French Jesuit Father Honoré Laval, intent on creating “a settlement of God,” established a despotic rule over the Gambiers soon after he landed in 1834.
After imposing European customs, prisons and forced labor, he ordered the conscripted Polynesians to build well over 100 stone and coral buildings.
During the decades of Laval’s reign, which lasted until 1870, more than 5,000 islanders died, many from overwork.
When a French official arrived to question Laval about his deadly administration, the unrepentant priest blithely replied that his parishioners “have gone to heaven the more quickly.”
Remnants of Laval’s work remain. The grand, mother-of-pearl-embellished Cathédrale Saint-Michel that looms above Rikitea was once the South Pacific’s largest church. In Laval’s day, black pearls of legendary size and beauty adorned the statuary.
They’re gone now, but the congregation preserves the cathedral in its 19th century glory, gathering each Sunday to sing hymns. Laval’s portrait adorns a side altar dedicated to his memory. A parishioner told me, “The Mangareva people, they think Père Laval did some good; they think he did some bad.”
Some of Laval’s church structures on the Gambiers are gently decaying; others are eerie ruins.
One day I went to the Rouro convent in Rikitea with Tihone Reasin, a Polynesian American who has lived in the Gambier Islands since 1980. The pension owner had introduced me to Reasin, who showed me Rikitea as a favor.
We walked around the sprawling walled complex where Laval had sequestered generations of young Gambier women. The once-groomed grounds were thickets of thorny bushes, and the roofless chapel was a meditation on time’s passage.
Ghostly, jungle-choked convent buildings stood beneath high, rugged cliffs.
As he looked to the heights, Reasin told me the name for the cliffs was karere o ke aine ke, Mangarevan for “the flying-off place of the young girls,” where distraught Polynesian girls had committed suicide.