Nuku Hiva: Documentation

Historical accounts of Nuku Hiva contain recurring themes of canibalism and pristine isolation, and continue to influence and challenge the perceptions that outsiders have of the island.  Representative voyage narratives, beginning with Mendaña y Quiros in 1595 and ending with Mary Chipman Lawrence in 1860, provide an understanding of the evolving view of the Marquesas by western explorers. S-233’s port stop in Nuku Hiva provided 38 additional first-hand experiences that both reinforce and refute ideas expressed in historical documents.

Arriving Hakaui

The first European contact in Polynesia occurred in 1595 when the Spanish explorers Alvaro de Medaña and Pedro Quiros anchored at Santa Cristina in the Marquesas.[1] Four ships, filled with Spanish men living in Peru, were sent to form a settlement on San Christobal in the Soloman Islands. Just five days after leaving Peru they came upon a group of islands, which they thought were of the Solomon group. The explorers soon realized, however, that they were not in the Solomon Islands, and thus named the newly discovered group Las Marquesas de Mendoca.[2] The Spanish, however, did not pursue control of the islands, perhaps because of their tense relationship with the Marquesans. King David Kalakaua of Hawaii wrote an account of this visit in 1893, saying that “Mendaña at first found the natives peaceable and cordial in their hospitality to the white man. It was not long, however, before he and his followers had earned the hatred and contempt of the islanders”.[3]

Captains James Cook and Joseph Ingraham were two of the earliest voyagers to visit the Marquesas after Medaña and Quiros. Cook stopped there for a brief five days during his second voyage in 1774 (Cook, 339-344). He and his men mainly traded for food while they were anchored in the southern Marquesas Islands, but relations turned violent when islanders began taking items from the ship. At least one Marquesan man was shot and killed by Cook’s men during their stay (Cook, 340).

The American trader Joseph Ingraham visited the Marquesas during a voyage in 1791. He was the first foreigner to document the discovery of the northern Marquesas Islands, the largest of which is Nuku Hiva. Ingraham, like Cook, only stayed in the Marquesas for about five days, to explore the potential for trade. He stopped first in the southern islands, including Hiva Oa, and wrote brief descriptions of the islanders he saw, including their tattoos, and jewelry of human hair, teeth, and skulls (54). Ingraham did not anchor in the Northern islands, and his only interaction with the people happened when a few canoes came out to his ship, the Hope (59). Ingraham commented on the similarity in language and behavior of Marquesan people and Hawaiians (59).

David Porter, commanding an American naval vessel, voyaged to the Marquesas in 1813, and produced the first narrative that chronicled a prolonged stay in the Marquesas. His Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean was an extremely influential documentation of Nuku Hiva because it is one of the earliest and most extensive descriptions of the islands. The journal documents his journey aboard the frigate Essex from 1812-1814.[4] Porter arrived at Nuku Hiva in 1813, and called it “Madison’s Island,” after the American President.[5] Porter’s journal provides first hand observations of the people of Nuku Hiva, which greatly influenced the opinions of Americans and Europeans who read his accounts. The western view of Marquesan women’s easy sexuality can be partially attributed to Porter’s descriptions of the relationships his crew had with local women.

Porter’s observations regarding the women of the Marquesas are noteworthy both because of their content and tone, and because they are abundant in his journal. He wrote that the women of Nuku Hiva were both attractive and promiscuous and he describes his inability to control the behavior of his men.  "The women were inviting in their appearance, and practiced all the bewitching language of the eyes and features, which is so universally understood.”[6] This suggests that Porter thought the women were aware of how their actions were being perceived by others and that their behavior was intentional. Ultimately, Porter’s observations resulted in an understanding of the women of the Marquesas as extremely sexual beings.

Arriving Hakaui

Porter was surprised to find that the native men did not appear to be bothered by the women’s sexual behavior. After watching the women engage in sexual relations with his men Porter remarked,

it was astonishing to us to see with what indifference fathers, husbands, and brothers would see their daughters, wives, and sisters fly from the embrace of one lover to that of another, and change from man to man as they could find purchasers. Far from seeming to consider it an offence against modesty, they seemed to view it only as an accommodation to strangers, who had claims on their hospitality.[7]

The legacy of Porter’s journal is extensive. Herman Melville read it before writing Typee, his novelized account of the weeks he spent on Nuku Hiva after fleeing the whaling vessel Acushnet.[xi] Typee became extremely popular in England and America, selling more than 20,000 copies by the end of the nineteenth century.[8] Melville’s audience consisted of people who were accustomed to hearing about Marquesans from passing visitors to the islands. However, never before had such an intimate insider’s view been available, and the realities that Melville describes had a somewhat controversial reception in the publishing world.[9]

Some of Typee’s most interesting passages were also the most controversial. Melville compares Marquesan society to western society numerous times during the narrative, giving harsh critiques of the western world. While in the Marquesas, Melville was both an outsider of Marquesan society, because he could not speak their language, and also an outsider of western society because he had deserted his ship and, for a time, the western world. Melville began making comparisons even before he arrived in Typee valley. As he watched the meeting between a Frenchman and a Marquesan chief, he asked himself, “insensible as he is to a thousand wants, and removed from harassing cares, may not the savage be the happier man of the two?”[10]

There are two contradicting stereotypes that are both propagated and diminished in Typee: that of the happy islander, and that of the cannibal Polynesian. Melville’s most poignant example of the “happy islander,” and his most blatant condemnation of white settlers, comes when he asks himself what Marquesans could gain from Civilization. He writes that Civilization "may ‘cultivate the mind’,—may ‘elevate his thoughts,’—these I believe are the established phrases—but will he be happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian Islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question.”[11]  The reader may consequently construe the Marquesas to be a carefree place of happiness, peace, and harmony, without the worries of civilization, but Melville is also being critical of the actions of missionaries and even states, “four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the US as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans dispatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.”[12]

Melville’s passage comparing the Marquesas to Hawai‘i contrasts greatly to Mary Chipman Lawrence’s comparison of the two islands about fifteen years later. Lawrence visited both the Marquesas and Hawai‘i on the whaleship Addison, and found the Marquesas to be “low and degraded” in comparison to Hawai‘i because of the complete lack of missionary influence.[13] Of course, it was popular during this time to look upon native peoples as savage, unsophisticated, and inferior. Furthermore, Lawrence viewed Hawaiians as somewhat civilized, but the Marquesas as savages and even condemned those European men who jumped ship and stayed there. “It is bad enough for a Kanaka that has been brought up among partially civilized people to run away in such a place as this," she wrote, "but that white people and Americans should choose a home among savages and cannibals is surprising”.[14] Melville himself often prefaces his praises of the Typee with ironic statements like, “But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals”.[15] Consistently throughout Typee Melville uses the western perspective of the people as cannibals to introduce the readers to his observations that in fact violate the western bias of Polynesian cannibalism.

Another important voyage narrative is In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson, which documents his experiences living and traveling in the Pacific. Stevenson’s time in the Pacific began in 1888 with a sailing voyage to collect anthropological and historical observations of several different island cultures.[16]  Stevenson arrived at the Marquesas with all the stereotypes then current:  “I knew nothing of my guests beyond the fact that they were cannibals; the Directory (my only guide) was full of timid cautions.”; border-top-width: 1px; border-right-width: 1px; border-bottom-width: 1px; border-left-width: 1px; border-top-style: solid; border-right-style: solid; border-bottom-style: solid; border-left-style: solid; border-top-color: rgb(169, 169, 169); border-right-color: rgb(169, 169, 169); border-bottom-color: rgb(169, 169, 169); border-left-color: rgb(169, 169, 169); padding-left: 18px; background-position: 0% 50%; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat; " title="">[17]  He came to understand the people of Nuku Hiva differently than Porter and Melville had however, separating himself from the dominant oversimplified view of Polynesian life.  He compared the people of the Marquesas to  the “Scots folk of the Highlands and the Islands” (Stevenson 2009, 15).  “These points of similarity between a South Sea people and some of my own folk at home ran much in my head in the islands; and not only inclined me to view my fresh acquaintances with favor, but continually modified my judgment”.[18] Stevenson compared the actions of Marquesans to actions of “equal barbarism” from his own people, and this helped him to relate to Marquesans as a culture.  Comments on the beauty and detached nature of the islands are also prevalent in Stevenson’s observations of the Marquesas.  "The face of the world was of a pre-historic emptiness," he wrote.  "Life appeared to stand stock-still, and the sense of isolation was profound and refreshing”.[19]

Works of art and cultural artifacts provide information not available in texts. Marquesans adzes—like the one given to our ship in Taiohae—are some of the most iconic objects from the Marquesas. The adze that was given to us by Fara, a local carver was an example of Polynesian generosity, and a symbol of the cultural and societal change that has happened throughout Polynesia. The adze is a testament to cultural change because its historical use of hollowing out logs for canoes is no longer a viable practice in the Marquesas. Many cultural objects are no longer functional, and are now simply an art form. 

S-233’s visit to Nuku Hiva allowed us to understand the island in ways beyond the descriptions we read in voyage narratives. We visited two starkly contrasting valleys: Hakaui and Taiohae. We first anchored in Hakaui Bay, from which no signs of human life can be seen. The cliffs are dramatic, and the stands of palm trees are thick. Venturing into the valley, we found that there were several houses along the only road in the valley, and the people who lived there were extremely friendly. They waved to us and offered us boxes of fruits as we returned from our hike. At one of the houses we spoke to an elderly couple who told us that in the old days 5000 Marquesans lived in the Hakaui. Probably 1% of that population exists in the valley today. This rapid population decline was reflected in the ever-present archaeological sites that we passed along our hike into the valley. The valley felt singular and disconnected from anywhere else, but there was obvious evidence that the Hakaui is connected to other parts of the island and the world, especially by the existence of cars and solar panels.

Arriving Hakaui

Taiohae, the second valley we visited, is the most populated valley on Nuku Hiva. There were paved roads, more cars and trucks, more houses, shops, and people. Materially, things were different from Hakaui, but culturally, the people were just as generous. Our most memorable day in Taiohae was one spent at a small canoe club. The owners let us borrow two of their outrigger canoes, and then made us a wonderful impromptu lunch. We were already in awe at the generosity they had showed us, and were overwhelmed when Fara, a carver, presented us with a Marquesan adze (described earlier) that he had carved himself. Kate Kelly, a student on board described Nuku Hiva as, “Amazing. The environment was breathtaking and the people were so wonderfully hospitable that it really seemed like a paradise on earth. It seems like a paradise, but when you look closer and talk to the people you see that they have their own set of struggles”.[20] She also said of the place: “We felt like we were outside of the world. The rest of the world seems insignificant when you are there.” This sentiment was shared by many of us. 

The Marquesas are repeatedly described as “seemingly lost at the end of the earth” on multiple tourism websites.[21] The islands are marketed as a timeless, native place that has not changed since the first European contact.[22] This somewhat troubling view conjures in the mind the picture of a human-less Eden, where people from the “real world” might find repose and solitude. The development of this contemporary view of the Marquesas is the result of over 200 years of documentation by outsiders; the Marquesan perspective is mostly absent, when in fact there are still many people living there who have a collective memory of the turbulant past their families and ancestors had with Western visitors.[23]

The Marquesans have lost their cannibal stereotype in contemporary times, but have also retained stereotypes, including the seemly timeless state of their lives and culture. This can be attributed to the low level of tourism in the Marquesas; the islands’ relative inaccessibility; and the way the French Polynesian tourism industry advertises the Marquesas. Although there are daily flights to both Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa from Tahiti, actually traveling around the Marquesas can be difficult. There are once-weekly flights between Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, and tourist transportation to the smaller islands can only be done via helicopter.[24] The absence of resorts and large hotels also makes tourism in the Marquesas different from most places in the world. This inaccessibility has made it easier for people to continue to claim that the islands remain in their primal state. Other than via helicopter, the only major access tourists have to the six smaller islands is via the Aranui 3, a passenger and cargo ship that operates between Tahiti and the Marquesas.[25] Up to 200 passengers may take a two-week cruise on the Aranui 3, as it stops at each island to unload food and other products onto the islands. In the article Arts, Tourism, and Cultural Revival in the Marquesas Islands, Carol Ivory gives an interesting description of what those tourists see and experience each time they disembark onto one of the islands. They are met with dancers and feasts, and many people selling lei, bowls, and tapa.[26] After meeting this scene on many of the islands, one might come to believe that this is the “traditional” Marquesan way of life, filled with beauty and bounty that does not seem to change from island to island. The reality is, however, that the dances and feast and artisans only put on this “show” the two days per month that the Aranui 3 visits their island. The “traditional” wares that they were selling were actually made specifically for the tourist market, a practice that began in the 1880s in the Marquesas.[27] It is also ironic that the Marquesas are advertised as an untouched civilization, when the Aranui 3 is such a blatant symbol of contemporary times. Like most people in the world, especially most island peoples, Marquesans rely on food and products from thousands of miles away to sustain themselves.  There seems to be a lot of tension between the influence of outsiders and the Marquesan’s traditional way of life. The people there openly shared their culture with us, and hopefully that culture will remain vibrant through changing times.

Alana Bryant, George Washington University
Cloe Bushnell, Colgate University



The Journals of Captain Cook (Penguin Classic Edition: 2000).

Joseph Ingraham. Journal of the Brigantine Hope on a Voyage to the Norwest Coast of North America, 1790-1792, edited by Mark D. Kaplanoff (Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1971),


[1]  D’Alleva, Anne. “Polynesia: Where Sharks Walk on Land,” Arts of the Pacific Islands (New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 95-126.

[2]  Kalakaua, David. "The Marquesas Islands."Californian Illustrated (April 1893), 535-540. 

[3]  Kalakaua.

[4]  Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1815). 

[5]  Porter, 17. 

[6]  Porter,  25. 

[7]  Porter, 30. 

[8]  Porter, 19.

[9]  Porter, 20. 

[10]  Porter, xxii. 

[11]  Melville, Herman. Typee (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), xi. 

[12]  Melville, xxvi. 

[13]  Melville.

[14]  Melville, 29. 

[15]  Melville, 125. 

[16]  Melville, 125. 

[17]  Melville, 125. 

[18]  Lawrence, Mary Chipman. The Captain's Best Mate (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1966), 113. 

[19]  Lawrence, 74. 

[20]  Melville, 125. 

[21]   “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Life”. Robert Louis Stevenson, <> (25 Jan. 2011).

[22]  Ibid.  

[23]  Stevenson, Robert Louis. In the South Seas (Rockville, MD: ArcManor. 2009). 16. 

[24]  Stevenson, 12. 

[25]  Stevenson, 21. 

[26]  Kelly , Kate. Personal Interview by Alana Bryant (09 March 2011).

[27]   "The Marquesas Islands." Tahiti Tourism, <> (24 Jan 2011). 

[28]   Ibid.

[29]   Personal conversation, anonymous local person, Nuku Hiva  (17 Feb 2011).

[30]   "Marquesas Islands: Transportation." Tahiti Tourism, <> (25 Jan 2011). 

[31]   "FAQ." Aranui 3. Campagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime, 2011.  <> (25 Jan 2011).

[32]   Ivory, Carol. Art, Tourism, and Cultural Revival in the Marquesas Islands. 316-333. 

[33]   Ibid.