Tahiti’s Very Hidden Heritage

Off the beaten path you'll find treasure in and around Papeete

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Queen Marau's
Queen Marau's "hidden" Bungalow in downtown Papeete. (photo by Rob Kay)
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I’ve been a long time fan of French Polynesia and take a keen interest in its cultural legacy, especially when compared to Hawaii, my home state. On a recent visit to Tahiti a friend suggested we go off the beaten path to take in some “hidden” heritage attractions. (In this case I would say they were practically invisible).

“I bet you’ve never seen what I’m about to show you,” he said. As the author of two travel guides to Tahiti — the original Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit to French Polynesia and Hidden Tahiti, he was surely throwing down the gauntlet.

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Of course, I was interested.

the Royal Cemetery (Cimetiere Royal Pomare) populated by the Pomares, Tahiti’s Royal dynasty
A sign marks the location of the cemetery but you’ll need to walk through a patch of weeds to get to the gate. (Rob Kay photo)

Most of the sites he had in mind were about 15 minutes outside of Papeete, in the Arue district. The other attraction was in the heart of the capital.

First stop, the Royal Pomare Cemetery in Arue

The first leg of our hidden heritage tour was the Royal Cemetery (Cimetiere Royal Pomare) populated by the Pomares, Tahiti’s Royal dynasty.  My friend was correct. I’d never seen this cemetery, which is located only about 5 kilometers from Papeete.

This rusty gate in the entrance to the Pomare Cemetary
The gate is easily accessed–the Ecole Arue1 Ahutoru is in the background. (Rob Kay photo)

There’s a turnoff with plenty of parking so it’s easily accessed. There is signage that marks that spot, but you won’t see it easily from the road. The big landmark nearby is the Ecole Arue1 Ahutoru (school) which is adjacent to the cemetery. (See below).

The Royal Pomare Cemetery has the remains of Kings Pomare I, Pomare II, Pomare III and Queen Pomare IV, as well as their descendants. Each royal tomb is marked by two sacred stones, oriented to the rising sun, which according to the Tahiti Heritage website, “allows the mana to establish a link between the earth and the cosmos.” 

Is this stone structure a marae? I'm not certain.
At the foot of the cemetery (see stone wall) is this marae-like structure. It may be a tomb. (Rob Kay photo)

From the parking lot, you have to walk a few steps, across a patch of grass to get to the entrance of the graveyard which you approach from the right-hand side, coming from the road. There’s a weather-worn gate with no lock so it’s easy to enter.

It’s not the best maintained cemetery which puzzled me. After all, this was Tahiti’s Royal Family.

Kings Pomare I, Pomare II, Pomare III and Queen Pomare IV, as well as their descendants lie here.
In this cemetery are the remains of Kings Pomare I, Pomare II, Pomare III and Queen Pomare IV, as well as their descendants. (Rob Kay photo)

In contrast to Tahiti, Hawaii’s Royal Mausoleum State Monument on Oahu (operated by the State of Hawai’i) which includes members of the Kamehameha and Kalakaua Dynasties, is an impressive and well maintained structure. (A great resource on this attraction is Mauna Ala: Hawaii’s Royal Mausoleum by Don Chapman).

Hawaiians express admiration, if not some nostalgia, for the dynasties of Kamehameha and Kalakaua.

Tahiti obviously has a different history. One commentator speculated that contemporary Tahitians aren’t quite as enamored of their former rulers.

Overview of the cemetery (photo by Rob Kay)

His theory is that the Pomare dynasty never produced a larger-than-life personage such as Kamehameha the First. What’s more, the Tahitians never established a stable, world renowned kingdom like the Hawaiians did. Their last ruler, Pomare V, ceded the land to the French on 29 June 1880 for a stipend, and drunk himself to death.

In the meantime, independence fighters died in an effort to keep out the invaders. Parts of Tahiti archipelago, such as the Island of Huahine, remained independent for several decades.

Be careful crossing this intersection. Bligh tree is at the end of the crosswalk.
The Bligh Breadfruit Tree is at the very end of the crosswalk. Be careful, this crosswalk has no stoplight or stop sign. You enter the monument through the gate, just to the right of the crosswalk. (Rob Kay photo)

Bligh Breadfruit Tree

We next visited the Bligh Breadfruit Tree which is conveniently located across the street from the cemetery. Of course, we’re referring to the iconic Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.

To get there simply take the crosswalk over to the opposite side of the street. It’s a busy thoroughfare with no stop sign or red light so take care. There’s no median either. Fortunately if you need to cross the cars often (but not always) will flash their lights to signal that it’s ok to do so. 

Walk down the gate to a landing of the Bligh Tree monument. At the base of the tree is a plaque and a sculpture.
Walk down the gate to a landing of the Bligh Tree monument. At the base of the tree is a plaque and a sculpture. (Rob Kay photo)

The breadfruit tree is easy to see–it’s just the other side of the crosswalk but there is no signage indicating this historically significant site. I’ve been visiting Tahiti since 1978 and didn’t know this monument even existed!

Once you’ve crossed the street, you’ll see a non-descript, white gate followed by a few steps that descend into a small enclosure, strewn with breadfruit leaves and even branches. Next to the tree is an attractive stone sculpture and a boulder with bronze plaque, with a description in French.

The plaque explains that the breadfruit tree was planted from a shoot from one of the three surviving original trees brought by Bligh to Jamaica. It’s one of these fascinating full circle stories.

The inscription tells the story–in French–of Captain Bligh’s odyssey. (Rob Kay photo)

In 1792 Commander William Bligh of the English Navy came to Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees to transplant in the West Indies. The slaves working the plantations needed to be fed and breadfruit, being both nutritious and easy to grow, was the ticket.

Bligh’s first voyage in 1787 however ended in disaster with the famous mutiny aboard the Bounty. His second voyage to Tahiti (August 1791-Agusut 1793) was successful. Bligh “sourced” his breadfruit trees mostly in Arue and arrived with them in Jamaica by February 1793.

breadfruit from a descendant of a tree gathered by William Bligh
Bonafide breadfruit from a descendant of a tree gathered by William Bligh.(Rob Kay photo)

This tree is a shoot from one of the three surviving originals brought by Bligh to Jamaica, all of which are the progenitors of the breadfruit trees now found in tropical America.

Fast forward 168 years to 1962, and a replica of the original Bounty voyaged to Tahiti and brought this very plant back to its land of origin. It was planted by the National Geographical Society appropriately enough in Arue from where Commander Bligh gathered his plants.

Go behind for old elementary school to see the petroglyphs which are on the boulders at right.
You’ll need to go behind for old elementary school to see the petroglyphs which can be found on the two boulders at right. (Rob Kay photo)

The Petroglyphs

My friend next directed me a few steps from the Bligh Breadfruit Tree, next door, to a dilapidated former elementary school now known as Fare Hotu, which serves as a Red Cross storage depot. He led me through a parking area illustrated with graffiti, to the back of the old school. The concrete foundation of the building spilled into a path that had become a sort of moat filled with a few inches of rainwater. Perhaps 10 feet from this wall was a fence covered with foliage. The ground was carpeted with a luxuriant growth of weeds from which also sprang a withering palm tree.

Near the fence line were two shiny black boulders.

The petroglyphs are associated with Hiro, a Polynesian mythological figure.
The petroglyphs are associated with Hiro, a Polynesian mythological figure. (Rob Kay photo)

My friend waded through the weeds to the boulder closest to us and with the swipe of his hand, brushed the weeds away to expose a petroglyph. On the other boulder was a similar petroglyph.

According to Tahiti Heritage, these petroglyphs are associated with Hiro, the mythical warrior to whom the gods had gifted their power. 

The petroglyphs are clearly worn down by the elements
The petroglyphs are clearly worn down by the elements and should be protected. (Rob Kay photo)

Tahiti Heritage notes: “These symbols had real power. Even today, divine forces emanate from these stones. However, only the pure-hearted and God-appointed people feel their mana (power). In addition, we find that these figures have been taken up in various fields such as tattooing or painting…”

On to the Queen’s Residence

We left Arue and headed to Papeete, to Maison de la Reine Marauas or “Queen Marau’s Old Bungalow” as labeled on Google Maps. Located on Av. du General de Gaulle, equidistant from Boulevard Pomare IV which runs along the waterfront and the Territorial Assembly, it couldn’t be more centrally located.

Surrounded by a high fence, covered with a tarp, the owners don’t seem to be anxious for publicity.

Queen Marau's Bungalow, as seen through the fence
I pulled down the tarp to get this shot of the Queen’s Bungalow. (Rob Kay photo)

Too bad. It’s a marvelous example of 19th century, colonial architecture and with the exception of a church or two, there’s precious little left in Papeete.

In a passage from Tahiti Heritage, Princess Takau, daughter of Queen Marau described the house as follows:

My mother lived in Papeete, in a big wooden house which she had had built, according to her own plans, by a Tahitian carpenter. We had to cover it with corrugated sheets. Pandanus roofs were no longer authorized in Papeete, due to the danger of fire. It’s a shame because these Pandanus leaves kept the interiors cool.

This house, located on the old “Broom road” between the Pomare Palace and the sea, replaced the house built with whitewash and covered with foliage that had long lived in ariimatai (the mother of Queen Marau).

Queen Marau, photograph by Sophia Hoare
Queen Marau, photograph by Sophia Hoare, 1 January 1889 (courtesy Wikipedia)

The house was very spacious, with two wide verandas at its ends, one facing the old palace, the other facing the sea. It was surrounded by warm-colored shrubs, tiare and jasmine plantations. which enveloped him in their sweet perfume. These verandas sheltered you from the reverberation and the heat, so that one lived very little in the rooms. My mother most often stood facing the sea; it was there that she received her close friends, while the large living room with its walls covered with family portraits and furnished with what she had been able to save by buying back some of the palace furniture when it was sold at auction, was only used to receive distinguished visitors. Facing the living room, there was the large dining room in continuation of the veranda, to the right of which was another smaller dining room; open to the garden; on the other side a small veranda which gave access to the garden and through which one entered where my mother most often stood »

Termite damage is evident on this structure.
The old bungalow is clearly beset with termite damage. (Rob Kay photo)

I was able to take a few photos by pulling down the tarp and the building has clearly seen better days. Termite damage is evident from the exterior.

The family has sold the house–they couldn’t afford the upkeep. According to Tahiti Heritage, there have been several attempts over the years to protect this historic house and turn it into a museum. Most recently, a project was undertaken to classify the house at “the commission for natural monuments and sites, but the file remained unanswered, the owners asking for an exorbitant price.”

Several Tahiti residents I spoke to agreed that the home could be into a museum. Much like Iolani Palace in Honolulu, it could become a wonderful attraction.

The jury is still out on that one.

Questions or comments? Contact me at ratufred@gmail.com

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