|Moorea in the distance seen from Tahiti (note the gap in the reef at Papeete)|
The Salmons settled into their house in Papeete and Alexander began to take stock of the land owned by his wife in the district of Papara. Their daughter Titaua (Tee-ta-oo-a, meaning “much wanted”) was born in November 1842, followed by a boy, Ernest Tepau-arii-ahura, about a year later. But their quiet domestic life was soon to be shattered by a series of events that would change Tahiti forever.
The Salmons had married at a turbulent time in Tahitian history. Throughout the 19th century, the islands of the Pacific were pawns in the Great Game between the countries of Europe to colonize as much of the world as possible. In the 1840s, Tahiti was ostensibly independent, but, influenced by her charismatic British consul, George Pritchard, Queen Pomare was passionately pro-British. And as a devout Protestant, she was also very anti-Catholic and had long been in dispute with the French residents, as represented by their own Consul, over both religious and secular matters.
In November 1843, the dispute came to an explosive head. A hot-headed visiting French Admiral, taking offence at the Queen’s expulsion of two French Catholic priests for proselytizing among the natives, landed troops and seized Tahiti in the name of France. The Queen refused to submit as Pritchard assured her that the government of Britain would come to her aid. But, despite some diplomatic skirmishing between London and Paris, the British had their hands too full with Australia and New Zealand to worry about the fate of such a small island.
In early 1844, fearing that the French were about to depose her, the Queen and her family took refuge on board a British warship in the Papeete lagoon. In retaliation, the French Admiral had George Pritchard arrested and thrown into an unwholesome leaky stockade where he fell dangerously ill. Greatly alarmed, the Queen sent out messengers across the island to summon the chiefs to an emergency meeting. She couldn’t be there herself because the Admiral had threatened to arrest her the minute she set foot on Tahitian soil. So she begged her sister, Ariitaimai, to attend as her surrogate.
Ariitaimai was visiting the nearby island of Moorea with her baby son when she received the Queen’s message. She prepared to leave immediately, but the west wind, the formidable Toerau rahi, had begun to blow, making it too dangerous to make the crossing to Tahiti. She waited impatiently for several hours, hoping the wind would die down, but the weather became worse and worse. Finally, at 4 o’clock in the morning, she decided she couldn’t delay any longer if she was to keep her promise to the Queen to be at the meeting. Much to the dismay of the crew, she gave the order to depart. The boat with its twelve oarsmen set off into the howling darkness of the storm. As soon as they came out of the shelter of the reef around Moorea, the boat almost capsized, but the captain hung onto the tiller and the boat plunged onwards. For hour after hour, the rowers dragged their oars through the churning sea, fighting against the violent head wind, until very slowly the dark shape of Tahiti began to emerge against the grey dawn sky.
When they approached the opening in the reef at Papeete, they could see huge waves breaking against the wall of coral. The captain proposed that they should head further along the coast to the pass at Taunoa, which was more likely to be navigable, but Ariitaimai told them that would lose too much time. Holding her baby boy in her arms close against her body, she urged the rowers to pull hard and make a run for it. From the calm waters of the lagoon, people on the decks of the naval ships watched in alarm as the boat approached the narrow opening in the reef, the crew fighting to keep her steady. From behind them, a huge rolling wave lifted the boat and carried it straight towards the pass. At that second, the man at the tiller took his hand off it for an instant and a massive wave hit the boat amidships, throwing the passengers into the churning sea and ripping the baby from Ariitaimai’s arms.
Ariitaimai was a strong swimmer like all Tahitians, and she threw herself into the dark water after her child, pushing herself downwards time after time, searching the dark churning water, her hands outstretched, groping. The waves picked her up and flung her against the brutal jagged wall of coral, lacerating her body. At last on her third dive, her hands closed around the slippery body of her baby and she pushed her way to the surface, thrusting him into the outstretched hands of the people in one of the circling rescue boats. By the time the hands could pull Ariitaimai into the boat after him, she had passed out.
The boat rushed them to a French warship where the ship’s doctor tried for two hours to revive the baby to no avail. When Ariitaimai regained consciousness, her body battered and bleeding, the doctor had to tell her that her son was dead.
TO BE CONTINUED.........