2019 Feb: The Cult of the South Pacific

Topic: The Cult of the South Pacific – from Cook to Gaugain
Guest Speaker: Leslie Primo
Photographer: Martin Connelly
Reporter: James Hodgkinson

We were delighted to welcome Leslie again after his enthusiastic lecture at our Introductory Meeting in April 2016. His theme was the enduring Western obsession with the invention of the noble savage. It was in 1767 when explorer Captain Samuel Wallis arrived at the South Pacific Island of Tahiti, followed a year later by Captain Cook. The island was claimed as a British possession. What they found was romanticised by artists such as William Hedges who portrayed sun, sand, palm trees and naked women. Paradise on earth had been found! Other expeditions followed many of which classed themselves as “scientific”, such as that of botanist Joseph Banks. The French found the island and also claimed it for France. Soon boats were arriving from all over to trade with the islanders.

Cook paid three visits to the island bringing ever more artists and scientists. However in 1779 he had a scuffle with islanders and was killed.

Over a century later in 1891 Paul Gauguin left his wife in England and arrived in Tahiti. However he was disappointed as he found that “Paradise” no longer existed. The islanders had converted to Christianity and now wore clothes. Native huts had been replaced by more solid structures. He painted the local people until 1903 when he died. The dream of Paradise was indeed over.

James Hodgkinson