- Historic Sites
In Search Of Innocence
Henry Adams and John LaFarge in the South Seas
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Everywhere they asked their hosts endless questions about customs, families, and religion, and everywhere they ran into the same stubborn secrecy. Adams became convinced that under the superficial layer of their converted Christianity the Samoans preserved a secret priesthood mightier than the political chiefs, with supernatural powers, invocations, prophecies, charms, and the whole paraphernalia of paganism. The natives never had to kill a missionary. They merely played him off.
On their malangas , or boat excursions, to the smaller islands, the two friends thrust themselves deeper and deeper into the Polynesian mystery. How had the natives ever got there? From east or west? Was Darwin correct about the origin of coral reefs? LaFarge despaired of duplicating the quality of the light, and Adams of catching the true expression of the islands. To John Hay, Adams wrote that it was languor that was not languid, voluptuousness that was not voluptuous, a poem without poetry. At other moments it struck him as simply an impossible stage decoration. Gazing at the natives passing his cottage in their blue or red or yellow waistcloths, their bronzed skins aglow in the sun against the surf line of the coral reef, he wrote Anna Lodge that he expected to see a prima donna in green garlands and a girdle of ti leaves emerge from the next hut to invoke the cuttlefish or the shark with a Wagnerian chorus of native maidens.
But in the end reality surpassed all such images. Perhaps Adams’ most vivid memory would be the picnic by the sliding rock where they watched the yellow limbs of the girls who plunged naked into the white foam, like goldfish in a blue-green pool. LaFarge said that had they stayed much longer they would have plunged in after them. LaFarge, alone, might have.
Before leaving Samoa, they became fairly intimate with Robert Louis Stevenson, who had moved there with his wife and mother, in the last round of his gallant but desperate struggle with tuberculosis. Stevenson’s letter to a friend in England about their first visit caused much hilarity when the Adams circle got hold of it: “Two Americans called on me yesterday. One, an artist named LaFarge, said he knew you. The name of the other I do not recall.”
Stevenson was immediately congenial with LaFarge, but he put Adams in mind of a dirty cotton bag over a skeleton. The novelist’s flashing dark eyes, his darting body, his improbable tales, made Adams uneasy. Adams recoiled from physical messiness and may have ascribed what he saw of this quality to Stevenson’s mental processes. In this he was certainly unfair. Adams had turned away from life in wandering to the Polynesian islands; Stevenson was searching for it. He gave all of himself to the Samoan experience; he dug roots, cut trees, and helped with the building of his house at Vailima like a man on the frontier. He entered passionately into the political disputes of the island and fiercely embraced the side of the natives against that of the exploiting colonials. Adams felt that Stevenson could never understand the Samoans because he attributed to them the motivations of boys in the Edinburgh of his own youth. But I wonder if Stevenson’s understanding of boys and of adventure did not put him closer to the Samoans than Adams could ever have been.
After Samoa came the appalling disillusionment of Tahiti. Adams described it as an exquisitely successful cemetery. The atmosphere was one of hopelessness and premature decay. The natives were not the gay, big, animal creatures of Samoa; they were still, silent, sad in expression, and fearfully few in number. The population had been decimated by bacteria brought in by Westerners. Rum was the only amusement which civilization and religion had left the people. The puppet king, Pomare, was to die of a rotten liver shortly after Adams and LaFarge left. Tahiti was a halfway house between Hawaii and Samoa. Adams complained that a “pervasive half-castitude” permeated everything, “a sickly whitey-brown, or dirty-white complexion” that suggested weakness and disease.
He was bored, he insisted, as he had never been bored in the worst wilds of Beacon Street or at the dreariest dinner tables of Belgravia. While waiting for a boat to take them elsewhere, anywhere, he amused himself by returning to his role of historian and interviewing members of the deposed royal family, the Tevas. Next to Mataafa in Samoa, he found the old ex-queen of Tahiti, Hinari, or Grandmother, the most interesting native figure in the Pacific. She showed none of the secrecy of the Samoan chiefs but took a motherly interest in Adams and LaFarge and told them freely, sitting on the floor, all her clan’s oldest legends and traditions. Adams was even adopted into the Teva clan and given the hereditary family name of Taura-atua, with the lands, rights, and privileges attached to it—though these holdings consisted of only a hundred square feet.
But when he came, some years later, to put the history into a book which he had privately printed, it was little more than an interesting failure. Tahiti had no history, in the Western sense of the word, until the arrival of the white man. Of the thousands of years that had preceded Captain Cook, where generation had succeeded generation without distinguishable change, there was nothing left but genealogy and legend. The genealogy, which makes up a large part of Adams’ book, is boring, and as for the legend, he admitted himself that it needed the lighter hand of Stevenson.