Vait-hua was all savage; whatever bewilderments the missionaries had brought had faded when dwindling population left the isle to its own people. In the minds of my happy companions at the vai puna, modesty had no more to do with clothing than, among us, it had to do with food....
Savage peoples can never understand our philosophy, our complex springs of action. They may ape our manners, wear our ornaments, and seek our company, but their souls remain indifferent. They laugh when we are stolid. They weep when we are unmoved. Their gods and devils are not ours.
-from Chapter VII
In the years prior to World War I, American author FREDERICK O'BRIEN (1869-1932) took a grand tour of the South Pacific, and the trilogy of books he wrote upon his return sparked a new thirst for all things exotic, far-flung, and gloriously "uncivilized."
The first of these volumes, 1919's White Shadows in the South Seas, was a tremendous bestseller in its day, and no wonder. O'Brien romances the people and the culture of the island of Marquesas with this account of the year of drowsy afternoons and nights lit by mysterious moonlight that he spent strolling its sandy shores and basking in its island breezes.
But O'Brien's is no mere travelogue: though he introduces us to beautiful young island girls with names like Vanquished Often and Malicious Gossip and discusses the vagaries of native cuisine and the time-measuring power of cigarettes, he also debates himself about the good and the harm done by Western traders and Christian missionaries and ponders the legacy outside influence will have upon the island.
O'Brien offers a unique perspective on the South Seas cultures of old just as they were disappearing.
OF INTEREST TO: armchair travelers, amateur anthropologists, readers of cross-cultural studies