How about a cemetery tour of Tahiti?

Think you've seen all of Tahiti? You'll not want to miss a cemetery tour from Allegra Marshall

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First a backgrounder:

Allegra Marshall is of French/ Australian background and has been living part time in French Polynesia for over 40 years. Wanting to visit the remote islands before they were to be “discovered” by tourists, she went on local cargo ships with her mountain bike in the early 1990s. This was a most unusual way to get around! Travelling alone, Allegra found that doors opened and families would start discussing their lives and backgrounds. They were generally more than willing to share their family anecdotes and stories (both good and bad) with someone who had no vested interest and who they may never see again. Many had at least one ancestor who came from outside their Polynesian island and group.

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Around 2014 Allegra met a French historian who was particularly interested in the headstones of the oldest section of the Uranie cemetery (commenced in 1843). These certainly stood out from the rest. They had clearly been commissioned and carved elsewhere.

Allegra at the Uranie Cemetery. Photo credit: Philippe Guesdon ©

On closer observation, Allegra noted that these particular headstones were clearly anglo-saxon only with the names of stonemasons from New Zealand inscribed on the bottom front /back.

The Uranie Cemetery, situated on the outskirts of Papeete in Tipaeuri, is Tahiti’s oldest and most interesting cemetery. It was named after the French war corvette the URANIE – which was sent to ensure French Polynesia would fall under French rule (and not English). The Uranie, 54.5 metres long, armed with 60 canons, arrived in Tahiti after a 6 month journey from Toulon, France on 4 November 1843 with around 650 naval crew. The land on which the cemetery stands was the base/camp of the troops that arrived under the command of Governor Bruat, commander of the Uranie with Captain Bonnard at the helm. The Uranie would go and claim one island after another as French Territory over around a 4 year period. Queen Pomare was exiled to Raiatea where she was forced to sign over the islands to France.

Source of map: https://genealogietahiti.home.blog/2020/11/23/u-comme-uranie/

The first people to be buried at the Uranie were naval officers and various Tahitians. They were buried in unmarked graves with no headstones. One of the first headstones with an inscription,  dating from 1855 is of Dr Francis Johnstone (1802-1855), Queen Pomare’s surgeon.  Johnstone was Scottish and had arrived in Tahiti around 1836. He was also an amateur botanist – the first to understand the value of using plants for medicine. He was much admired by the Tahitians in particular who had been using “Ra’au Tahiti” or plant medicine for centuries. Unfortunately he died before being able to publish his book. Hearsay is that he was buried with his future botanical manuscript – for it to be never discovered, or its secrets again!

A few, Like Alexander Salmon, a rich Jewish businessman from England (married into the royal family to eventually acquire land and become a very important person) received into their homes dignitaries and other key people. Some lived beyond their means (like Scotsman, William Stewart – who established the cotton plantation at Atimaono on the southwestern part of the main island of Tahiti in 1864). Bankrupt after 10 years, William Stewart was known for importing Chinese labour (both legal and illegal).  Some of these Chinese decided to remain in Tahiti – for whatever reasons they chose. Since then, the Chinese have become an integral part of the Polynesian culture. They even have their own cemetery at Pirae (even though there are Chinese buried in most cemeteries in all the islands). The Chinese, known for their hard work and perseverance, have remained in major businesses in all types of industry – from bakeries to banks, from commerce/importation to tourism. Many of their headstone inscriptions are in their maternal language and Hakka (the Chinese dialect still spoken in French Polynesia to this day).

Uranie Cemetery, level 1. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

Anglo-saxons who travelled to remote parts of the Pacific area were generally whalers from the East Coast of the United States, Gold prospectors in search of further challenges after the goldrushes in California had been exhausted, and people who were looking to escape their homelands (for whatever reason). Many Irish, Scottish and English also settled in French Polynesia and stayed. They married locals and generally had large descendances. Many never returned to their homelands. Some ventured elsewhere after many years here. Explorers, missionaries, artists, authors, photographers, beachcombers, vagabonds, sailors, blackbirders – mostly men and a few very adventurous women – arrived to adapt to the local ways and integrated themselves into the local society in all of the 5 archipelagos of French Polynesia (Society Islands, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Australs & Gambiers).

Aside from Anglo Saxons arriving in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there were of course many French and some German, Scandinavians, East Europeans, South Americans, Asians and a variety of people from all over the world.

Many of these people left lasting legacies in terms of descendants and can be found in cemeteries scattered around all of the islands. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons are often all buried together in the cemeteries (unlike many countries where they are grouped together).

Mahina Communal Cemetery. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

A feature of more contemporary headstones are photos of the deceased (usually when they were younger) and their respective nicknames.

French Polynesia’s former President Edward Fritch has American ancestry! (first elected 12 September 2014 and then re-elected 18 May 2018). His paternal great grandfather, Edward Hewlett Fritch, was born in San Francisco on 11 September 1859 (he died in Tahiti on 18 December 1909). Ex-President Fritch’s grandfather (born in Tahiti) died in Boston. Allegra can show you some of these graves in Tahiti

The 1st November of each year, All Saints Day, is a major event in the local cultural and sociological program. The families commence cleaning and preparing their relative’s graves and headstones up to a month ahead of the key date. This is generally done with white sand (brought from the atolls specifically for this occasion) and white paint. The headstones are occasionally re-inscribed with black paint. Flowers, generally from respective family gardens, are brought the day before the 1st November. On the actual day, the families reunite at dusk with small candles, chants and stories.   It is the most special day of the year. Allegra visits 3 of her favourite cemeteries to reconnect with the families she helps and knows each year.

Arue General Cemetery. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

Cemeteries are a fantastic way to learn about a country’s history. Important information is often inscribed on the headstones. In some cases this information is inscribed in the mother tongue (ie the Leontieff family’s headstone is in Russian). 

Allegra brings together her deep knowledge and passion for the history of this part of the world and an enthusiasm and dedication beyond words. Having researched many of the key families for close to 10 years, enables Allegra to tie in stories across multiple families and different parts of the world.

Arue General Cemetery. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

Allegra’s knowledge of travel in the Pacific area, particularly the shipping routes (generally San Francisco to Sydney via Hawaii, French Polynesia, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand) means the stories are in context of the period – which makes it even more fascinating listening. However Allegra has also researched the routes from Europe via the US as well, so can also explain how this worked.

Allegra can explain death rituals across the centuries and why cemeteries are a relatively recent occurrence in Polynesia. Allegra’s larger project is to write stories of certain people who established themselves in Polynesia and who had interesting and varied lives and experiences. In the meantime, Allegra is helping locals find their ancestor’s last resting places and encourages them to restore them to their former glory.

The Polynesia language was oral and not all was transcribed or documented. By visiting the cemeteries on Tahiti and Moorea, Allegra has been able to reunite many families – both locally and internationally – and also to contribute to a number of family history books.

Come and join Allegra on your visit to Tahiti for an insight into the history of this remote part of the world! There is definitely more than beaches for you to see and experience! Since Allegra is not in Polynesia all year, take the opportunity when she is there to book a tour with her.

Uranie Cemetery, level 1. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

Tours are held on demand and on certain days at 2:30 pm (or at a time that suits both parties). The meeting spot is the car park of the Uranie Cemetery at 215pm. The tour lasts around 2 hours. Just bring a hat, a drink and good walking shoes. Refreshments are served after as well as a home-made snack.

For further information and or/ bookings, email Allegra on nati.tupuna@yahoo.com. Tours to other cemeteries and specific graves can also be organised. Book in early to not miss this unique tour to discover the deep, complex and interesting history of French Polynesia. Allegra speaks French, English & Spanish, so she can customise your tour. If you are a group of no more than 3 people, Allegra can pick you up/drop you off at your hotel for a little extra. See you very soon for this unique Polynesian Cultural Visit!!

Uranie Cemetery, level 1. Photo credit Allegra Marshall ©

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