‘Tahiti Nui’ is a sad song. It’s been going through my head the last few days in Marie Mariterangi’s voice – a sad throaty, Tauamotuan voice, stilled for ever now by cancer. You don’t hear ‘Tahiti Nui’ much anymore in the islands. It’s an old song, a lament that dates back to phosphate mining days on Makatea Island in the Fifties. When you hear Marie wail it, you want to wail it too, even if you don’t understand the words.

In California the shortwave signal doesn’t start to come through clearly for Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand until about 11 p.m. The radio was my Christmas present to myself back in 1982, when I got my first paycheck on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. I found it in South Seas International, the biggish duty-free owned by the Hendersons. She’s a Maori Cook Islander; he’s a Kiwi Cook Islander. If I’d known then what I know now about Maria, I would have campaigned hard to be best friends.

The world’s cameras were suddenly trained on Tahiti at the beginning of last month after the nuclear-bomb test that ended France’s three-year moratorium. Pictures of violence at Tahiti’s international airport at Faa’a and in downtown Papeete were broadcast all over the world. What was missing were interviews with Polynesian Tahitians – or Maohi, to call them by the name they call themselves.

I sat through the two long nights with my shortwave, taking notes and worrying, but knowing, at least, what was happening. One of my heroes, Oscar Temaru, was interviewed at the scene by Radio Australia. An outspoken advocate of sovereignty for the islands of French-occupied Polynesia, Temaru was elected mayor of the district of Faa’a, where Tahiti airport is, in the mid-Eighties. One of his first official acts was to declare Faa’a a nuclear-free zone. I felt sure that he’d end up in a French prison like Pouvanaa a Oopa, Tahiti’s great freedom fighter of the Forties and Fifties.

I was worried that the French had finally got an excuse to lock Temaru up, or worse. Pouvanaa had been falsely accused of trying to burn Papeete to the ground with petrol bombs. It had been nonsense, of course, but the French convicted him and exiled him at the age of 64 to spend eight years in solitary confinement in Baumette prison in France. His health broken, he was pardoned and sent home to die. He didn’t. Instead, frail, wheelchair-bound, Pouvanaa won back his seat in the Territorial Assembly and continued to fight for autonomy for his people and an end to nuclear-weapons testing. He died at 81. Now that Papeete was burning would the French accuse Temaru of masterminding the violence and destruction? His hoarse, weary voice was reassuring. ‘The only way to achieve our struggle is through peaceful means,’ he declared. Denied access to broadcast facilities, he had had to take to the streets. It took him two tries, he said, before he could persuade people to listen.

Demonstrations have almost become a way of life on Tahiti in the last few years, as the Maohi struggle to draw attention to issues like employment, taxation and justice. According to Temaru, this latest demonstration started with a group of hunger-strikers protesting at the resumption of nuclear tests. The group had gone without food for days. They were weak and sat on the ground holding placards. A crowd had grown around them. Gendarmes asked the hunger-strikers to leave. They refused. The gendarmes tear-gassed them. The crowd erupted in rage and became a mob intent on destroying the airport the nuclear industry depended on.

People in the Pacific are increasingly scared of the effect of bomb tests on their food chain. Cancer and leukaemia seem to be on the rise, and nobody seems to be keeping score; or if they are, statistics are suppressed. I wonder if Marie Mariterangi would still be alive but for the nuclear tests.

I interviewed the Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson in 1982 in Paea on the west coast of Tahiti. This was where all the new settlers from France and Europe congregated. It was also where the landless Maohi from the Tuamotus, Marquesas, Australs and Leeward islands who’d migrated to the capital for jobs in the fabulous bomb industry, ended up. Mansions and slums. The French Government stripped Danielsson of his honorary Swedish consul accreditation, a post he’d held for 18 years. ‘The reason given was that I had over the years had an anti-French attitude, as shown, for instance, by our book, Moruroa Mon Amour and by my writing in foreign magazines.’

Danielsson first came to Tahiti as anthropologist with Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki in 1947. According to him, before the tests started in 1966, health statistics were available. ‘They weren’t particularly accurate,’ he recalled, ‘but they were public.’ Since testing began, there have been no more health statistics. He had observed a great increase of cancer, especially thyroid cancer, in French Polynesia since the bomb tests began. ‘There are an enormous number of handicapped children now, too, born armless and mute, good hearing but no sense of balance. Many are very bright children. Some are sent to France and operated on so they can balance.’ Seriously-ill patients who are flown to France for treatment often come home in a box. It’s the same in the Cook Islands, a neighbouring nation, but their cancer and leukaemia patients are flown to New Zealand. If Polynesians simply listed the names and years of the deaths from cancer or leukaemia of every family member and island friend since 1966, what would the list look like? I can name a few: Tom Neale, the hermit from the atoll of Suwarrow, made famous by his book, An Island to Myself; Sir Albert Henry, first premier of the Cook Islands, who was being treated for cancer but died of a heart attack; a woman named Joy I met in the Seventies on my first visit to the Cook Islands who died of breast cancer at the age of 35. Danielsson’s only child died of melanoma at 20. She had grown into a beautiful woman on Tahiti. Would she still be alive were it not for the nuclear tests, 41 of them atmospheric and dirty, which took place 650 miles away?

I first became addicted to the South Sea Islands because they are so beautiful. Sixteen years ago I threw Tahiti over for Rarotonga, 600 miles to the south-east. A shouting match with a sophisticated Tahitian woman drove me away. I insisted on discussing the nuclear tests, a subject none of the members of Tahiti’s tiny Polynesian middle class want mentioned. She ended our argument in a flood of angry tears: ‘People always die. Maybe they die of cancer before the bomb. There are many bad things in the world these days, but the French bread is so nice and we don’t work so hard. We have television! If we got no bomb, we got NOTHING! No money! No cars! N-O-T-H-I-N-G!’

Tahitians, Cook Islanders and New Zealand Maoris are related. The last sea-going wave of the Polynesian migration was from Ra’iatea through Rarotonga to New Zealand. The big difference between the Cook Islands and French Polynesia is political. The Cook Islands achieved self-government from New Zealand in 1965. After the oppressiveness of Tahiti, Rarotonga was like a breath of fresh air. It was gorgeous, too: extinct volcanic spires, their tips lost in drifting mists and clouds; jungle-clad slopes ending in white sandy beaches, great groves of coconut palms, flowers, fruits, music, dance.

I was hired by the Prime Minister, who gave me a job that would have been the stuff of fantasy for half the working world beyond the reefs. My title was Overseas Media Officer. Unfortunately, it was the year the Cook Islands had five changes of government. Few locals were deeply disturbed about French, American or British nuclear-bomb tests in the Pacific, mainly because there was little information available. One young man who became a friend was Wilke Rasmussen, a Penrhyn Islander working in the Government Outer Islands Affairs office. A good student, Wilke had been sent to university in New Zealand. After a couple of frustrating years, he dropped out and went to art school, to the horror of his family. There was no art on Penrhyn then and there is none today, other than canoe-building and hat-making. This is a remote atoll.

Wilke painted blazing abstracts – slashes of colour, violent contrasts. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in the Cook Islands. The focal point of one painting was a mass of gasping, dying fish below a darkening lagoon under a layer of blinding yellow. It was called Penrhyn after the Bomb and reflected a growing concern about the safety of seafood, the mainstay of the Cook Islands diet. He was criticised for painting ugly negative things instead of the beautiful island.

Wilke’s work had some effect on Rarotonga. In 1986, I was there for Constitution Week – a festival which takes place every August in celebration of self-government – just before French spies bombed the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland. A small group had formed which called itself the Cook Islands Nuclear Awareness Group or Cinag. ‘Awareness’ was a polite start. An anti-nuclear float was being constructed for the big parade. The Prime Minister was on one of his frequent overseas junkets, which brought all sorts of mischief-makers out of the bush to put together an array of floats never seen before or since on Rarotonga. Some even mocked the Government.

Cinag built a papier-mâché tuna which would recline on a long flatbed trailer surrounded by fresh local foods displayed in palm-leaf baskets. Making papier-mâché on an island where the local newspaper is the size of a place-mat is a challenge. But the fish kept growing. Pretty soon, it was longer than the flatbed truck. Some of us set to work painting signs in Cook Island Maori and English – polite signs, such as ‘Are our fish safe to eat?’ and ‘Bomb Appétit’. Mamas showed up dragging masses of palm fronds, sat down on the grass and fashioned palm-leaf baskets. Others brought big brown taro root, papayas, watermelons, oranges, bananas and other island fruit and vegetables. The baskets of food were lined all along the trailer. Signs were attached, plumeria leis added, and the work crew packed up and went home. A New Zealander married to a local Maori hitched a small tractor to the trailer and towed the great dead, possibly radioactive, tunafish to the parade line-up.

There was only one problem. No one dared ride on the float. A couple of women said their husbands would punch them out if they saw them on the trailer. Several, including expats, feared for their government jobs. The New Zealand Representative’s pregnant wife who had made most of the signs obviously could not ride on the float. The Kiwi drove the tractor hauling the lonely 24-foot tuna.

The South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty was signed on Rarotonga on 6 August 1985, by the Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Tuvalu and Western Samoa. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru and Tonga wanted further discussion. But, eventually, everyone signed. The 34-page pact, known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, established a nuclear-free zone. Defence arrangements and the hosting of nuclear-powered or armed ships was left to individual signatories.

There was a catch. Until the three major nuclear powers, the US, United Kingdom and France plus the Soviet Union and China, signed and ratified protocols, the treaty was pretty well useless. To date, only China has signed and ratified the treaty. France, of course, declined, stating it had no intention of stopping its testing.

With the Treaty of Rarotonga drawing the South Pacific countries together against a common enemy and, later, with the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, France came to be seen as the scum on the Pacific. Her image slipped even lower when she managed to pressure New Zealand into turning over the two French convicted bombers by threatening to bring on a European boycott of New Zealand lamb and butter. Things took a different turn when the South Pacific nations voted unanimously to refer the French Territory of New Caledonia to the UN Committee on Decolonisation. Suddenly, France was there with aid money for these little countries’ dearest projects: a sports stadium for Tonga, guns and equipment for Fiji’s army, an electric power plant and hurricane aid for the Cook Islands.

But when news first leaked last summer that the French would break their nuclear-test moratorium for a series of eight more explosions at Moruroa and Fangataufa, a wave of unprecedented anger and anxiety rose among the Pacific Islanders. Countries which had been recipients of large aid projects registered feelings of betrayal: the country which had brought them gifts was now going to poison their food with radioactive waste.

The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Sir Geoffrey Arama Henry, made only a token complaint, but passionate anti-nuclear letters to the editors peppered both Cook Islands newspapers. Most were signed with pseudonyms. Rarotonga is small, less than twenty miles around. Still, about five hundred Cook Islands demonstrators greeted the French Polynesian President Gaston Flosse as his military plane arrived at Rarotonga’s airport to take part in the Constitution Week celebration on 7 August. Later that day, Sir Geoffrey’s speech shocked some of his Cook Islands listeners. ‘I want to apologise to you for the behaviour of some of my people ... we the Maori people never welcome our people like this ... If they want to use the papaa way then let them do so. If they are real Maori, real Polynesian, they will make their point the Polynesian way. I’m akama – I’m ashamed.’

Reaction to Henry’s apology brought a flood of letters to the editor. One of the most indignant reactions came from Maria Henderson of South Seas International, the woman who had sold me my shortwave radio, 13 years ago. She wrote to the Cook Islands News:

Our PM apologised to Gaston Flosse for, as he put it, the disgusting protests at the airport on Flosse’s arrival. He labelled the protesters riffraff, drop-outs, ‘little’ people trying to be somebody, people playing politics or papaa [white people] trying to find a niche in this country. I am proud to have been one of those protesting ... We were not protesting against Flosse, we were protesting against Flosse a French Polynesian leader, who before the French elections opposed the nuclear tests and immediately after the elections deserted his Polynesian people and became Chirac’s greatest proponent for the tests and Chirac’s mouthpiece in the South Pacific.

The protest was on a scale never before seen in the Cook Islands. Some businesses flew Cook Islands flags at half-mast. The body-builder Felix Enoka showed his opposition by boycotting the South Pacific Games on Tahiti where he stood to win gold medals. He and his friends climbed Maungatea behind Avarua township. They strung a huge banner across the cliff face and fastened it tight against the gusting tradewinds The banner read: NUCLEAR FREE.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences