TAHITI - MANGAREVA
This is the story as it had been told in Papeete and in the Gambiers - a cruel and sombre tale, shot through with gleams of a vanishing barbaric splendour and relieved by quaint touches of grotesque comedy - it is the story of the death of a people.
In the time when Te Mateoa reigned in Mangareva, the prophetess Toapere was informed by the gods that after her death and in the reign of Te Mateoa's successor, strange ships would come, bringing new teaching and a time of peace. Ships did come in her own time, but the new teaching arrived in the reign of Te Maputeoa, the next king, as she had foretold.
It was in August, 1834, that the ship came and anchored off Tonai in front of Toapere, who was lying in the tomb in a cave above. Thus the prophecy had been fulfilled. The ship that anchored below the burial cave of the seeress brought Father Francois d'Assise Caret and Brother Columban Murphy - and Father Laval. They had come to Mangareva after hearing stories from the whalers that the cannibal islands where children played marbles in the street with pearls, where a native would trade such jewels for a bottle of rum and where the pale brown islanders performed strange rites before the altars of ancient gods. The members of the order of the Sacred Heart in their monastery at Valparaiso had come to save the islanders from their pagan ways.
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Conch sounded from the hilltops as the lookouts sighted the ship, the king and the native priest as well as the warriors scanned the pale faces and dark robes of the strangers whose coming had been foretold. Laval and his companions beheld the faces of the long head warriors, the tattooed forehead of the king, his chest hung with wreaths of shark's teeth, his ears and fingers ringed with hair from the head of an enemy chief. They saw the queen wreathed in yellow and red feathers, hibiscus bark and flowers, and bearing the pandanus-leaf of royal rank.
The visitors were invested with ceremonial tapa and seated on stones covered with fine mats. The flower-decked people ran forward, throwing at the guests' feet mats, rolls of tapa, breadfruits, coconuts, parcels of food both cooked and raw.
Mangareva Islands showing Mount Duff
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Even after the missionaries had learned enough of the language to attempt the conversion of Te Maputeoa, their progress was slow. The king thought they should perform some of the miracles of which they had told him. He suggested that they walked on the lagoon. Laval replied that only God could do that. The time had now come for the king to go to the island of Taravai to hold court on disputes concerning boundaries of family land. The high priest insisted that Laval and his colleagues should go along with the king.
Temple ruin on Temoe atoll built by Mangarevan fugitives
The court convened under a huge sacred banyan tree that still stands at Taravai. While the proceedings dragged on, Laval asked permission to pray. As it was granted, the high priest gave a signal and warriors ran forward with their spears levelled at the kneeling missionaries. Laval and his companions kept on praying.
Legend credits the women of the Gambier Islands for saving Laval and bringing about the turning point in the history of that country. Shouting, the women rushed forward, shielding with their own bodies the menaced missionaries. Amid the confusion, Laval calmly finished his prayer then arose and coolly wrote down in a note book the names of the natives who had intervened to protect him. The high priest disappeared never to return.
The king ordered the notebook brought to him. The missionaries paid no attention. When he repeated the order, Laval replied that if the king wanted his name in the book, he would have to come to them. And the king came. It was from that moment that Pere Laval was the virtual of the Gambiers and stayed that way for the whole of his day.
Under his rule, the stone images of the ancient gods were shattered; the temple platforms destroyed; and the natives brought into complete subjugation to Laval. It was said that there were 9,000 inhabitants when Laval began his reign and by 1943 only about 1,500 remained, of whom only two families were said to be the sole survivors of the ancient Mangarevan stock.
For as time went on, Laval's zeal seemed to have approached madness. The people were forced to wear modest garments and without protest they accepted the teachings of the new God, who, they thought, might be another manifestation of their own. Christian marriage came for the first time to the Gambiers. The customary freedom of the younger folk were forbidden and a native police force, directed by Laval, inflicted severe penalties for infringements of his moral code.
Much of this is common place of evangelistic endeavour in many islands, where missionaries, despite frequent lack of tact and absence of ethnological understanding, have done on the whole a great deal of good and comparatively little harm. But Laval went further. He must have not only a church, a huge church, built of blocks of coral, blasted with lime burned from coral. There must also be palaces, a prison, a monastery, a convent, a textile factory, a whole city such as no island of Polynesia had ever seen. Wherever a pagan altar had stood, a chapel must be built and he built them larger than many a city church.
And the people died.
The entire population of Mangareva was not sufficient for the labours which Laval had set them to do. So, as the story is told, he had the people of neighbouring islands brought en masse to Mangareva to join in the work.
And still the people died.
Forced labour, unaccustomed clothes, the punishments inflicted by the ecclesiastical police, the sudden reversal of established customs, the enforced sterility in the convents and monasteries that he built for native converts, and tuberculosis induced by living within stone walls, all are believed to have contributed to the depopulation of the islands.
But more than anything else, the cause must have lain in the hopelessness that overtakes a people when their entire cultural structure is uprooted. It is probable that many natives, in Laval's time, never really comprehended the principles of the faith he tried to give them, or found comfort in it.
As the tale is told, over five thousand people had died in ten years and the whole city that had been built now lies in ruins among the straggling vines of the encroaching jungle.
The situation on Mangareva may well have gone on for the rest of Laval's life, or until the last Mangarevan had perished. But secular influences intervened with Laval's rigid administration coming into conflict with sea captains and traders who resented his stringent laws and his monopoly of business. One Jean Dupuy had arrived in Mangareva as agent for a commercial firm. He had fallen foul of Laval's code and had been thrown in jail. Dupuy had smuggled a report to his employers, who complained to the governor in Papeete. Hence it came about that the Compte Emile de la Ronciere disembarked one day at Mangareva and was horrified at what he saw.
His first act was to order the prison opened. Among the prisoners who stumbled out were two small boys. They had been imprisoned for laughing while Mass was being held. Ronciere called for the records of vital statistics and as he read of the shrinking birth rate and the enormous toll of death his face grew even more grave. When he asked Laval what kind of government resulted in 5,000 deaths over ten years, Laval is reported to have replied "Ah, Monsieur le Compte, they have but gone more quickly to heaven."
Pere Laval was called to Tahiti by the Bishop and he died in Tahiti in 1880 and was buried in the Mission cemetery there.
The roofs of the palaces, the convent, the monastery, the factories, have fallen; the jungle chokes the gardens and the courts. Natives say the ghost of those who died under the whips of Laval's overseers wailed there in the mystery-breathing perfumed nights.
And the bones of the prophetess Toapere crumble away to dust in the cave that overlooks the bay.
Parts of the above story are from The Leaning Wind by Clifford Gessler, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1943