Monday, January 17, 2011

Episode 2 - Love on a tropical island

Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti

In the spring of 1841 when Alexander Salmon arrived in the sleepy capital of Papeete (Pap-aye-ay-tay), Tahiti was an independent island kingdom ostensibly ruled by the young Queen Pomare (Pomar-ay) IV and an assembly of clan chiefs. In reality, the government of the island was strongly influenced by the British Protestant missionaries who had converted the population of Tahiti to Christianity in the early 1800s.
With Captain Dunnett’s help, Alexander set himself up as a merchant and trader in Papeete. Many of the small European population treated him with disdain because he was Jewish, but he soon picked up the Tahitian language and found himself a very popular addition to the Queen’s court. Her young women nicknamed him “Mr. Diamond” because he owned nothing of value but a set of diamond shirt studs and a diamond ring, given to him by his mother, which he wore on the little finger of his right hand. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with one of the most exalted of those young women, the Queen’s adopted sister, Princess Ariioehau (Aree-oay-ow).
A contemporary journalist described Alexander as “intelligent, full of delicacy... a good-looking man with an agreeable exterior” but also as a man without fortune or profession. Princess Ariioehau, on the other hand, had the bluest blood of anyone of her generation in the South Pacific, even more than the Queen herself. Ariioehau was the direct descendant of and heir to two of the most ancient and revered clans of Polynesia, the Tevas and the Maramas. Even the upstart Pomares, the royal family chosen arbitrarily by Captain James Cook to rule over Tahiti, recognized Ariioehau as a true aristocrat and had raised her as an adopted sister of the Queen.
There are no photographs of the Princess when she was young. The only ones that exist show her in middle age onwards, a large and formidable matriarch. But accounts written by people who knew her in her youth attest to her great beauty. She was also used to getting her own way. So when she fell in love with the handsome young Englishman, she refused to consider marrying anybody else, even though several other suitors had presented themselves, including the king of a nearby island.
Once her belly began to show that she was expecting Alexander Salmon’s child, her elders bowed to the inevitable. Queen Pomare had not had much of an education but she was a shrewd woman and was passionately loyal - almost to the point of indulgence - to the people whom she loved. Her sister Ariioehau was one of those people. A decade before, the missionaries had persuaded her to ban foreigners from marrying Tahitians, in the vain hope that this would prevent visiting sailors from succumbing to the charms of the local young women (vahines). In May 1842, Queen Pomare decreed the lifting of this ban for three days, just long enough to allow her sister to marry the Englishman she loved.
It was the custom in Tahiti to give a newly married couple a new joint name. In this case, Queen Pomare chose the name Ariitaimai (Aree-ta-ee-ma-ee) meaning “Prince who came from the Sea.” In practice, Alexander Salmon stuck with his British name. Ariioehau mostly referred to herself as Mrs. Salmon but was known to the Tahitians as Ariitaimai for the rest of her life.
Thus, a penniless 21-year-old London Jew and a 20-year-old Polynesian Princess embarked on their life together. Ariitamai was an heiress in her own right, but Queen Pomare gave the couple a desirable piece of land in Papeete near her own modest palace, on which she built them a whitewashed house thatched with pandanus leaves in the Tahitian tradition. It seemed as if Alexander Salmon had found his fortune 10,000 miles from home.

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