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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This Island's Mine

“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 ofsounds 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.”