“Miranda – The Tempest” J. W. Waterhouse, 1916
Some weeks ago my husband and I saw a friend’s 15-year-old son play the role of Prospero in his high school production of The Tempest. (He was great.) Little did I realize how many memories it would bring back. When I was barely a year older than Max, I played Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, in a production at St Andrews University. I was still in high school and was only cast in the production because I happened to babysit the children of the director. The production convinced me I had no acting talent, but it left me with a long-term fascination with Shakespeare’s enchanted isle full of “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Many critics have interpreted The Tempest as foreshadowing colonialism. In the early 17th century, when Shakespeare was writing the play, European explorers were discovering new and unmapped worlds. Spain, Portugal, England, and France were sending their seafarers out across the seas to find and claim new lands for themselves.
But it wasn’t until a century and a half after Shakespeare wrote The Tempest that a European set foot on what was to become the world’s most famous island – Otaheite in the South Pacific, better known as Tahiti.
In June 1767, a British frigate HMS Dolphin commanded by Captain Samuel Wallis was on a voyage around the world, sent by the Admiralty to look for a continent in the South Pacific. While Wallis wasn’t able to find that lost continent (because of course it doesn’t exist), he sailed back to England full of praise for the glorious fertile island he’d found instead. “Tis impossible to describe the beautiful Prospects we beheld in this charming spot; the verdure is as fine as that of England, there is great Plenty of Live Stock, and it abounds with all the choicest Productions of the Earth.”
When he’d landed on the island, greeted with great enthusiasm by the Tahitians, Wallis’s first act had been to claim it for the Crown. He’d planted the British colors and named the island King George’s Land. It never occurred to him to ask if that was all right with the inhabitants.
Eighty years later, after Tahiti had been preyed upon by the roving navies and whaling ships of the world, a French naval officer showed up intent on claiming the island for France. Admiral Dupetit-Thouars used threats of bombardment and impoverishment to bully Queen Pomare IV into signing an agreement ceding Tahiti to the “protection” of France. The Queen appealed to Great Britain for aid, but by this time the British government had its hands full with its colonies in Australia and New Zealand and didn’t feel like picking a fight with France over one small Pacific island.
On Prospero’s magic isle in The Tempest, two characters represent the different ways in which the islanders responded to enslavement. From his unapologetically Euro-centric perspective, Shakespeare presented Caliban as a vengeful mutinous “monster” and the sprite Ariel as the cooperative helpmeet to her “master.” However, most modern productions have seen Caliban as a heroic freedom fighter against an alien oppression and Ariel as a collaborator with the enemy.
In 1842, the young Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon faced the same choice – negotiation/ surrender with the French or taking to the hills to fight. Like the other chiefs and prominent citizens of Tahiti, they found themselves torn, eager to preserve Tahiti’s independence but conscious of her vulnerability to any and all comers. Like most Tahitians, they resented being bullied and were highly reluctant to hand over the island’s sovereignty in response to threats, but they knew that blood would inevitably be shed and the well-armed French would never cease fighting until they had brought the Tahitians to heel. It was a terrible dilemma.
In the end, they decided that their primary responsibility should be to protect the country they loved from conflict. They reluctantly concluded that the benevolent “protection” of France would be the lesser of two evils, and they threw all their energies into persuading the Queen to acquiesce with the Admiral to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
It was a difficult decision and one they came to regret in later years. They must have often felt as did Caliban in The Tempest:
“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokest me, and madest much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t; …
And then I loved thee, and show’d thee all the qualities of the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! ...
For I am all the subjects that you have
Which first was my own king.”