It all seems so unreal today. Tahiti has changed. In the early thirties there were no sophisticated hotels with swimming pools. The little town of Papeete had the air of a cowboy western - no horses, of course - but plenty of bicycles. It took three long weeks to reach Tahiti through Panama, and you were taken in right away by the beauty of the island - the soft, sunny climate and the easy way of life.
It was all so absolutely different from anything I had experienced in Paris where I had lived as a boy and where I !ater floated around as a fledgling art student. Paris at that time was a hothouse of many conflicting artistic tendenccies, and the air was full of the promises of modern art ; but almost all I got- out of the excitement was a feeling of anxiety and despair. So when I left for Tahiti with my father and a young Frenchman, a friend of my age, it was really a flight from a bewildering existence. It seemed quite a fantastic thing to go away to the south seas in order to try one's luck at farming, considering that Parisian studios and cafes make a very inadequate background for a future agriculturalist.
To be frank, it was the idea of going to the south seas which had appealed to me. I knew nothing about farming and had no interest in it at all. When I arrived in Tahiti I only had eye only for all the long-haired girls with their eternal flower over the ear, who smiled so nicely when you looked at them- It was my friend who was supposed to have some knowledge of colonial farming, who was to be our braintrust.
My father was our banker.
After some time to get acquainted with the island and after much searching, we fell in love with an enormous valley about tristy kilometers from town, which we acquired. It was just about one hundred times too big, but like all green colonials, we had the most unrealistic ambitions.
Somehow, I liked that valley, and my heart swelled at being the. owner of such a wonderful property. Il took hours to reach its end way up in the mountains, walking along a cool, wriggling stream in its middle, full of shrimp and eels. There was plenty of fruit growing, a little bit everywhere in total disorder : bananas, papayas, and those breadfruit trees which the Mutiny on the Bounty story have made famous. There were also a great number of coffee and lime plants, orange trees and wild mangoes, and what filled me with wonder, thousands of the most magnificent giant ferns- Some tall coconut trees were scattered here and there on the slopes in the thick bush. I felt like Alice in Wonderland.
Maybe a little too much so, because I was still the artist, little concerned with reality, and relying entirely on my friend's capacities to make a living out of this wild place. What forced me out of my dream world was my friend's unexpected decision to leave my father and me to our fate. He was tired of constantly quarreling with my father, who was a difficult man.
So I had to face the valley all alone - that was a challenge that woke me up - and I became suddenly impressed. With the help of half a dozen natives, we cleared some few acres of land and made quite a big plantation of vanilla, one of the largest in Tahiti at that time. How proud I was !
How I struggled, how I sweated, how I cursed every Stone I banged my foot into, and how my workers laughed when I tried to shoulder a load of bananas on a wooden stick the way they dici, with such ease. And oh ! How hot the sun was in that valley where the cool breezes from the sea could not reach, with the ants and the sixinch long centipedes crawling out from under everything you touched, and finally, the millions of mosquitoes trying to eat you alive.
The natives in the neighborhood were impressed and looked at me with respect. Even I was impressed and looked at me with respect. But I was not to, feel like a vanilla king for long - the plants grew very well for a time, until a certain fungus caused them to rot near the ground. I had them afl replanted, but in vain. An old "Tahua" or Tahitian medicine man said that a bad spell had been cast because my plantation was too close to an ancient "marae", the stone platforms where religious ceremonies formerly were held. Whatever the reason, my plantation was doomed.
In the meantime, I had started to raise some pigs, as I had often watched the natives feeding theirs and it seemed so easy, with no apparent effort, like most of the things the natives did. Let me say that in Tahiti that kind of work has nothing in common with the mechanized business practiced in larger countries. Here, everything is done by hand, and on a small scale, in a way that would probably make a modern pig farmer die with laughter. The far end of the valley had been fenced off so the pigs could roam around on their own in search cof roots and fallen fruits, and only once daily would my Tahitian workers call them together by blowing a strident tune on a conch shell, at which time they were fed mangoes, papayas, breadfruit, or whatever else we had.
A white man's physical endurance is diminished in this tropical climate. After some time, I was exhausted, and was forced to give up trying to work myself. My lymph glands were constantly swollen, I suffered f rom an endless series of painful boils, and I was beginning to evidence the first symptoms of elephantiasis. I left the care of my pigs to a couple of natives on a fifty-fifty basis, a very common arrangement in Tahiti. I supplied the pigs, the land and the food, they did the work ; but the natives were lazy when left to themselves, and the pigs got thinner and thinner, so I finally sold them all.
By this time, my fairytale valley had lost much of its charm, I had the feeling that its vastness was choking me, that the bush was closing in on me all the time. Things did not look too bright when I heard of a whole stock of cattle which was for sale. I invested what was left of our money almost to the last penny, and bought two dozen old but visibly pregnant cows. There were practically no real pastures in the valley, but somehow they seemed to be content with whatever leaves and bush there was to eat, and they not only surviveci, but sometime later, they all had calves.
Encouraged, I bought some more head of cattle, but this time I was out of luck. The new cows carried the dreaded Texas fever and contaminated my old stock. There was no real veterinarian then on the island, but, foilowing advice, I tried desrerately myself to save the sick cows with intravenous inlections. Let us be discreetly silent about what happened when for the first time in my life I handled a big syringe and an unwilling cow. I think I suffered more than the cow did. In the end, I lost several head, and on shaking legs I walked my valley searching for dead cows, guided by the awful stench. To make those Cattle Baron days really nice, I never knew if the bull did not think of me as one of his herd - he had such a funny way of looking at me.
A less pessimistic way of looking at these events was taken by Ripo, my young Tahitian girl friend. She said I had too many cows anyway, and that they frightened her when she went up in the valley to fish for shrimp in the river. Probably the only thing I had in common with her was the way we felt about the bull.
Ripo - she was barely fifteen - had already come to live with me at the beginning. I had singled her out among the women clearing weeds in the vanilla. She also used to join the natives who went far into the valley to pick coffee. How she laughed at my awkward efforts to carry just one sack ! She would carry it herself for long stretches walking with perfect ease on her bare feet along the potholed path. She had long, shiny black hair, and like the others, she would put a crown of beautiful ferns on her head, not for coquetry, but as proof against the sun, and I thought she was the prettiest thing I had ever seen.
At first, I caught her several times trying to eat the toothpaste. I could buy her any amount of dresses - most of them disappeared mysteriously, being shared by the other female members of her family. She became a useful link between me and my neighbors, and helped me to better understand their of ten incomprehensible ways. She cooked, washed our clothes, and was tireless at fishing, but she had the haziest ideas about money matters. When, after some time, I complained about our funds getting low, she just laughed and asked why I did not go to the bank. In her childish mind all strangers had unlimited amounts of money, that could be had at the bank just for the asking.
When the war broke out, I was really discouraged and tired of the valley, which, in spite of the cattle, gave very poor returns. So I decided to get rid of my whole stock, as I had an opportunity to lease the land to some Chinese who wanted to plant tobacco. For the first time, my property gave me an income for which I did not have to sweat or worry.
If I had failed as a farmer, at least I had acquired some experience in the ways of the island, and most important of all, I had learned how to use tools. I had built myself a beautiful house on the beach, of which both Ripo and I were very proud. It was a mixture of concrete, coconut posts and bamboo, with thatched palm leaves for the roof, looked very "native".
One day I received a visit from a Swedish businessman who lived in Japan, where he had made a fortune, and he was much impressed by my house. Like so many others, he had fallen in love with Tahiti and had acquired a large property himself, which he proposed I should take care of while he returned to Japan to settle his affairs. I was to conduct the building of a road leading up to the hills on his -land, where he wanted a number of - bungalows overlooking the lagoon. I accepted gladly, not knowing the serious trouble I was letting myseif in for.
The war was on, and my correspondence was intercepted by the military authorities who were intrigued by the detailed profile drawings I sent to Tokyo, showing the exact height of slopes. At one point I had drawn a little balloon to indicate the spot where I proposed that the owner's bungalow be built. This was obviously disguised information for Japanese parachute troops. I was promptly arrested and put in jail.
If I smile today remembering these events, I certainly did not take them so lightheartedly when they happened. Tahiti had joined the Free French Movement just at that time, many still faithful to the Petain government had also been arrested, and the prisor was full. One of the hotels ir Papeete, in the old days commonIy used for lovemaking, was requisitioned for use as an extra jail, and it was in this establishment that I was interned.
After some few days, Ripo came to visit me with a bundle of clean clothes. The Tahitian soldier on guard at the entrance resolutely pointed his bayoneted gun at her stomach. Well, Ripo was a courageous girl. She threw the bundle to the ground, took a defiant pose with her hands on her hips, and burst out with such a string of defaming, unprintable insults in Tahitian that I shuddered as I watched the scene from a first floor window. I got my clothes. I was ten unforgettable days in that hotel, spending most of the time playing poker with some of Tahiti's most respected citizens. I was finally informed that I was to be deported to the island of Bora Bora.
I was allowed two or three days to prepare for the departure and a young Tahitian soldier was detailed to follow me wherever I went in Papeete. At, one time, I gave him a little money to make a purchase for me. He went - and disappeared, and it took me a frantic hour of intensive search for my guard before I discovered him quietly drinking beer with some friends of his in a chinese store.
We were about half a dozen, including my old father, to go on board the beautiful schooner "Moana" one late af ternoon.
Naturally, Ripo came along too. I did my best to be. in a tragic mood and to look like a dangerous spy, but it was difficult to maintain that attitude with all of the laughter and joking amid strings of wonderfully smelling flowers which friends hung around our necks.
Once on Bora Bora, after the bitterness of being exiled had drained away, we discovered the charrn of the little island, one of the most beautiful in French Polynesia, with its enormous lagoon. The natives were kind and took good care of us. For inhabitants of the smaller islands, strangers mean distraction from their monotonous life and extra money. They built the nicest little native huts for us one ever saw, and we bought their fish, eggs and chicken with our very little money. Ripo went fishing almost daily and loved it, and we often went sailing in the native's fast outriggers. At last I had time to take up my old quarrel with the arts, and started to paint again. All told, it was like being on a vacation and it certainly was my happiest time in the south seas. We grew to like it so much that when, after six months time, we received notice to return to Tahiti, we sent a collective request to the governor asking to remain on the island. Alas, this was refused - ; the U.S. had entered the war and American troops were being sent to be stationed on Bora Bora.
Back in Tahiti again, what big city Papeete seemed : social life curtailed, the stores were just about empty of goods and the little town did its best to behave like a city at war, with blackouts, barbed wire, and the streets alive with men in uniform.
My sojourn on Bora Bora proved to be a turning point of my life on Tahiti. Once again, I was faced with the eternal problem of making a living. My property was leased, and anyway, I had had my share of farming. To paint pictures was out of the question, as no one would buy them.
For a long time I had been fascinated by the native Pareus the brightly colored cotton fabric with big gaudy floral designs, so much apart of the native way of life that it would be difficult to imagine thern without it. Importation of Pareu was stopped, so I thought about trying to make thern myself. I bought the cotton -material on the black market, and even once bought a whole supply of double size bedsheets which I cut in half. The design was handprinted and offered no great problem, but the difficulty was to get the dyes, which I found impossible to import due to war priorities. After much feverish experimentation, I found that I could use ordinary household dyes that the natives used liberally for coloring their dancer's grass skirts. The only problem was, would the dyes be colorfast ? I shall never forget how Ripo and I dipped and washed my first prints in the river near our house. Those pareus were sold for stiff prices for quite a long time, until the industrially made ones were once more available, forcing me to give it up.
Then came the pearl shell period. It all started on a little island in the middle of the lagoon in front of Papeete, called Motu Uta, where the Germans then living on Tahiti were kept segregated. To spend their time they made little objects out of pearl shell, mostly destined for the curio trade. There was even an artist among them who made very nice things.
This artisan activity spread in Tahiti and grew steadily during the war and even after. Much of the production was sold locally, but by and by, considerable amounts were exported to Bora Bora, New Caledonia and even Hawaii, where thousands of American soldiers sent them home as souvenirs from the south seas. Soon hundreds of little electric tools were grinding away. Even the Chinese had set up shops.
Irresistably, I became ivolved in this kind 'of work, hating it at first, but unable to resist because I made a good deal of money. When the war at last came to an end, the exports dwindled, but there was now a market for more artistic work, which sold for high prices.
Eventually, it enabled me to devote more time to painting, which after all, was supposed to be my business in life. Thanks to the kind help of some good friends of mine, who sent to Sweden for artist's material, I was finally able to give an exhibition of my work. The exibition was - at last - a success...
Published in October 1966 by « Reef Magazine», Bob Dixon, publisher.
Published in French in July 2002 by « Tahiti-Pacifique Magazine », Alex W. du Prel, publisher.