Friday, 12 July 2013

Bougainville's experience of reaching Tahiti

We know from my earlier blogs that explorer Bougainville had seen a performance of a work by Metastasio (and similarly we know that Metastasio’s libretto was used by Haydn for the opera L’isola Disabitata) and that after Bougainville published his travel journals and probably influenced Metastasio, Bougainville’s experiences helped confirm Tahiti’s position in the world. I can now tell you that according to THE GREAT NAVIGATORS OF THE 18TH CENTURY authored by Jules Verne, Bougainville was in Rio Janeiro in June 1767 when he became aware of Metastasio’s work. I quote ‘Well received by the Count of Acunha, Viceroy of Brazil, the French had opportunities of seeing the comedies of Metastasio given at the opera by a Mulatto troupe’. Then Bougainville sailed on to Tahiti. On the 4th April 1768, ‘at sunrise the vessel reached Tahiti, a long island consisting of two peninsulas, united by a tongue of land no more than a mile in width. More than 100 pirogues hastened to surround their two vessels. They were laden with cocoa-nuts and many delicious fruits which were readily exchanged for all sorts of trifles. When night fell, the shore was illuminated by a thousand fires, to which the crew responded by throwing rockets. "The appearance of this shore," says Bougainville, "raised like an amphitheatre, offered a most attractive picture. Although the mountains are high, the land nowhere shows its nakedness, being covered with wood. We could scarcely credit our sight, when we perceived a peak, covered with trees, which rose above the level of the mountains in the southern portion of the island. It appeared only thirty fathoms in diameter, and decreased in size at its summit. At a distance it might have been taken for an immense pyramid, adorned with foliage by a clever decorator. The least elevated portions of the country are intersected by fields and groves. And the entire length of the coast, upon the shore below the higher level, is a stretch of low land, unbroken and covered by plantations. There, amid the bananas, cocoa-nut and other fruit-trees we saw the huts of the natives." The whole of the morrow was spent in barter. The natives, in addition to fruits, offered fowls, pigeons, fishing instruments, working implements, stuffs, and shells, for which they asked nails and earrings. Upon the morning of the 6th, after three days devoted to tacking about and reconnoitring the coast in search of a roadstead, Bougainville decided to cast anchor in the bay he had seen the first day of his arrival. "The number of pirogues round our vessels," he says, "was so great, that we had immense trouble in making way through the crowd and noise. All approached crying, 'Tayo,' friend, and offering a thousand marks of friendship. The pirogues were full of women, who might vie with most Europeans in pleasant features, and who certainly excelled them in beauty of form." Bougainville's cook managed to escape, in spite of all prohibitions, and gained the shore. But he had no sooner landed, than he was surrounded by a vast crowd, who entirely undressed him to investigate his body. Not knowing what they were going to do with him, he thought himself lost, when the natives restored his clothes, and conducted him to the vessel more dead than alive. Bougainville wished to reprimand him, but the poor fellow assured him, that however he might threaten him, he could never equal the terrors of his visit on shore. As soon as the ship could heave to, Bougainville landed with some of his officers to reconnoitre the watering-place. An enormous crowd immediately surrounded him, and examined him with great curiosity, all the time crying "Tayo! Tayo!" One of the natives received them in his house, and served them with fruits, grilled fish, and water. As they regained the shore, a native of fine appearance, lying under a tree, offered them a share of the shade. "We accepted it," says Bougainville, "and the man at once bent towards us, and in a gentle way, sung, to the sound of a flute which another Indian blew with his nose, a song which was no doubt anacreontic. It was a charming scene, worthy of the pencil of Boucher. Four natives came with great confidence to sup and sleep on board. We had the flute, bassoon, and violin played for them, and treated them to fireworks composed of rockets and serpents. This display excited both surprise and fear."

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