Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Perpetual Pageant

Virginia Woolf in Vanity Fair, 1924

On this day in 1882, the incomparable Virginia Woolf was born. Here are some extracts from her letters, diaries, and “A Room of One’s Own” on the writing life that have inspired and reassured me many times over the years.

“But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things churning up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.”  
“It’s the curse of a writer’s life to want praise so much, and be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that writing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that on the whole I get infinite pleasure from it; that I make one hundred pounds a year; and that some people like what I write...”

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand, here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas and visions and so on, and can’t dislodge them for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this and set this working (which has nothing to do apparently with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.”

“But what a little I can get down with my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes, and not only to my eyes: also to some nervous fibre or fan-like membrane in my spine.” 

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached to life at all four corners...”

“Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively, ‘What’s the phrase for that?’”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Long Way to Tipperary

The damage inflicted by the German Navy on the commercial district of Papeete, September 22nd, 1914

For much of 2013, I was absorbed in reading books about or set in the First World War. Most recently I read “Life Class” by Pat Barker and “The Home Front” by Sylvia Pankhurst and dipped into “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, which made me cry as much as the first several times I read it. All this reading has been for the purposes of Albion’s Millennium to help me keep my facts straight about life on the home front - about convalescent hospitals, munitions factories, and Zeppelin raids. 

We tend to remember World War I as a European conflict, but across the other side of the world in Tahiti, the war was just as present and vivid and the national enmities just as strong. Tahiti as a French colony was automatically a combatant in the European conflict.

The biggest event of the war on Tahitian soil took place only weeks after war was declared. On the morning of September 22nd 1914, two warships hove into view beyond the reef at Papeete. The cruisers large and grey and menacingflew no identifying flags. A big crowd gathered on the shore to watch the ships including the Governor and the Bishop of Papeete. Ex-Queen Marau was there with her daughters as was her brother 64-year-old Tati Salmon.
Tati Salmon
Rumors and counter-rumors ran rife among the crowd. Were they German ships? What were their intentions? A bugle began to be played at the barracks to sound the call to arms, and the local defense troops hurried to man the town’s defenses. People started running along the streets, carrying bundles, getting ready to flee up into the mountains behind the town. Even the Governor’s wife was seen getting into an official car with her belongings. 

Suddenly without any warning the cruisers began firing 8½ inch shells over the heads of the spectators on the shore. At first the guns were aiming at a small fort in the hills, but many shells fell in the heart of the town. Fires were soon raging throughout the commercial quarter where the buildings, nearly all made of wood, burned quickly. Clouds of black smoke also came from the 2,000 tons of coal stored at the naval dockyard, which the local commander had ordered to be set alight so it couldn’t be seized by the Germans.

Marau rushed back to her house. Her relatives urged her to join the exodus inland, but she was loath to leave town because her 25-year-old son Ernest Salmon was one of the defenders. 

Ex-Queen Marau of Tahiti
I packed my papers and most precious possessions in the trunks, which were always held ready in case of cyclones without, however, being able to decide to go and leave my son behind. His post was at the battery of Mount Faiere, which the Germans were peppering with shells. None however had exploded because they were falling onto clay ground. My sister, Manihinihi, my daughter, Terii, and other members of my family whom I was urging to go and shelter somewhere out of the town, declared that they would not go without me. Realizing that I did not have the right to put them at risk and that my presence could not in any way protect my son, I decided to go in the car belonging to one of my nephews which took me to the bottom of a valley a short distance away from Papeete.  
Princess Takau Pomare

Before they left, Marau’s younger daughter Takau ran through the town to fetch Ernest’s wife Josephine who was eight months pregnant with her first child. The two women had just left Josephine’s house when it was hit by a shell and burst into flames. After delivering Josephine to Marau, Takau insisted the car leave without her while she ran back to her mother’s house to rescue her little dog whom she found hiding terrified under a sofa. With shells flying perilously all around, she and the dog managed to find a place in another car full of people heading inland. 

Tati watched the whole barrage from under a tree in front of the American Embassy. He wrote in a letter to Henry Adams, “I think it was the flag, the stars and stripes at the top of the flagpole, which saved the houses behind it [including] Marau’s house (our old one) and... the old palace.” The German ships fired more than a hundred shells at the city in total. After over an hour of constant firing, the guns suddenly ceased and, under cover of a sudden squall of rain, the warships sailed away to the north. By this time, two onlookers had been killed, and all of the buildings up to the Catholic cathedral had been destroyed by the fire, including Papeete’s famous Municipal Market, a total of £150,000 worth of damage.

Meanwhile, up in the mountains, members of the Teva clan erected a native shelter for ex-Queen Marau and her family, and her sister Manihinihi was able to supply food and other necessities from her own house which was nearby. The women saw the cruisers withdraw but feared they might make a landing at another part of the island. It would be three days before the commander of the local defenses sent word to the women that it was safe to return to town. The excitement had been too much for Josephine Salmon. Two days after returning to Papeete, she gave birth one month early to Marau’s grand-daughter, Monique. 
Lieutenant George Darsie Jnr

Since the end of the civil war in 1847, peace had reigned on Tahiti, so the bombardment was a rude awakening, bringing home the grim reality that this would truly be a global war. While there was to be no fighting on Tahitian soil, a total of 1,057 young men from Tahiti and nearby islands sailed to Europe to serve in the French army. The Battalion Mixte du Pacifique (BMP) played a key role in the capture of three strategic towns from the Germans in the second Battle of the Marne and received a citation for valor. Queen Marau’s son Ernest was one of the Tahitian poilus as was Norman Brander’s son Jock. Both survived the war, but 17 other men from the Salmon/Teva clan were not so lucky. Another member of the family ‒ George Darsie, one of Titaua’s two sons with her second husband ‒ also served, in this case in the British Army in the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. He was fatally wounded in July 1918 at the second Battle of the Marne – the same battle in which his cousins from the far South Pacific played such a vital part. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Beauties of the Island

Prince Alfred, 1866, National Portrait Gallery, London

I spent some time on the first weekend of the New Year watching the PBS/BBC documentary Queen Victoria’s Children. In the three-part film, Queen Victoria comes across as a controlling, eternally disappointed mother to her brood of nine. I was particularly interested in her second son and fourth child, Prince Alfred, whose story interacts with that of the Salmon/Brander family of Tahiti. 
Packed off to the Royal Navy at only 14, Prince Alfred was probably more fortunate than his brothers and sisters as he was able to escape his mother’s strictures and restraints. But this freedom came at a cost. He was far from home serving as a lieutenant on the HMS Racoon when in December 1861 his beloved father Prince Albert died of suspected typhoid fever. 
 Five years later the Prince was promoted to captain, granted the title the Duke of Edinburgh, and given command of the frigate HMS Galatea. In return, the British government tasked him with sailing the world as a kind of colonial ambassador on his mother’s behalf, a job that suited his nature very well. In 1867 and 1868, he visited the Cape Colony in South Africa and then went on to Australia where he became the first member of the royal family ever to set foot on Australian soil. He spent five months touring around the vast country and was met with great enthusiasm.
However, on March 12th, 1868, on his second visit to Sydney, he was attending a picnic to raise money for the city’s Sailors’ Home at Clontarf. The Melbourne Argus described what ensued: The Prince arrived at two o'clock, and, after luncheon, was walking with the Countess of Belmore and Sir William Manning, when an unknown elderly man came behind him, and drawing a revolver, shot the Prince... He fired at the Prince's back, when two paces off. The bullet entered two inches from the spine, passed through the muscles of the back, and round by the ribs to the front of the abdomen. The Prince immediately fell, exclaiming, ‘My back is broken.’ …the crowd rushed to raise the Prince and seize the assassin, who was only saved from being torn piecemeal by the exertions of the police and the Chief Justice… The Prince was carried on board the steamer Morpeth about four o'clock, suffering intense pain. Two lines of citizens formed an avenue from the marquee to the steamer, and profound grief was manifested by them. Many ladies fainted as the Prince was borne by. He arrived in Sydney about five o'clock, and was conveyed to Government House. The wound is not thought to be mortal, though it causes great pain. 
Attempted Assassination of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf, N.S.W. 1868, by Samuel Calvert.
The Prince was enormously lucky to survive as the bullet just missed his spine, but in fact he made a remarkably swift recovery, much to the relief of the citizens of Sydney who voted to erect a monument in his honor.  
In 1869, Alfred set out on a second world tour that was to take in Hawaii, New Zealand, India and Japan. On the way to Hawaii, HMS Galatea made a stop at Tahiti, and like so many others before and after him, Prince Alfred fell in love with the island. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I cannot tell you what a treat it was to arrive at Tahiti in the midst of all that tropical beauty of scenery amongst the most peaceful and charming inhabitants.” The Prince told his mother about being taken by the Governor to meet Queen Pomare. “This was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. The population of Tahiti and the neighbouring island of Eimeo [Moorea], who had all collected in town by the Queen=s order, were ranged along both sides of the way to the Queen=s palace (which is a low hut but very tidy and nice) and sung songs of welcome.” The Queen herself he described as being “a very kind good-natured old lady” while quipping that the Queen=s figure was a large as “two Dowager Duchesses of Somerset.”
While the HMS Galatea was in port, John Brander, the most powerful European landowner on the island, entertained the Prince and his fellow naval officers at Brander’s charming plantation house at Mahina. The 25-year-old Prince fell for the charms of the host’s much younger wife, Princess Titaua. Although Titaua had recently given birth to her seventh child, she was only 27 and very beautiful.
Titaua on the steps of the Mahina house
The Prince spent many enjoyable hours in the company of Titaua and her guests. His partiality for her was so evident that it occasioned some gossip. A photograph was taken of the group in which Titaua is sitting at the Prince’s feet and leaning on his knee, which must have fanned the flames of the rumor mill. 
The wife of another European trader, Mrs. Dora Hort, wrote waspishly, “The Prince and his companion Lord Charles Beresford, I can well believe had a very good time during their brief visit to Tahiti. If H.R.H. [His Rotal Highness] failed in devoirs of etiquette… towards his own consul and the Roman Catholic bishop, he was to be excused on the plea that there were no seductive natives or half-castes at either the Bishop’s Palace or the Consulate, and naturally he preferred to frequent those houses where he could amuse himself with the sirens of the Pacific.” Dora Hort’s reference to “half-castes” was probably aimed at Titaua who had a Tahitian mother and an English father, as Mrs. Hort cordially loathed Mrs. B (as she called her).  

The term is also used in a report about the Prince’s visit to Tahiti that appeared in the New York Times on September 5, 1869. Much can be read between the lines. The report says: “The Prince and suite associated with the half-caste population, and several photographs were taken of the Captain of the Galatea, one of which represents him standing between two half-caste girls. All the European houses were open to the officers and all the best feeling prevailed with everyone. Dinners and balls were given and the Prince was forced to remain four days longer than intended.” Or maybe he simply could not tear himself away from Titaua’s side.
When he left, he presented Titaua with a turquoise and diamond ring and pendant, which she kept all her life and passed on after her death to her daughter Georgina. Prince Alfred would clearly have liked to have stayed longer. He wrote to his mother, “We were all very sorry to leave Tahiti and regretted the shortness of our stay which prevented us [from seeing] more of the beauties of the island.” No doubt he hoped Queen Victoria would assume he was referring to the scenery.   
Prince Alfred had a long and distinguished naval career, culminating in his appointment as Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth in 1890. Three years later on the death of his uncle he inherited the title of Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the German Empire, but he was not happy living in the landlocked duchy far from the sea. And his last years were marred by tragedy. In January 1899, during the 25th wedding anniversary celebrations for Alfred and his wife, the couple’s only son shot himself after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving his mistress, dying two weeks later of his self-inflicted wounds. Eighteen months later, Alfred himself died of throat cancer at the age of 55. He was mourned by his four daughters, including the famous Marie, Queen of Romania.
L to R: Princesses Beatrice, Victoria Melita and Alexandra and Queen Marie of Romania