Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Queen of the South

Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti by Charles Giraud

In May 1842, when Ariitaimai married her young Englishman, her beloved adopted sister Queen Pomare IV was at her side. It was a difficult time for the young Queen who was coming under great pressure from two directions – from the French to cede her country to their protection and from the resident British consul to resist those pressures.
The American author Hermann Melville who encountered the Queen at about that time:

“She wore a loose gown of blue silk, with two rich shawls, one red and the other yellow, tied about her neck. Her royal majesty was bare-footed. She was about the ordinary size, rather matronly; her features not very handsome; her mouth, voluptuous; but there was a care-worn expression in her face, probably attributable to her late misfortunes.  From her appearance, one would judge her about forty; but she is not so old.” 
In fact she was only 29, but she had already been Queen of Tahiti for 15 years.

When she came to the throne in 1827 after the deaths in quick succession of her father and young brother, she’d been only 14 - too young to assume the mantel of responsibility for her people. In those early days, young Aimata (her given name) was a wild child –  always surounded by a horde of drunken followers, swimming out with her ladies to ships in the lagoon to flirt with the sailors. In defiance of the English missionaries who had been a strong moral force on the island during the reign of her father, she sanctioned the traditional dances that the missionaries had banned, including one in which young girls would be untwirled from their long cloth wraps until they were dancing completely naked. (It is unlikely that Ariitaimai was present during these debauches because, being eight years younger than Aimata, she was still living among the children of the court.)
But gradually Aimata began to mature and settle. In 1833 the missionaries succeeded in enrolling her in a temperance society. The following year they reluctantly agreed to allow her to divorce the husband to whom she’d been married at the age of only 9 and marry Ariifaite, a handsome young chief from a neighboring island. In 1833, both Pomare and her new consort asked to join the Church as communicants, and from then on the Queen was a faithful and devout believer for the rest of her long reign.  
Her second marriage was to be a success, but the early days could be turbulent. In his book Omoo, Melville gleefully recounted tales that he’d been told that dated back to that time:

Six or seven years ago...the town was thrown into the greatest commotion by a conjugal assault and battery, made upon the sacred person of Pomare by her intoxicated Tanee [consort].” Ariifaite, who had been “dismissed contemptuously” from his wife’s presence, had been drinking and, egged on by his companions, he decided he’d had enough.
“Near the outskirts of the town, a cavalcade of women came cantering toward him in the center of which was the object of his fury. Smiting his beast right and left, he dashed in among them; completely overturning one of the party, leaving her on the field, and dispersing everybody else except Pomare.  Backing her horse dexterously, the incensed queen heaped upon him every scandalous epithet she could think of; until, at last, the enraged Tanee leaped out of his saddle, caught Pomare by her dress, and dragging her down to the earth, struck her repeatedly in the face, holding on meanwhile by the hair of her head. He was proceeding to strangle her on the spot, when the cries of the frightened attendants brought a crowd of natives to the rescue who bore the nearly insensible queen away.”
Before one can feel too sorry for the queen, Melville describes another occasion on which Pomare was “giving audience to a deputation from the captains of the vessels lying in Papeete, he [Ariifaite] ventured to make a suggestion which was very displeasing to her. She turned around, and, boxing his ears, told him to go over to his beggarly island....if he wanted to give himself airs.” 

This was the Wars of the Roses Tahitian-style. Fortunately, both parties mellowed as the years went on and Ariifaite became the most loyal of husbands, though he still had a tendency to indulge in intoxicating spirits rather more often than was good for him.

After several years of struggle, the French took over Tahiti as a “protectorate” and thereafter there was peace on the island for the rest of the Queen’s 50-year reign. Under her sister Ariitaimai’s influence, Pomare became more devout as she grew older. She had to endure much sadness over the years – the early deaths of two of her sons and the alcoholism of two others, one of whom became a violent madman, not to mention the death of her beloved 6-year-old granddaughter, Maona, of tuberculosis.

In 1872, the French writer Pierre Loti described Pomare “in the massive ugliness of her old age” but with a “bright frank smile” and a motherly warmth. When she died of a heart attack in 1877, Ariitaimai walked at the head of the cortege and the representatives from all the clans of the island gathered en masse behind their funereal drums in a procession that stretched for almost four miles. The Queen’s coffin lay on a gun carriage that was pulled by 30 sturdy Tahitians. An observer noted, ”The sea breaking on the reef provided a muted accompaniment to the wailing of an entire people.”  

Queen Pomare IV in 1869

After the death of Queen Pomare IV, she was succeeded – after a few days of negotiation and consultation – by her dissolute eldest son, who from then on was known as King Pomare V. In return, the new King had to promise the Tahitian Legislative Assembly and the French governor that he would reconcile with his 17-year-old wife Marau Salmon who had fled home to her mother when she discovered the full extent of her husband’s dissipation. The consequence of this rapprochement was that the granddaughter of a penniless London Jew became the last Queen of Tahiti.  

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