Note: this is a follow-up to my Murre and the Pacific cruise of French Polynesia.
In 2011 I explored French Polynesia on Murre and was only a month departed from the Marquesan Island of Nuku Hiva when I learned a recent tragedy there had been attributed to cannibalism.
Murre rode her anchor in Opunohu Bay off Moorea by this time, an island some 1000 miles further west, where I met a couple named Hannas and Christine aboard Pukuri. They had made Moorea before me, but suddenly returned by air to Nuku Hiva. Returning to Moorea a week later, they told me of the terrible fate of their friend Stephan Ramin.
Like Hannas and Christine, Stephan and his girlfriend were slowly island hopping through French Polynesia on Baju, but were behind Pukuri’s track. The two couples became friends in Mexico but had soon separated, each choosing to take different and wandering paths through the Pacific islands. Baju was enjoying Nuku Hiva while Pukuri and crew explored Moorea.
One day Stephan hired a local on Nuku Hiva to take him on a private goat hunt. Wild goats are common on the islands, and they are frequently hunted for food. Stephan and his guide took off for the forest in the morning.
That evening the guide returned to Baju alone and with an urgent message for Stephan’s girlfriend. Stephan had been injured in the mountains and the guide needed her assistance. The girlfriend found this story suspicious; she refused to go. The guide tied her up, threatened her, and then left. After some time she freed herself and ran to the Gendarmes.
A search for Stephan began. Based on the girlfriend’s description of the guide, the Gendarmes had a suspect. They visited the suspect’s farm, and though they did not find him, in an outdoor oven they found the charred remains of a human body, later identified as Stephan. Cannibalism was suspected.
The story exploded. Overnight it hit the European tabloids.
Stretches of Marquesan history are violent in the extreme. Severe overpopulation prior to Cook’s arrival in the 18th century caused competition for food and land, and cannibalism during this period was apparently common among the warrior and ruling classes.
But European contact all but eliminated the practice. Western diseases like syphilis and influenza decimated the Marquesans; those that remained were aggressively Christianized by white settlers. Cannibalism vanished.
Slowly rebounding contemporary populations are under the control of a benevolent though strict French socialism. In the outer islands, there are few jobs, but welfare supplies the money and the islands supply the rest. An odd effect of this is that a surprising number of Marquesans can drive Range Rovers, but access to bullets (for goat hunting) is tightly controlled by the Gendarmes. The result is that crime, real crime, is unheard of. The cruiser passing through simply does not worry about things like theft, assault, piracy … cannibalism.
Hannas and Christine flew back to assist with the terrible aftermath of Stephan’s murder, comforting the girlfriend and the parents who had flown out, cooking meals, dealing with the boat. They were wiped out and heart-sick when I met up with them, deeply saddened by the loss of their friend and for a conception of paradise that had been shattered.
What actually happened may never be known, but within days the idea that Stephan had been cannibalized matured into a full-blown rumor that went something like this:
In recent years, native island councils have begun to resurrect their ancient traditions by way of connecting with their past and instilling a sense of pride in a decidedly listless younger generations. Young male islanders, it was said, had taken this a step further by secretly reverting to cannibalism as an initiation rite. The victims were not locals, but cruisers. Every once in a while a visiting yacht that had been at anchor here or there went missing, later to be washed up on a reef; its crew, also missing, assumed drowned. The events were written off as mishap, but not now. For the French government this murder had gone from unusually serious crime to public relations disaster. Investigators from both France and Germany soon arrived. The islands were abuzz.
But I soon sailed on, leaving the story behind, and am only returning to it now because, nearly three years after Stephan’s death, the case has finally achieved closure. Surprisingly, the suspect, a 33-year-old male by the name of ArihanoHaiti, eluded capture for 50 days, quite a feat on such a small island whose population struggles toward 2,000. At his trial he asserted that he shot Stephan because Stephan had sexually assaulted him and that he later assaulted the girlfriend out of revenge. The court did not buy this story and just yesterday sentenced Haiti to 28 years on jail.
Interestingly, the court also found that investigators were unable to prove cannibalism had occurred.