Saturday, February 26, 2011

Call for feedback on Children of Eden

Myself (looking sunburned, sweaty and blonde!) with Yvette Brander,
the great-great-great granddaughter of Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon,
Tahiti, December 2007
Thank you one and all for reading the 13 episodes of Children of Eden: the Story of the Salmon Family of Tahiti on Midatlantic. This was very much the condensed version – the full book will contain more scenery and political and social context - plus lots more juicy details of the characters’ lives. Who needs soap operas when you have a true story as dramatic as this one to tell?!
Since I’m still writing the book itself, I would very much welcome your feedback on the extracts you’ve read on Midatlantic. Did you want to read more? Did the characters seem real and complex? Did any aspect of the story puzzle or confuse you or seem to be missing? (I know this story so well that I may have inadvertently left out some crucial piece of information without noticing.) Any comments and criticism you care to share will help me do justice to the amazing material I have been lucky enough to uncover. 
There are several ways you can send me feedback. On this blog, you can either leave a message in the comment box below (or below any of the individual posts that precede it) or take the short and sweet route by clicking on the brand new Response feature at the bottom of each post. It's small and therefore easy to miss but it's there!  
Otherwise, please feel free if the spirit moves you to send me an e-mail ( or – for those of you on Facebook – to comment either publicly or privately on my Facebook page.
Which is not to rule out the good old telephone or snail mail. All forms of communication are welcome.
Thank you!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Episode 13 - The Rise and Fall of a Family

Queen Marau in her later years

Ariitaimai never recovered from Pri’s death and followed her to the grave in 1897. With the matriarch gone, the family promptly fell apart. The brothers and sisters – once so close and loyal to each other – became embroiled in a bitter quarrel over their mother’s lands and possessions.
Tati, the new chief, explained the situation in a letter to Henry Adams. “Shortly before her death, Mother wanted to share out all her assets amongst the children and personally decide what each share should include. The plots in town [Papeete] were distributed with no problems... Then came the district lands. When all the shares were allotted and the documents ready for signature, Marau contested the division so strongly, objecting that my share was more valuable than her own, that the affair was brought to a halt and no conclusion has been reached.”
The dispute dragged on, becoming nastier over time. Marau was able to hold out because she had her pension from the French government to live on. But the other siblings, especially Tati and Narii, suffered because the land and property involved in the dispute was frozen by the court until a settlement could be reached. As Tati explained to Adams in despair, “Our quarrels prevent us from doing much because until each heir receives his allotted share, there is no point in undertaking any improvements... Huge sums of money have been spent needlessly [on lawyers]... A while ago the land was very valuable and, if there had been no court case, we could have sold a part of it for a big profit, but no one would buy now.”
In August 1904, seven years after the dispute began, there was a week-long celebration marking the inauguration of a new Teva family mausoleum at Papara. Tati extended an olive branch to Marau by asking her to attend the ceremony. In the mood of goodwill engendered by the occasion, Marau finally agreed to drop her lawsuit against her siblings. However, she did not offer to contribute any money towards the celebrations, and the rift between the ex-Queen and the rest of her family was never completely healed. And by this time the lawyers had feasted on the carcass of the family’s fortunes. 
Meanwhile, the Branders had been engaged in similar legal battles for many years. After the death of John Brander in 1877, Titaua married George Darsie, another Scot, who proceeded to mismanage the House of Brander and drive it into the ground. In 14 years, he reduced his wife’s personal inheritance from her first husband from $500,000 to no more than $150,000. The older Brander children sued their mother and her husband several times but were unable to prevent the hemorrhage of money from the family firm. By 1891, Darsie cut his losses. He sold the few remaining assets of his business and moved with Titaua, their three children and the two youngest Brander girls to his home town of Anstruther on the east coast of Scotland. Titaua died there six years later at the age of 58, thousands of miles from Tahiti.
The five Brander boys, left behind in Tahiti, had not been raised to have to work for a living. As Henry Adams reported, “The boys, who were educated on the scale of a million apiece, were reduced to practically nothing, or just enough for a modest bachelor’s establishment in Papeete.” In just one generation, the ambition of John Brander, a self-made man, to turn his sons into landed gentlemen had come to nothing.
Thus, in the space of less than a century, the Salmon/Brander family had its rise and then its fall. Narii and his son went down with their schooner in a terrible cyclone in 1906. Paea died in 1914 followed by Tati and Manihinihi in the Spanish flu epidemic in December 1918. Only two of the eight Salmon siblings survived after the war and the flu - Queen Marau and Moetia Atwater. Their long alienation from each other was finally over as their shared memories became more important than the quarrels that had driven them apart. They lived on into venerable old age, dying within months of each other in 1935.
Marau was the only Salmon to retain any social and political influence into her old age. Visitors to the island paid court to her and, while she was always welcoming, she seemed to grow more regal with age. In 1924, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor “for services rendered to the French cause,” the award which had been promised but never delivered to her parents 77 years earlier.
Not long before she died, she wrote a book detailing all of the pre-Christian legends, traditions and historical stories of Tahiti that she had been able to glean throughout her lifetime, and this manuscript was published posthumously in 1971. To this day, Queen Marau is considered a legendary figure in Tahitian history for her assiduous work in preserving its culture.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Episode 12 - The youngest daughters

Manihinihi (Cheeky) Salmon
The last two children of Alexander and Ariitaimai Salmon were daughters, Beretania and the youngest (born after Alexander’s death) Manihinihi – known to the family as Pri and Cheeky.
Henry Adams described Pri as having “great charm of both face and manner” but unfortunately no photograph of her seems to have survived. The quietest of the siblings, she had a passion for music. In the 1880s she studied music in Hamburg where she lived with her niece Margaret Brander (who was six years older than Pri) and Margaret’s rich German husband. But the cold northern climate proved disastrous to Pri’s delicate constitution. She developed tuberculosis, and the doctors ordered her home. She lived at the family’s Papara house with Tati and took charge of the many children of the household. When Henry Adams was visiting the family in 1891, he wrote anxiously about Pri, “She coughs incessantly, and is bored besides.” She died in 1894 at the age of 31 from a massive pulmonary haemorrhage and was mourned by the whole family, especially Ariitaimai, her elderly mother.    
Cheeky’s life was also ill-fated, though in a less obvious way. As she was growing up, her contemporaries were her own nephews (the sons of her older sister Titaua), and in her early 20s, she fell deeply in love with her nephew by blood, Norman Brander. Norman loved her in return, but he was already married to a granddaughter of Queen Pomare. In 1889, a scandal erupted in Papeete when Norman’s pregnant wife came upon Norman and Cheeky in bed together, and Cheeky had to flee to San Francisco with her sister Moetia Atwater to escape the wagging tongues.
Four years later, Norman was able to divorce his wife in the hope of marrying his aunt, but the Protestant church authorities would not allow the marriage because of the couple's close blood relationship. Compounding this was the fact that, in the Tahitian tradition, such a relationship was considered to be utterly taboo and unthinkable. Refusing to abandon the precepts of the religion in which she believed, Cheeky refused to live with Norman until such time as the church would allow them to marry.

Instead for the next 26 years, she lived quietly in the house on Broom Road with her mother, forced to suppress her feelings, even though she and Norman moved in the same small social and family circles. At long last, in July 1915, the church gave them a dispensation that allowed them to marry. But tragically they had only three and a half years of married life together before Cheeky died in the devastating Spanish flu epidemic in December 1918 at the age of 52.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Episode 11 - The Sons of Salmon

L to R: Narii, Ariipaea, and Tati Salmon c.1888

Alexander and Ariitaimai Salmon had three sons. The oldest Tati and the youngest son Narii were hard-working, conscientious men who were unfortunate not to inherit their father’s business acumen. Tati took up his father’s role in farming the family lands – growing, producing, and exporting coffee, oranges, vanilla, sugar cane, rum, and copra (dried coconut meat used to make soap). Narii, gentle and handsome, ran a pearl fishery in the Tuamotu Islands. Pearl diving was a very specialized and risky business, and Narii lost several boats and hundreds of dollars worth of goods in the frequent cyclones that plagued the southern Pacific.
By the 1890s, both Tati and Narii were over-extended and in deep financial trouble. Tati’s situation was exacerbated by the responsibilities associated with being chief of the Teva clan, which he had taken over from his mother. The chief was required by tradition to host feast days for up to 2,000 people to commemorate weddings, funerals, or important events in the clan’s history. All of the food had - by tradition - to be provided by the chief and his immediate household, and Tati was not one to shirk his time-honored duty.     
These expenses were compounded by Tati’s immense generosity to visitors from overseas, a tradition fundamental to the Tahitian way of life. New arrivals always came equipped with letters of introduction to Tati Salmon from former visitors to the island who had benefited from his largesse in the past. His guests included the penniless Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, Count Rudolf Festetics von Tolna of Hungary, and Prince Oscar of Sweden among many others.
But no visitor left a more lasting impression than Henry Adams, the American historian, who visited Tahiti in 1891 after his wife’s suicide. He was wholeheartedly embraced by the whole Salmon family, which helped him to recover his zest for living, and for the rest of his life he was devoted to them. When he discovered the extent of Tati and Narii’s debts, Adams, a multi-millionaire, immediately insisted on helping them financially. The brothers were grateful and always intended to pay Adams back, though he had no desire for them to do so. In late 1892, Tati accepted Adams’ invitation to visit him in the United States. In Washington DC and New York, Adams introduced Tati – “a giant of copper hue, and great social success” – to many famous Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, later the 26th President of the United States.
The middle son, Alexander Ariipaea (known to the family as Paea) had his own struggles. A loner by temperament, he spent 11 happy years on Easter Island running his brother-in-law John Brander’s vast sheep ranch and helping to preserve the artifacts and culture of the island’s native population. But in 1888 the House of Brander sold its land on the island to the Chilean government, and Paea had to come home. He was as gentle and amiable as his brothers, but his love of alcohol and his spendthrift ways got him into repeated trouble. After spending time in prison in Papeete for assault and battery, Paea lived in the remotest of the Tuamotu Islands where he collected oral histories from the residents as he had done on Easter Island. Later in life he moved to San Francisco where he was implicated in a farcical scheme to marry ex-Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii for her money and was arrested for non-payment of debt, before being bailed out by his sister Moetia Atwater.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Episode 10 - None of Them is Yours!

King Pomare V of Tahiti
The reconciliation between the new King and Queen lasted long enough for a daughter, Princess Terii o Tahiti Pomare (“Boots”), to be born in 1879, but the marriage soon disintegrated again when the king resumed his old habits. Marau wrote later in her Memoirs, “When I complained about it, he replied ‘What is it to you? Are you not the Queen?’”
Marau was certainly enjoying her elevated status, expecting deference even from her own family. However, her reign as consort was about to come to an abrupt end. After only three years as sovereign, King Pomare V was penniless and tired of his official responsibilities. In return for a pension for all of the members of the royal family, including Marau, he signed an agreement with the French authorities in June 1880 making Tahiti a fully fledged colony of France. Although the monarchy was officially abolished, Pomare and Marau continued to be accorded the titles King and Queen of Tahiti during their respective lifetimes. This was some personal consolation to Marau, but she grieved for the loss of her country’s last vestige of independence.  
This did not mean she was anti-French. In 1884, she traveled to Paris where she created a media sensation. The press followed her every move, and Parisian society women copied her Tahitian style of dress. On the long voyage home, she fell in love with a French naval officer, with whom she conceived a second daughter and later a son. Not surprisingly, the King took Marau’s pregnancies as a slap in the face and demanded a divorce. His petition was heard and granted at a public hearing in Papeete in January 1888. When Pomare accused Marau of adultery, claiming that only the oldest girl was his, she leapt to her feet, yelling, “None of them is yours!” As the American historian Henry Adams later remarked after hearing this anecdote, “For an exchange of insults, I have heard of nothing finer!”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Episode 9 - A Royal Marriage

Marau Salmon, Queen of Tahiti

The loss of Alexander Salmon was devastating to his family, but it did not affect their financial situation. There were the usual fluctuations in commodity prices, but John Brander was a shrewd businessman and made sure that the family’s interests were well-diversified.
But Alexander’s absence did have a profound effect on the life of his third daughter, Marau (Mar-ow). During Alexander Salmon’s lifetime, he had consistently refused to allow any of his daughters to marry Queen Pomare’s dissolute sons, despite the Queen’s desire to unite the Teva and Pomare families. However, now she was alone, Ariitaimai could no longer resist the urging of her oldest and closest friend. Reluctantly she agreed to let Marau marry the Queen’s oldest son, 36-year-old Prince Ariiaue (Ary-a-ohy). The wedding took place on 28th January 1875, three months before the bride’s 15th birthday.
The heir was an alcoholic whose favourite cocktail was a mixture of champagne, beer, absinthe, whisky, red wine and Benedictine. He was also embroiled in an affair with his younger brother’s widow. As Marau later recalled in her Memoirs, “The prince was soon giving himself up to behavior that was impossible for me to tolerate... I went back to live with my mother... But the Queen was no less affectionate to me and not a day passed without us going to see her or her surprising us with a visit.”
Distressed by the collapse of her son’s marriage, the Queen’s health began to suffer, and on 17th September 1877 she died of heart failure aged 69. This was a hard blow for Ariitaimai who had been the Queen’s closest friend and confidante for over half a century. According to Marau, “I would hear them laughing together, something which didn’t happen often to Pomare... even with her children.”
The whole country went into mourning. The chiefs and the French authorities were equally concerned about the dissolute life led by Prince Ariiaue and debated whether they should allow him to succeed his mother. The chiefs asked Ariitaimai to allow Marau to become Queen in her own right, but, as she had done in 1846 when Governor Bruat had offered her the throne, Ariitaimai refused for fear of provoking a civil war. So the chiefs told Ariiaue that they would approve his elevation to the throne only if he would resume living with Marau and give up his mistress, and the Prince agreed. Marau also agreed, hoping that her husband’s behavior would change for the better now that he had a new responsibility to his country. The Governor then summoned the Legal Assembly, which proclaimed the couple King Pomare V and Queen Marau of Tahiti, Moorea, and dependencies. Thirty-six years after a penniless English Jew had arrived in Tahiti, his daughter had become a Queen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Episode 8 - Love and War

Moetia Salmon and Dorence Atwater
The Salmons' second daughter, Moetia (Mo-ee-tee-a), was a gentle girl, often in the shadow of her older sister, Titaua. At the age of 17, she accompanied the Branders on their trip to Europe. On her return, she lived quietly with her widowed mother but was much sought after in marriage. But when she fell in love, she followed her mother and sister in losing her heart to a man from a far-away land.
Dorence Atwater, a young man from Terryville, Connecticut, arrived in Tahiti in 1871 as the new American consul. At the outbreak of the Civil War 10 years earlier, he had lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 16. Captured after the Battle of Gettysburg, he was imprisoned in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia. Because of his beautiful penmanship, he was given the job of recording the names and burial places of all prisoners who died. Convinced that the camp commandant was deliberately allowing thousands of men to perish from exposure, disease, and malnutrition, he began making his own secret copy of the list, which he smuggled out of the camp when he was paroled at the end of the war.
By bringing this list to the attention of the famous Clara Barton (later to found the American Red Cross), Atwater helped her to identify and mark the graves of almost 13,000 Union soldiers who had died in the horrific conditions of Andersonville. Barton publicly praised his “forethought, courage, and perseverance” and the New York Citizen hailed him as “one of the unquestionable heroes of our recent war.”

Yet far from appreciating Atwater’s efforts, the US Army accused him of stealing government property for refusing to relinquish his original copy of the list. In September 1865, he was court-martialed, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and sentenced to 18 months hard labor at Auburn State prison in New York. Although released after only two months, Atwater was deeply embittered by his treatment by the US Army. He told his brother, “The sight of a uniform makes me foam at the mouth.”

He had lost both parents during the war, his health was destroyed, and he had no means of support. Clara Barton employed him as her assistant for a while but eventually succeeded in getting the US government to offer Atwater a consulship, first in the Seychelles for three years and then, in 1871, in Tahiti.

When he arrived in Papeete, wracked with rheumatic pains and subject to violent attacks of asthma, the locals were alarmed by the young man's debilitated appearance. The consulate was located next door to the Salmon family house on Broom Road, and Ariitaimai took to sending him delicacies and people to nurse him. One of those people was Moetia, and gradually she and Dorence grew closer. In October 1875, they married.

The San Francisco papers went into raptures over the match, calling Moetia “the handsomest and wealthiest girl in the South Seas.” Like Alexander Salmon before him, Dorence Atwater came into substantial property when he married his wife, including a vanilla plantation in Papara and valuable pearl fisheries around the Scilly Islands. Atwater was an astute and ruthless businessman and turned these properties into lucrative enterprises. 

The Atwaters had no children of their own but informally adopted the oldest daughter of Moetia’s sister Marau, who was separated from her husband, King Pomare V. The child Terii was known to all the family by her nickname of “Boots.” The couple was fond of her, but she proved to be quite a handful and when she entered convent school in 1888, the couple left her in the charge of Moetia’s brother, Tati.  

The Atwaters divided their time between Tahiti and San Francisco as the humidity of Tahiti was not good for Dorence’s asthma and rheumatism. After Dorence retired as consul in 1888, the couple traveled widely – to Mexico, the Far East, and several times to Europe.   
In November 1910, Dorence’s health finally gave way and he died in their apartment in San Francisco. Moetia brought his body back to Tahiti, and he was buried with the same splendor and honor as was accorded to the kings and queens of Tahiti.
When Moetia’s finances were undermined by the destruction of her properties in Papeete during World War I, she decided to petition the US government for a widow’s pension in recognition of Dorence’s service in the Civil War. After a long battle that took her often to San Francisco and Washington DC, she finally succeeded in 1920 and was granted a pension of $40 a month. She lived on for another 15 years, sharing her country home with her niece Boots, now the Princess Terii o Tahiti Pomare. Moetia Atwater outlived all of her siblings, dying in August 1935 at the age of 87.