Saturday, January 22, 2011

Episode 4 - Give peace a chance

Ariitaimai in middle age
For two years following the accident, Ariitaimai withdrew into herself, consumed with grief.  By this time, the French were in control of Tahiti, having expelled Pritchard, the Queen had fled to the island of Raiatea (95 miles away), and 2,000 angry Tahitians were conducting a guerrilla war against the invaders. The Salmons were maintaining an uneasy neutrality. They disapproved of the methods that the French had used to seize the peaceful island, but they saw that Tahiti needed the protection of a Great Power to stabilize the country and control the lawlessness that the whaling trade had brought to the port of Papeete. And it was clear that the British government, despite all attempts to persuade them, was not interested in being that power.
Early one morning in February 1846, Ariitaimai was alone in bed in her house in Papeete when an old woman came to see her in great distress. She said she'd heard a rumor that the French were planning to bombard the rebel camps from the sea, which was likely to result in massive bloodshed. She pleaded with Ariitaimai, “You’re the highest person in this land – it’s up to you to bring peace to Tahiti.”
The old woman’s plea stirred Ariitaimai from the lethargy she had been in since the death of her son. She hurried to see the French Governor, Armand Joseph Bruat. Bruat was a reasonable man who had been put in an impossible position by the actions of his predecessors. He had received orders from the Foreign Office in Paris to reinstate the Queen and to govern Tahiti jointly with her as a “protectorate” rather than a colony of France, but the Queen was refusing to return unless the French withdrew completely. And the rebels were following the lead of their Queen.  
Bruat’s attitude to Ariitaimai throughout the conflict had been ambivalent. Although the natives saw her as being firmly in the French camp, Bruat saw her continued loyalty to the Queen as subversive. In early 1845, Bruat had even considered exiling her to Raiatea because he feared the lovely 25-year-old Princess might be a rival candidate for the throne around whom the natives would rally. Yet now it was for that very reason that he recognized how uniquely useful she might prove to be as a mediator.
By the end of their discussion, Bruat and Ariitaimai had agreed on a plan of action. Ariitaimai would first visit the rebel camp and ask them to call a temporary ceasefire. Then she would go to Raiatea and try to persuade the Queen to come home.
The rebels agreed to a ceasefire with surprising alacrity but then began a year-long struggle to persuade Pomare to return. Together and separately, the Salmons made voyage after voyage between Tahiti and Raiatea (each voyage taking up to 20 hours one way) to transmit messages from one side to the other. Influenced by her relatives, the Queen kept making more conditions, yet, as each was met, she made more. At one point when Pomare was being particularly intransigent, Governor Bruat offered to make Ariitaimai Queen of Tahiti, but she refused, convinced that peace and reconciliation would only be possible in Tahiti if the French showed that they respected Pomare’s right to reign.
As the Queen stayed away, the ceasefire had fallen apart. Finally, after months of bloody fighting and military stalemate, the French defeated the rebels at the Battle of Fautaua in December 1846. A deserter led a handful of French troops in a precipitous climb to a position above the Fauta’ua Fort where the Tahitians thought they were safely entrenched. The French took the Tahitians utterly by surprise, and they had no option but to surrender. Shaken by this defeat of her supporters, the Queen finally allowed Ariitaimai to persuade her to return to her kingdom and accept the French Protectorate in return for the recognition of her rights and authority.  
As the Queen at last set foot on Tahitian soil on February 9th 1847, the French garrisons on shore greeted her with a 21-gun salute, and Governor Bruat held a reception to welcome her home. So grateful was Bruat to Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon for their help in bringing peace back to Tahiti that he told them he would be nominating them for the Legion of Honor, the highest civilian award in France. 

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