Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Land of My Ancestors

Idealized painting by George Baxter of the Queen, her husband and her children
contemplating the landing of the French troops on Tahitian soil
 Following on from my previous post, here is an extract from Children of Eden describing the journey that Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon took to the island of Moorea to persuade Queen Pomare to cede to the demands of the French.

 Salmon was by now convinced that Tahiti needed the protection of a Great Power to stabilize the country. And it was clear to him... that the British government, despite all attempts to persuade them, was not interested in being that power.
... the Queen in Moorea was surrounded by her most virulently anti-French relatives. Salmon was afraid that nobody would be there to argue the case for complying with the French demands unless he were to do so himself. He received “advantageous promises” from the Admiral to intervene on behalf of France, but Salmon turned down all such offers, knowing he had to convince all sides that he was “completely disinterested and without an ulterior motive.” 

“In this difficult position, I followed only the promptings of my conscience… I knew basically the weakness of the Queen’s government in relation to external affairs and I concluded it would be better to end it once and for all and to give Her Majesty powerful foreign protection in the management of her foreign affairs. I had in effect the future of Tahiti in my hands and I decided what I believed then and I still believe to be in her best interests. So I decided... to leave for Moorea.”
He did not go alone. Ariitaimai, seven months pregnant, went with him. They both knew that she, given her closeness to the Queen, was the most likely person to be able to persuade her to sign the French document. And they knew there was no time to lose. It took several hours to cross the nine miles of ocean between the two islands, and it was already evening when they arrived. They docked at the jetty at Papetoia at the same time as the boat carrying Tairapa and Mr. Simpson. They all shook hands and hurried through the compound to the Queen’s house. 

The building was the largest on the compound, one vast room like a marquee, 150 feet long and half as wide, under a low steep roof of pandanus leaves. The travelers stepped into the shaded darkness, their eyes adjusting from the dazzle of the sunlight. The interior was filled with curtains of fine matting that rustled and billowed in the breeze that blew in through the unglazed windows from the ocean, and fringed tassels fluttered from the tall center ridge pole.

Scattered around the room in various enclosures and recesses were gifts from foreign leaders - scratched rosewood writing-desks inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl, cut-glass decanters and goblets, gilded candelabras on their sides, sets of globes and mathematical instruments. Fine porcelain dinnerware, some pieces broken, lay underfoot. The pages of an embossed folio were held open with half a coconut shell. Rusty sabers and hunting guns lay among piles of lace hats and velvet and silk European clothes, all tangled in heaps with calabashes, rolls of old tapa cloth, paddles and fish-spears and plain Tahitian wooden furniture, all exposed to the salt air and mold of the tropics.
One of the Queen’s women came forward and led them to an enclosure where Pomare lounged on a pile of layered mats, trying to find a comfortable position for her very pregnant belly. She was surrounded by her retinue, her aunt Teriitaria, Queen of the Leeward Island of Huahine, and Tapoa, King of the Leeward Island of Bora Bora. 

Queen Pomare, looking careworn and weary, greeted them all anxiously, though her pleasure at seeing Ariitaimai was unmistakable. Tairapa delivered the Admiral’s message and showed her the letter that she was expected to sign.
The Queen immediately began raging about the actions of the chiefs, especially Tati, whom she felt had betrayed her. Ariitaimai tried to explain that her grandfather had signed the document only because he feared what would happen to Tahiti if he didn’t, but the Queen was not to be appeased. Her aunt and Tapoa told her in no uncertain terms to defy the French and refuse to sign, but Alexander Salmon respectfully spoke up and tried to counter their arguments. He described the damage that the guns of the French ships could do to the land and property of those she loved. He warned her of the many Tahitian and European lives that would be lost if the clans rose up to oppose the French. He pointed out that the letter guaranteed the sovereignty of the Queen and the chiefs over their dominions and that responsibility for all domestic affairs would remain in the hands of the Tahitians themselves. The French would extend their protection only over the direction of foreign affairs and everything related to foreign residents and port regulations. He painted a picture for Pomare of her capital restored to a state of peace and tranquility once she had the backing of a well-equipped military garrison capable of maintaining law and order. 

The Queen saw the truth in all this. Yet it still did not feel right for her to sign away any of her authority to the French. Darkness had fallen by now, and the lamps had been lit in the house, the candles flickering and dancing in the night air. Tairapa hesitantly reminded the Queen that the time was approaching when he would have to set off back to Tahiti with the answer - her signature or the money. In despair, she said, “But where do I have ten thousand dollars in cash? I have the land of my ancestors, and I have my people, but where have I ten thousand dollars?” At this, she began to cry, seeing no way out. 
She turned to Mr. Simpson, her friend and the only representative of her old ally Great Britain who was with her at that fateful moment, and told him she felt that she had no choice but to sign the paper. “I’m signing it only through my great fear, very reluctantly. I cannot pay the fine. If the Admiral fires on my people, they will massacre all the white men in Papeete before they run to the mountains. So I’m signing this paper only because of my great fear of the French, and to prevent the bloodshed they will cause by firing on my people.”

Then, still crying, she took the pen from Tairapa and signed her name on the document. Ariitaimai tried to console her, but Pomare could not stop sobbing. She went over to where her oldest son lay in the deep sleep of a seven-year-old on a mat nearby and, taking him in her arms, she rocked him against her massive belly saying through her sobs, “My child, I have signed away your birthright.”

The Reine Blanche and escort at anchor in Papeete harbor

1 comment:

  1. Gripping images, Fiona. You bring the scene alive through your details. I particularly like the image of all the gifts offered by various European leaders in a tangled heap with wooden paddles and island items. Your writing paints a picture, as always. Poor Tahiti. Beth