Beyond the Consul: Tahiti
In our first Beyond the Consul episode, we’re talking to Patty O’Brien about Tahiti. We talk about the power structures present in Tahiti when Europeans come in, how gender plays a role in Tahiti’s history, and why we shouldn’t really call Tahiti a “paradise,” with all its connotations. Plus we think together about how our sources color the story we tell.
Guest bio: Patty O’Brien
Associate Professor Patricia O’Brien is an adjunct professor in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University, teaching on Pacific pasts, presents and futures. She is also a Visiting Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University, Canberra, where she was an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of History from 2014 to 2019.
From 2001 to 2013 she was the resident Australian and Pacific historian at Georgetown University. She was the J. D. Stout Fellow in New Zealand Studies at Victoria University Wellington in 2012 and the Jay I. Kislak Fellow in American Studies at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2011.
She is the author of Tautai: Sāmoa, World History and the Life and Ta’isi O. F. Nelson (2017), The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific (2006) and is co-editor with Joy Damousi of League of Nations: Histories, Legacies and Impact (2018). She has also written numerous other Pacific-focused works on gender, empire, violence and colonial cultural histories.
In 2021 she became a regular contributor in the Australian, New Zealand and US editions of The Conversation on a range of contemporary Pacific issues from the September announcement of AUKUS Agreement between Australia, the US and the UK, the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty, a mid-2021 Pacific-wide report on Covid-19, Samoa’s constitutional crisis, the 75th anniversary in 2021 of the launch of the US atomic testing program in the Marshall Islands and Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea. She is currently working on a co-edited book on Samoa’s 2021 Constitutional Crisis with Tamasailau Suaalii Sauni (University of Auckland). Her other current work focuses on the interwar period including a biography of Australia’s first Hollywood star, Errol Flynn. (From Georgetown University)
MULLEN: Hey y’all. It’s Abby. As you know, our main show is all about U.S. consuls. And we love our consuls! But the places that we talk about in each episode have so much more history than anything we can cover–and the consuls likewise are much more complex than we’re able to talk about. And our experts always tell us so much more than we can fit into our shows. We’ve decided that some of these interviews are too good not to share. So we’re going to start releasing a complementary episode for each of our main episodes, called “Beyond the Consul.” These episodes will give you all the important bits that we couldn’t quite fit into the main episode. Mostly, we’re going to be giving you content that helps you learn more about the places that these consuls are going, and a broader view of the society these consuls find themselves in.
MULLEN: So, welcome to Consolation Prize: Beyond the Consul. Today you’re going to hear some of my interview with Patty O’Brien. We’re going to talk about why Tahiti was considered a paradise–and why that image is problematic. We’re going to talk about why it was complicated for a queen like Pomare to maintain power in Tahiti. And we’re going to talk a little bit about missionaries. So let’s get into it.
O’BRIEN: my name is Patty O’Brien, or Patricia O’Brien is, I am published under that name. And I’m an Australian, living in the US, and I’m a Pacific historian who had that’s written on a wide range of topics ranging across the Pacific and across a large temporal landscape as well.
MULLEN: First I wanted to know something that perhaps you wondered too as you listened to our main episode: is Pomare a name or a title?
O’BRIEN: It’s a family name so that the name Pomare is you find it in this very prominent families in New Zealand who, who have the name Pomare too it’s a very you know, it’s a family family name. That’s got a lot of mana. But in in French Polynesia the Pomare house is, it’s a title. So, you get given that title when you’re, you know, the chief of that family. So a lot of like a lot of titles you have multiple names that you use at different times, depending on what your status is, and what is bestowed on you in terms of your power status within the family. But with the Pomares, the Pomare family in Tahiti, it is essentially like a royal house. It becomes a royal house. And like the Kamehameha family, I mean, the greatest comparison is is the you know, the Kamehamehas in in Hawaii, who also come to power and unite in the Hawaiian Islands because of the sandalwood trade. So they’ve got those comparable things happening at the same time.
MULLEN: So can you walk me through, what does the political structure of Tahiti look like under the Pomare family?
O’BRIEN: Well, that changes. There’s the generations of Pomares. So the first Pomare is the one who’s around in the late 18th century, the first one who interacts with you know, the voyage, the early voyages of exploration. And then you have Pomare II, who’s the most significant in terms of trying to forge alliances with the British. And he, he tries to curry favor with the British missionaries, because he sees them as the ticket to enhancing his power. He tries to curry favor with them by converting to Protestantism, and, you know, embracing the Word of God. But the missionaries do not accept him as a member of the church because they also know that he’s not practicing any of the things that they’re, you know, that are sort of like the basic, the basic things that you have to do in order to be a Christian. Like having sexual relations within a heterosexual marriage or rejecting alcohol. Rejecting indigenous religions and other practices which these evangelical Christians see as sort of, you know, so scandalizing to them. So Pomare is in this, Pomare II is in this very, you know, he’s got multiple wives, got multiple children by different wives. But at the same time, he’s trying to build a, build a power base.
O’BRIEN: He’s eventually accepted into the Protestants, because the Protestants also need to anchor themselves in the islands. And they realize that they’ve got to make huge concessions to permit him into the church, because they see him as, you know, the, the way forward. The only way that people can stay in these I mean, I’m talking about Europeans, the only way they can stay in the islands is with, at the behest of the indigenous people, they have to be of, of use and of value to them. And so there’s a sort of a mutual alliance between the London Missionary Society missionaries and Pomare II. His successor is Pomare III. He was just a young kid and didn’t really have any kind of impact on the political situation.
O’BRIEN: But his daughter, Aimata, who becomes Pomare IV at a very young age, as a teenager, she has a massive impact on the direction of Tahitian history and her role as a Queen of Tahiti is at this critical moment when all of these forces of religion, of the impact of these resource harvesting expeditions, and then also you have the growing imperial competition. So you’ve had this imperial competition in the Pacific from the outset between the French and the British, but then it takes on a whole new dimension in the 1820s, in the 1830s, when Britain and France are actually annexing territories in the Pacific Islands beginning with New Zealand in the 1830s, which basically gets resolved in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi, which essentially expels the French from New Zealand. And then the French go looking for other territory in the Pacific in which to claim. And they zero in on, on the islands of Tahiti and the other islands that now are part, like the Marquesan islands, which become part of French Polynesia.
MULLEN: Pomare IV, or Aimata, she’s in it at a very difficult moment, like all of these things are happening. So what kind of influences are part of her rule? I know obviously, there, there’s the British and the French and then sort of tangentially there’s the Americans. But also it seems like from reading your article and some others that she’s not a despot; she’s not an absolute monarch. There’s a lot of chiefs underneath her? or how do those chiefs relate to her? What is their role in checking her power?
O’BRIEN: With a caveat here that I’m not an expert in sort of like the indigenous governance in Tahiti at this time, What I can say is that the, the power structures, which Pomare IV has to deal with when she becomes the queen, the queen of Tahiti is that she has to deal with very powerful chiefs. And these chiefs have an incredible influence in terms of checking her power, and making deals with foreign powers or with missionaries, with restraining her in terms of what she can and can’t do. So the thing, the thing that happens in Tahiti, you know, these Pacific Islands is that there’s reciprocity in terms of power. So if one district concedes, that they will, you know, come under the, the rule of Pomare IV, then their chief then gets brought in to, you know, have some kind of say, in terms of laws being made, or or, you know, government decisions. So there’s this group of powerful men, these councils of chiefs, but also Pomare–and this is something that I really focused on when I zeroed in on this period of time and these historical actors is that the thing is that the European accounts of this time are the ones that survive and are most clear to us now. But there were also women who were very powerful too. So that Polynesian tradition of women having political power, which colonialism erodes substantially, that Pomare’s mother and aunt were also very powerful as well. But the Europeans who commentate on the indigenous power structures disparage these women and don’t see them as chiefs in their own right. They see them as interfering and not having the same seat at the table as these male chiefs, who the Europeans turn to, to try to erode the power of Pomare IV and to affect, you know, the drastic changes that happen in a very short period of time in Tahiti, which of course, we’re still living with that today, you know, that France still holds French Polynesia, a substantial territory in the Pacific.
MULLEN: One of the things that really comes to the fore during this moment in the late 1830s, is that Pomare is both, she’s in charge, like she is the one calling the shots, but also, there are numerous times where, because she’s a woman, and because she’s having kids, she’s sort of taken out of the equation. First of all, do you think that the British and the French who are trying to take over Tahiti, are they taking her seriously as a monarch? Or are they sort of dismissing her and being more interested in talking to these male chiefs? Or is it just sort of an unfortunate thing that happens that because she’s pregnant or having kids, she’s kind of out of the picture during the most critical periods?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, I think, I think there’s lip service paid. There’s a lot of condescension, a lot of patronizing of her talking, talking down to her, this sort of offensive and rank kind of sexism that she has to kind of deal with, from these Europeans, who, who deal with her and supposedly meet with her to discuss outcomes and so on. But underneath these formal meetings has been this, all this background work where certain key players in the dramas in Tahiti have been working with chiefs to engineer, sort of like these sort of, when I say the word coup, I don’t mean like a military coup. I mean, I’m trying to think of another word, but basically where the Queen’s counsel, people who are supposed to be supportive of her and advising her and things like that, basically turn against her and do things like sign documents ahead of when she can and do all kinds of things in terms of making deals, because these men in these councils are trying to empower themselves.
O’BRIEN: And they’re, you know, people could kind of smell blood in the water, if you like, in terms of like the indigenous power structures that were in place, and people were kind of jockeying for position in a new order in Tahiti. So Pomare’s power was greatly circumvented by the fact that she was female, and that her position was considered to be a lesser one because she was female. Also, she was a young female, that these great dramas in Tahiti were taking place whilst she was having children and caring for children, and so on and so forth. So those gender politics really play a very significant role, and they are taken advantage of.
MULLEN: I also was interested to learn from Patty all the ways in which European visions of Tahiti have been taken as fact, when maybe they shouldn’t be. In particular, our consul, Moerenhout, became famous for his writings and drawings of Tahiti. People since that time have treated those as a dispassionate, unbiased observation of the culture. But of course that’s not how writing works, and especially not this kind of writing.
O’BRIEN: All kinds of things are happening and the accounts of what is happening are very, very skewed in terms of the particular light that people want to shine on events and on other people. So that’s something that I talk a lot about in my article: who are generating these accounts and what agendas do they have? Because a lot of the historians who look at this period of time are disappointingly unquestioning of the sources and of the agendas that the, the authors of these sources have. So, so, Moerenhout is so deeply embedded in all kinds of power plays and all kinds of treachery and in the disparagement of, Pomare, and in casting her in a particular light, a lot of people believe that he is this very objective observer on events and I find it really quite, um, disappointing is putting it mildly in terms of historians scrutinizing of sources and that that that Moerenhout and, and, and others, particularly London, other London Missionary Society missionaries don’t really sort of like, people don’t really look at who these people were and why they were writing these particular accounts. And that the particular versions of history and the particular versions of actors in these dramas are not not called into question. So Moerenhout takes on, is being sort of like one of the first, people who publish ethnographic and ethnographic text of Tahiti as someone who has lived amongst Tahitians, as opposed to voyager accounts where they come in for a few days, or a few weeks and then leave. He claims a much greater authority because he has lived amongst these people for long periods of time. He has intimate connections with Tahitian people through his relationships with local women. And he is given this sort of venerated status as a European interpreter of events.
O’BRIEN: George Pritchard does this too, he writes copious amounts too, in order to put forward his side of the story as a sort of a witness to history, but he wants a certain outcome from these publications that are advantageous to him. And so every, everybody does it. And it’s a way of sort of advancing careers by publishing authoritative texts. But as historians, we really need to question, look at who these people were, and why they were writing things in the way that they did, and when they did.
O’BRIEN: And so Moerenhout is someone whose work and whose interpretation of Tahiti has not gone through, you know, he’s just taken as someone who has this sort of very clear-eyed and objective view of what’s happening, but he’s so deeply embedded with, with, you know, this sort of Imperial and racial agendas and racial visions, these sort of ideas of what Tahitian people are supposed to be, which is, he keeps saying that you know, Tahitians should be like they were when the Bouganville voyage came to Tahiti in in 1786, Bouganville called Tahiti New Kithara he thought it was, you know, the land of Aphrodite and her her disciples, you know, where there was like, free love, and that European men could could come and expect to have these encounters sexual encounters with women that rivaled things from Greek mythology. And that is not– there was not– this idea that Tahiti was a paradise.
O’BRIEN: I can’t tell you the number– I’ve just been going through, you know, handling, literally handling my library of books over the past couple of days of on Pacific history and the number of books that use the word paradise or Paradise Lost, paradise regained, Paradise this, paradise that, that unbelievable and immovable trope of Paradise that it existed and that you can reclaim it; that Moerenhout was one of those people and this is part of the story of the French takeover of Tahiti too, is that he basically told Queen Pomare that you need to be like you were in the good old days, you know, before the missionaries came and stopped you being who you are by nature. And that is these, you know, these incarnations of Greek mythology.
MULLEN: This idea of a paradise, or a culture trapped in its own history, was something I wanted to hear more about.
O’BRIEN: It’s that Western idea of indigenous people, you know, that their cultures are fixed, that they don’t change, that they’re not allowed to evolve, that there is one moment in time, which is always these moments of discovery. Where, where you have these, you know, the true nature of these people is revealed, and that you’re always trying to go back to that moment. But that moment is orchestrated by colonial violence. I mean, that that whole those whole episodes of free love and you know, these sexual bacchanalian moments that happen in the 18– 1760s happen and we’re going right back to the first European encounter with the Wallis voyage in 1767. And they encounter this first incredible sexual escapade with the Tahitian Islanders, well, that follows a naval bombardment of the islands, where they bombed the island for days and kill a whole lot of people. And then in a way to kind of placate the British Navy, you know, that they’re sort of incorporated into these, you know, into this sexual exchange.
O’BRIEN: When the French come nine months later, that is what they experience, but because the British have enacted violence before this, they don’t have to replay that. But they think it’s sort of like their, this innate culture of the island when in fact, it is not. And so Moerenhout, you know, sees the Tahitians through this lens of Paradise, this French tradition of seeing it as an island of this reincarnation of Greek goddesses, when, in fact, it is not anything like that, but, but Westerners cling on to this idea, this reductive idea of the islands and particularly Tahiti, of being this, this paradise, where, you know, sexual, sex is, is freely available, and that there’s no rules applied, and everyone can do what they want. And that, you know, European men can have the time of their lives there. But that’s not what happens, but they keep wanting people to go back to something which actually never really existed and Moerenhout is one incredible perpetrator of that myth. And you know, he influenced a whole lot of other people to come to Tahiti to find this lost past. One of the main people was the artist Paul Gauguin who then took this to a whole different level. And sort of, you know, I write about this in my book, The Pacific Muse, and other people have too, about sort of like, creating a, you know, reviving this myth from the 18th century and sort of giving it new life in the 20th century.
MULLEN: These kinds of ideas about the paradise of Tahiti remain pervasive in popular culture today–we all have a very clear idea of what Tahiti ought to be like because of the way imperial powers cultivated a particular image.
MULLEN: Patty has a lot more to say about all of these topics in her published scholarship. We’ve linked to them in our show notes, which you can find at consolationprize.rrchnm.org. Please check them out!
MULLEN: And that’s it for this episode of Consolation Prize: Beyond the Consul. Let us know what you thought by leaving us a review on your favorite podcast platform, or you can send us a voicemail on our website.
Newbury, Colin. “The Market Expanded.” In Tahiti Nui: Change and Survival in French Polynesia, 1767–1945, 68–93. University of Hawai’i Press, 1980.
O’Brien, Patricia. Tautai: Sāmoa, World History, and the Life of Ta’isi O. F. Nelson. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017.
O’Brien, Patty. “‘Think of Me as a Woman’: Queen Pomare of Tahiti and Anglo-French Imperial Contest in the 1840s Pacific.” Gender & History 18, no. 1 (April 2006): 108–29.
Stevenson, Karen. “’Aimata, Queen Pomare IV: Thwarting Adversity in Early 19th Century Tahiti.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 123, no. 2 (2014): 129–44.