TAHITI: A Paradise Lost by David Howarth

TAHITI: A Paradise Lost

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The ravaging of Eden: a readable but dreadfully simplistic account of how the British and French (with a little help from the Spanish) discovered, invaded, proselytized (or tried to), occupied, and fatally corrupted Tahiti. Popular historian Howarth concentrates on the period from 1767, when HMS Dolphin first sighted the island, to 1843, when a French protectorate was imposed upon Queen Pomare IV. Tahiti attracted a number of famous visitors, including Captains Cook and Bligh, Melville, Stevenson, and of course Gauguin; but it was the mass of mostly nameless Europeans who did it in--disrupting the native economy and folkways, spreading repressive Christianity and venereal disease, fanning tribal squabbles into grisly wars (fought with imported guns), polluting a virgin land with their money, microbes, and missionaries. It's a tragic story, but hardly an unfamiliar one, since a whole line of distinguished writers from Denis Diderot (in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, which Howarth astonishingly ignores) to J. C. Beaglehold have told it over and over. Howarth's version has the doctrinaire liberalism and armchair anthropology of a philosophe transported to the 20th century. HIS Tahitians are adorable children (their society ""never grew up: it never had a chance""). They speak a language so simple that it ""depended on gestures, not only words, to express its shades of meaning."" They had no antibodies to resist the European viruses of ""envy, greed, unkindness, covetousness,"" and so they perished by suicide or ""accidie."" If only, Howarth sighs, the Franciscan padres sent to convert them had concocted a ""happy blend of Christianity and the Tahitians' old-established religion,"" things might not have been so bad. . . . A well-intentioned but soft-headed job.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 1983
Publisher: Viking