Ruining a South Sea Paradise to Flavor Soft Drinks

by Armstrong Sperry

The Literary Digest, Vol. 89, No. 6, #1881, May 8, 1926, pp. 58-62



Note from the Webweaver: This article is apparently drawn from an article published in the New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, March 28, 1926, of which I only have a fragment of tattered newspaper. The first part, describing the Bora Bora he knew in 1920-1921, may or may not have been part of that article.


BEFORE it was ruined -- by prosperity -- Bora Bora was as nice a little paradise as you could find in the Pacific Ocean (and everybody knows that the Pacific laps more paradises than any other ocean on this planet). Moreover if Prohibition in the United States had not created a tremendous demand for the vanilla bean, for the flavoring of soda-fountain drinks, Bora Bora would still be a paradise, and as poor as a church mouse. How delightful it was in its days of poverty, and innocence, is dwelt upon by Armstrong Sperry, who tells us that he "happened upon Bora Bora for the first time as you happen occasionally upon a friend.:" He and the little isle "took to each other from the first," for it was his "ideal of all that a South Sea Island ought to be." Enlarging on its perfections in the New York Herald Tribune he explains:

It could be circled on foot in a day; two terrific mountains, vine-hung and cloud-crowned, rose straight out of the sea to miraculous heights; three sleepy little villages snuggled along the shore, and life was a long, uneventful dream of laziness. One day melted into another without so much change as comes from morning melting into afternoon.

No tourist had ever prest his profane foot on its hospitable shore, for the simple reason that Bora Bora could be reached only after days of torture on a leaky schooner no larger than an old shoe. The comfort-loving white man was an unknown as a snowdrift.

Grass huts lay tucked among the trees like so many haystacks, as much a part of the general scheme of things as the brilliant green vines that clambered in such profusion to the tops of the mountains. The disfiguring galvanized iron roof was to be found only on stores of the practical Chinamen, who relied upon it to catch rain water. The natives were incredibly poor, in our worldly sense. Money there was none. A man's entire wardrobe consisted of a yard of cotton print twisted tightly about his waist. Outrigger canoes lay drawn up on the beach like long, slim fish, giving the impression that at any moment they might return to their own element. A single road led completely around the island. It was excellent enough as a footpath, and there were but three or four vehicles of any sort, and those the two-wheeled carts of the Chinese.

Brown imp-children sported on the shore as naked as the day they were born, splashing in the warm surf, playing on the sun-gold sand, perfect little bronzes of children, who made you realize why the ancient Greeks worshiped mere physical beauty and forgot its higher forms. At night, regular as sunset, boys and girls gathered beneath the shadowy flamboyant trees to dance their riotous dances. There was a little plaza there where several native celebrities had been buried, but the youngsters danced among the tombstones with charming unconcern. Happy, full-throated laughter came from the shadows, for it Bora Bora love walked naked and unashamed.

Those months on that care-free island will always seem like another existence, as, indeed, they were. Stevenson says somewhere, "the first love, the first sunset, and the first South Sea Island touch a virginity of sense and are memories apart." It was a hard place to leave, to return to the humdrum workaday world of America.

"I knew, of course, that I would go back one day," continues Mr. Sperry. "Lovania, the most famous woman of the South Seas, said, smell once the scent of the tiare Tahiti and you will return from the ends of the earth! Five years later I returned. I had caught the fragrance of the 'tiare Tahiti.' Lovania was right." But what had happened during his absence? This is the story:

I had written my old friend that I was coming, champing at the bit in Tahiti, until I should once more set foot upon Bora Bora. How wonderful that little harbor looked as we rounded the rocky headlands in the treacherous Jeanne d'Arc. A crowd gathered on shore, and I scanned it anxiously for a glimpse of my friends. As we drew nearer I saw many smiling, familiar faces and the air quickened with calls of "E Sperry iti e! Ua hoi mai oe!" (You have come back to us!)

But looking beyond the smiling faces to the wharf I saw a strange sight a group of automobiles. Seven-passenger motors on Bora Bora! A motorcycle lay near by. A whitewashed barn of a house proclaimed in large letters CINEMA, while lurid posters of Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin showed me that Hollywood had invaded even this retreat. There were the young bloods drest like tropical Valentinos and girls coifed à la Negri. Neat wooden bungalows with galvanized-iron roofs perched like roosted chickens on the hillside. The brazen blare of a phonograph came from the distance, and I recognized the strains of "You gotta love your momma every night" . . .

It was the bitterest moment of my life. Gone was the old Bora Bora, the dream-like land of other years. In seeking to repeat an experience, I had lost a possession. What had brought about this change? What had transformed the naked, golden sun-gods and their Junos into a hybrid race drest as a glass of fashion, riding in automobiles?

The answer lay in the lowly vanilla bean, boosted by the faraway Volstead Law, thus:

Prohibition in America resulted, among other things, in an increased demand for soft drinks and soda-fountain concoctions. Vanilla is a favorite and necessary extract. Much of the supply came from various islands of the Pacific, notably those of the Society Group. About this time a blight struck the vanilla of most of the eastern island lying under the equator. Bora Bora alone was spared.

The price of vanilla jumped overnight from three francs a kilo to one hundred! The islanders awoke one morning to find themselves in much the same position as the man who sees an oil geyser gushing a fortune over his front lawn. They were all millionaires.

And just as a child with a new fifty-cent piece will spend it all on a chocolate éclair orgy, so these nouveaux riches of the South Seas ordered automobiles, phonographs, sewing machines, built a motion-picture palace and California bungalows, and drest like Peacock Alley.

It was a startling transformation to have taken place in five short years, and life for the next few weeks moved by in a dream of unreality. I could not reconcile the incongruity of what I saw with what I had known before. Gone were the days of simple pleasures. Who would want to go fishing on the reef when one might buy a case of sardines at the Chinese store? Who would drink the juice of a coconut when rum might be had for the asking? The "lid was off" in Bora Bora. Formerly, not so much as a glass of beer could be bought on its sandy shore, but now champagne flowed like the proverbial water. Everyone was gloriously drunk from early dawn till dewy eve. My return was the signal for many celebrations. Never will I forget the dinner given in my honor. There were baked beans made and canned by Mr. Heinz; there were frankfurters from Germany, and sardines from Marseilles; spaghetti from Italy and maple syrup from Vermont. Crême de menthe was served in water tumblers, and champagne was followed by cognac and crême de cacao. How unlike the dinner given on a similar occasion in former years, when we had eaten great steaks of raw tuna fish smothered in a sauce made from lime juice and sea water!

Never will I forget my friend Mautaua as he sat that night at the head of the groaning board, dressed in a black frock coat and starched shirt front, sweltering in the tropic night, gloriously happy in his European finery; nor Tapeta, his mountainous wife, seated opposite in salmon satin trimmed with bands of fur. Fur in Bora Bora! Even the children had changed. Each one owned his own bicycle and smoke Lucky Strikes. They discust the respective merits of Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, where formerly they had debated the relative virtues of pearl fishhooks and metal ones.

Every hour of the day and night automobiles plied back and forth up and down the ten good miles of road on the island, their occupants drest to the last minute, gazing neither to the right noir left, decorated from stem to stern, machines and humans alike, with flowers. There were, of course, the ubiquitous Fords, old Maxwells, a Cadillac or two and several Hudsons, as well as a few nondescript pieces of machinery held together by bits of wire and string.

On the beach I noticed a number of good-looking machines rusting into decay. When I asked the reason for this, the answer astounded me. No one on the island had the slightest idea of machinery. When an automobile ran out of oil, or broke one of its vital parts, no one could fix it, so it was abandoned and lay on the beach until disintegration set in. They were of use only as long as they ran.

Having lost his last illusion, Mr. Sperry decided to leave on a schooner due within a few days. He broke the news to his friend Mautaua, who proposed a big feast in his honor "beans, spaghetti, sardines."

"No, Mautaua," I interrupted; "if you would like to please me you will give me a feast such as we enjoyed in the old days; porpoise steak and squid and wild pig baked underground in the 'umu.' I can eat sausages in the white man's country."

Mautaua's face fell for a moment. Wild pig meant a journey into the mountains. Porpoise meant a day upon the sea. There would be no "movies" or automobile rides. But he was, after all, still a Polynesian, and a friend's wish was law.

"E pae," he assented. "We will go up into the mountains to-morrow at daybreak and track the wild boar from his lair, you and I and Mapu and Tautu. We will have an old-time 'tamaaraa.' No 'popaa' food in cans, no crême de menthe! The women shall chew kava root and pour on the water and make us a drink fit for warriors."

Mautaua was as good as his word, and early the next morning the party of four climbed Hit, hills with machetes and war clubs, eyes and ears sharpened for trace of the wild pigs that overran the mountains. We read on:

It was hard, grilling work, toiling up those precipitous trails, rails, hacking oar way through the almost impenetrable jungle, torn by thorns, slipping over damp rocks covered with centipedes. But the reward came in the end. We were on a high, narrow defile in the mountains. On one side of us the wall of rock reared precipitously toward the sky; on the other hand the earth dropt from beneath our feet into a bottomless chasm. It was like looking over into infinity, and I moved hastily back against the overhanging wall of the cliff.

Mautaua was in the lead, a machete and a war-club in hand, and I followed close behind. The two native boys drew up in the rear. Our trail led up to a high plateau, where the wild pigs were said to reside in great numbers. As we turned a sharp bend of the trail, Mautaua drew back with an exclamation of surprize. Looking over his shoulder I saw, not twenty yards away, two wild pigs, noses to the ground, tusks gleaming viciously. They had heard us first, and had stopt for a second to speculate upon this unprecedented invasion of their territory. The next second they were at us. I could see their wicked little blood-shot eyes and tusks flecked with foam.

Mautaua braced himself, war-club in hand. He met the first animal with a beautifully timed blow that fell with a thud between its eyes. The great pig crumpled up and fell over the cliff. The second not far behind, and this one Mautaua chose to kill with his knife. He turned to smile as if he were enjoying himself hugely, and the next second, with a skill inherited from a thousand savage ancestors, the knife-blade was brought into action, so beautifully poised and timed that, the boar had impaled himself to the bloody hilt. Mautaua's muscled arms seized him, to prevent a similar disappearance over the cliff, and his voice sent up a great cry of victory, a paean of praise to the old gods of the mountain

The boar was slung on a "purao" pole, and that afternoon, just at sunset, we made our triumphant return to the village. My schooner had arrived during our absence. I would leave at daybreak and no time was lost in preparation for the feast.

The women and children had made ready the "umus," the ovens, while we were away. Fish had been caught. Great bowls of kava were waiting for consumption. Guitars had been restrung and accordions dusted off.

The pig was cleaned in the river. The umu was filled with red-hot stones, upon which our animal, wrapt in succulent leaves, was laid and covered with strips of sugar-cane. Then the whole was covered with more leaves and the oven was sealed with earth. Four hours later it was removed, and an odor more appetizing than any other tilled the air. It was midnight. The whole village had congregated for the feast, each one bringing a contribution of his own. There were quantities of food, things I had never seen. The island had been combed for fruits; the sea had yielded up of its many edibles; kava flowed freely, and shouts, of riotous merriment filled the night air.

Gone were the remembered mannerisms of Hollywood; cast off the clothes of Europe! Accordions wheezed, guitars tinkled; happy, open-throated voices of Polynesians, none so stirring, filled the air. For to-night they were Tahitian again. Mautaua threw himself into the hulahula, and Tapeta, she of the salmon satin, danced opposite -- matching gesture for gesture. Five years dropt away as if by magic, and once more I found myself in the happy breadfruit-groves of Bora Bora.

A conch-shell was blowing in the distance. The eastern sky was streaked with light. schooner would be sailing soon. I sprang into the center of the performers, essayed a spirited "upaupa," then, under cover of the general excitement, made my way to the wharf. I wanted to leave them before they resumed their civilized manners.

Regret and collapse of the vanilla-bean boom mingle regretfully in the forecast of Mr. Sperry as he gathers his memories about him, throws a reproachful glance at civilization and its soda fountains, heaves a sigh and pens this mournful envoi:

An hour later, huddled on the fore-deck of the Jeanne d'Arc, I looked shore-ward for the last time. I would never return. The joyous shouts of the revelers filled the night air and came clearly across the lagoon, growing fainter and fainter until, at last, they were drowned in the roar of the pounding surf.

Already the value of vanilla is decreasing. New crops have been planted in all the other islands. The market will be flooded. The Bora Bora millionaires will find themselves as poor as of old.

But they won't mind very much. They will be a bit sick after their chocolate-eclair debauch. The automobiles will bleach their bones on the sand; phonographs will rust and break; the "movie" house will fall into decay, and the natives will return to the ways of their ancestors.

But they will never again be the unspoiled children of old. The desire to be seen in fine clothes, to outdo their neighbors and surpass their friends, has entered into their blood. Civilization has left its mark on them.

The Snake has entered the Garden.

Eden has fallen.


© The Estate of Armstrong Sperry



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