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What makes a Tahiti girl so irresistible?

"Gauguin, Gau"

by David Hadley

Vol. 6, No. 2,  March 1960

The Summer isles of French Oceania in the far South Pacific, of which Tahiti is the most famous isle, are true paradises, not particularly for their enchanting scenic aspects, but because of their exotic, free-loving women, The amoral fame of the vahine-Tahitienne is legendary. And  many complimentary, titillative and romantic things have been written and spoken about these very feminine, golden-skinned sirens, whose hedonistic tastes appear to be strongly flavored with promiscuity and passion.
     Once, on a return to Tahiti, I was waylaid by a young and handsome matron in a smart salon, who said icily, "I know that my husband has had you cornered for the past two hours asking you about the women of Tahiti." She arched a quizzical, hostile eyebrow. "Now, suppose you tell me, too, just what it is that makes those island strumpets so irresistible!?"
     Tactfully, by reference tot he writings of De Quiros, Bougainville, Captain James Cook and through to James Michener, I suggested that the consensus of early and current opinion was that the Polynesian vahine is a very attractive, compliant, and romantic creature.
     "Well, so aren't the vahines of this country attractive--and sexually assertive!" she growled resentfully.
     I countered gently that perhaps it was just because the island have an indefinable aura of amorality, and glibly quoted from Captain Cook, the renowned early South Pacific explorer: "'I believe there is less platonic love in Otaheite (Tahiti) that any other country.'"
     "I suppose that's why you keep going back there!" she retorted nastily.
     And, fort he remainder of the evening's soiree, she assiduously steered her husband away from my contaminating influences.
     Therefore, because of many such repetitions, I've felt for a long time that the vahines of French Oceania--Tahiti in particular--needed some explaining, not so much as to catalogue white lover-brown woman case-histories--of which I know many, in fact very many!--but to try and explain logically some of the reasons that make the Tahitian vahine so refreshingly appealing.
     The early discoverers of Tahiti rhapsodized about the physical and emotional qualities of the women of Tahiti. They were described then as Junoesque, with beautiful complexions, teeth and hair, and charmingly unmoral. The pure Tahitian is no more, but in her place has appeared a composite creation of European-Chinese Tahitian, and the result is most eye-arresting. Her original massiveness has been slenderized to a finer-bone structure, with an attendant softening of the features from the primary heavy facial planes. But she has lost none of her inherent passion. And she is still gay, witty, playful, generous and alluring.
     Some years back, when I was visiting Tahiti regularly, like a homing-pigeon, I sometimes said to myself: when such Tahitian lovelies as Momo, Turia, Reri, Tetu, and Hina-Rapa become forty-and-fat, there will surely be no replacement. And that will be the end of the chief attraction of Tahiti, and it'll be sad, terribly sad. But I was wrong. The supply appears to be inexhaustible, and each succeeding generation seems to surpass the last. Yes, I still have to agree with what the famous French painter Paul Gauguin had written about them: "There is fire in her blood, which calls forth love as its essential nourishment; which exhales it like a fatal perfume. These eyes and this mouth cannot lie. Whether calculating or not, it is love that speaks from them."
     Today, in Tahiti, the female descendants of the stunning vahines who Wallis, Cook and Bougainville romanced, whom Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and Typee-Omoo, and his pal "Doctor Long-Ghost" chased along the coral strands, whom Paul Gauguin piled with rum so they would strip naked and pose for his neo-impressionistie canvasses, with whom Fredrick O'Brien, author of White Shadows in the South Seas, danced the otea love-dance, whom Rupert Brooke, the British poet, used as the inspiration for his love-poems of Tahiti, are still to be seen on the quay at Papeete, on boat-day, available for a romance on a short or long-term arrangement. Not for a few yards of calico cloth or cheap trinkets, as of yore, because, since the days of Wallis Cook and the whalermen, there have been too many over-generous tourists who have now made the French Oceanic vahines sharp bargainers where their favors are concerned. But, still, at bargain rates.
     The early missionaries shuddered, moaned, and wrung their bony hands over the so-called "immorality" of the Tahitians. One shocked and mortified London Society missionary had written: "For lasciviousness, shameless familiarity with white men, I suppose no country can surpass Tahiti. On her shores chastity and virtue find no place..."
     But what the missionaries didn't know, or refused to believe, was that in the native language, to denote affection or the instinctive attraction between a man and a woman, the word is here, which means specifically "to unite physically." The Tahitians have no other word to describe love. The heart to them has no significance as a center of romantic feeling. Spiritual sentiment between a man and a woman seems pointless.
      Condoning this realistic attitude, a learned sociologist's conclusions conformed with mine: that here in the islands there is none of the morbid dwelling on erotic details characteristic of the folklore of certain other races more effetely civilized. To accuse the Polynesians of being immoral according to our Chrisitan-Western standard is, or course, as unreasonable as it would be for them to condemn us because we do not observe Polynesian taboo rules. To the natives of these islands the sexual act is just as simple and natural as eating and drinking, and, therefore, they can talk of it in the same unembarrassed and direct manner. It is necessary for the shocked moralists to rid his mind of associations of nastiness in dealing with these matters, and to remember that the Polynesian receives the facts connected with the handing on human life with the same simple candor as the phenomena observed in his garden or anywhere else.
     According to the "civilized" idea of love, everyone is supposed to seek the "right mate" for a permanent relationship, who is assumed to be one person and one only. This idea to give the heart once and for all seems idiotic to the Tahitians. With hedonistic practicability, a vahine will say, "A vahine is born into the world-of-islands to enjoy herself, but enjoyment wanes when one becomes old and ugly, so pleasures must all be crowded into the fleeting hours of youth." If you ask her what makes her gravitate toward one particular lover, her answer is that this certain lover surpassed all other for handsomeness and virility. She loved him for a while, and then he seemed to grow less handsome in her eyes, and she met another who eclipsed him. As simple as that.
     Although this might seem to be very wanton, promiscuous, and unsentimental attitude, this censure can be tempered by the fact that the women of Tahiti are never nagging, possessive, jealous or frustrated, and that the perversities and psychotic aberrations, caused by prudery, prohibitions and unhealthy concealment do not confound them. There is nothing furtive, awkward, or crude in the Tahitians' expression of affection, regardless of how fanatically the missionaries and moralists deplore them. They are children of nature, who find the sex act natural, enriching and pleasurable indulgence; it is their uncomplicated understanding of spontaneous, reciprocal affection. And this blessing they refuse to spoil by mental traumas, or hypocrisy, missionary-evoked guilt and degenerative jealousies. They still retain their heritage of a complete absorption and idolatry of physical perfection and passion, despite the fact that white reformers tampered with their sacred tabus. In this enviable fixation they surpass the ancient Greeks.
     Many have accused the natives of Tahiti of being animalistic and depraved. I did not find this so; in fact, I was deeply impressed with their delicacy, refinement, and affection. A Tahitian tane (lover) or vahine never goes to a romantic assignation without first bathing, removing all body odors and unsightly hair, and wearing chaplets and neck-wreaths of perfumed tropical flowers.
     The early discoverers and visitors of Tahiti eulogized, without exaggeration, the women.
     Captain James Cook had written: "...their eyes, especially, are full of expression, sometimes sparkling with fire, and sometimes melting with softness."
     Louis Antoine de Bougainville, French navigator and discoverer, who fittingly had named Tahiti "the New Cytherea" had written rapturously: "The name which I intended for it was suited to a country, perhaps the only one in the world, where men live with vices, without prejudices, without necessities, without disputes. Born under a most beautiful sky, nourished on the fruits of an earth which is fertile without tillage, ruled by patriarchs rather kings, they know no other god but Love!. . .The whole island is a temple of love, and all the women are living, performing idols, and all men are their adorers. And what women! Unveiled sisters of the graces! Neither shame or prudery manifest their tyranny here; the lightest of gauzes drift about them according to the whim of the winds of their own desires..."
     Voltaire, the French philosopher and writer, who has been reading avidly all reports on the women of Tahiti, wrote: "It can be affirmed that the inhabitants of Tahiti have preserved love, the oldest religion on earth, in all its purity."
     In her memoirs, the nineteenth century Queen of Tahiti, Arii Tamai, made this admission: "Tahiti had plenty of vices, and was a sort of Paris in its refinements of wickedness; but these had not prevented the islanders from leading as happy lives as had ever been known among men."
     But many early visitors to Tahiti and the outlying islands of what is now known as French Oceania, such as Wallis Cook, Bougainville and Morenhout, gave erroneous reports about the presence of native prostitutes in the islands. There were definitely no true prostitutes in Tahiti when the first whites arrived. The Polynesian system  of values would never have endured such a dreary vice. It is true that the island vahine did receive a gift from her lover-seaman, but this was purely in conformity with the prescribed Polynesian etiquette in tendering gifts for reciprocal courtesies and favors. An iron nail, a yard of cotton cloth, a mirror, or a cheap brooch merely indicated to the vahine the white sailor's satisfaction with the romantic relationship. But the native girl's fundamental reasons for sharing her sleeping-mat with him were her innate curiosity concerning the virility of white men and that her attachment to him would give her greater prestige in Tahitian society. For many years, until the whites callously shattered the illusion, the Tahitians endowed the fair visitors to their palm-fringed beaches with god-like virtues.
     Such early explorers as Wallis and Cook found the vahines of the islands charmingly rapacious. But from all moral standards the first missionaries to these islands were supposed to be insulated and exempt from their feminine wiles.
     Cook had written : "There is a scale in dissolute sensuality, which there people have ascended (note that indiacted  upward, instead of downward) wholly unknown to every other nation whose manners have been recorded from the beginning of the world to the present hour, and from the beginning of the world to the present hour, and which no imagination could possibly conceive. Sisters, daughters, and even wives are offered to strangers, either as a courtesy, an act of hospitality, or as a reward."
     But a missionary of the London Missionary Society, by the name of Harris, found this custom abhorrent and, therefore, he refused the handsome wife of a Marquesan chief. That night his sleeping-mat in the guest-house was invaded by the scorned vahine, who was determined to find out just why she had been rejected! Harris fled, screaming, to the beach in the middle of the night, where he was almost eaten alive by the voracious nono-flies and mosquitoes, and later was able to escape to Tahiti, southward, aboard a passing sailing-ship. His associate Cook stayed on valiantly in the face of the determined feminine blandishments, but he, too had to eventually clear out. And the natives could never understand why these two apparently physically normal males were so blind to the charms of their beautiful vahines! Only a modern-day psychiatrist, through an interpreter, could have adequately explained to them the warped mentality of these prejudice-ridden men.
     The London Missionary Society sent out their first shock-troops of missionaries to French Oceania in 1796, aboard the good ship Duff, whose crew had been carefully selected. The chronicler of the Duff's holy expedition smiled benignly upon the scene at Ua Pu Island (Marquesas), en route to Tahiti, of the ship's seamen "repairing the rigging attended aloft by practically naked brown girls sociably holding tar buckets for them." He added sanctimoniously, "No ship's company without great restraints from God's grace...would have resisted such temptations!"
     But he had spoken too soon, and hopefully.
     At Moorea Island, opposite Tahiti, the captain's steward, Micklewright, went over the side after a native girl, and never rejoined the ship; a seaman, William Tukcer, jumped ship at Matavai Bay, Tahiti, for a vahine, as did Samuel Hurst, cabinboy. Mr. Lewis, an ordained minister, succumbed also to an island woman; Mr. Broomhall, a harnessmaker, went native with a Tahitian girl; also, Mr. Shelly the cabinet-maker. The early attractions of Tahitian girls were just too much for their flagging spiritual strength!
     Yes, the moment you mention Tahiti today, the male interest is immediate: The suggestive leer, the dig in the ribs, the bated-breath whisper, "Say, now, how about those Tahitian women? Pretty wild women, aren't they?"
     The fact that they have been faithfully recorded in the startling chronicles of white discoverers, navigators, whalermen, writers, painters, and adventures for more than four centuries has kept their amoral reputation alive. They have been described as the world's sexiest women by men who ought to know.
     However, it must not be construed that all of the vahines of Tahiti are incomparable beauties. You'll see those who are quite coarse looking. And a considerable number are a combination of sass, witchery, laziness, slovenliness, and stupidity. The acute myopia that causes so many white men to overlook heavy limbs scarred with healed coral lesions and bobos (yaws), broad flat feet, enormous buttocks, Neanderthal empty faces, and witless, shrieking laughter, is, indeed, astonishing. Perhaps, in their eyes, these unappetizing bawds are the flawless adjunct for their conception of true paradise which they have gleaned from the pages of novels and colorful books of travel devoted to these islands, and, therefore, objectively, the perfect mates for their escapist plans.
     For many, many years now white men have been dashing madly off the sailing-ships, the luxury-liners and passenger-freighters into Papeete, wild-eyed and baying for paradise and the free-loving Tahitian vahines. Today, you'll find a representative of every social class of whites in the island of French Oceania, from chronic drifters to once brilliant college professors. Some are wayward sons of remittance men of wealthy families, others are just plain out-and-out crackpots, and a large number are hopeless lushes and satyrs. But all are marked by the welts of escapism, frustration and sexuality, and are sure that the isles of French Oceania and its gay girls constitute the best in life. With a view of the blue lagoons, framed by green plam-fronds, the barrier coral reef milky-white with shattered surf, and a voluptuous island playgirl lolling, strumming a guitar, on their beach-side verandah, they are oblivious to the complex anxieties of the Nuclear Age.
    If a popaa, or white man, doesn't take unto himself an island girl the very first day that he steps ashore in Tahiti, he is considered an odd fellow and regarded with suspicion and disfavor. Should a week pass, and he still is strolling solo along the palm-canopied beaches, then old Tahitian grannies of the villahes will clack their toothless gums and giggle "Mahu!" derisively, and even little children will chase and bedevil him with taunts of this shattering epithet.
     The word mahu, in a general sense, means an effeminate man, but more specifically, it casts aspersions on the virility of a man where the sleeping-mat of Polynesia is concerned. The insidious influence of this name-calling has impelled many circumspect, celibately-inclined white men into unwanted relationships with the vahines of Tahiti.
     Recently, in Tahiti, on boat-day, a writer-friend, whom I had previously met on the French Riviera, unburdened himself to me in a Papeete bar.
     Before us, on the acacia-shaped porumu fronting the resplendent lagoon-harbor of Papeete, the belles of Tahiti, their long glistening braids swaying gracefully on loose hair flying in a dark cloud behind them, jockeyed for advantageous positions in the parade of Vespa and Solex motor-scooters, as they putt-putted into the port for late-afternoon "jeen feezes" or "room poonches"--but, principally, to engage in flirtations with a prospective tane, or lover.
     The writer took his eyes reluctantly from them, and said, "As you know, I came to Tahiti a month ago, specifically to live alone and get some important writing accomplished. And you must certainly remember, when we first met in the south of France, how I had frittered away a valuable year with that French nymph Solange. Well, here I made a vow to lead a solitary and half-way celibate life, with a serious dedication to my new novel." He massaged the taut muscles at the base of his cranium with nervous fingers. "But these Tahitians here wouldn't let me! It was very nerve-wracking! Old crones and young kids started hooting-and-hollering at me and calling me 'Mahu!'!"
     "They do that to any white or native man who shows a tendency to lead a solitary, womanless life," I interrupted.
     "Well, anyway, as a measure of defense and self-respect, I've been forced to take a vahine into my lagoon-side shack in Punaauia. Her name is Miri, and she's very distracting!" he sighed lugubriously.
     Suddenly, a Vespa claxon tooted tinnily. A lovely expanse of limb braced a vehicle before the entrance; a pair of enormous liquid, Polynesian eyes and ripe, sensual mouth were the total effect of the scooter equestrienne. A caressing, rich voice called, "Ia ora na, Rafi! Haere tau fare! Hello, Ralph! Let's go home."
     Sunshine flooded his face, he arose quickly, happily, mounted behind her on the scooter--and they sped off swiftly in the direction of Punaauia on Tahiti's southern coast.
     Where the vahines of Tahiti and French Oceania are concerned, I think that the broad, basic answer is that the truly feminine has an appeal that is universal...there is an element of the novel, the exotic and the pleasingly different in the women of these islands...this difference starts from a different concept of femininity in a cultural tradition which recognizes and accepts the natural differences of the sexes.


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