(The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection)
Despite their 24-year age difference, the marriage between John Brander and Titaua Salmon was remarkably successful. Brander adored Titaua who grew into a strong, equal partner for him in his life and endeavors. She bore him nine children. The first was born when Titaua was only 15, and she was the mother of four by the time she turned 20. During the decade between 1856 and 1866, Titaua and her mother, Ariitaimai, were often pregnant at the same time, and the children of the two marriages grew up together. As a result, the younger Salmon children saw Titaua more as an aunt or second mother than an older sister.
From the time of her marriage, Titaua played an important role in the social hierarchy of Tahiti not only as the wife of the island’s biggest trader but also in her own right. From 1857 she was paramount chief (or Marama) of the whole island of Moorea. Although this was largely a ceremonial title – like that of a peer of the realm in Great Britain – it gave Titaua with a status that stemmed from her Polynesian genealogy and heritage and not from her marriage.
As befitted a wealthy man of business, John Brander owned several houses throughout Tahiti, buildings more grandiose than the usual bamboo or wood edifice with a roof thatched with pandanus leaves. The Red House on the quay in Papeete – built of red bricks imported from England - was lavishly furnished with marquetry card tables, mirrored armoires, red velvet and black silk upholstery, and ornate chandeliers. A small boat lined with red velvet cushions was kept at the quay opposite the Red House to take Titaua and her sisters and daughters out to pay calls on visiting war ships. The house on the Brander coconut plantation on the rugged north-east coast at Mahina was even grander. Known by the Tahitians as The House of the Columns, it was built of cement brick topped by red roof tiles, surrounded by wide verandas on both levels. It was beautifully decorated with ornamental tiles from Chile and boasted the grandest bathroom in the South Pacific. A century later in 1962, Marlon Brando lived in the house while filming Mutiny on the Bounty on Mahina’s black-sand beach.
In 1865, John and Titaua Brander set off on the long journey to Europe, taking with them their two oldest daughters and two of Titaua’s brothers to be educated in Britain. They were away for a year, leaving behind their four little boys - aged between 5 and 1 – in the care of their grandparents, Alexander and Ariitaimai. The group sailed first to Valparaiso in Chile and then up to Panama where they crossed the isthmus by the Panama Canal Railway (long before the actual canal was built) and then took a steamship across the Atlantic. The entire journey took over three months. On arriving in Britain, they stayed at first with Titaua’s grandfather, John Salmon, who had retired to Hastings on the south coast of England and become a rabbi. Then the couple traveled up to Elgin to visit his half-sister Lady Mary Dunbar and her family. No doubt John Brander – the illegitimate son – relished returning to his home town not only as a rich and successful businessman but with a Princess for a wife.
Meanwhile back in Tahiti, Alexander Salmon was in sole charge of the House of Brander while the couple was in Europe. He wrote detailed letters to his son-in-law reporting on the progress of the House’s trading schooners across the Pacific and the prices that it commanded for its commodities. His letters also included affectionate messages to his absent daughter and news of her sons. “Master Norman has started to wear shoes. He is so proud of them that it’s extremely difficult to take them off him at bedtime. He keeps coming to our room every night to ask me to help him to dance.”
The letters show Alexander Salmon in the prime of his life, at the height of his powers and prosperity and happy in the midst of his children and grandchildren. But health in 19th-century Tahiti was a precarious business, and disaster could fall swiftly and unexpectedly. In August 1866, only six months after the Branders had returned from Europe, Alexander Salmon was felled by a virulent attack of dysentery. Ariitaimai and Queen Pomare sat on either side of his sick bed holding his hands as he passed away. He was only 46 years old. Ariitaimai, dazed with grief, was pregnant with their ninth child.TO BE CONTINUED.......