A DIFFERENT STORY. From the beginning.

  44.     ISLE OF SORROWS

For a long time everything in the tropical isles was truly blessed, but a trifle boring. As years rolled into decades and decades into centuries things changed for the worse. The old lords had brought with them the power of the rod, out of Egypt, which they kept in the massive stone ‘tomb’ bunkers at Nan Madol for safe-keeping. But as time went by the nuclear power of the rod decayed and there was no longer any means of replacing it. Generations of lords came and went until the old knowledge also decayed and there was no one left with a technical understanding. The reality of the rod passed into ritual and ritual into religion. In regional folklore the old ‘lords’ out of Egypt became local Ariki … paramount chiefs descended from the gods, who were endowed with the magical superhuman power of ‘mana’. But time passed and the Chiefs lost the real power derived from the rod, and now relied on the tenuous mystical concept of ‘mana’. The pure-blood monogene lords became fewer and fewer and weakened by inbreeding; while the native peasants became more numerous, stronger and more restive. It was a recipe for the disasters that would follow.

Traditional Polynesian society was strongly hierarchical based on a structure of hereditary pure-bred chiefs, surrounded by a family of lesser aristocrat relatives (kohunas) and the great mass of mere mortals. The hereditary chiefs were believed to be divine sons descended from the gods and derived their position and power from the concept of ‘mana’ … a term which modern linguists identify as thousands of years old and reflecting a once real physical power. Mana was derived from the gods and believed to be strengthened and kept in the family by incestuous marriage, called a Niʻaupiʻo relationship. Just as their distant cousins had in the Middle East where Abraham married his half-sister, then directed his son Isaac to send back to his family in Ur for a spouse; and a generation later Isaac instructed Jacob, ‘thou shall not take a wife from Canaan … but go to the house of thy mother’s father.’ [1] This incestuous practice was common in the close family relationships of Egyptian Pharaohs and persisted to a large degree into modern European royalty.

Mana is perceived now as an ill-defined aura of spiritual power attached especially to a person, or sometimes to a place. But modern linguistic study reveals the word and concept to be thousands of years old and to reflect an origin in physical reality. It was once a real supernatural power, a force of nature like thunder and lightning, which could be used for good or evil. It was an invisible, imperceptible force which early European anthropologists described as a ‘transmissible energy’ with a power of ‘awfulness’ associated with awe or wonder. [2] It was a power especially useful for defeating enemies … originally the strong magic of the rod out of Egypt, emanating the unseen awfulness of radiation.

But the real rod disappeared and the awe of it was replaced by a fear of mere men. Where the old lords initially sought isolation from fallout, now they sought refuge from the depredations of the children of men. The children they had saved from the darkness. The lords had named their main settlement on Pohnpei as Sokehs which translates as ‘bring no more people’; but now their mana had faded and the barbarians were at the gates. Ironically, the lords had named the gateway to the stone storage bunkers of Nan Madol as Nan Mwoluhsei, meaning, ‘the voyage ends here’, But now faced with increased population in Pohnpei and the external threat of Polynesian expansionism, the lords determined once again to seek refuge in isolation further east in the remotest outposts of the south Pacific. Like Aeneas long before, the lords sailed eastward across the great ocean, seeking refuge from the rising tide of new civilisation. They sailed far to the southeast, island hopping across the South Pacific leaving behind characteristic footprints for posterity.

First stop was the island of Kosrae (or Kusaie), the most eastern of the Carolinas group; where they built a few stone bunker ‘tombs’ in the style of Nan Madol, and left behind language closely related to Pohnpeian and folklore of unusually tall, curly-haired ancestors. But Kosrae was too small and not really isolated enough at only 550 km southeast of Pohnpei.

So they sailed on an impressive 7400 km to the west to Mangareva in what are now called the Gambier Islands, to the south of the Marquesa group in French Polynesia.  There local folklore records the lineage of the chiefs descended from Atu Motua (Father Lord) who were ‘gods’ or semi-divine hero figures, armed with characteristic ‘magic rods’ called Atua-tane, the ‘god of light’ (or lightning). Unfortunately, little record remains of native mythology since French Catholic priests converted the whole population and in 1836 deliberately destroyed most indigenous artefacts and artwork. But even Margareva was not remote enough, still too close to the populated Marquesas to the north.

The final step was a further 2600 km to the southeast to the isolated island of Rapa Nui, now familiarly known as Easter Island, carrying with them the linguistic link of the Mangarevan language which is about 80% similar to the native tongue of Rapa Nui. It was the end of the line … probably the remotest occupied spot on the planet with over 3000 km of empty ocean eastward to the coast of Chile. They gave their final resting place descriptive names of Mata ki te rangi, meaning ‘look to the sky’; and also Te pito o te henua, translated now as the ‘navel or end of the Earth’. They had reached ‘the end’ just as generations before their distant cousins had fled Egypt to the western extremity of Brittany which they named Penn ar Bed (now Finisterre, end-earth), and to the tip of Cornwall named Penn an Wlas (now Land’s End).

On this isolated outpost, the new settlers resolved into two clan groupings of the Ko Tu‘u Aro (Lesser sons) in the southwest and the Hotu Iti (Greater sons) in the east.  Above them were the Miru semi-divine royalty, including the Ariki (firstborn) last purebred lineal descendants of the gods. In sublime isolation they settled down and set about erecting the emblematic stone moia figures as a lasting memorial of their ancestors. They sculpted and erected about 500 statues of ancestors and left nearly another 400 unfinished and unerected, all with similar but subtly individual features. The moai statues are mostly about 5.5 to 7.0 metres tall, but some are larger such as ‘Paro’ which once stood 9.8 m tall and weighed 82 tonnes. The eye sockets are now hooded and dark but were once highlighted in white coral. Enigmatically the rows of statues were erected around the coastline with their backs to the sea.

The ancestor statues stood looking inland as if symbolically they had turned their backs on the world. They gazed inward at Te pito o te henua ‘the navel’, their vestigial, umbilical connection to the old world. And they looked down on another memorial called Te pito kura, consisting of a rough stone circle enclosing a finely sculpted stone sphere of about 75 cm diameter. It was known as the ‘navel’ origin of the magic light of mana. Over thousands of years and through hundreds of generations they retained a memory of the unknowable supernatural energy of mana that originally emanated from a spherical stone. The ineffable light of the gods. Where so many years earlier the Hebrew scribes had written of the Babylonian and Egyptian ‘Great Lights’, here the descendants of the lords called their new land ‘Rapa Nui’, literally the ‘shining big’, the home of Te pito kura … the navel of light.

93

So the last survivors of the ancient lords sought refuge in the remotest corner of the planet and poignantly turned their backs on the world … ironically a world that they had largely created. They had risked their own lives to save mankind from darkness and had distributed their genes amongst the daughters of men. But now they abandoned all hope.

The last of the lords settled Rapa Nui somewhere in the range of 600-1200 AD and the clans were to survive a competitive and somewhat austere existence for nearly another 1000 years with the population peaking at around 10,000. But ultimately even the extreme isolation was not enough to save them from contact with European civilisation and the sad tale of woes that would follow.

The first recorded European contact was by Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen who landed on Sunday April 5, 1722, naming the island Paasch Eyland (Easter Island) in honour of the day.  Ironically it was the commemoration of Easter for the new Christian god Jesus who died and on the third day rose again into heaven, just as had Osiris, son of the sun, thousands of years before. Mynheer Roggeveen estimated there were about 2-3000 inhabitants, of whom his men shot about a dozen after a ‘misunderstanding’. He recorded meeting a mixed population led by very tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired men of European appearance. Many were ‘quite white, and others ‘of a reddish tint as if tanned by the sun’. The [paramount] leader was recorded as ‘a completely white man’. [3]

Splendid isolation resumed for near 50 years until November 1770 when the island was again visited by European explorers in two Spanish ships commanded by Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez. He likewise recorded meeting with fair-skinned, red-haired individuals, of whom two were specifically measured at 6ft 6 ½ and 6ft 5 inches tall. Gonzalez’s men managed not to shoot anyone but afflicted the natives with the erection of a Christian cross and requiring all to recite the Ave Maria (Hail Mary) …  which apparently they did quite well. The Spaniards declared that the natives were quite intelligent and congratulated themselves on bringing them to civilisation.

Another exchange might have taken place but went unrecorded. The Spaniards asked the Rapa Nui if there was anything they feared. To which the islanders replied … we have an ancient inherited fear that the sky might fall on us and destroy us, which is why we retain the old name Mata ki te rangi, meaning ‘keep a lookout to the sky’.   But now what we fear most is the children of men who are unknowing, hostile and warlike and might rise up against us.  That is why we have sought refuge so far away at land’s end.

The noble Ariki  chiefs have all gone now, and only a few physical traces of their heritage survive.

Senior Ariki carried a kouhau ‘royal staff’, which in a late example held in Santiago, was little more than a short stout stick with a carved knob at one end. But in folklore it was recognised as the supreme symbol of royal authority, once a weapon expressing the full magic of mana. It was a faded relic of the ‘rod’ of the Egyptian and Hebrew lords, the weapon that Moses referred to as ‘the rod of our fathers’ with which he conquered Canaan.

The ‘Santiago Staff’ is only a poor relic of a once-powerful rod, but the source of its royal ‘mana‘ power was preserved in the spherical stone of Te Pito Kura  (the navel of light) … and also symbolically in the royal regalia of the Ariki chiefs which included a distinctive spherical polished stone ‘Talisman’ … a possessing powers of ‘magic’. Just as the royal heads of Europe were crowned bearing their ‘orb of power’, so the Chiefs of RapaNui derived their magic mana from a spherical stone.

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93a. The polished stone ‘Talisman’ of magic mana of Ariki chiefs. (Hanga Roa Museum, 2019)

The Ariki chiefs also attempted to preserve their heritage in finely inscribed hieroglyphic writing on various wooden objects now known as rongorongo … which remain poorly understood. The knowledge was only ever known to a few Ariki.  There were once hundreds of such items but they were burned at the direction of French Catholic friar Eugene Eyraud who claimed they were required as firewood. Only about 25 examples remain, scattered around various world museum collections.

The well-documented encounters of Roggeveen and Gonzalez went unremarked in orthodox history. They were studiously ignored for posing the inconvenient question … how was it in the furthest, untouched, uncultured and uncivilised corner of Polynesia, they met with very tall white men of unquestionably European appearance?  Contrariwise, Roggeveen and Gonzalez ought to feature prominently in human history for perhaps one of the most important and poignant meetings of all time. They had stood on the distant shore of Rapa Nui and, unwittingly, met with the last lineal descendants of Aeneas of Troy. The last of the mighty men of old.

Alas, the greatest fear of the chiefs of Rapa Nui was apparently realised in the few short years between the visits of Gonzalez in 1770 and Englishman James Cook in 1774 (who would become noted for ‘discovery’ of Aotearoa, New Zealand). Cook visited only briefly for a few days and was fairly unimpressed, reporting a poor anchorage, no fish, little water, scarce food, and a bleak treeless landscape. The natives were hospitable but rather scared of muskets, perhaps after their experience with Roggeveen.

Significantly, Cook recorded a population of only several hundred, who were entirely, characteristically Polynesian with the appearance and language of the Tahitians and New Zealand Maori. Cook described [all] the natives as typically ‘yellowish-brown’ Polynesian with no mention at all of any tall ‘Europeans’, present or past. Tellingly there were evident signs of local unrest with a few damaged canoes on the shore, deliberately toppled moai statues, and a skeleton lying unburied on a moai platform. Altogether Cook made a major production of overly detailing how typically Polynesian the natives were. He protesteth too much! It was almost as if he wanted to find that the natives were Polynesian, only Polynesian. And his reports were not even first-hand since he was ill and didn’t venture away from the landing spot. Rather he relied on second-hand reports from what he again over-stated as his ‘most trusted’ colleagues. So European Christian orthodoxy was restored … after the disconcerting heterodox reports of Roggeveen and Gonzalez, there was now a trustworthy British report that the natives were thoroughly Polynesian after all.

In the fifty odd years from Roggeveen in 1722 to Cook in 1774 the total population apparently declined from a few thousand to just several hundred, and in the brief four years between Gonzalez to Cook the ‘tall leaders of European-appearance’ disappeared altogether.  There had been an internal conflict in which, modern archaeological research suggests,  the many so-called Hanau epe ‘stout’ [short] people prevailed over the few Hanau momoko ‘long’ [tall] people. Heyerdahl’s investigations in 1955-56 confirmed a very strong native tradition that the island had been settled by two distinct races which he characterised as the Hanau momoko (short-ears) and Hanau eepe (long-ears). The ‘long’ people were called oho-tea … ‘the light haired’ white people, many with red hair. There was a decisive battle in which the many ‘short’ people defeated the few ‘long’ people, down to the last man. [4] The last of the lords were destroyed, not by the gods but by mere men.

But much worse was to follow. In the succeeding 100 odd years the Rapa Nui were subjected to a sorry tale of European contact. A trail of more explorers, followed by whalers, missionaries, slavers, and land-grabbers bearing the usual benefits of civilisation … blankets, bullets, Bibles and disease. Especially disease; smallpox and tuberculosis. In 1862 the island was raided by Peruvian slavers and about half the population was forcibly removed into slavery, including the last ariki who died in slavery in Peru. The first missionary, French Catholic friar Eugene Eyraud, arrived in 1864 carrying with him tuberculosis … which later spread and in 1867 killed about a quarter of the remaining population, including Manu Rangi the young son of the last Ariki … the very last member of the royal family. He was doubly doomed … his mind lost to Christianity and his body to tuberculosis.  By 1868 the entire remaining population was sadly converted to Roman Catholicism.

Then another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bournier, after a dubious career arms trading in Peru, arrived on Rapa Nui with the ambition of ‘cleansing’ the native population and establishing a sheep station … in which he succeeded on both counts. Except for the mission site he acquired the whole island and turned it into a sheep farm. In 1871 the missionaries and their faithful evacuated to French Polynesia and by 1878 there remained only 111 native people on Rapa Nui, mostly old men, of whom only 36 had dependants. [5] The population and their heritage were lost.

Where there were once hundreds of wooden rongorongo bearing hieroglyphic writing, now only a few examples remained. When a new discovery was made in 1868 enquiries were made of an elder as to what they meant and why they were apparently neglected. To which the parish priest Eugene Eyraud replied, disingenuously, that they were only ever understood by a few Ariki … of whom the last had been killed by the Peruvian slavers. Since the rongorongo were now of no consequence they had been used as firewood.

After little more than 100 years of European contact everything was gone; the people and their heritage actively destroyed by civilisation. Only a few moai statues of the ancestors remained standing.

From behind his inscrutable gaze Aeneas looked down and wept for his people.

[1] Numbers, 36; Genesis, 24,28

[2] Blust, R. A. 2007. “Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited”. Oceanic Linguistics. 46 (2)

Codrington, 1891. The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folk-lore

Tylor, E. B, 2010.  Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom.

[3] Heyerdahl, Aku-aku, (from records of the Roggeveen and Gonzalez visits to Easter Is in Vol xiii of the Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1908)

[4] Heyerdahl, Aku-aku, The secret of Easter Island.

[5]  Fischer, 2005. Island at the end of the World – The Turbulent History of Easter Island.    Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island

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