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Teti’aroa: The wondrous atoll in the Pacific widely known for having been purchased by Marlon Brando in the 1960s

Stefan Andrews

The atoll of Teti’aroa has always had a special place in the hearts of the people of French Polynesia. The small island is almost considered a sacred site. Historically, the Pacific atoll belonged to the Pōmare Dynasty who reigned the Kingdom of Tahiti between the unification of the island in 1788 and the cession of the kingdom to France in 1880. Influential to surrounding territories and islands, the Teti’aroa was always placed in the care of faithful adherents of the royal family.

For years, the royal family would spend time on the atoll relaxing and enjoying life. The women of the family are said to have gone there to eat, gain weight, and stay out of the sun so to have their skin lighten up for beauty purposes. Allegedly, Teti’aroa was also a place where the King would hide family treasures in times of troubles.

Onetahi, Teti’aroa, Society Islands, French Polynesia. Photo credit

One of the most intriguing historical events concerning the atoll and its surrounding region are related to William Bligh, an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator, deemed to have been the first European to arrive at the place. His ship, HMS Bounty, had left England in 1787 for a mission to collect and transfer breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies.

Royal Family of Tahiti, 1864.

However, a mutiny happened under William’s command, as crewmen had seized control of the ship. The mutineers had then settled on Tahiti or the Pitcairn Island, and in an attempt to locate them and bring them to justice, Blight eventually arrived at Teti’aroa.

The whereabouts of the HMS Bounty was made the subject of numerous books and articles throughout history, as well as five films being released throughout the 20-th century. The first film, from 1916, was a silent Australian film now considered lost. One of the most successful films was released in 1962, with iconic actor Marlon Brando, who encountered the beauties of the island while looking for appropriate filming locations.

A 1960 reconstruction of HMS Bounty. photo credit

The film was shot on Tahiti and neighboring Moorea, after which Brando’s life changed in a profound way, as he fell in love with the place and its people. After the filming, the actor had hired a local fisherman to carry him back to the atoll. He noted in his 1994 autobiography “Songs My Mother Taught Me” that the island had been one of the most beautiful sites he had ever encountered.

Since 1904, the atoll belonged to Johnston Walter Williams, back then the only dentist around the whole of Tahiti; the Royal family gave him the island. Brando purchased the Teti’aroa islets from one of the dentist’s direct descendants, with the reef and the lagoon remaining in possession of French Polynesia.

Original film poster by Reynold Brown for 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty”, photo credit

However, Brando faced many political and administrative issues, as well as local resistance as he attempted to handle the deal. The island was treasured not only for its natural beauties, but also archaeological findings that had been an indisputable factor for why the government aimed to control the area.

The island was deemed a large portion of Brando’s assets. As he wanted to live there, he had built a small village back in 1970. The place also had an airstrip to get there without breaching the reef. The village also had 12 small bungalows, a kitchen hut and dining hall with a bar. Each construction was built from local materials such as coconut wood, and the sinks were even made of large sea shells. The place would slowly grow into a hub for friends and family, but also scientists and explorers interested in the local ecology and archeology.

 

An old map of Tetiaroa.

The village would later become a modest hotel run by Tarita Teriipaia who had played in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and was Brando’s third wife and mother of two of his children. She would run the island resort for 25 years even after Brando left French Polynesia to return to Los Angeles. The hotel resort was notorious for lacking common amenities normally found at other such places. For her role in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Tarita received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. As of 2015, she is the only wife of the actor still alive. Shortly after Brando’s death in 2004, she had published her memoirs entitled “Marlon, My Love and My Torment”.

An aerial view of the island of Teti’aroa. photo credit

Teti’aroa was much like a dream destination and for Marlon also a getaway from Hollywood’s hectic life. Although he had not spent as much time there as he wished, it is said that the actor always cherished his moments on the atoll.

Read another story from us: Little known facts about Marlon Brando’s final years of his life

Brando’s Testament did not feature any instructions for Teti’aroa, and following his death, the executors of the estate had granted development rights to Pacific Beachcomber SC, a Tahitian company that owns hotels throughout French Polynesia.