Tahiti and the Search for Paradise
For days the ship had been tossed by the Pacific. In the sweltering sun, the seamen were tirelessly repeating the same monotonous routine and were no doubt sick of the sour wine, the fetid water, and the rotten food. Suddenly, a cry cut the air: “Land! Land three quarters to port bow!” Far off in the distance, the shadowy peak of an island could be seen. A few hours later, no doubt remained—an island was in sight.
SINCE its sighting by Europeans, Tahiti has been synonymous with the word “paradise.” The 18th-century French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who led the expedition described at the outset, later wrote: “I thought I was transported into the garden of Eden.” Two centuries later Tahiti continues to draw visitors. Like their predecessors, many come in search of paradise.
Why, though, is man so fascinated by the dream of paradise? And how did Tahiti come to be viewed as the embodiment of that dream? In answer, let us go back to the beginning of man’s existence.
It is with good reason that the word “paradise” resonates within us. Quite simply, we were made to live in Paradise! According to the Bible, our first parents were blessed by God with a home described as a “paradise”—a beautiful park, or garden. (Genesis 2:8, footnote) This park evidently occupied a portion of the region called Eden, which means “Pleasure.” Although modern scholars tend to view Eden as a myth, the Bible presents it as a historical reality, giving geographic clues as to its original location. (Genesis 2:10-14) Two geographic markers—the rivers Pishon and Gihon—can no longer be identified. So the garden’s exact location remains a mystery.
Our first parents rebelled against God and lost Paradise for all of us. (Genesis 3:1-23) Nevertheless, man has been unable to erase the desire for paradise from his heart. Echoes of the Bible account have even appeared in the mythology of many lands. The Greeks, for example, developed the myth of a Golden Age—an ideal time when humankind lived an easy, peaceful life.
Many have tried to find the long-lost Eden. Some sought Eden in Ethiopia—unsuccessfully, of course. Legend even held that a sixth-century cleric named Brendan found paradise on an island in the southwest Atlantic. Other legends claimed that paradise lay hidden on a high mountain. Frustrated with the contradictions of these legends, the famous explorer Christopher Columbus lamented: “I have not found neither have I ever read a text from the Latin or the Greek that for a certainty stated in which corner of the world the earthly paradise can be found.” Eventually, he became convinced that it was located somewhere south of the equator.
After his third trip to the New World, Columbus said: “It seems that this land is the earthly paradise, for it complies with the description of the saints and the scholarly theologians that I have mentioned.” The New World, however, did not prove to be the paradise Columbus imagined.
Nevertheless, some scholars were undeterred. Instead of promoting a return to Eden, they pioneered the concept of a future, man-made paradise. Writers began spinning tales of “perfect” societies—a welcome contrast to the corrupt societies in which they lived. None of these fanciful schemes, however, were truly Edenlike. Rather than imagining a life of freedom in a boundless park, these visionaries dreamed of a highly organized urban paradise. In the 16th century, for example, British statesman Sir Thomas More related an imaginary trip to a land he called Utopia. This word means “nowhere.”
Subsequent writers built on More’s ideas by adding a few of their own. “Utopias” were imagined by dozens of European writers during the following centuries. Again, these imaginary “ideal” societies were anything but gardens of pleasure. The Utopias tried to organize happiness by enforcing rigid order. But in doing so, they stifled originality and human freedom. Nevertheless, as history professor Henri Baudet observed, dreams of Utopian societies revealed a “never-slackening desire for a better life . . . and a more righteous society.”
Tahiti—Birth of a Legend
In the 18th century, the unexplored South Seas offered explorers one last chance to find an undiscovered paradise. But when Bougainville set sail toward the Pacific in December 1766, his motives were primarily to explore, conquer new colonies, and open new markets.
After months of seafaring, Bougainville came upon Tahiti. He had been unable to drop anchor at the other islands that he had seen because of their coral reefs. Tahiti offered safe harbor. There the worn-out crew found a welcoming people and abundant supplies. For those seamen, reality seemed to surpass fiction. Not only was Tahiti a tropical paradise but it also had many features that resembled the fictional Utopias.
For one thing, Tahiti was an island community, just like the Utopian lands portrayed in fiction. Furthermore, it truly had a paradiselike appearance. Hundreds of fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls punctuated luxuriant, breathtaking landscapes. Lush tropical vegetation grew seemingly without human toil. Tahiti’s idyllic beauty was enhanced by its healthful climate and lack of typical tropical dangers. There were no snakes, dangerous insects, or active volcanoes on this island.
Then, there were the Tahitians themselves—tall, handsome, and healthy. The toothless seamen, their gums swollen from scurvy, were impressed by the Tahitians’ white teeth. The inhabitants also had a cheerful disposition; they quickly won over the sailors with their hospitality. It also appeared, at least at first glance, that all Tahitians were equal—one of the basics of Utopian literature. Poverty was unknown. Tahitians lived without sexual restrictions. Indeed, the sailors indulged in immoral relations with some of the comely Tahitian women.
Yes, to Bougainville and his crew, Tahiti seemed to be Eden regained. Bougainville thus left the island, eager to tell the world about the paradise he had found. When he completed his three-year trip around the world, he published an account of his adventures. A best-seller, the book gave birth to the myth that the exotic island was perfect in every way. Paradise had been lost, but it seemed that Tahiti was paradise now!
The Dangers of a Myth
Myths, however, often clash with reality. For one thing, Tahitians suffered illnesses and died the same as everyone else. Far from all being equal, they lived in a strict, and sometimes despotic, social hierarchy. They waged tribal wars and offered human sacrifices. Like people in general, not every Tahitian was strikingly beautiful or handsome. And historian K. R. Howe believes that the women Bougainville’s men had encountered were likely “ordered to prostitute themselves” so as to put the invaders at ease.
Still, the myth of “paradise found” grew. Writers and artists, such as the French painter Paul Gauguin, flocked there. Gauguin’s colorful portrayal of life in Tahiti helped increase the island’s popularity. With what consequences for Tahiti? The myth reduced the island and its inhabitants to stereotypes. Upon their return home, visitors to the island would routinely be asked, “Tell us about your adventures with the Tahitian girls.”
Paradise—A Lost Hope?
In recent years Tahiti has faced other challenges. Cyclones buffeted the island in the early 1980’s, damaging its coral reefs. But the greatest threats have come from man himself. Construction projects have resulted in soil erosion and pollution. Says Donna Leong, an expert on waste management: “The tourist industry generates huge amounts of waste products. . . . If pollution of their environment is not taken care of, Tahiti and the other islands will not be the land of lush flora and fauna and crystal blue lagoons.”
Nevertheless, the hope of a restored paradise is far from dead. Why, Jesus Christ himself promised a repentant wrongdoer: “You will be with me in Paradise”! (Luke 23:43) Jesus was not referring to some rigid Utopia, as portrayed in fiction, but to a global paradise, overseen by a heavenly government. * The more than 1,700 Witnesses of Jehovah in Tahiti put their hope in this future Paradise. They volunteer their time to share that hope with their neighbors. For while beautiful Tahiti has many paradisaic features, it pales in comparison with the global Paradise God will soon usher in. The search for this Paradise is not in vain.
^ par. 24 For further information on God’s promises of Paradise, see the book Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Tahiti appeared to be an idyllic paradise
Painting by William Hodges, 1766
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA/Photo: Bridgeman Art Library
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Friendly Tahitians welcomed Bougainville with hospitality
By permission of the National Library of Australia NK 5066
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Jehovah’s Witnesses delight in telling their neighbors about the Paradise that is to come
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Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
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Page 18: Canoeists, waterfall, and background: Photos courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme