TAHITI

Intrusion: Traders, Whalers, Settlers
1830s and 1840s

           

The island was in trouble. Not only because of the maneuverings of the French, the English, and the missionaries, but also because the intrusions of traders, whalers, and beachcombers were reaching a stage of debauchery and violence comparable perhaps to our present-day vandalism. An instance was the midnight attack on the American consul. Moerenhout is a various member of our dramatis personae. He came primarily as a merchant, trading mostly in pearls and pearl shell (nacre). They were the quickest and surest sources of riches in Oceania. He bought and sold schooner after schooner and toured the islands, bringing food and building supplies and pearl divers, taking back precious cargoes of nacre and of course the inevitable copra - cargoes of pungent smells. He wrote a copious and informative book - one thousand pages in two volumes - about his travels filled with careful observation and reflecting a sympathetic knowledge of the Polynesians. He was not fluent in their language, though he was indeed admiring of their ways. But there was a mysterious streak in him. Why did he bring back a lovely fifteen-year-old bride from Peru and then. After only seven weeks, depart on a year-long cruise whose destination and purpose was never explained? How did he manage to be appointed American consul in Tahiti?.

His official status in Tahiti is set forth clearly in two paragraphs of another of those regal letters from Pomare, this time to the king of France. This is my wish: that the king of the French shall send away the person who has caused all of my troubles. This is the name of that person: U.A. Moerenhout, Consul of France. This many by monetary bridges and other reprehensible collusions, has alienated the hearts of my principal subjects from their Sovereign in such a way that they have become traitors toward their Queen. This man does not observe the laws of my country, but only goes his own way and his conduct in general shows only his evil nature.

This man is not French, but comes from a certain country near France. He is a very bad man and a causer of troubles, and I can hardly wait until he no longer lives here. I am sure that when the King of the French comes to know his nature, he will send him out immediately.

Historical Leonce Jore says the letter was written by Pritchard and he is probably right. Note that it tries to be delivered in the Polynesian idiom, but its 'reprehensible collusions" are certainly not Tahitian. There are a not of unanswered questions in the dim background of this very active, aggressive man's career, but like so many other in the South Sea mists, they will probably never be revealed. At any rate, whatever his Machiavellian meddlings in politics and religion, he was always merchant and at this point in his life he had retired from voyaging and had set up a store in Papeete. He had what was probably considered a rich supply of goods on his shelves to trade mostly to whalers and other passing ships, but also to the English and French residents. One dark, rainy night shrieks and curses were heard. Moerenhout and his young Peruvian wife Petrini were found badly beaten up, unconscious and gravely wounded. So severely was the young beauty mauled that she died a few months later. Moerenhout blamed his arch rival the English missionary George Pritchard for setting a group of Tahitian bullies upon him, but subsequently a black man, "Sambo," a deserter from an American whaler, was apprehended, accused, tried, condemned and hanged. It seems most likely from the hazy records largely hearsay, that the was a common thief whom Moerenhout heard rummaging about his store. Petrini probably joined the fray with its tragic outcome. It was to be exactly fifty years before Robert Louis Stevenson visited Papeete, but in the grog shops of that harbor he might easily have recruited a good lot of his cast for Treasure Island. And it was to be only four years later that Melville jumped ship to spend some uncomfortable nights in the stocks at that famous "Calabooza Peretani."

Papeete to visiting sailors was indeed none grand, not-so-glorious brothel. Not much law or order restricting foreigners could be enforced except by foreigners. Traditional law and order, that is, respect for chiefs and their ancient arii blood line system had by now been undermined, at least as far as the waterfront was concerned. To all in authority it was woefully apparent that some sort of consistent regulation was needed. Tati, the senior chief of the Teva, was the most respected of the Tahitian. He and a few almost co-equal chiefs - Paofai, Utami, and Hitoti in particular - were apparently becoming aware that the Pomare "dynasty" in the person of Aimata and under the aegis of Pritchard could not control the hoodlums who were constantly coming and going in whaling and trading ships and frequently leaving the dregs of their crews as beachcombers. Only Europeans' rule could control European infestation. The queen persisted in believing that her sister Victoria would come to her rescue and she was encouraged now and then by a chauvinistic sea captain. One Toup Nicolas of H.M.S. Vindictive brought Pritchard back from Sydney in 1842 after his fruitless, year-long trip to England to plead with Lord Aberdeen for intervention. (The foreign secretary did not even give him an audience.) Perhaps fired up by his apocalyptic passenger, Captain Nicolas declared to Pomare that he would sink any French warship that threatened her and he made some grand promises that there would always be a British frigate to follow him. Pomare granted Captain Nicolas a fine piece of land for British naval used and he then sailed away and left her defenseless. The truth of the situation was that the individual sea captains were spoiling for a fight and could not resist the temptations to act like plenipotentiaries when ten thousand miles from home, even though their superiors in the Admiralty in London had not intention of precipitating another war with France. And it was much the same on the French side. The Ministry of Marine had clearly adopted a policy of caution while admirals at sea, such as Dr Petit Touars and La Place, were boldly flexing their muscles in the name of their king. Alas for Queen Pomare, the British had better control over their seagoing firebrands than did the French over theirs. Not much better to be sure, but enough to make the difference decisive in the end.

It is apparent that this uncertainty contributed greatly to the divisions, dissensions, and miseries that were to destroy the independence of the Tahitian people. The most engaging character surely is the English doctor Francis Johnstone. He came to Papeete about 1836, established his own private practice, and was evidently loved and respected by all, as is affirmed by the fact that he treated the Moerenhouts to their satisfaction and that when Pritchard was desperately sick in captivity he would have none but Johnstone. The exception is Melville, and it is curious that in Omoo he made such an unpleasant, swindling character of this good doctor when all of his other characterizations of islanders ring so true. Dr Johnstone was an amateur botanist of considerable repute. He imported and introduced a number of medicinal and other valuable plants and trees. He made exhaustive studies and listings of indigenous flora. Unfortunately his collections and papers were buried with him by his devoted Tahitians who evidently reverted to their ancient custom of interring with a high chief his most precious possessions adzes, ornaments, fishhooks and such.

One Edward Lucett, a merchant and trader of the times, was a not-so-savory personage, especially in the eyes of the French. He probably did smuggle arms now and then to the rebels and very likely a bit of whiskey went along with them. He was strongly British in sentiment and wrote an anonymous book called Rovings in the Pacific which is a venomously prejudiced pro-English, first -hand account of the French conquest, too biased and too vainglorious to be given much credence.

There were a number of notable visitors who have left a variety of impressions. Commodore Wilkes of the famous American Exploring Expedition stopped by in 1841 and his chronicler gives us his impression of our queen.

On the 7th of May one of the unhappy domestic feuds of the royal family threw the whole of Papieti into a ferment. The Queen followed by all her attendants, with great lamentations, rushed into a foreigner's house, to escape from their royal consort, who was pursing her, uttering dreadful menaces. The facts of the quarrel, as derived from authentic sources are as follows. As Pomare was on her way to Papieti from her residence at Papaoa, she was met by Pomaretani riding furiously. owing to the turn of the road, he did not perceive the queen's party in time to stop, and ran over one of the maids, knocking her down, and bruising her. Pomare, attributing the accident to his being intoxicated, began to abuse him in opprobious terms. Enraged at it, he dismounted and began not only to abuse, but also strike her. Not content with this, he caught her by the hair, threw her down, and attempted to strangle her, which he was only prevented from doing by the attendant, who held him until Pomare fled for her life. Disappointed to overtaking her, he hurried to her new palace at Papieti, and vented his anger by demolishing the windows, breaking open her boxes and trunks, tearing her wardrobe and finery to pieces - thus doing injury to the amount of some two thousand dollars.

On the perpetration of this outrage, the queen at first declared her intention of summoning the judges and suing for a divorce, but soon changed her mind, and forgave her husband on his promising future good behaviour.

The next year  Meliville's pleasantly contrasting account of his visit to Moorea.

In answer to our earnest requests to see the queen, we were now conducted to an edifice, by far the most spacious, in the enclosure. . . . Pushing aside one of the screens, we entered. The apartment was one immense hall, the long and lofty ridge-pole fluttering with fringed matting and tassels, full forty feet from the ground. Lounges of mats piled one upon another, extended on either side while here and there were slight screens, forming as many recesses, where groups of natives - all females - were reclining at their evening mea. . . . The whole scene was a strange one; but what most excited out surprise was the incongruous assemblage of the most costly objects from all quarters of the globe. Cheek by jowl, they lay beside the rudest native articles, without the slightest attempt at order. Superb writing desks of rosewood, inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl, decanters and goblets of cut glass, embossed volumes of plates, gilded candelabra; sets of globes and mathematical instruments; the finest porcelain, richly-mounted sabres and fowling-pieces, laced hats and sumptuous garments of all sorts, with numerous other matters of European manufacture, were strewn about among greasy calabashes half-filled with "oee," rolls of old tappa and matting, paddles and fish-spears, and the ordinary furniture of a Tahitian dwelling. . . . While were were amusing ourselves in this museum of curiosities, our conductor plucked us by the sleeve, and whispered, "Pomaree! Pomaree! armai kow kow."

"She is coming to sup, then, " said the doctor, staring in the direction indicated. "What say you, Paul, suppose we step up?" Just then a curtain near by lifted, and from a private building a few yards distant the queen entered, unattended.

She wore a loose gown of blue silk, with two rich shawls, one red and other other yellow, tied about her neck. Her royal majesty was barefooted. She was about the ordinary size, rather matronly; her features not very handsome; her mouth, voluptuous, but there was a care-worn expression in her face, probably attributable to her late misfortunes. From her appearance, one would judge her about forty; but she is not so old.

As the queen approached one of the recesses, her attendants hurried up, escorted her in, and smoothed the mats on which she at last reclined. Two girls soon appeared, carrying their mistress' repast, and then, surrounded by cut-glass and porcelain, and jars of sweetmeats and confections, Pomaree Vahinee I, the titular Queen of Tahiti, ate fish and "poee" out of her native calabashes, disdaining either knife or spoon.

"Come on," whispered Long ghost, "let's have an audience at once", and he was on the point of introducing himself, when our guide, quite alarmed, held him back and implored silence. The other natives also interfered and, as he was pressing forward, raised such an outcry that Momaree lifted her eyes and saw us for the first.

She seemed surprised and offended, and, issuing an order in a commanding tone to several of her women, waved us out of the house. Summary as the dismissal was, court etiquette, no doubt, required our compliance. We withdrew, making a profound inclination as we disappeared behind the tappa arras.

A not so well-known visitor was revealed recently by Bengt Danielson who translated the original account for inclusion in his splendid Memorial Polynesien, Tome I, 1521-1833. He is Samuel Stutchbury, an English professional botanist who visited Tahiti in 1826 and decided to make a trip across the center of the island, a formidable feat that no European had ever attempted up to that time and one that very few have attempted since, because the island is just as rugged today and the only means of transport is still shank's mare. Unfortunately it would not be as rewarding a trip now because his shy, mysterious settlement high in the mountains has undoubtedly disappeared after one hundred fifty years.

Statchbury sets out from Miripeha to the valley of Wyereede . . . a most fertile and magnificent valley, which must be, in our present-day translation of Tahitian place names, the Vairaharaha River Valley near the border of Mataiea and Papeari.

Our approach to the house of a friendly chief, named Onai, lay through patches of taro, arum, this plant requiring marshy ground for its growth; in these patches are found tow species of melania. The vicinity of his house was well marked by the beautiful and ample plantations of native fruits, including many which have been naturalized, such as oranges, custard apples, pine apples, water melons, etc. We were here met by the chief himself, one of the finest specimens of his race, standing at least six feet ten inches high, stout well-proportioned, and active. Upon reaching his house, I was introduced to his wife, a fine handsome young woman, known all over the island as the vahina na na or "handsome woman," but who at this time had only just been released from the heavy task of making forty fathoms of cloth for the state, which she had been adjudged to do by a jury, for absconding from her husband, and living with a chief belonging to a neighboring district in Tiarabu. Shades of Tavi and his Taurua?

He starts out in the usual way up the river bed toward Lake Vahiria and is soon immersed in the flora, collecting many specimens.

I now noticed with surprise what very excellent naturalists my guides were, their nomenclature being most extensive and certain; it mattered not, however insignificant the plant or insect, I had only to ask its name, when it was immediately given me. Suspecting that fiope, who was a clever shrewd fellow, did not like to expose his ignorance, I was afraid that he gave me names at random, an d very soon put him to the test by asking the guides separately, when I found them to agree in the specific names, although they carried their distinctions of varieties to such a nicety, that several, after a short contest, were left referable to a learned man, whose name I cannot now recollect: in fact, to such minuteness are these distinctions carried, that the natives generally reckon, and distinctly name, about seventy varieties of the cocoa nut tree (cocoa nicifera), above fifty of the bread-fruit tree, of which botanists only name tow species, the artocarpus incisa and integrifolia. It is by a careful nurture of the different varieties that they manage to have a constant crop of fruit, each tree often bearing four crops a year. Of the plantain and banana, the musa paradisaca, and sapientum, they name more than thirty varieties. Independently of this, they have names for all the different stages of growth and approaches to maturity of the fruit.

He climbs that wearisome, watery trail over which so many of us have sweated and stumbled, crossing the sleep river back and forth until, after counting its repetition upwards of sixty times, I gave up the attempt in despair. Having forced his way up not less than ten miles he comes to the great cataract falling from a height of four or five hundred feet. At last he comes to that miraculous lake and as usual finds that the only way to cross it is to swim or make rafts. Two rafts are made of dead banana tress, one for him and one for his collections and baggage, his guides will swim alongside and behind for propulsion. Of course the unfortunate fellow upsets midway across. This would be expected and would be no great tragedy except that Stutchbury lost all his precious botanical specimens. But he manages to keep his gun and powder dry and so was able to shoot a few ducks.

The guides took some red bole, which is formed by the decomposition of basalt, and kneading it into a plastic state, cut off the head, legs, and pinion portion of the wings, plastered the whole body over with the clay and then placed it in the midst of an ember fire when don, which they by practice seemed to know to a nicety, the ball was soused in water, the clay broken off, and the body of the duck produced entirely divested of feathers and skin, full of gravy, and highly palatable.

They built a leaf shelter and, My bed was formed by two succulent plantain trees, cut down and bruised into machee by large stones. This proved a wet but soft bed, and the principal objection to such a couch was, that when I arose in the morning, it appeared as if I had slept in a tub of indigo, the juice from these plants dying the body of a deep blue colour.

In the morning they climb arduously over the highest mountain but one of Tahiti. (The highest, Orefena, is over 7000 feet) and at noon finally reach the plain at the foot of the mountain. They found traces of a greatly-to-be-feared tribe of Tutiouries. Tutiouri he notes signifies rust of iron, tuti, defecated matter; and ouri iron, persons of a wild or heedless disposition, Anglice, vagabonds.

At last, In the evening we arrived at a very interesting village, distant, as I afterwards found, nearly twenty miles (which would put him about two thirds of the way across the island) from the sea-shore. This village or settlement contained about one hundred and fifty people - I think the healthiest and best looking men I have seen upon the island. They behaved with the greatest kindness, killing a hog and preparing an excellent repast, of which I partook, and at their persuasion remained with them during the night. At dust these natives assembled in a house adjoining, and kept up a heiva or dance until midnight, at which they were very importunate that I should be present, which I declined, rather desiring rest, which however was totally prevented by the myriads of mosquitoes. 

At our parting with these kind people, I was surrounded by a group of the elder and influential men, who, in the most energetic manner, entreated me not to mention their existence to the missionaries, informing me that they no longer continued their idolatrous practices, but that they at the same time had separated themselves from their fellow-men upon the shores, rather than subject themselves to the new code of laws and outwardly follow a persuasion they as yet had felt no conviction in the truth of. It was here that I observed the manners of a people, bearing some resemblance to those described by Wallis, Cook, etc; the women wearing high headdresses, their own luxuriant raven hair plaited and decorated with wreaths of high-scented native living flowers; their skin much fairer, carrying the bloom of health, and altogether forming a most astonishing contrast with those of the low lands - their clothes were their own manufacture; the men warning their graceful tibutas, or poncho, as the Peruvians would call it ( a sort of mantle, made of the bark of the bread-fruit tree, dyed yellow with turmeric, and painted by impressing fern leaves dipped in a red vegetable dye, and scented with the essential oil obtained from sandal wood); their persons clean and comely, with a bold ingenuous outward bearing, totally unlike the sycophantic, hypocritical, and degenerate race of the shores. 

Here then is first-hand corroboration of the foreign blight. And to emphasize its foreigners: At eleven, A.M. The ocean opened to our view, and in pushing for the beach, we had to pass through a long grass, called piripiri, which bears a burr covered with prickles of a most annoying kind, penetrating the clothes and scratching the skin, which in tropical climates is readily excited to information. The natives, to avoid this, always on passing through the grass, strip off their clothes, and thus avoid the painful purgatory which the European had to undergo, at whom they always laugh, stating that it justify punished only the foreigners who first intruded it. It was brought from Norfolk Island by Mr. Crook, one of the first missionaries, and is now as completely spread over the whole group of islands as totally to prevent the breeding of sheep, whom it speedily kills by getting into the wool, and worrying them to death by the constant irritation kept up.

Then after much geological and botanical detail our hero reaches the north coast, the first European to make a Magellanic transverse of the mountainous island of Tahiti. These mountain people who so charmed the impressionable English botanist were most probably a band of the Mamaia sect or cult, which was in exile at this time. They had been a group of dissidents inspired and led astray by a renegade native preacher named Teao. He began to attract attention in his own parish in 1827, in one of the outlying districts. Another preacher named Hue from Punaauia took up his refrain and almost overnight there was born a personal following that aroused suspicion among the missionaries, then anxiety and fear, and ultimately vigorous opposition.

Such splinter cults or throwbacks seem to be not uncommon when new religions begin to take over old ones and, from an anthropological viewpoint, this would have been a fascinating one of it had been allowed the missionaries whose accounts have recorded it for us were violently opposed. But it seems to have been a curious mixture of the old religion and the new. Jesus was apparently supplanting Oro, much as Oro had supplanted or was supplanting Tare not many decades before the Europeans arrived. And Jehovah the remote and mystical was supplanting Taaroa, the vague, distant creator of the Pacific world.

A grafting of these new gods onto their old basic religious philosophies made legitimate in Tahitian eyes a return to the old ways of song and dance and sex. An incipient Mamaiaisim had been tempting to Aimate before her kingly half-brother's death, and of course any such tendencies in the vivacious teenage wanton had to be swiftly eradicated when she became queen in 1827 at the age of fourteen. This may not have been difficult, for she was quickly isolated when her conversion and instruction was begun. But the cult by that time had been spreading dangerously. Its devotees had been chased into the hills and classed as "rusty feces," but still they persisted and had to be stamped out. This was accomplished mainly through the armed force and moral suasion of the high chief Tati, who was by then an ardent Christian and, in the reports of several visitors, the most Europeanised Tahitian on the island. So the Mamaia movement was annihilated, but the repercussions of its birth and death had severely shaken the religious fabric of the whole society - another and perhaps the most radical, cause of the unsettlement of the times.

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