Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Black Pearls of Fatu Hiva

     It's not often that an apparently improbable account is confirmed by a unrelated story. Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I am an avid collector of the old Wide World Magazine, in which ordinary people from all over the world described their own adventures. They were supposed to certify that they were "strictly original and true in every detail", and most of them, I believe, were. They don't normally have the clear-cut beginning, middle, and end of fiction. Nevertheless, there was no available method of confirmation, and fiction certainly had occasionally turned up dressed as fact. One of these which sounded too pat to be above suspicion was "The Black Pearls of Fatu-Hivu" by the baronet, Sir Graeme Sinclair-Lockhart in the January 1951 issue (February 1951 in the Australian and New Zealand versions.)
     First of all, one of the wonders of the internet is that it was possible to confirm that the author was not putting on airs; he really was a baronet. Anyhow, his story commenced in August 1928, when he was sitting in a café in Papeete, Tahiti at the end of a disastrous three-year pearling expedition, now pondering whether he should sell his yawl, the Nanette. Just then, a local sidled up to him, took out a small canvas pouch, and asked whether he was interested in pearls - especially black ones. Without waiting for a reply, he opened the pouch, carefully shielding the contents from prying eyes, to reveal two lustrous black pearls.
     As they strolled along the waterfront, he explained himself. His name was Tioti, the son of a French official and a woman of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas, where he had lived for his first fourteen years. For more than ten years now he had been a resident of Tahiti, but on his sole visit to his homeland he had discovered an oyster bed which produced black pearls, and only black pearls. He would give the two pearls he had to Sir Graeme, and reveal their source if he were to take him back to Fatu Hiva. For some reason he refused to disclose, except that it was not criminal in nature, the French authorities would not permit him to return. Sir Graeme suspected that the authorities were planning to confine him in a leper colony. However, for reasons of the sequel, I do not think this was likely.
     The upshot was that he was smuggled aboard the Nanette a few days later when it departed. As they approached Fatu Hivu, Tioti handed him the two pearls and directed him to steer for Taiokai in the north of the island. Much to Sir Graemes's surprise, he told him the black pearl oyster bed was actually in an underground inlet of the sea called Tei Po about a quarter of a mile up the valley. A powerful tapu (taboo) rested on the site, but he was no longer afraid of tapus.
     To cut a long story short, they were welcomed by the villagers in the valley. Tioti acted as interpreter, but since all Polynesian languages are variations on a theme, Sir Graeme was able to note that, whenever Tei Po was mentioned, the chief's friendly attitude changed, and the word, tapu was bandied around. Nevertheless, come the morning, they sneaked out into the dense rainforest of the valley, until Tioti instructed him to put his ear to the rock and listen. Faintly, he heard what sounded like distant music.
    "It is the sea down below," he explained, "When the tide flows the water makes music among the crevices. That is what frightened my forefathers and caused them to make Tei Po tapu."
     Having slipped through a narrow crevice, they found themselves in a volcanic lava tube filled with water illuminated by a faint phosphorescence. Here, Tioti divested himself of his trousers, dived in the water, and brought up twenty bivalves, each the size of a dinner plate. Once back in the open air, they opened them. Number 15 contained a lustrous black pearl. Two dozen of these, he thought, would make him rich for life.
     The fly in the ointment was the reaction of the natives on their return to the village. Sir Graeme was ordered, in no uncertain terms, to leave the village and the island forthwith. As for Tioti, they would deal with him in their own way. Armed natives paddled him back to his ship, where he fretted and fumed. The next day, he resolved, he would return with his own crew, equiped with firearms, and just let them see if they could resist him then!
     But it didn't happen. That night an earthquake struck. A rumbling sound assailed his ears, followed by a  grinding, tearing sound like thunder, while the whole island rocked. Knowing a tsunami was approaching, he and the crew fought to keep the vessel's bow pointed seaward. A towering wall of water rose before them.
     He woke up on the beach, with one of the crew trying to make him drink from his cupped hands. The ship was wedged between two boulders two hundred yards inland, but he and the crew had been thrown clear, albeit with one of them suffering a broken leg. But the village had been completely destroyed by an enormous rock slide, and of the several hundred inhabitants, scarcely twenty had survived.
    From the shattered timber of the Nanette they fashioned a small boat. During the intervening six weeks, however, all his searches for the opening of Tei Po proved fruitless. Nor did he find Tioti, who was assumed to have perished in the catastrophe. But eventually they did manage to sail to Hiva Oa, whence a French trading schooner brought them to Tahiti. In the end, he sold the three black pearls for £1,000 which, in 2015, would be the equivalent of £54,340, and which, at the standard of living at the time, would have taken three times as long to earn. But on two further trips to Fatu Hiva, he was never able to find Tei Po.
     What's wrong with this story? Obviously, the earthquake. Its timing is just too convenient. Earthquakes do occur, but not so frequently that they strike just at the crucial point of an adventure. It is the sort of over-reliance on chance which marks bad fiction. It was a good story, but I reluctantly had to consign it to the fiction-dressed-as-fact basket.
     That is, until I read something which set me scurrying back to the original article: Fatu-Hiva, back to nature, by Thor Heyerdahl. Long before he became famous - in fact, while he was still a youngster - he came up with a really scatter-brained idea: he would forsake civilisation and go "back to nature" to live, some place which the finger of the modern world didn't touch. But first, he managed to find a young woman prepared to marry him and share this idyllic lifestyle. Indeed, he must have been very persuasive, for she was only twenty, and he would have had to obtain the consent of her parents. But in 1936, off they went to the ends of the earth: Fatu Hiva. One must admit, initially they had a whale of a time, but in the end relations with the natives forced their return. In 1938 he wrote a book about their adventures in Norwegian, but the war, not to mention his obscurity, ensured that no translation was made. Then, in 1974, with his fame as the Kon-Tiki man to support him, he rewrote it in English.
     So let's now recapitulate the chronology.
     Sinclair-Lockhart: 1928, published 1951.
     Heyerdahl : 1936-7, published 1974. I do not believe there is any connection between the two.
     Just the same, a major character in Heyerdahl's account is a someone whose claim to fame was that he was a sexton, and the sole Protestant on the island. His name was Tioti. He did not suffer from leprosy - but that was just an assumption by Sinclair-Lockhart. He was also a strong believer in taboos. Perhaps his experience at breaking one had convinced him of their power.
    Chapter 5 relates how the Heyerdahls were taken around the island by Tioti and another man called Fai.
We wanted to explore the coast further northwards, as far as a deserted valley called Taiokai. There we were tempted to look for a legendary underground lake referred to by Fai as Vai-Po, or 'Water-of-the-Night'. No foreigners had hitherto been told of this lake, and only Kapiri and Keakea, two natives from the Hanavave valley, had been inside the cave-opening and seen the water disappear into darkness.
        Vai-Po, of course, could also be translated, "Water-of-the-Underworld", and Tei-Po might simply be Sir Graeme's incorrect memory of it. And it was near Taiokai!
Taiokai was not an attractive valley. It had once been densely inhabited, but a catastrophe had struck the area. The entire mountain ridge above had suddenly come down in an avalanche and covered the valley with all its buildings and people. Everything disappeared under the falling mass of stone. The tidal wave [an old name for a tsunami] that rose from the beach went far across the ocean.
     They did, nevertheless, discover the entrance of a natural cave partly hidden by huge fallen rocks. Inside, they found a "cave of great dimensions", a beautiful white beach, and a broad, still pond on which, somehow or other, they managed to launch their canoe: Vai Po!
     The man, the earthquake, the underground lake! Sir Graeme, I'm sorry I didn't believe you. Sometimes earthquakes do strike at the crucial moment - just like bad fiction.

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