A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 11

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Care of the Rev. James Green,
Paofai, Papeete, Tahiti, Saturday, 13th.

Dearest Nell,—It is high time I sent you a cheerier letter than the last, which was written just after our dreary arrival in a dismal storm, and further overshadowed by the distressing manner in which our happy party was so summarily dispersed. With the exception of that one sad cloud, no drawback of any sort has arisen. The cordial kindness of every creature here, the easy luxury of very simple social life, a heavenly climate, and the dreamlike loveliness of the isles, all combine to make up as charming a whole as can possibly be conceived. It is the sort of place in which one is made to feel at home at once: from the moment I landed every one seems to have tried what he or she could do for the enjoyment of the stranger. It is a region of true hospitality.

Certainly this is a very pretty little town. Its simple village streets are all laid out as boulevards, and form pleasant shady avenues, the commonest tree being the pretty yellow hybiscus with the claret-coloured heart, so common in Fiji, where it is called surya. Here its name is boorau. The names of the streets recall Parisian memories. The shadiest and widest street is the Chinese quarter, and its poor little wooden houses are Chinese stores and tea-shops. It rejoices in the name of Rue de Pologne, while the principal real street is the Rue de Rivoli, where are merchants' stores, cafés, grog-shops, and even hotels of some sort. Of course the pleasantest locations are those which face the harbour and catch the sweet sea-breeze; and the largest stores for provisions and dry goods are in the Rue de Commerce, each possessing its own wharf. I fear the word wharf may suggest the dirty prosaic wharves of England, an idea which you must banish at once; for business in its dingy aspect is not obtrusive, and the harbour-wall is but a stone coping for soft green turf, where girls with light rods sit fishing, and market-boats land their cargo of gay fruit and fish, while the motley throng pass and repass—Tahitians, French sailors and soldiers, Chinamen, black-robed French priests, and all the nondescript nationalities from the ships.

There is a considerable foreign population, including, of course, a large staff of French officials of all sorts—civil, naval, and military—and their presence seems a raison d'être for a strong corps of gens d'armes, who otherwise would certainly seem an incongruous element in the South Seas.

By a recent census I learn that the native population of Tahiti is somewhere about 8000; that of Moorea, 1500. That there are in the group 830 French, 144 citizens of the United States, 230 British subjects, and about 700 Chinese.

The French have both a Protestant and Roman Catholic Mission. The former was made necessary by the fact that, on the establishment of the Protectorate in 1843, the English missionaries were subjected to such very oppressive regulations as greatly impeded their ministrations among the people, all of whom were at that time Christians, and, moreover, still in the fervour of first love—a love which, it is to be feared, has now in a great measure faded to the light of common day, as might be expected from the large influx of infidel, or at best, wholly indifferent, foreigners.

The Church of Rome having resolved to proselytise this already occupied field, sent here a bishop and many priests, with a supplementary staff of "Frères et Sœurs de Charité." I think the Sisters are of the order St Joseph de . . . The foreigners connected with the Catholic mission number in all about forty persons. They have had large aid and encouragement from the French Government, who compelled the chiefs of Tahiti and Moorea to build a church for their use in each district. Nevertheless, out of the 8000 inhabitants, 300 nominal adherents is the maximum which the Catholics themselves have ever claimed, but fifty is said to be nearer the mark.

The French Protestant Mission, however, found it desirable to send French subjects to the support of the London Mission, of which Mr Green is now the only representative. His coadjutors are M. Viennot, M. Vernier, and M. Brun—all married men and pères de famille. The latter is pasteur of Moorea. M. Viennot has a large Protestant school both for boys and girls of pure French and pure Tahitian blood, and of all shades of mixed race. We went to see his charming house, which is the most romantic nest, for a school, that you can well imagine, with wide verandahs and a large pleasant garden. Several of the daughters of the early English missionaries assist in teaching; and everything about the establishment seems bright and healthy in tone.

The third French pasteur, M. Vernier, was a student friend of Lord Lorne's at Geneva (under Merle d'Aubigné), and returned with him to Inveraray for three months, ere resuming his own studies for a while in Edinburgh. Consequently he retains most loving recollections of everything linked with those very happy days; and it struck me pleasantly, in this far-away isle, to find in his little drawing-room many familiar photographs of Inveraray faces and places. Now his pretty wife is mother of half-a-dozen typical French little ones, the youngest of whom was the hero of a very pleasant dinner-party, given by his parents the night before last, in honour of his baptism. There were about a dozen persons present, including all the members of the Protestant Mission, Captain Guignon of the Bossuet (a most friendly trading-vessel belonging to the firm of Messrs Tandonnet of Bordeaux), and myself. All the time of dinner, the petit nouveau-baptisé was laid on the floor, where he rolled about laughing and crowing with delight, while the other children played quietly beside him. It was a scene of graceful home life, and illustrates the easy unconventional pleasures of social existence in this sweet isle.[1]

It certainly is very strange how one invariably finds home links in all corners of the earth. If there was one place more unlikely than another to do so, I should have thought it was Tahiti. But, as usual, I find myself quite en pays de connaissance. The day after I landed, Mrs Miller drove me in her nice pony-phaeton to call on Mrs Brander. I naturally expected that our conversation would be on purely insular subjects. Imagine my astonishment when, after the first greetings, this beautiful Anglo-Tahitian turned the conversation to Scotland—Morayshire, Speyside, Elgin, and many friends there—and spoke of them all from intimate personal acquaintance!

Then, for the first time, it flashed across me that the name which had become so familiar to my ear as that of la Maison Brandère, was simply that of a county neighbour in Scotland; and that Mr Brander of Tahiti was none other than a half-brother of Lady Dunbar Brander,[2] who in his early youth left Elgin and went forth to carve his fortune in foreign lands. You know how little interest people in Britain take in watching the career of such lads, unless they chance to come home to spend their gold. Mr Brander did not come home. He found in the South Seas a field for his vast energies—embarked in trade, added ship to ship till he owned a considerable fleet, and so his connection spread from group to group; and he bought lands and built stores on all manner of remote isles, and in course of time amassed a gigantic fortune. His marriage with Titaua Salmon must have tended greatly to secure his position in these isles; and so his business went on ever increasing, till at length mind and body broke down under the constant strain, and he died, leaving the whole care of his immense business to his young widow, who is only thirty-four now, the eldest of her nine children having been born when she was fifteen! She is the mother of as pretty a covey as you could wish to see, beginning with two lovely grown-up married daughters and one or two grandchildren, and ending with two darling little girls, one of whom bears the charming name of Paloma, the dove.

Mr Brander most wisely resolved that his wife's brothers and his own sons should have the advantage of a first-rate education in Britain. Several of the boys are still at school at St Andrews, whence Alexander, the eldest, recently came out here; but he must shortly return to England, to look after property belonging to his father.

In all these far countries people talk of a run to England and back as if it was the veriest trifle!—merely a run of fifty or sixty days, viâ San Francisco, and across the United States; or, if economy has to be considered, a voyage of 140 days in a sailing-ship round Cape Horn!

This afternoon Mme. Fayzeau took me for an exquisite drive into the country. We drove along the shore on a road of fine green turf, skirting the lovely calm lagoon, and passing by an endless succession of small wooden houses, each almost hidden in bowers of blossom and shady fruit-trees, with pleasant lawns, where merry children played, while their elders sat or lay on mats sewing, or twining wreaths, or rolling cigarettes—all suggesting lives of easy-going happiness without undue care; and the air was made musical by rippling laughter and mellifluous voices.

I scarcely know why it is that Tahitian sounds so much more attractive than the sterner Tongan tongue. Individual words are actually less liquid, because of the frequent use of the aspirate. I am told, as rather a curious fact, that whereas the Samoans and Tongans are so very profuse in their expression of the word "thanks," the Tahitians, like the New Zealanders, have no equivalent for it.

For love of his master, we went to see Commandant Aube's poor sick dog Fox, and learnt that it died very soon after his departure.
A Lady's Cruise-Avenue De Fautawa.png


Then we drove through a most beautiful wide avenue of dark-green trees, something like the Caroba, or locust-trees of Malta, completely overshadowing the broad green drive. And now we were facing the mountains in the centre of the isle, and looked up the lovely valley of Fautawa, at the head of which towers a magnificent hill, so symmetrically indented as to resemble a gigantic crown. Hence its common name, Le Diadème, though to the natives it is still Maiauo.

Returning towards Papeete, we met many carriages and equestrians; for here there is no lack of either. Most of the gentlemen were making their way to a river, which is a favourite bathing-place; and I need not tell you that a river-bath is one of the chief delights of a day in the tropics.

Mrs Brander had invited us all to dine at The Red House, which is her town home—a large three-storeyed red-brick house. There, amongst other friends, we met a very delightful old lady, Mrs Simpson—a true "mother in Israel." Widow of one of the early missionaries, she shared in all his labours, and in the joy of beholding the dawn of Christianity, when its first rays dispelled the dark night of heathenism. Many a wondrous change have those clear observant eyes witnessed in her half-century of working life in these fair isles, and many a tale of thrilling interest has she to tell of scenes enacted within her own recollection.

Of course, with the advance of civilisation, many of the picturesque elements of earlier days have passed away. The natives no longer assemble on shore to practise their writing lessons on the smooth sea-beach; neither do they carry sand into the schools, that, by spreading it on a closely-woven mat or rude table, it may serve as a simple slate on which to work out the puzzles of arithmetic. The advanced scholars no longer seek for smooth stones on the mountains, to be polished with sea-sand till fine writing can be traced on them with the spines of the echini.

Nor are the large leaves of the plantain used as letter-paper on which to send messages, written with a blunt stick, which bruised the delicate leaf without cutting it, and so produced a tracing of brown writing on a glossy green surface. These letters were rolled up like a sheet of parchment and tied with a strip of bark. A plantain-leaf being about fifteen inches wide, and perhaps six feet in length, would allow of a very long message being written on one scroll, and answered very well, provided the letter had not far to travel; but of course the leaf would shrivel and split within a few days. Now letters are written on common note-paper, and bear the postage-stamps of the French Republic.

No longer are children summoned to school, and congregations to worship, by the king's messenger, lightly draped, but gaily wreathed, passing swiftly round the village, blowing loud blasts on his great trumpet-shell, and pausing at intervals to invite the presence of the people. Now his place is filled by the very commonplace bell of civilised life.

In the matter of dress, too,—though we may be thankful that Prince Alfred's strong commendation of the graceful sacque has caused it to triumph over all varieties of changeful and unbecoming fashion, which for a while found favour here, and which ere now have covered these comely heads with English bonnets and close-fitting white caps(!)—the artistic eye would certainly prefer the dress of olden days: that of the women consisting of soft drapery of beautiful cream-coloured native cloth, wound round the body, passed under one arm and knotted on the other shoulder, revealing the shapely neck and arm, while gay garlands wreathed their hair; and for ear-rings, some wore a fragrant blossom passed through one ear, and, in the other, two or three large pearls fastened together with finely braided human hair.

The men, so many of whom have now adopted coat and trousers, then wore either a very finely plaited, fringed mat, or a pareoi.e., kilt of native cloth, made either from the bark of the paper-mulberry or that of the bread-fruit, or else from the filaments of the banyan-tree. Of these the former was the whitest, and preferred for women; the latter was very thin and brown. The cloth made from the bark of the bread-fruit was very strong, and was dyed according to taste—either of a rich chocolate, a brilliant yellow, or red. The two last were the favourite colours, and were obtained from the sap and berries of different trees. Sometimes the cloth was reversible—being black on one side and red on the other, and varnished with vegetable gum to enrich the colour.

Some wore this handsome material as a cloak—falling from the shoulders in flowing drapery, very becoming to a stately chief. Others wore it as a tiputa or tippet, which resembled the poncho of South America—being simply a long piece of cloth, with a hole cut in the centre, through which to pass the head, the garment falling over the back and chest and reaching to the knees. Sometimes this tiputa was beautifully ornamented; and often it was made of curiously knotted fibre—generally that of the hybiscus, from which fine fishing-nets were also made. Those who could afford such luxury wore head-dresses made of the long tail-feathers of the graceful tropic bird; and the poorest wore gay flowers. But these were discarded in favour of regular English hats, and the scarlet feathers were used as trimming for shabby black coats. Proud was the man who became possessed of a pair of trousers, to be displayed alternately on legs or arms! In short, the spirit of innovation was attended with the usual hideous incongruities.

Instead of the big European boats of the present day, with nothing distinctive except the form of their quaint triangular sail, there were formerly fleets of canoes of every size up to 100 feet in length, with grotesque carving on the raised stern and prow, and flags and streamers of native cloth. They carried large sails of yellow matting, made from the long leaves of the screw-pine,[3] which was much lighter than the canvas of civilisation, but also much less durable. Here again the picturesque element has suffered. In those days there were war canoes and chiefs' canoes, single canoes, and double canoes—like Siamese twins; and in every fleet there was always a sacred canoe, that the presence of the tribal god might not be lacking.

The gods of Tahiti seem to have been simple enough: some were in the form of a large bird, others were merely a hollow cylinder ornamented with bright feathers. The blue shark was deified, and had temples erected in his honour, and a special priesthood; he was chiefly worshipped by fishermen, though few whose path lay over the great waters would fail to propitiate so powerful and cruel a foe. Terrible are the stories of canoes which have been disabled and water-logged, and of the hungry sharks that have gathered round in shoals, and picked off the crew one by one, till the canoe, thus lightened, could float again; and perhaps one survivor has escaped to tell of his comrades' fate.

When Pomare II. determined to become a Christian, his first decided act was to show the people with what contempt he now regarded the gods of his ancestors, to whom the turtle had ever been held sacred. It was invariably cooked with sacred fire within the precincts of the temple, and a portion was always offered to the idol. A turtle having been presented to the king, his followers were about to carry it to the marae, when he called them back, and bade them prepare an oven and bake it like ordinary food, without regard to the idol. Great was the consternation of the attendants, who tremblingly obeyed, and watched the king himself cut up the turtle and begin to eat. He vainly endeavoured to induce those who were with him to share this impious feast: they looked for some immediate manifestation of divine anger, and expected to see the king stricken before their eyes. Great was their wonder when no harm befell him, either on that day or on the morrow; and thus the first step was taken towards the overthrow of the old superstition.

It was a simple but effectual test, and one which required considerable courage on the part of him who first dared to try it. Pomare, on this occasion, did for the people of Tahiti what Queen Kapiolani did for those of Hawaii, when, descending to the brink of the awesome crater, she defied the goddess Pélé by eating the blue berries held sacred to her, and which none dared to taste without first throwing a handful as an offering to Pélé.

In like manner did Pomare-Vahine, daughter of the King of Raiatea, teach the same lesson to the chiefs of Eimeo, who had brought her a great faamuraa, or feeding—i.e., a gift of roasted pigs, fowls, fish, fruit, and vegetables. According to custom, the priests were present to crave the blessing of the gods on the whole feast, by first selecting the portions to be offered on the altars. But ere the heathen priests could make their choice, the Christian chiefess bade her head man consecrate the whole by thanksgiving to the Almighty. The crowd of bystanders looked on in wonder, and the priests retired, not venturing to claim for idol altars the food which, they felt, had thus been offered to the Most High.

Many such tales might I now hear and preserve for your benefit, could I but find time to listen with an undivided mind.

But there is so much that is new to hear and to see, that I hardly feel able to disentangle the threads of so many subjects, which, apparently, are all interwoven one with another. Doubtless, by degrees, they will arrange themselves in a more orderly fashion.

In the evening we all walked home together, by a pleasant path along the grassy shore, passing through a dark thicket of large hybiscus trees, then beneath tall cocoa-palms, whose every frond lay clearly shadowed by the brilliant light of only a crescent moon. No full moon in England could shine with so soft a radiance.

The loveliness of the evenings here is indescribable; and well do all the inhabitants know how to enjoy their beauty. Every one saunters forth after dinner,—the general rendezvous being a grassy lawn under the great trees near Government House, where the admiral's excellent band plays divinely, to the great delight of the Tahitians, who are themselves most musical, and who assemble in crowds, listening in rapt delight to the operatic airs, and then, by irresistible impulse, dancing joyously on the turf, as valse and galop succeed one another.

But nothing could be more orderly and respectable than this mirthful crowd, which strikes me the more forcibly from the fact that these are not the characteristics generally ascribed to Papeete, but are in great measure due to the wholesome influence of Admiral Serre and his officers, and to the excellent discipline of the ships now in harbour. Of course when a rowdy ship comes in, it is more difficult to preserve order; and as most accounts are written by travellers who chance on these unlucky times (and perhaps help to cause them), the place has got a worse name than it ever deserved. So say the old inhabitants. Its present condition of extremely orderly good behaviour is, however, undoubtedly an exceptional result of the admiral's iron rule and stringent measures for the general weal. Immediately on his arrival, he gave orders that every damsel whose morals were recognised as lax, should be at once deported from the gay capital. So, without further ado, all such were shipped off to the seclusion of their various country districts, or else to more rigid seclusion, in charge of the police,—only coming forth to sweep the roads, which, consequently, are in a state of exquisite cleanliness and neatness.

It is not to be supposed that the present condition of preternatural goodness will very long survive the departure of the admiral, as many of the governors of the Protectorate seem rather to encourage what the more staid residents deem unseemly frolic. Many of these governors are not Frenchmen,—merely Creoles, whom the Tahitians dislike exceedingly, and contemptuously describe as Paumuto-Frane (Paumuto-men being Queen Pomare's pig-feeders, and Frane being the equivalent of French). Many gross errors and maladministrations have crept in during their rule; and the admiral is now devoting his whole great energies to rectifying all manner of abuses, greatly to the satisfaction of the Tahitians, with whom he is apparently immensely popular. Moreover, he seems determined to deal even-handed justice between the Protestant and Catholic teachers, which the latter by no means appreciate, having so long been greatly favoured by the Creole authorities.

Socially, in his double capacity of admiral and governor, he does all in his power to make things pleasant for every one. For my own part, I am bound to say that, from the very first evening of our arrival, he has been unvaryingly courteous, and in every respect most thoughtful for me. We meet very often, as he and some of his suite invariably join Mrs Miller's party every evening at the band, after which they walk back with us along the beautiful shore to the British consulate, where we generally have a second concert, and much pleasant chat of the most polyglot order—English, French, and Spanish, in about equal parts—with iced lemonade and liqueurs to help the flow of words!

The only drawback to my enjoyment of all this is the feeling that my late most kind camarades are so thoroughly out of it all. Like Rachel bemoaning her little ones, they refuse to be comforted, and nothing will induce any of them to come ashore to any place where they might by any accident meet the admiral. Of course this is rather uncomfortable for me; for though they all declare themselves most anxious that I should be lionised in the best possible manner (i.e., officially), I fear it must seem to them as if I had gone over to the enemy.

Still, there is no alternative; and the kindness which is even now arranging my future plans, is such that I can but accept it gratefully.

Having proclaimed Ariiaue and Marau, King and Queen of the Isles, the admiral is now making arrangements to escort them on a grand ceremonial round of all the districts on each of the principal isles, that they may personally receive the homage of their people. It will be a very interesting occasion, calling forth whatever still remains of old native customs. To my great delight, the admiral has asked me to join this expedition. At first I treated the suggestion as a mere civil façon de parler, no other lady having been invited; little Vaetua (Moë's daughter, the future queen) being Marau's only companion. However, on the following day an A.D.C. brought me an invitation in due form, and the Millers are delighted, and say it will be the nicest thing possible for me. So of course, now, I have definitely accepted, and am looking forward to the ploy with the greatest possible interest. There are twenty districts in Tahiti, and the intention is to visit two a-day, which will make our picnic expedition a ten days' pleasure; after which we return here to make a fresh start for the beautiful isle of Moorea.

Sunday Evening.

At eight o'clock Madame Fayzeau took me with her to the Roman Catholic cathedral for the military Mass, at which all high officials are expected to be present. Soldiers with fixed bayonets stand on either side of the altar, and others down the aisle, and present arms, kneel, stand up, &c., obedient to a loud word of command, which, indeed, is the only word spoken aloud till the final benediction and short chant. The organ plays the whole time, and the congregation attend to their private devotions, or do not, as the case may be. Apparently the fact of being present is sufficient. Very few Tahitians attend the eight o'clock Mass. The general congregation assemble at nine, when the service is audible, and a sermon is preached, partly in Tahitian, partly in French.

After church we went to see the Sisters, some of whom are engaged in nursing at the hospital, while the others teach in their own school. Returning to the British consulate, we found a pleasant naval breakfast-party; after which we enjoyed a calm peaceful afternoon here, while Mr Green was engaged with some of his teachers and classes. He has the charge of a very large native church here, where he holds forenoon service, but frequently has occasion to visit churches in other parts of the isle; and one of the many irritating French regulations forbids his preaching in any church but his own without a special permit, which has to be applied for, and granted afresh, every week, and is often delayed till the very last moment, so that he has to wait with his horse ready harnessed, and then probably drive much faster than he wishes, to reach his destination in time.

As each member of the mission has his own native work to attend to, and as every one in the island understands Tahitian, the only foreign service is one held on alternate Sunday evenings by Mr Green and the French pasteurs. This evening it was in English, according to the Congregational form, and ended with the Holy Communion.

We had a lovely walk home, but remarked that the Parisian observance of Sunday as a jour de fête has superseded that very sacred reverence for the Lord's Day, which is so striking a feature in most of the Christianised isles. To-night the crowd at the band was larger and noisier than usual, owing to the presence of many French sailors, some of whom were nearly as drunk as an average set of blue-jackets, under similar circumstances, would probably have been.

With some anxiety, I noted a wide halo round the moon, and devoutly trust it may not prove an evil symptom of the coming weather; for to-morrow morning we start on our grand expedition round the isle.

Now I must try to secure a good night's rest, so shall close this letter, which may take its chance of being taken to some point by some vessel in the course of the next ten days.

Your Loving Sister.

  1. Soon after my return to England, I heard that this happy home had been invaded by ophthalmia of a virulent type, necessitating an immediate return to France, and long and anxious care; but nevertheless resulting in the partial blindness for life of two of those merry boys. Even the Tahitian paradise has its thorns.
  2. The late Sir Archibald Dunbar of Northfield, in the county of Elgin, married, firstly, my father's sister, Miss Gordon Cumming of Altyre and Gordonstown; and secondly, Miss Brander, heiress of Pitgaveny, whom, consequently, we have known all our lives, and loved much.
  3. Pandanus.