Thursday, 10 April 2014

Obama and I are heading to Japan. I’m paying.

Dearest Refugees,

It’s only reasonable. I’m going to acquire experience and knowledge for my new book, Samurai Road. He’s going to have dinner at the Imperial Palace. I’ve requested an invitation but, so far, only vast void infinite.
For the next two weeks, while I travel the Land of the Rising Sun, there will be no blogging. When I return there will be no more posted excerpts of Stories of the Southern Sea. Your refuge in my Pacific ponderings can continue, but it is only fair, since you’ve obviously enjoyed so much of it so far, that you take the plunge, and pay for the rest of the narratives.

(It’s the price of a fancy coffee. Swallow. For those of you who are still too poor or too frugal, you can dial in to chapters of Westwood Lake Chronicles over on Wattpad).
When I relight the blogfires, my plan is to serialize Orion’s Cartwheels, the first book of my five-year hitchhiking trip around the world. And then Wagon Days, the search for Old West authenticity, which I hope to finish and release by mid-summer. Get comfortable. Wish me luck. Support your sages.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Birdman 10

The fleshy Polynesian lady with the pink skirt, yellow shirt, old boots and floppy hat, looked subjugated and sad, like the indigenous mixed blood and bloodied of Chiloé. The Chileans had treated them the same way. Their cara-cara hawks, circling overhead, were hunting Polynesian rats with the same mainland metaphorical madness.
In 1888, as Alex Salmon and Robert Louis Stevenson were converging on the Tuamotus, as the paramount chief was being poisoned in Valaparíso, and when enough other Polynesians had been extinguished by the epidemics, the Chileans annexed Easter Island. The naval officer responsible, Policarpo Toro, who had also been a second lieutenant in the British Navy, had the main street of Hanga Roa named in his honor. The Rapanui couldn’t miss it, as they were confined within the town by a wall constructed by the Compañía Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua, a subsidiary of the Scottish Williamson-Balfour Company, which had rented the rest of the island as a sheep farm, until the Navy took it back in 1953. They didn’t let the locals out of their gulag until 1960. In the next decade the Rapanui were granted citizenship and, when Pinochet came to power, forbidden to speak their own language.
Two years after Robyn and I arrived, members of the Hitorangi family would occupy the Hanga Roa Eco Village and Spa, a hotel bought from the Pinochet government, in violation of the ancestral ownership of the land. They created a standoff. The titular owner, industrialist Christoph Schiess, of the powerful holding company Empresas Transoceania, had close ties with the former billionaire businessman, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. Schiess, whose name translates as ‘shooter’ in German, and whose father was a German soldier on the Russian front in WWII, would provide the two shuttle buses for the 50 heavily-armed carabineros, Chile’s uniformed police, who would burst into the hotel on an early Sunday morning, six months after the Hitos had occupied the US$800 per night resort. The national motto of Chile is ‘Por la razon o la fuerza.’ By reason or force. The violent actions of the carbineros, on the families and children inside, and in the bloody brutal raids and point blank pellets that came later, would leave little doubt of their loyalty to the mantra.
But that hadn’t happened yet, and the Rapanui and their invaders were still enjoying a measure of entente, when Robyn and I took a last wander around the back lanes of Hanga Roa. We had attended many Sunday church services in other parts of the Pacific, and were usually enraptured by the tight choral singing, that flowed in honeyed harmonies out of Polynesian parishioners. The sound that came out of the rounded mouths and off the outstretched hands of the these worshippers, however, was more tentative, didn’t quite fill the space, and had an oom-pa-pa beat, like the Teutonic martial music of a Latin American army. Heyerdahl’s theory of the direction of corpulent colonization had turned out to be correct. He was just off by a few hundred years.
A mother and daughter rode by on a horse, with a blanket where the saddle would have been, each with a hibiscus behind an ear. A bunch of ripe bananas hung off to our side. They smiled and waved.
Edith had allowed us to hang out at the empty Taura'a, to wait for our flight, on our last afternoon in a deserted Hanga Roa. She and Bill, and everyone else, had left to prepare for their New Year’s Eve party, at their new place in the country. Whatever country that might have been. Robyn and I sat in the open patio, surrounded by hanging bunches of bananas. We played Scrabble until Bill returned, in a hurry to take us out to the airfield. His parting words were not quite profound. “Invest in commercial real estate.” He said.
We lay on the ground beside the runway, in front of a volcanic wall, hand decorated with images of goggle-eye birdmen. The size and power of the Boeing 767 that came out of the sky shook us back into our own time. Halfway up the airstairs, Robyn and I turned to look behind.  We were leaving an island of half as many people as wild horses, the descendents of 36 dead voices who had survived the most intrepid collective ocean journey in human history, ecological disaster and famine, civil war and epidemics, and slave raids and violent imperialism. We found our seats and looked out at the angry clouds of a brooding storm... At this time, make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Also make sure your seat belt is correctly fastened.
Lightning flashed outside. There was thunder. Flight attendants, Cabin Crew, doors on automatic, cross-check and report. We began to roll.
It was then I heard the music, reverberating from our overhead speakers. Wild wild horses couldn’t drag me away...
Like the Rapanui, Rolling Stones...If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask one of our crewmembers. We wish you all an enjoyable flight.
Scary, swirling images, then silence.

                    “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to
                      remake the world- that is the myth of the atomic age- as in being able
                      to remake ourselves.”
                                                                                               Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, 7 April 2014

Birdman 9

But even in paradise, there are no Jews without Nazis. In 1947, sixty years after Alexander Salmon arrived in the Tuamotu archipelago, a quarter century before the French mushroom clouds would appear on its horizon, a balsa raft named Kon-tiki washed up on Raroia. It had covered over 5000 miles in 101 days, and its navigator-adventurer would capture the imagination of every kid of the next generation, including mine. Thor Heyerdahl grew up with a collection of snakes in his house, as did I. He set off to prove it was possible to travel long distances with the most primitive of resources, as did I. He had three wives, but this didn’t necessarily make me an underachiever.
Heyerdahl saw the stonework and totara reed islands in the lakes on Rapa Nui and had come to the conclusion that Easter Island had been settled by pre-Incan South Americans. It wasn’t that hard to make a connection. I had stood beside the 14-cornered stone in Cusco, which would resonate wildly in my head, with my first glimpse of the seamless basalt constructions on the island. You can’t slip a piece of paper between the stones.
“One thing is for certain.” He said. “This was not the work of a canoe load of Polynesian wood carvers.”
He considered the moai were ‘characteristic of the pre-Inca period of northwestern South America,’ similar to monolithic structures in Tiahuanaco, and he rocked their replicas back and forth like refrigerators, in an attempt to prove how simple it had been to move them. Heyerdahl asserted that the stone architecture was hardly found elsewhere in Polynesia, and that the picks used to carve the volcanic rock, the huts built like reed boats, the reed boats themselves, the bottle gourds, the sweet potatoes, and the practice of elongating ear lobes with heavy earrings, could all be traced to pre-Inca South America indigenes. His theories coincided with native myths. Ancient Rapanui folklore told of the island being initially settled by a divine king, Machaa, who ‘steered in the direction of the setting sun,’ to find the island. These Hanua Eepe “Corpulent People’ (later mistranslated as the ‘Long Ears’) began to sculpt the moai, presumably to honour their first deceased ancestor. The myth continues with the arrival of the Hanau Momoko ‘Thin People’ (later mistranslated as the ‘Short Ears’), overwhelming the Long Ears at the Battle of Poike Ditch, and then toppling their statues.
Heyerdahl was charismatic. He had lived and made his own romantic sagas, and a series of best-selling books of his exploits and deductions. In 1989, with the publication of Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, he was surfing tides that would carry him way beyond where they had taken his raft.
But, even as I was eating up the novel excitement that his voyage generated, I felt that there was something too facile and shallow and patronizingly comic book about Thor’s theorem. He seemed to be looking down the noses of the moai, at his own analytical superiority. In 1968 a Chilean-American cooperative effort, the Rapa Nui Archeological Survey, began to unravel Heyerdahl’s hack detective version of Easter Island settlement, mapping and measuring 19,000 items, including 3224 house foundations, 2536 earth ovens, 886 moai, and 240 ahu. These were more similar to stone altars in the rest of Polynesia, than to the ruins of Tiahuanaco. In 1976, anthropologist Ben Finney, sailed a traditional Polynesian double hulled canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. By contrast, the South American Indians had no history of long distance sea voyages. Heyerdahl had postulated that the pre-Incans had brought the reeds with them, but pollen analysis showed that the reeds on Easter Island had been growing there for 28,000 years. DNA had sunk the Kon Tiki.
Heyerdahl’s thinking was hyperdiffusionistic. Instead of searching for evidence that diffusion had taken place, he spent his life ‘testing’ whether the requisite sea travel could have taken place in antiquity. He had no conception of convergent cultural evolution, of the possibility of independent invention. He may have been a Norwegian national icon, and a ‘hero for the atomic age,’ but he was also a man with a great many honorary doctorates, but no university degree. Sailing had come before the science.
In 1938 Heyerdahl had sent a Marquesan skull to Professor Hans Günther, one of the leading ‘racial scientist’ ideologues in Nazi Germany, with a note, effusive about the ‘character-solid German race.’ In a letter to his mother, he had praised ‘the firmness of the German character after having had so much to do with France... shifty, uninformed, selfish, immoral and rude in all senses except phrases and words.’ Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Birdman 8

             “A myth is the name of a terrible lie told by a smelly little brown person
               to a man in a white suit with a pair of binoculars.”
                                                                                                David Antin

And the Myth of the Birdman Cult gave way underneath them all.
The hardships that the Rapanui had brought upon themselves, were about to be dwarfed by the shipfuls of sorrow the rest of the world was about to unload on them. Rongeveen’s men had shot a dozen locals stone cold, before he even hit the beach. Whalers brought smallpox and leprosy and tuberculosis and venereal disease, and blackbirders plundered and kidnapped the survivors. In 1804, the American ship Nancy abducted 12 men and 10 women as slaves to work in Mas Afuera, in the Juan Fernández Islands, where our first story began. The Polynesians jumped ship after 3 days, drowning in the direction of home. In 1822, an American whaler skipper seized a group of girls, and threw them overboard next day. One of the officers shot one, for sport. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck. Violent abductions continued for months, capturing around 1,500 men and women, half the island’s population. They carried off paramount chief Kaimakoi, together with his son and all those who knew how to read and write the Rongorongo script, to Peru’s guano islands. When the blackbirders were finally forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped, they disembarked carriers of smallpox together with a few survivors on each of the islands, unleashing devastating epidemics all the way to the Marquesas. Easter Island’s population was reduced to the point where the dead were not even buried.
By 1900 there were only 214 inhabitants on the island, 84 of them children. The missionaries took care of them, and what remained of their collective memory. In the end it was disease and enslavement, genocide not ecocide, which caused the physical demise and cultural ruination of the Rapanui.
But the forests of 21 tree species, including the largest palms in the world at the time, Alphitonia zizypoides, and Elaeocarpus rarotongensis, that had grown 50 feet and more, were still gone, replaced by introduced weeds and grassland and erosion. Carpetbaggers and missionaries would buy up the ‘newly available lands of the deceased,’ exile even more of the Rapanui, and turn the island into a sheep ranch.
The worst of these was Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, a French artillery officer in the Crimean War, who abandoned his wife and young son in France, and was subsequently arrested in Peru for arms dealing. By the time he arrived on Easter Island in 1868, he had amassed huge gambling debts, and burnt his boat to the waterline. A year later he kidnapped Koreto, the wife of a Rapanui, and married her. With rifles, a cannon, and some hut burning, he and his supporters managed to acquire all the land, apart from what the missionaries had around Hanga Roa, and ran the island as its ‘governor,’ appointing Koreto as Queen. By the time that Dutrou-Bournier had moved his natives to Tahiti to work on the plantations, and the missionaries had evacuated theirs to the Gambiers, to prevent him from recruiting even more, in less than a decade there were just over a hundred, or around 3 per cent, of the original Polynesians left alive, mostly older men. In 1876, the megalomaniac murderer himself was murdered, in an argument over a dress, or perhaps for his other habit of abducting pubescent girls.
The man who would take over Dutrou-Bornier’s kingdom was more benevolent. Alexander Ariipaea Vehiaitipare Salmon Jr. was the son of an English Jewish merchant, Alexander Soloman, and a Pōmare dynasty Tahitian princess, Oehau. While one of his sisters was becoming Queen of Tahiti, another had married a Scottish merchant named John Brander. Alex inherited his father’s business interests, co-owned with Brander as the Maison Brander copra and coconut oil plantations in Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Cook Islands, one of which would acquire the sheep station on Easter Island.
In October 1878, he set off with twenty Tahitian workers, and a number of Rapanui whose indentures had expired, to manage the wool exports. He introduced the coconut, developed a tourist industry, and encouraged the manufacture of Rapanui artworks, including imitation rongorongo tablets, which he helped them sell to passing ships for good prices. Alex also sent three genuine Rongorongo inscriptions to his niece’s husband, Heinrich August Schlubach, the German consul of Valparaíso, which are now kept in Vienna and Berlin.
When the British and German and American archeological expeditions came to the island in 1882 and 1886, Alex provided his services as a guide, translator, and hotelier. As owner of nearly all the island, and the sole source of employment, Alex was its de facto ruler, a fact not lost on Dr. Cooke, the surgeon of the USS Mohican.

               ‘Mr Salmon, who is guide, philosopher, and friend to these people,
                unites in his person (and being a giant in stature, he can well contain
                them) the duties of referee, arbiter, judge. They entertain the greatest
                respect for him; evince the utmost affection; look up to him as their
                master; go to him with all their troubles; refer to him all their disputes
                and grievances. His word is law, and his decisions final and

Salmon was one of the few honest men that had ever set foot on Rapa Nui, with a sincere interest in the welfare of the people. He worked to repatriate Rapanui workers from the inherited copra plantations in the Society Islands. Under his patronage, the population and culture started to recover, albeit with a Tahitian influence so strong, that the language spoken by the surviving natives would be more intelligible in today’s Pape'ete market, than to any of the ariki nobles on Hotu Matu'a’s first expedition to the island.
Alex sold his holdings to the Chilean government on January 2, 1888 and signed as a witness to the cession of the island. His return to Tahiti was scarred by his arrest and imprisonment for assault and battery, resulting in his departure for the remote Tuamotus, where the original double-hulled canoes had left for Rapa Nui. Here he collected oral histories, at the very same time and place that Robert Louis Stevenson was inventing his own account of In the South Seas.