SOJOURN IN THE MARQUESAS
Falling In Love with Hiva Oa
Theo fell in love with Hiva Oa, as Gauguin had done, and found a thatched hut he rented for a few francs and decided to remain for a month or two. Lucas was not keen on the idea and remained in the Chinese hotel but Theo did encourage him to meet people and interview them for his ethnological material for the museum.
Lucas could certainly find material to write about in these remote Marquesas. The island was ripe with characters that were more than willing to bare their souls. The Marquesas served as a penal colony to which exiles were sent from all the surrounding islands and from some as far away as Tahiti. The prisoners could take employment during the day, if they could find work, but at night they were required to return to their cells. Theo made friends with everyone, including prisoners, and in particular the gendarmes.
When he learned the local gendarmes had confiscated the island distillery, he made it a point to reach out to them. He obviously had his reasons. He convinced them he was an expert at making spirits, a long family tradition, and soon he was producing rum for them to drink for their own parties, parties that Theo organized. It was, of course, raw rum, un-aged and so powerful Theo remembered years later that a drop spilled on the floor could eat through the wood, even iron wood floors. They all loved it.
Theo had working for him one of the most infamous prisoners on the islands, Johnny Hamoi from Samoa. Anyone will tell you the Samoans are the meanest Polynesians in the South Pacific. They thrive on punching one another out. One afternoon when Theo went off to paint, Johnny got into the rum supply that Theo and the gendarmes were hoarding for their Saturday night party. When Theo returned from an afternoon of painting in the hills, he found Johnny had gone wild and chopped up the house with a coconut knife. Fortunately by then he had drunk himself into a stupor and the gendarmes were able to carry him back to prison. It took four men to do it, such was the size of the man.
Theo had painted a dozen good canvases during his lengthy sojourn on Hiva Oa and decided it was time to leave, but not forever. He had made up his mind that he would return one day. Marquesas was to his liking, but Switzerland was calling and he had to fulfill his obligation and return with sixty canvases. He was but half way around the world with still a long way to go. He felt the Good Lord was on his side when one day a sailing yacht arrived at Atuona Bay. It was on its way to Tahiti and the captain had berths aboard for him and Lucas. The yacht was truly a godsend for he and Lucas might have had to wait months for another ship to arrive.
Theo was at the dock in Hiva Oa, with his easel and canvases packed, waiting for the longboat, when an old man, the gardener for a Catholic mission, approached him. The man explained he was cleaning up the graves and had in his possession Paul Gauguin’s tombstone. Did Theo want to buy it? Theo, of course, wanted to see it. The old man led him to a rickety horse-drawn cart, and there wrapped in sacks was the tombstone. It was roughly cut and bore the artist’s name and the date he died. Theo recognized it at once.
“But I can’t buy this,” Theo said.
“Then I will have to dump it into the sea. The mission has ordered a new one, and this is of no use.”
Theo thought for a moment. “How much do you want?” he finally asked.
“How much do you have?”
“I only have five hundred francs with me.”
“Four hundred francs then will do,” the gardener said.
“But I would only have one hundred francs left. You can’t do that,” Theo pleaded.
“Then you cannot have the stone of the great one.”
Theo had been in the islands long enough to know it was useless to argue logically with an islander and he paid the old man four hundred francs. The crew helped Theo load the tombstone aboard yacht and lash it securely on the foredeck. That afternoon they set sail for Tahiti.
The yacht was an American vessel, Coquette, making its maiden voyage in the Pacific, bound for Tahiti. True, the captain agreed to give passage but once they set sail they wondered if they had made the right decision. “The captain was more at home with a rum bottle than with a compass,” Theo noted in his journal. ”At any rate,” he wrote, “we had a much longer, and a much more dangerous look at the beautiful reef-infested Tuamotu islands than we had bargained for.” Luckily they got through the low-lying atolls, some only a few feet above water, without mishap. Theo vowed that one day he would come back and see them properly, and not be in a rush. Lucas listened and smiled.
Once they were at sea Theo began to feel badly about buying the tombstone. The stone did not belong to him. It belonged to everyone, to the world in general. When they arrived in Papeete, he decided he would donate the tombstone to the museum. He felt much better after making the decision.