Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back to the Island

Herman Melville
I am buried, avalanched, drowning in paid editing work right now, which is the reason for my recent neglect of Midatlantic. I’ve been yearning to get back into writing Children of Eden, but between my workload and the onset of the intense social whirl of the “holidays” (which seems to start earlier every year), I don’t see that happening any time soon. But I have carved out a tiny fragment of time in which to share with you a glimpse of Alexander Salmon in 1842. A mere two years after he arrived in Tahiti with nothing to his name but a diamond ring and a set of shirt studs, he had married a Princess and become the trusted brother-in-law of the renowned  Queen Pomare IV.
The glimpse that we have of him is through the eyes of Herman Melville, later to be author of Moby Dick but at that time a lowly deserter from an American whaling ship. He and another deserter came to the Queen’s compound with the idea of asking for work. Before he was shooed away by the Queen’s ladies, he noticed another house in the royal compound “of large size and fine exterior; the special residence of a European...who had done himself the honour of marrying into the Pomaree [sic] family.” This was Alexander Salmon, and there was something about him that put Melville’s nose firmly out of joint.

“The lady he wedded being a near kinswoman of the queen, he became a permanent member of her majesty’s household. This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation, and was evidently on excellent terms with himself. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies. He must have noticed our approach; but instead of rising and offering civilities, he went on talking and smoking, without even condescending to look at us."
Even though Melville's appearance was bedraggled and uncouth after weeks of living rough, he had obviously expected the “adventurer” to acknowledge and welcome a fellow white man. In this, he entirely mistook Salmon’s attitude to class and race. The Society Islands were full of disreputable sailors who had jumped ship and were living off the bounty of the land and little else, and Salmon would see no reason to associate with such a man simply because their skin was the same colour. As a Victorian Englishmen, he was extremely class-conscious and, having grown up as the son of a tradesman, he never ceased to feel he had to prove his credentials as a gentleman. Like many other emigrants to Tahiti, he welcomed the chance to reinvent himself away from the stifling social constraints that prevailed in Britain.

However, unlike most Englishmen of his generation and time, he was remarkably free of the idea of white racial superiority. Having been born a Jew in an overwhelmingly gentile country, he was used to being an outsider and did not think about race in the same way that conventionally brought-up young Englishmen had been taught to think. Some settlers and visitors spoke with distaste of his cross-racial marriage. For example, one British visitor to the island described him as having contracted “a low marriage with a native of the island; I say ‘low’ even though she boasts of being of royal blood.”

To Alexander Salmon, his wife’s skin colour was of no consequence but her royal blood was of paramount importance. It enhanced his prestige and status - in Tahiti, back in Britain, and in his own eyes as well - and elevated him to a trusted relative of a Queen. However small and insular this particular royal circle may have been, his privileged place in it was an enormous source of pride to him all of his life.

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