by Herman Melville

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Chapter Three



IT was in the summer of 1842 that we arrived at the islands; theFrench had then held possession of them for several weeks. During this time they had visited some of the principal places inthe group, and had disembarked at various points about fivehundred troops. These were employed in constructing works ofdefence, and otherwise providing against the attacks of thenatives, who at any moment might be expected to break out in openhostility. The islanders looked upon the people who made thiscavalier appropriation of their shores with mingled feelings offear and detestation. They cordially hated them; but theimpulses of their resentment were neutralized by their dread ofthe floating batteries, which lay with their fatal tubesostentatiously pointed, not at fortifications and redoubts, butat a handful of bamboo sheds, sheltered in a grove of cocoanuts! A valiant warrior doubtless, but a prudent one too, was this sameRear-Admiral Du Petit Thouars. Four heavy, doublebanked frigatesand three corvettes to frighten a parcel of naked heathen intosubjection! Sixty-eight pounders to demolish huts of cocoanutboughs, and Congreve rockets to set on fire a few canoe sheds!

At Nukuheva, there were about one hundred soldiers ashore. Theywere encamped in tents, constructed of the old sails and sparespars of the squadron, within the limits of a redoubt mountedwith a few nine-pounders, and surrounded with a fosse. Everyother day, these troops were marched out in martial array, to alevel piece of ground in the vicinity, and there for hours wentthrough all sorts of military evolutions, surrounded by flocks ofthe natives, who looked on with savage admiration at the show,and as savage a hatred of the actors. A regiment of the OldGuard, reviewed on a summer's day in the Champs Elysees, couldnot have made a more critically correct appearance. Theofficers' regimentals, resplendent with gold lace and embroideryas if purposely calculated to dazzle the islanders, looked as ifjust unpacked from their Parisian cases.

The sensation produced by the presence of the strangers had notin the least subsided at the period of our arrival at theislands. The natives still flocked in numbers about theencampment, and watched with the liveliest curiosity everythingthat was going forward. A blacksmith's forge, which had been setup in the shelter of a grove near the beach, attracted so great acrowd, that it required the utmost efforts of the sentries postedaround to keep the inquisitive multitude at a sufficient distanceto allow the workmen to ply their vocation. But nothing gainedso large a share of admiration as a horse, which had been broughtfrom Valparaiso by the Achille, one of the vessels of thesquadron. The animal, a remarkably fine one, had been takenashore, and stabled in a hut of cocoanut boughs within thefortified enclosure. Occasionally it was brought out, and, beinggaily caparisoned, was ridden by one of the officers at fullspeed over the hard sand beach. This performance was sure to behailed with loud plaudits, and the 'puarkee nuee' (big hog) wasunanimously pronounced by the islanders to be the mostextraordinary specimen of zoology that had ever come under theirobservation.

The expedition for the occupation of the Marquesas had sailedfrom Brest in the spring of 1842, and the secret of itsdestination was solely in the possession of its commander. Nowonder that those who contemplated such a signal infraction ofthe rights of humanity should have sought to veil the enormityfrom the eyes of the world. And yet, notwithstanding theiriniquitous conduct in this and in other matters, the French haveever plumed themselves upon being the most humane and polished ofnations. A high degree of refinement, however, does not seem tosubdue our wicked propensities so much after all; and werecivilization itself to be estimated by some of its results, itwould seem perhaps better for what we call the barbarous part ofthe world to remain unchanged.

One example of the shameless subterfuges under which the Frenchstand prepared to defend whatever cruelties they may hereafterthink fit to commit in bringing the Marquesan natives intosubjection is well worthy of being recorded. On some flimsypretext or other Mowanna, the king of Nukuheva, whom the invadersby extravagant presents cajoled over to their interests, and moveabout like a mere puppet, has been set up as the rightfulsovereign of the entire island--the alleged ruler by prescriptionof various clans, who for ages perhaps have treated with eachother as separate nations. To reinstate this much-injured princein the assumed dignities of his ancestors, the disinterestedstrangers have come all the way from France: they are determinedthat his title shall be acknowledged. If any tribe shall refuseto recognize the authority of the French, by bowing down to thelaced chapeau of Mowanna, let them abide the consequences oftheir obstinacy. Under cover of a similar pretence, have theoutrages and massacres at Tahiti the beautiful, the queen of theSouth Seas, been perpetrated.

On this buccaneering expedition, Rear Admiral Du Petit Thouars,leaving the rest of his squadron at the Marquesas,--which hadthen been occupied by his forces about five months--set sail forthe doomed island in the Reine Blanche frigate. On his arrival,as an indemnity for alleged insults offered to the flag of hiscountry, he demanded some twenty or thirty thousand dollars to beplaced in his hands forthwith, and in default of payment,threatened to land and take possession of the place.

The frigate, immediately upon coming to an anchor, got springs onher cables, and with he guns; cast loose and her men at theirquarters, lay in the circular basin of Papeete, with herbroadside bearing upon the devoted town; while her numerouscutters, hauled in order alongside, were ready to effect alanding, under cover of her batteries. She maintained thisbelligerent attitude for several days, during which time a seriesof informal negotiations were pending, and wide alarm spread overthe island. Many of the Tahitians were at first disposed toresort to arms, and drive the invaders from their shores; butmore pacific and feebler counsels ultimately prevailed. Theunfortunate queen Pomare, incapable of averting the impendingcalamity, terrified at the arrogance of the insolent Frenchman,and driven at last to despair, fled by night in a canoe to Emio.

During the continuance of the panic there occurred an instance offeminine heroism that I cannot omit to record.

In the grounds of the famous missionary consul, Pritchard, thenabsent in London, the consular flag of Britain waved as usualduring the day, from a lofty staff planted within a few yards ofthe beach, and in full view of the frigate. One morning anofficer, at the head of a party of men, presented himself at theverandah of Mr Pritchard's house, and inquired in broken Englishfor the lady his wife. The matron soon made her appearance; andthe polite Frenchman, making one of his best bows, and playinggracefully with the aiguillettes that danced upon his breast,proceeded in courteous accents to deliver his mission. 'Theadmiral desired the flag to be hauled down--hoped it would beperfectly agreeable--and his men stood ready to perform theduty.' 'Tell the Pirate your master,' replied the spiritedEnglishwoman, pointing to the staff, 'that if he wishes to strikethese colours, he must come and perform the act himself; I willsuffer no one else to do it.' The lady then bowed haughtily andwithdrew into the house. As the discomfited officer slowlywalked away, he looked up to the flag, and perceived that thecord by which it was elevated to its place, led from the top ofthe staff, across the lawn, to an open upper window of themansion, where sat the lady from whom he had just parted,tranquilly engaged in knitting. Was that flag hauled down? MrsPritchard thinks not; and Rear-Admiral Du Petit Thouars isbelieved to be of the same opinion.

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