Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Great World Beyond

Arrival of the steamship Marama at Papeete, 1915

“In Tahiti the sea was very near and meant much. One felt towards it as must the mountaineer who lives in the shadow of the Matterhorn. It was always part of one’s thoughts, for all men and things came and went by it,
and the great world lay beyond it.”

Frederick O’Brien “Mystic Isles of the South Seas.” 1921

It is almost impossible for us in the 21st century to imagine the utter isolation of a South Sea island a century or more ago. Until a telegraph station was established in Papeete at the start of World War I, Tahiti’s only contact with the rest of the world was by sea. There were no planes, no phones, no Skype, no emails, no cable, no wireless. All communication with the outside world came and went by ship – the monthly mail steamer from San Francisco and Wellington or passing naval ships, commercial schooners, or private yachts.
So the arrival of a ship of any kind was a huge event in Tahiti. The whole population of Papeete would flock to the quay, and the girls wore their best peignoirs and put on shoes and stockings to greet the new arrivals. Foreign visitors and returning locals alike were cheered and garlanded as they came down the gangplank. And as the crowd gradually dispersed from the quay, many hurried to the Post Office to await the opening of the great sacks of mail that the ship had carried to Tahiti from across the seas.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the most important job on the island was that of the keeper of the semaphore.

On a hill a few hundred feet behind the town there was a small house surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. From this viewpoint could be seen the tops of the masts of the ships in the harbour, the gray and red roofs of houses masked by the foliage below, the red spire of the Catholic Cathedral, and further out beyond the reef miles of the Pacific Ocean to the horizon.

View of Papeete harbor and the reef from the semaphore station, 1906
This house was known as the semaphore station. Whenever the keeper of the semaphore, often a retired sailor, spied a ship on the horizon, he would hoist various objects on the tall white pole to let the townsfolk know that a ship was approaching and from which direction. As the vessel came closer, he would hoist other objects to indicate its type (for example, a great white ball for the mail steamers and other symbols for men-of-war, barks, and schooners) and a flag to inform the population of its nationality. All stores and clubs and most private houses on the island had a copy of a guidebook that interpreted these elaborate signals.  

The information conveyed by the semaphore was crucial to every person in the town for the ships that came to Tahiti carried letters from loved ones and money from business partners and all kinds of exotic goods from as far away as London and Paris. The sea was the island’s one and only lifeline, and the semaphore keeper was its messenger, the first herald of the arrival of tidings from the other side of the ocean.

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