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Check to Your King

Chapter Nine — The Sunset Gun

page 68

Chapter Nine
The Sunset Gun

Nukahiva was an Eden. It seems rather a shame, on top of that, to confess that Tahiti, where there was any amount of sin and copra was more typical of the Pacific. But the fact remains that Tahiti – variously spelled by old mariners as Otaheiti, Otaheite – was one of the few places on earth which became definitely more respectable after the French took it over.

At the time when the Active entered Papeete Harbour, Tahiti was still a native kingdom, under the autocratic rule of Queen Pomare. Great native rulers are not uncommon. One may find anything among them from a Napoleon to an unbridled altruist. Pomare, though large, was not great; one therefore found in her, as in the ruck of little rulers, equal parts of superstition, vanity and childishness. She had her virtues… generosity, friendliness, those inseparables of the native character. However, Tahiti had been too long the rendezvous of thousands of sailing-ships to be an uncomplicated kingdom, and its queen was not the best of riders for the veering wind of her day.

Wherever civilisation has come into contact with a native principality under a weak ruler, one looks about for the white man who has dug himself in as power behind the throne. Sometimes he dispenses gin and muskets, sometimes his stock-in-trade is religion. If he is not juggling with the idea of a native army, he appears in the capacity of Ghostly Discomforter.

Pomare was an autocrat, but the gentleman who alternately bellowed and whispered in her ear was the Rev. Mr. Pritchard, a seasoned missionary of the Church of England. Mr. Pritchard was a man of forceful character, shrewd humour, energy and enterprise. He was as respectable as is possible with a sectarian bigot, who, one must remember, is always being urged by his God towards acts of violence.

The landing at Papeete Bay was accomplished without hitch where the de Thierrys were concerned, but it ended the voyagings of M. Bertholini and M. Morel. Charles had endured enough. Finding that no white man could land without the permission of Queen Pomare, he sat himself down in his cabin and scrawled a confidential letter, duly interpreted to Her Majesty by Mr. Pritchard. The page 69 end was that Bertholini and Morel were not permitted to land, and the last Charles saw of them, as the long-boat pulled off from the Active, included two furious faces and shaken fists, whilst on the breeze, already stiff with copra, proceeded language which made Margaret Neilsen stuff her fingers in her ears and shriek to her charges to do likewise.

Shark-toothed mountains rose up steep and purplish, framing the glitter of the harbour. There were many ships at anchor, British, French, and American colours bobbing bright in the wind. Among them, stately, streams the de Thierry crimson and azure, a totally new variety of flying fish.

Charles's own ideas of what was comme il faut for royalty were perhaps a little ponderous. His first audience with Her Majesty of Tahiti relieved him of some illusions. From the beginning, Pomare shocked him. Those twelve ladies-in-waiting… Charles says they were no better than geisha girls of the Pacific, each of the hussies having her favourites among the sea captains, who brought them back presents, the costliness of which would have made many a Liverpool wife cry her eyes out. (Well, indeed, would one have wished the white races to add stinginess to all the rest?) He says hotly, that one could not walk along the beach without seeing – impossible to avoid it – scandalous episodes between these ladies-in-waiting and sailors who should have known better. It became a matter of picking his way among lovers. As to Pomare herself, Charles hints rather darkly. She shared in the presents, anyhow.

Much of this animus may be due to the first violent reactions produced when Queen Pomare received the party, herself squatting on the floor of a palm-thatched hut. Her smile enchantingly toothy in her dusky face, the Queen was wearing dilapidated blue dungarees, a man's cotton shirt, wide open over prodigious breasts, and an astonishing plug hat of dingy felt, pulled down over her shining black hair. Her remaining beauties, sparkling teeth, lustrous treacle-dark eyes, were not set off to perfection by this costume. But to crown all, when the Baroness modestly offered Her Majesty a gift of beautiful shawls bought in Panama, the Queen unhesitatingly pulled off her shirt and donned the brightest.

However, the auspices under which the party were introduced to Tahitian life seemed favourable, if not formal. Three days after, Pomare visited the de Thierrys, coming followed by two canoes, laden with breadfruits, yams, and taro roots. The de Thierry boys, less prone to standing on ceremony than their father the King, page 70 quite took to Her Majesty, and thus found themselves delightfully initiated into the ways of her outlandish world.

Old Pritchard, the missionary, was the man to whom one must turn for everything… information about the royal mind, about the best aspect for a house, about which sea captain was an honest fellow and which a villain. The missionary escorted Charles around the leafy houses which looked over Papeete Bay, grumbling all the time about the demoralising effect of religion on the energies of the natives.

“Teaches them respect, Baron, right enough. But when it comes to work, and I have to choose between a Church boy and a Tahitian ‘devil’, give me the devil every time.”

This Tahitian passion for repose was the occasion for the Affair of the Roast Pig. It was Charles who wrecked the Tahitian Sabbath, which has never been the same again. Those unacquainted with the islanders can have no idea how seriously, upon conversion, they will insist on taking some of the Commandments. Especially “Thou shalt do no manner of work”. When Pomare joined the ranks of Mr. Pritchard's converts, it became a fantastic impossibility to persuade a native to do any work on Sundays. After some thought, the Queen passed an edict forbidding hot Sabbath meals.

This affronted the King of Nukahiva. He was still enough of an Englishman to enjoy his solid Sunday dinner. The roast pork of Tahiti was delicious; to waste it seemed a crime. He consulted the Rev. Mr. Pritchard, who, physically at least, gave no sign of despising the pleasures of the table. Mr. Pritchard shook his head. He couldn't very well, having converted the Queen and half the islanders, go back on his own commandments.

From the two palm-thatched cottages where the de Thierrys and Major Fergus had installed themselves, curls of smoke, next Sunday, defied all strictures. Nothing was said. Charles was amazed to see that the Sunday after, the Queen's own residence brandished a smoke-plume. One week more, and the Pritchard mansion fell into line.

Major Fergus, now right-hand man and sole remaining support of the King, wins his heart's desire. Major Fergus is placed in command of an army. Run up the blue-and-crimson flag!

Halte, la! It is perhaps a very small army, only eighteen soldiers, all natives; seven of them New Zealanders, the rest Tahitian boys. At first sight it may seem one can't do much with so tiny a force, but that is the unimaginative point of view. For example, one can dress the good fellows. The army donned white cotton jackets and trousers, palm-leaf hats with the de Thierry colours in silk page 71 cockades, silver-studded belts. The sun was hot, the army sweated as Major Fergus roared, “Right wheel!” But no native was going to sacrifice a kit like that, not if he melted in it. They were armed with muskets, and every evening at eight o'clock a gigantic Maori, hewn like a statue, fired off his musket to warn the anchored ships of the hour. The sunset gun became the signal for each ship to strike eight bells. Behind the furled sails, gleaming white or stained and sea-worn russet, would flare and sink the copper ball of the sun, so fierce that one would expect the sea to hiss as that molten rim drove into it.

They bought two horses, a raw-boned brown for Fergus, for Charles a white-stockinged chestnut, with a white star on his noble brow. Black Aladdin was waxing fat. And the three – little dark-haired maiden, Frenchman, and bony Scot – would ride far into the long Tahitian grass. They saw Fiamali, the sweet-scented marriage of the flowers. The vanilla plant would remain sterile, but that brown fingers yearly wed pollen to blossom, in evenings of scent so intoxicating that life is no longer a concrete affair of problems and necessities, but only this drowning sweetness, ebbing over the world, sweeping men away more surely than did the Deluge; but not into death, only into that long, reasonless enchantment which is perfect happiness.

Ride on, ride on, into the long Tahitian grasses. The moon is slumbering somewhere at the heart of it, at lair like a golden beast of fairy-tale. Ride through the swishing shadows… you may startle the moon into rising up and taking pterodactylic flight above that blue crag of trees. You cannot fail now, there is no failure while the magic strength of his night's love-philtre stings in your senses. See, the little vanilla flowers are wedded and happy; it is to be a fertile and prospering world. Your dreams must surely be fertile too, since you have brought their petals here, to spread out and accept their destiny in this long grass.

They saw one night a Tahitian ghost. There was a strange oppression over the plains of long grass. Fergus prophesied a thunderstorm. Isabel's black curls, tied with a cherry ribbon, bobbed behind a face too pointed and phantasmal for a child's. Charles felt his horse's coat thick with sweat under his hand. They reined in. Then they heard a scream of horror from a native boy who was riding some distance ahead. The grasses, half a mile away, seemed suddenly to catch alight, yet they were not consumed. Afar there, under the knotted palms, something round and blazing whirled, moving rapidly towards them. It had no shape, yet it was more unearthly than any shadow of the human page 72 form could have been. Charles felt his horse plunge, saw Fergus catch Isabel's bridle and swing her across to his saddle, leaving her mount to follow as best it pleased. The rest was a wild chase through the jungle of grass. The native's account next day was a mere terrified babble, with the word “spirit” repeated again and again. They never found any explanation of this apparition, and the boy remained sick for many days.

The ends of the New Zealand settlement were far from being forgotton during these Tahitian months when M. Vigneti and the Active were expected to heave in sight again at any moment. Charles made public his proposals wherever he could think of a possible audience. Where the project of the little Independent State was concerned, he acted with considerable stateliness. Wrote to His Majesty the King of England, through the Duke of Wellington, Secretary for Foreign Affairs; to the King of France; to the President of the United States of America. He discovered from the sea captains that a British Resident, Mr. James Busby, had crossed from Sydney to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, endeavouring to keep some check upon the activities of British subjects in that wild No Man's Land. With old-fashioned courtesy, Our Charles instantly places his plans in full before Mr. Busby too; thereby, as events proved, creating more sensation than anything that had happened since Abel Tasman found the place.

Were I going on a piratical expedition, I would not be so anxious to keep the British Government apprised of my plans. I have made known to His Majesty… that I am on my way to establish an independent government, having for object the diffusion of commerce and agriculture, and the civilisation of the aboriginals.… I respectfully assured His Majesty's Ministers that I would withdraw from all political arrangements at once if New Zealand were in any way considered a possession of the British Crown. But unless such is the case, and if New Zealand is really unfettered, I must, either as an Englishman or a French citizen, be allowed to bring my arrangements to maturity, and, calling myself a Sovereign Chief, will exert my best energies to check the growth of Republicanism.

(Extract from a letter written to the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke, of whom, together with the little matters of Republicanism, Mr. Busby, the eating of hats by various gentlemen, and what the New Zealand Aboriginals said about it all, considerably more must be said anon.)

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The sea captains who made Pomare's Papeete their home away from home were mostly friendly souls. Many a summer's evening, after the sunset gun, charts of New Zealand and Australia were spread out, and the wealth, dangers, and possibilities of his Hokianga lands were explained by men who knew the country. Captain Crozier, of the Victor, struck up a friendship, and warned Charles of the white settlers who had made their homes on his 40,000 acres.

“Thirteen years, Baron… it's a long while, you know, and there's many a kauri tree you might once have called your own sailing the seas as pretty as you like, stuck in some ship's mast-hold. I'm afraid you'll find dirty weather ahead in New Zealand. But in Sydney I can give you introductions which may smooth the way.”

The outstanding exception to this rule of genial Jack Tars was supplied by Captain FitzRoy, of the ship Beagle (at a later day to become Governor of New Zealand). Captain FitzRoy had transported Charles Darwin around New Zealand coasts. “We were all glad to leave New Zealand,” wrote the man of science, ungratefully. “It is not a pleasant place.”

FitzRoy arrives from Point Venus at the de Thierry house, in company with another of the Beagle's officers. Charles welcomes him in, offers him lemonade. But the conversation that ensues!… Complexions go slowly through half a spectrum, rosy pinks, brilliant scarlets, fine, mottled purples. In ten minutes Charles is on his feet, expostulating, losing his breath through indignation, popping off again. A pirate and a smuggler!… To be accused of these machinations would be enough at a sitting, one would think. But the Captain has another fowl to pluck. The Baron de Thierry, according to this sailor, is impersonating the Baron de Thierry. The proper Baron de Thierry lies tucked away in his grave, the whole time.

“That one's dead, poor fool, as many of us are aware. As for you, sir, it has come to my knowledge that you're no better than a pirate and an imposter, and have robbed this unfortunate gentleman both of name and credit.”

“Captain FitzRoy, it seems that you are not intoxicated. Are you insane, then?” A duel between them is only averted by shrieks from the Baroness. Charles spends the night writing enormous, wrathful letters… one to Captain FitzRoy, providing a list of references long enough to have stunned the Pope, the other to Sir Richard Bourke.

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Otaheiti, November 21st, 1835


I am truly sorry that my first letter vo Your Excellency should be dictated by a sense of injuries done me and premeditated by an officer in His Majesty's service.… The enclosed copy of a letter addressed by me to Captain FitzRoy of H.M.S. Beagle will make known the subject of my complaint. Trusting in Almighty God and my own integrity, I have brought my project thus far. The cutting of the Isthmus of Darien, which is destined to have such an immense effect on the commercial importance of His Majesty's colonies in these seas, is but part of our designs.…

In his house at Sydney, that exceptionally fair-minded man, Sir Richard Bourke, was to become all too familiar with the great scooped G's and T's of his noble correspondent. Sir Richard was a patient man. From the hour when he received his first immense letter from Charles, he behaved with a calmness which did him credit.…

Yet how often he must have longed for just one thing: that the Baron de Thierry should cease to moralise to the tune of ten pages a time.

Vigneti's ship never comes, nor any word from Panama. The lustrous orb of the Baron's sun is dimmed a little; but quite suddenly the cloud lifts. There arrives a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, dated August 25th, 1835. Months after he should have heard the news direct from Panama, Charles learns that by acclamation the Congress of Bogota have granted to the Baron de Thierry, for fifty years, all rights in the cutting of the Panama Canal. His plans for the Canal direction have been accepted with not a hair out of place.

Provided that M. Salomon and the allied mercantile houses at Panama, London and Havre will only keep faith as they promised, here sits the King and Sovereign Chief, just forty, and with one of the world's most important concessions safe in his hands.

Everyone becomes polite.

About this time, Tahiti was plunged into a religious disturbance which ended its run as an independent kingdom. In 1835 England had no Consulate in the island, and the natives badly needed protection in trade, also representation when their grievances boiled over the domestic pot. Mr. Pritchard was the most influential white man in Tahiti. With his consent, then, page 75 and at the request of Queen Pomare and a large body of Tahitians, Charles drew up the most beautiful petition, praying that the Rev. Mr. Pritchard be appointed His Brittanic Majesty's Consul.

In due course, the British colours flew proudly over Mr. Pritchard's house. America had also appointed a Consul, a kindly individual named Moerenhaut. Mr. Pritchard though gruff and forthright, was a shrewd old philosopher, but he presented one drawback. His Christianity was too muscular. Of the Church of England himself, he could not abide horses of any other colour. Especially not Roman Catholics.

On November 24th, all Tahiti was set astir by a strange sight. From a tiny schooner, sailed by Captain Henry from Gambier Island, landed the first two French priests to visit Tahiti. Two miles they trudged to Papeete, speaking nothing but the French language, and having with them no interpreter. Word flew from one house to another, as the strangers walked slowly between them: two men in soutanes of a heavy white woollen stuff, not unlike camlet, the trains of their gowns tucked up into their girdles. One was a giant, whose great strides seemed to be hurrying him over the edge of the world into some visionary abyss. The slighter of the priests appeared not much more than a boy.

The pair walked hatless, carrying flat black hats under one arm. Each bore a massive Bible, its black covers sealed and crossed with gold. As they advanced, they bowed and smiled to every man who passed them, white or native.

There was more fuss than if the phoenix had not only landed in Tahiti, but had at once sat down and laid an egg.

George de Thierry came in, red-faced from a morning gallop. The island sun had done well by the boys. They wore the minimum of clothing and spent their lives out of doors. Will, now a golden-brown urchin highly polished with coconut-oil, mixed native words with his first attempts on the English language.

“There's trouble ahead for the two French priests, sir. What possessed them to land without the Queen's permission, and with no interpreter?”

Charles mutters a reference to the improbability of early Christians taking out permits before entering the den of lions and offering themselves as a meal for the famished creatures.

“But surely… Mr. Pritchard?”

The two priests had at once turned their steps to the English missionary's house. Mr. Pritchard, warned, had taken to his page 76 heels, and was discovered later aboard a whaler and drinking grog. He would have nothing to do, he said, with the Scarlet Woman. The unfortunate Mrs. Pritchard, unable to take refuge on a whaler, unwilling to be free with any Scarlet Woman, was obliged with her family to adjourn to the waterfront, and remain there in the trying heat of the day. Before nightfall, the island kingdom was split violently into two factions. One wanted the French priests either knocked on the head or thrown off the island. The others desired to see fair play. In the latter camp, the prime movers were the American Consul and Charles de Thierry.

Mr. Moerenhaut unhesitatingly put a thatched house on his own grounds at the disposal of the Frenchmen. Charles, plunging quill into ink, sat busily translating into English a protest which the priests were submitting to Pomare against the forbidding attitude of the islanders. The one and only available interpreter of French, Charles is indispensable now; nor can he resist appending his own notes to the plea, mentioning that while his father-in-law is a dignitary of the English Church, the priests, being Frenchmen, would doubtless command French protection, that it was high-handed of Her Majesty to prevent peaceable folk from landing at Tahiti; and, finally, a pious hope that all would be smoothly arranged.

Meanwhile, stories of the Scarlet Woman were inflaming the natives. Moerenhaut influenced in the Frenchmen's favour two very powerful chieftains, Etote and Paofai, of whom Pomare herself was reputed to be nervous. Etote and Paofai gave orders that the priests' luggage was to be brought ashore from the little ship, which still lay anchored. This was done, their belongings being installed in the house on Moerenhaut's land. The landing was made on a Sunday.

Next day the priests won ground in a royal audience, and persuaded Pomare to accept some golden doubloons and a chest of shawls. But outside, the island was in confusion. Mr. Pritchard roamed everywhere, explaining that his God was no relation to that of the Scarlet Woman, and giving highly coloured descriptions of the Beast on which the latter sat.

So much for the supernatural. But throughout the Pacific, wherever the French approached the native races, there was another weapon to turn against them. “Children of Marion… Children of Marion.…”

That began after poor Marion du Fresne's shocking butchery, on New Zealand shores, and in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The terrible vengeance taken by survivors of the page 77 French expedition on the natives, innocent and guilty alike, would be remembered for centuries. When the “Children of Marion”, as the terrified natives christened them, had finished their bloody work, villages smouldered in ruins; men, women, and children lay slaughtered. It was in the doctrine of that day; but it did not make for French popularity among the natives. “Children of Marion.…” True, when the French priests landed at Tahiti, they had come on a tiny ship, unarmed, unaccompanied. What did that matter? Where they stayed, surely the grim ships of the “Children of Marion” would follow?

Tahiti murmured like the forest before the hurricane. But where Etote and Paofai stood by the priests, Pomare, her wavering mind at last decided, gave orders that the Frenchmen should be thrust off her soil.

The priests spent the night in Mr. Moerenhaut's hut. Here in early morning came a shouting, yelling crowd of natives. There was some parody of law in the proceedings. Moré, the Chief Justice of the island, took charge. The native constabulary levelled their guns at the victims. The roof was torn bodily off the hut, and they were dragged out, offering no resistance.

The younger man was weeping, the blind, helpless tears of humiliation. His companion lifted a great voice over the storm, thundering out Latin with such a defiant solemnity that for a moment all was still. Then the crowd broke. The luggage which the two had brought with them was pitched pell-mell from hand to hand. The natives set off for Pritchard's wharf, followed by Mr. Moerenhaut, actually in tears with indignation, and shouting to the de Thierry boys to remember what they saw that day.

The priests were hoisted on the shoulders of the natives, then carried dangling, head downwards, like the carcasses of slaughtered sheep. The great bronzed children, cruel now as only children can be, bore them along to the strip of sand. A canoe was drawn up on shore. Half a mile out tossed the little ship which had brought them from Gambier Island.

Their luggage, such of it as remained, was tossed into the canoe. Then, with as little compunction as if they had been the dead bodies of animals, the priests were heaved on board. The canoe heeled over and sank, pitching them into breast-deep water. Moerenhaut pushed through the crowd, his hand out-thrust to assist the taller priest, who, with his soutane girt dripping around his chest, had his arms around the shoulders of the younger companion. The young man's eyes were closed, as if he were in a stupor. On the face of the other was a strange page 78 composure. The anger which had corded the veins in his high forehead was gone. He was still steadily repeating the words of some Latin prayer.

The little craft was righted. Luggage lost, work undone, the occupants set out for their ship, the taller priest plying the paddle. On the ship they were received with brutal insolence, and white residents of Tahiti learned that the vessel was so ill-provisioned her passengers would probably suffer both hunger and thirst before she made port again.

In the afternoon Charles met Mr. Pritchard, who had not yet recovered from the towering passion into which the Scarlet Woman had thrown him.

“Had they refused to go, wouldn't the Queen have been justified in shooting them?” he demanded.

According to Charles, his reply was that had Her Majesty done so, the first French ship that called at Tahiti would have been justified in hanging the murderers and turning the Queen off the throne. Whether this is staircase indignation or not it is impossible now to discover. Charles became progressively more French as, through the later years of his life, the English were more and more rude to him.

A sample of this occurs now. Why should the Baron de Thierry, in Tahiti, begin to suffer slights and mistrust?

The person who could best have explained was not, in himself, of much importance, being a Mr. Smith, supercargo on the brig Charles Doggatt, which some months before had put into Papeete from the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

Shortly after his arrival, papers were passed round among the residents, provoking equal parts of gossip and guffaw. They were, as a matter of fact, the very severe letters written by Mr. James Busby, British Resident at the Bay of Islands, in response to Charles's all too candid confession of his intentions. The papers, coming into Mr. Smith's hands, seemed too good a joke for him to keep to himself. So he stole them, and earned many an extra drink in Tahiti.

Thus, although Mr. Busby had taken up his pen on October 30th, 1835 to demolish the Sovereign Chief and all his works, it was not until August 30th of the following year that the brig Criterion, arriving at Papeete, brought copies of the communications which this time fell into the right hands.

In the months between, all Tahiti, with the forlorn exception of the de Thierry party, had known of Mr. Busby's intentions. Charles, however, had gone blissfully about his business, waiting page 79 gilded news from half a dozen quarters at once, and quite unaware that most of the population considered him a ruined man.