This Side Of Paradise: Rupert Brooke And The South Seas

‘I want to walk a thousand miles, and write a thousand plays, and sing a thousand poems, and drink a thousand pots of beer, and kiss a thousand girls,’ and, added Rupert Brooke as he made plans to leave England in May 1913 ‘– oh, a million things.’ Seduced by the lure of  far away and exotic lands, Brooke would travel thousands of miles, write several poems, and meet many girls, but only one would truly capture his heart.

Brooke’s often dramatic and largely unsatisfying romantic entanglements, frequently a source of great anguish to him, had contributed to his decision to seek pastures new. His most enduring attachment had been to Ka Cox, whom he met at Cambridge, along with Noel Olivier, yet both women were drawn to other suitors; in Cox’s case, the painter Henry Lamb, and in Olivier’s, the dashing Hungarian poet Ferenc Békássy. Upon learning that Cox hoped to marry Lamb (she did not and would go on to wed the civil servant Will Arnold-Forster in 1918), Brooke suffered a breakdown, whilst visiting Lulworth Cove in Dorset towards the end of 1911 and start of 1912, and a period of precarious mental and physical health ensued. An offer from the Westminster Gazette to pay his travel costs in exchange for a series of articles about America and Canada, appeared to be just the tonic he needed. Perhaps glimpsing the foreboding clouds of war gathering across Europe, Brooke decided to extend his journey to include New Zealand and the South Seas.

Sailing from San Francisco, Brooke arrived in Waikiki in October 1913, before travelling on to Pango in Samoa a month later. Enchanted by the islands, he exclaimed in a letter to his friend Edward Marsh, ‘it’s all true about the South Seas! I get a little tired of it at moments, because I am just too old for Romance, and my soul is seared. But there it is: there it wonderfully is: heaven on earth, the ideal life, little work, dancing, singing and eating, naked people of incredible loveliness, perfect manners, and immense kindness, a divine tropical climate, and intoxicating beauty of scenery.’ Departing for Fiji on the SS Torfua in mid-November, Brooke arrived on the 19th and quickly immersed himself in Fijian culture, even attending the funeral of a Fijian princess who had died from pneumonia. Just before Christmas, Brooke boarded the Niagara and sailed to Auckland, with a trip to Tahiti planned for the January of 1914.

By early February, Brooke found himself in Mataiea, a district about thirty miles from the island’s capital of Papeete, describing his surroundings to his mother as ‘the coolest place I’ve struck in the South Seas…with a large veranda, the sea just in front, and the hills behind…there’s a little wooden pier out into the sea…with a dive into deep water. PS They call me “Pupure” here – it means “fair” in Tahitian – because I have fair hair.’ The hotel where Brooke was staying was also frequented by a local woman named Taatamata, who provided companionship for travellers. Charmed by her sultry beauty and relaxed physicality, and with a swiftness and intensity he would hardly have countenanced back home, Brooke embarked upon an affair with the beguiling Taatamata, whom he named ‘Mamua’ – a Hawaiian word roughly translating as ‘before,’ or ‘a time past.’

Though Taatamata spoke little English, and Brooke only a smattering of Tahitian, the two managed to communicate in French but their union was one that evidently needed few words. Writing to the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, to whom Brooke had been romantically linked before he left England, he spoke of the tranquil sensuality of the island where ‘Everyone has a white flower behind their ear. Mamua has given me one. Do you know the significance of a white flower worn over the ear? A white flower over the right ear means “I am looking for a sweetheart.” And a white flower over the left ear means “I have found a sweetheart.” And a white flower over each ear means “I have one sweetheart, and am looking for another.” A white flower over each ear, my dear, is dreadfully the most fashionable way of adorning yourself in Tahiti.’

Even a brush with coral poisoning failed to dampen Brooke’s ardour for both Tahiti and Taatamata, who attentively nursed him back to health. Extremely grateful for Taatamata’s care, Brooke wrote to Marsh, praising her as ‘a girl with wonderful eyes, the walk of a Goddess, and the heart of an angel, who is, luckily, devoted to me. She gives her time to ministering to me, I mine to probing her queer mind. I think I shall write a book about her – only I fear I’m too fond of her.’ Brooke never did write a book about Taatamata, but she inspired several of his most celebrated poems, including Tiare Tahiti, The Great Lover and Hauntings, the last poem he wrote during his sojourn in the Pacific.

On 5th April 1914, Brooke left Mataiea for Papeete, where he was to board the Tahiti bound for San Francisco, leaving the South Seas and Taatamata behind. As Tahiti disappeared over the horizon, Brooke recorded his feelings of sadness in a letter to Cathleen, telling her ‘I suddenly realised that I’d left behind those lovely places and lovely people, perhaps forever. I reflected that there was surely nothing else like them in the world, and very probably nothing in the next; and that I was going far away from the gentleness and beauty and kindliness and the smell of the lagoon and the thrill of that dancing and the scarlet of the flamboyant and the white and gold of other flowers.’ Arriving back in San Francisco to start his journey home, thoughts of Tahiti and the girl, who now as his name for her supposed belonged to a ‘time past,’ were never far from his mind. Brooke wrote to Marsh, ‘If I got on the Tahiti and went back again, shouldn’t I find a quay covered with moving lights and lovely forms in white and pink and scarlet and green? And wouldn’t Taatamata be waiting there to welcome me with wide arms?’

Committing his impressions and experiences of the South Seas to paper (published posthumously in Letters From America in 1916) Brooke enthused, ‘The South Sea Islands have an invincible glamour. Any bar in ‘Frisco or Sydney will give you tales of seamen who slipped ashore in Samoa or Tahiti or the Marquesas for a month’s holiday, five, ten, or twenty years ago. Their wives and families await them yet. They are compound, these islands, of all legendary heavens. They are Calypso’s and Prospero’s isle, and the Hesperides, and Paradise, and every timeless and untroubled spot.’ He admired the Polynesian people for their courtesy, intelligence, good-humour and impeccable manners and noted how struck he was by the feminine loveliness he had encountered, claiming he had seen women who, by comparison, would make ‘Helen of Troy a frump.’

At the same time Brooke felt the curious pull of England, and his old life there, writing to Cathleen, ‘Call me home, I pray you, Cathleen. I have been away long enough. I am older than I was. I have left bits of me about – some of my hair in Canada, and one skin in Honolulu, and another in Fiji, and a bit of a third in Tahiti, and half a tooth in Samoa, and bits of my heart all over the place.’ Reiterating this sentiment, he confessed to his friend the French painter Jacques Raverat, ‘The South Seas are Paradise, but I prefer England.’

Soon after his return home Brooke met with Reginald Pole, a fellow Cambridge man, who had also spent time travelling to the South Seas. Pole would later emigrate to California, writing several unpublished novels, one of which, To an Unknown God, provides a thinly veiled account of his musings with Brooke, the character Robert Boone being modelled on the poet and Wintringham being based on Poole himself. The two characters discuss Tahiti and its people, with Boone telling Wintringham ‘I loved them at once’ adding ‘and I knew at once why. I loved them because they were always singing. Always, or nearly always, in the water, and always decorating themselves with flowers.’

Comparing European with Tahitian attitudes to love, Boone declares, ‘in Europe you fall in love with a woman and eventually end up by having sexual relations with her; in Tahiti, you first have physical relations, after which you proceed to fall, quite often just as deeply, in love. Generally speaking I found that to be true.’ Cleary referencing Brooke’s own poem, The Great Lover, Boone tells Wintringham, ‘I did write two love poems in Tahiti – but this was just love. About all the lovable things of this world that we shall have to leave – because we can’t take them away.’

Despite the outbreak of war in August 1914, and his commission as an officer in the Royal Naval Division, Brooke was still occupied by thoughts of Tahiti and Mamua. In December 1914, from the R.N. Camp near Blandford in Dorset, he wrote to his close friend and confidante Dudley Ward, recounting a disturbing dream. Brooke had dreamt that he was back in Tahiti, where he met a woman who told him that Taatamata was dead, he reasoned, ‘Perhaps it was the full moon that made me dream, because of the last full moon at Mataiea (about which there is an unfinished poem: now in German possession). Perhaps it was my evil heart. I think the dream was true.’

Weeks later, Brooke would receive a letter from Taatamata, dated 2nd May 1914. The letter had miraculously found its way to him after being recovered from the wreckage of the RMS Empress of Ireland, which had sunk after a collision with the SS Storstad in the Saint Lawrence River, on 29th May. It would seem that Taatamata had been enjoying the company some Argentinian sailors who were visiting the island, writing that ‘All girls in Papeete have good times whit Argentin boys.’ But she still yearned for her English lover, telling him ‘I wish you here that might I get fat all time Sweetheart you know I always thinking about you that time when you left me I been sorry for long time. We have good time when you was here I always remember about you forget me already.’ She ended the letter, ‘I send you my kiss to you darling.’

In his 2000 biography Forever England, Mike Read made the stunning revelation that in 1915 Taatamata had in fact given birth to Brooke’s child, a claim recently rehashed by the novelist Jill Dawson. Read and Dawson both allege that Brooke confessed his fears that Taatamata may have been pregnant with his child, to Dudley Ward, and that a woman named Arlice Rapoto born in 1915, was their daughter. No Tahitian birth records from that time exist, and much of the apparent evidence for this claim is based purely on hearsay. There is no concrete proof that Arlice Rapoto was even the daughter of Taatamata, let alone Taatamata and Brooke, nor do we have her exact date of birth. For there to be any possibility that she was indeed Brooke’s daughter, she would have to have been born in January, or at the latest early February 1915, and this would have meant that Taatamata would have become pregnant sometime in late March, or the beginning of April 1914. Brooke left Tahiti on 5th April and therefore Taatamata’s comment ‘I get fat all time Sweetheart’ heavily hinted by Read as a possible reference to her being pregnant, seems far-fetched as it is unlikely she would be showing obvious signs of pregnancy as early as 2nd May.

Furthermore, Read divulges that in 1936, Dudley Ward, who was by then a CBE and a respected member of the Treasury, made discreet queries in writing to Viscount Hastings, who had a home on the nearby island of Moorea, to ask whether Taatamata had a child born ‘towards the end of 1915.’ Again, the dates seem somewhat at odds with Brooke’s travels, as any child of Taatamata’s fathered by him would have to have been born in early 1915, any later and Arlice Rapoto if in fact her child, is far more likely to have been the daughter of one of the Argentinian men Taatamata wrote of. Indeed, the name Arlice Rapoto is curiously Germanic in character, it being well-known that Argentina experienced a wave of immigration from Germany during the 19th century.

In response to Ward’s letter, Read notes that Viscount Hastings wrote to his friend Norman Hall, the American author of Mutiny on the Bounty, who had an extensive circle of Tahitian friends, telling Hall that Taatamata was ‘the only woman Rupert Brooke ever really cared about, and after he left Tahiti he was in doubt as to whether she might have been going to have a child by him or not.’

Hall replied claiming that he knew Taatamata personally, and agreed to ask her the rather delicate question, adding that ‘she was still a quite handsome woman and must have been a very attractive girl when Brooke knew her.’ No additional correspondence between Hall and Hastings, or any later information relating to Taatamata, has ever been found. A photograph of Arlice Rapoto has nevertheless surfaced which shows her to be a strikingly attractive woman, though the poor quality of the image means any genuine similarities to Brooke are impossible to ascertain. Little is known about Arlice’s life, but she apparently enjoyed a decade long love affair with the Russian artist Serge Czerefkow Grès, who left his wife, the couturier Madame Grès, and their young daughter, to live and paint in Tahiti, his preferred subject being beautiful Tahitian women. According to Brooke’s biographer Nigel Jones, the most reliable accounts suggest that Arlice never married and died childless sometime in the early 1990s.

Treasured memories of the South Seas and of swimming in crystal clear lagoons, with the sweet scent of white flowers in the air and his Tahitian lover by his side, never left Brooke, even during the moments leading up to his own death on 23rd April 1915. As the septicaemia that would claim his life ravaged his body, with his remaining strength Brooke composed a final letter to Dudley Ward, requesting that Ward write to Taatamata to break the unhappy news of his death, and to ‘Give her my love.’

Selected Sources:

The Edited Letters of Rupert Brooke – Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1967)

The Handsomest Young Man in England – Michael Hastings (1967)

Rupert Brooke – Nigel Jones (1997)

Forever England – Mike Read (2000)