were a savage warlike people, not to mention their propensity for eating people, but by the end of his visit Mendana and his crew had killed over 200 Marquesans including many women and children.

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“Tiki”, an ancient god - the ancestor of men

Contact with the outside world marked the beginning of the end for the Marquesan people. Foreign visitors brought with them diseases, and the population was decimated by slave raids, the introduction of opium and by the continued inter-tribal warfare and cannibalism.

One morning in May l842 a small group of Marquesans were surprised to see a French Admiral and 60 infantrymen in full ceremonial dress performing what appeared to be a religious ceremony on the beach. One soldier erected a tall pole while other soldiers stood around it in a square. The Admiral said something in French and hit the ground three times with his sword. The soldiers fired their guns into the air, and one of the soldiers pulled a piece of coloured cloth up the pole on a rope. The Marquesas had become part of the French Colonial Empire.

With French rule came the ‘advantages’ of civilisation. The French brought newspapers, money, tobacco, guns, liquor and Bibles. They also brought syphilis, dysentery, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy. The Marquesans, who had no natural immunity to these diseases, suffered horribly. Epidemic after epidemic swept the islands. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the native population was about 90,000. When the French took the first census in 1887 they counted only 5,246 natives.

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A Marquesan woman with traditional tattoos

The French military commanders, civil administrators, and missionaries saw Marquesan culture as something to be exterminated. They outlawed traditional native activities such as feasting, chanting, drum beating, dancing and tattooing. Instead, they advised the Marquesans to take up manly sports and exercises such as soccer, foot racing, boxing, wrestling, and archery.

Marquesan artifacts and works of art were collected by Europeans who exported them to all parts of the world. Statues, bowls, paddles, spears, clubs, bracelets, and even elaborately carved wooden tattoo models of legs and arms found their way into museums and private collections from Cape Town to Leningrad. Under this onslaught the Marquesan culture collapsed. Native arts and crafts, together with myths and rituals were largely forgotten as the French colonials endeavoured to make servants of the men and prostitutes of the women.

It was not until the final decade of the nineteenth century that a serious effort was made to salvage the last remnants of the Marquesan culture. For several years Karl von den Steinen, a German physician and scholar, searched the museums of the world for Marquesan artifacts. In 1897 he traveled to the Marquesas, where he interviewed the oldest survivors and recorded their myths, legends, and rituals. For 20 years he laboured to complete his three-volume masterpiece "Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst" , which was finally published in 1928, the year of his death.

Today very little remains of the Marquesan culture, only the wild and lonely islands, whipped by the wind and besieged by the sea, with names like Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka and Hiva Oa which bare testament to their 2000 years of stormy history.

A Marquesan folk story - The Story of Pepe-iu

Toni was a priest who lived at Taiohae Bay. He had one son, Tepua, who was a fisherman, and a daughter called Pep-iu. When the son went fishing, the daughter remained up in the valley with her father. Three times when Tepua returned from fishing, he gave none of his catch to his father and sister. The next time the young man went fishing, Toni dressed Pepe-iu in all her finery, anointed her head and body, and sent her to the seashore to await the return of the fishermen, along with the other people who had come for fish. Everyone marvelled at Pepe-iu's beauty.

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A modern Pepe-iu

When her brother returned he said, "Who is that pootu - that fine looking girl." They told him it was his sister. "Come and get your fish," he called to her.

Pepe-iu waded out in the shallow water with a basket. As Tepua filled his sister's basket with mullet, he told the other men to paddle the canoe further out. Pepe-iu was lured to follow the canoe out into deep water. When Pepe-iu came into deep water the fish in the basket began threshing about, tearing the girl's flesh. She ran to the shore and returned to her father, weeping and covered with wounds and blood. Toni asked her what had happened, and the girl recounted the story of her brother's mistreatment of her.

For three days Toni anointed his daughter every day. After the third day at midnight, he told Pepe-iu to take a handsome loincloth and other ornaments. They went to the seashore, where there was a double canoe called Na-humu-o-Taka-oa. When the cock crew Toni told the girl to get into the canoe. The canoe was really just two fish called “humu” “Father, these are fish” said Pape-iu “Never mind” replied her father “this is your canoe”

When the put the canoe in the water the humu wriggled and started to swim. "Now you will go to the Island of Aotoka (Rarotonga). When you have gone three or four days you will come to a land, which says 'A-o, a-o, a-o, a-o.' That is Aomeika. You will pass by that land. You will sail on eight days longer and come to a land which says, 'Tup-ti, tup-ti, tup-ti, tup-ti." That is Aotoka."

The humu fish swam off with the girl. Pepe-iu took the route that her father had told her. Eight days after passing Aomeika she heard "Tup-ti, tup-ti, tup-ti, tup-ti, tup-ti." "This is Aotoka," said the girl.

Pepe-iu put on her finery, took the two fish and went up to the temple. Then she went to the bathing basin. The chief who was called Taume came, found her in his pool and claimed her as his woman. At that time the women of Aotoka did not know how to bear children. When a woman was with child, her abdomen was cut open to release the child and the woman died. Taro was their only food; they had no breadfruit. They ate their food raw, not knowing how to cook. Pepe-iu taught them how to do all these things.

Pepe-iu became pregnant and said to Taume, "We will have to have breadfruit to feed the child. “ You must go to my fathers island, to the bay Hooumi, and bring back some to plant." At that time all the breadfruit trees grew in the valley of Hooumi, at the southeast end of Nuku Hiva. There were no breadfruit trees in Taiohae Bay.

Now Taume was a younger son. He had only two hundred and eighty men under him. Ohe-popo was his older brother; on his half of the island he had twenty-eight hundred men. Ohe-popo went to Hooumi before his younger brother was ready and brought back many branches of the breadfruit tree. These grew rapidly at first, and then died. Ohe-popo did not know that Breadfruit will grow only from young root stocks, or shoots.

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A modern outrigger canoe

Pepe-iu instructed Taume to make a canoe. This was finished in three moons.

She also instructed him to carry seven amakiko (kernels of candlenuts mounted on the midrib of a coconut leaf, the native house lamp). These were to be used to keep awake the woman who owned the breadfruit trees until she was so sleepy that she could keep awake no longer.

Taume arrived at Hooumi. For six successive nights he burned his amakiko, one each night. On the seventh night the woman fell into a heavy sleep. Taume and his men, following Pepe-iu's advice, filled their canoe with roots and young sprouts of breadfruit. They were gone when the woman woke up. Taume planted the roots on his side of Aotoka. The breadfruit trees grew and bore fruit.

The older brother, Ohe-popo, angered by the failure of his breadfruit trees and at his younger brother's success, attacked Taume and drove him with his woman and his two sons into the mountains. They had no food and sent their two sons down to steal some breadfruit. The trees were protected by two guards. These men caught the older of the boys up in a tree and carried him to the feast place. The boy was asked why he was stealing the chief's fruit. "For my mother," he said. "We have no food."

The two guards then fell into an argument, one desiring to kill, the other to save, the boy. Finally he was brought to the Ohe-popo who ordered an oven built on the feast place. Then the chief strangled, cooked, and ate the boy. Meanwhile Pepe-iu knew what w as happening, so she told Taume to go to Nuku Hiva Island again, using the humu as his canoe. She taught him her life history and about here family in Taiohae Bay.

Taume went back to Taiohae on the humu and recited the story to Pepe-iu's people, thus identifying himself, and told of their unhappy plight. Pepe-iu”s father, Toni, had gone to Hakamoui, on the island of Ua Pou. Taume went seeking him but when he reached Hakamoui, Toni had gone on before him to the next valley. So they went from valley to valley until at last, when they had made the complete circuit of the island, Taume caught up with the elusive priest.

Taume and Toni built a canoe for the expedition to Aotoka. Six other war canoes went with them with two hundred and eighty warriors in each. Toni's power (mana) supplied their food: on the first day out, they speared and captured a great skate. After that they caught a fish every day.

In Aotoka, Pepe-iu saw one day a man's skull lying in the sand, moving from side to side. She knew by this sign that her father was coming. When they arrived at Aotoka, the guard who had recommended that Pepe-iu's son be killed when he was caught in the breadfruit tree, came out in the water, seized Taume’s canoe and attempted to pull it ashore. They caught him, dragged him out to sea, and cut off his head. The head was given to Pepe-iu's remaining son to wear on his loin cloth. The wearing of heads or parts of heads of slain enemies on the loin cloth was the custom in war times. Together, Pepe-iu’s father, Taume and the warriors attacked and defeated the warriors of the older brother, Ohe-popo, whom Taume killed.

References / Acknowledgements

The story of Pepeiu is rewritten from the version in E.S. Craighill Handy's Marquesan Legends (Honolulu: Bishop Museum 1930) 
Thanks to Megan Robertson (South Cheshire College, Cheshire, UK) for searching the Web for reference material. 

This page will be updated if I receive further information

Dr Janet Sumner-Fromeyer