Troublemakers in Tahiti
When the United States began to establish official commercial relations with Tahiti, the government and the sailors who visited there thought that the U.S. consuls would be able to help them get the most out of their visit. But instead, the first two U.S. consuls destroyed the reputation of the United States and actively sabotaged their changes of good relations with the sovereign Tahitian government. Either actively or passively, they helped the French take over Tahiti in 1842 and made Tahiti a much less friendly place for Americans.
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)
Gene Allen Smith
Born and raised in North Alabama, Gene grew up on a small farm that raised cattle, and grew corn and soybeans. With such a background it was no surprise that he wanted to be a veterinarian. Fortunately a college course in chemistry put him on the path to becoming a historian. Gene completed both his undergraduate (BA 1984) and graduate training (MA 1987, PhD 1991) in history at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Studying early American history, he wrote a dissertation on the politics of the Jeffersonian gunboat program and then spent three years teaching at Montana State University-Billings. Since arriving at Texas Christian University during the fall of 1994, Gene has been teaching U.S. survey history and undergraduate and graduate level courses on early American history. He is currently serving as the Director of the Center for Texas Studies at TCU.
He is presently working on several projects, including the study of a slave who lived from 1800-1890. Additionally, Gene served as the 2013-14 “Class of 1957 Distinguished Chair of Naval Heritage” at the United States Naval Academy, and has also received internal research awards from Montana State University-Billings and TCU, as well as fellowships from the Henry E. Huntington Library, the Virginia Historical Society, the U.S. Department of the Navy, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Gene is an active member of several organizations, most notably the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic—currently acting as the organization’s Treasurer—and the North American Society for Oceanic History. He is also the editor of the University of Alabama Press book series “Maritime Currents: History and Archaeology,” and editor of the University Press of Florida book series “Contested Boundaries.” Gene’s hobbies include watching sports (since I no longer participate competitively), cooking (as I still like to eat), traveling, and gardening. (From Texas Christian University)
Brian Rouleau received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 and joined the history department at Texas A&M the same year. He specializes in the nineteenth-century United States, American foreign relations, and the history of childhood. His first book, With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire, explored the role of sailors in connecting the early United States with the wider world. Rouleau’s second book, Empire’s Nursery: Children’s Literature and the Origins of the American Century, traced the importance of dime novels, pulp fiction, and comic books in educating young Americans about their nation’s growing global obligations. His current project investigates the life and international exploits of Lee Christmas, an infamous American mercenary. Rouleau teaches courses on early American history, the American Revolution, the U.S. West, diplomatic history, and the history of children and the family. (From Texas A&M University)
ABBY MULLEN: I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of places in the world where I have an embarrassingly vague knowledge of where they’re located on the globe. The place we’re talking about today is one of those places: Tahiti. So, the other day, I decided to look it up in my maps app. Once I found it, I wondered how far it was to the nearest continent. [sound of waves lapping on shore] So I zoomed out, and I zoomed out, and I zoomed out again. Well before I hit the nearest continent, the island of Tahiti was no longer visible at all. It was just a tiny pinprick in a sea of desolation.
MULLEN: This tiny little island, literally in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, has an outsized place in American and European imagination, and it has for hundreds of years. [wave sounds end, sound of birds calls] Ever since Europeans learned of it in the mid-18th century, white people have been fascinated by this island. Charles Darwin wrote of its beauty and biodiversity. Herman Melville wrote about it in more than one of his novels. In the 1890s, Paul Gauguin became famous for his paintings of Tahiti. [bird calls end]
MULLEN: But behind the exoticism, there were real people there, fighting to keep their autonomy and their sovereignty–against these people that had idealized Tahiti as a paradise. Today our story is about how U.S. consuls fit into that fight.
[Consolation Prize theme music]
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Welcome to Season 2! For the first few episodes of this season, we’re doing a miniseries that we’re calling “Consuls of Manifest Destiny.” In this series, we’re going to look at the United States’ desire to expand across the continent and into the Pacific, and think about white Americans’ belief that they had the right to do that–this is the concept that eventually became known as Manifest Destiny. And we’re going to see how the consuls, who were at the forefront of this expansion, worked with–or sometimes against–this national project of expansion.
MULLEN: Before we get into our story about Tahiti, could you please go to our website, consolationprize.rrchnm.org, and fill out our listener survey? It takes less than 10 minutes, and it provides us invaluable feedback on what you like about the show, and where we could do better.
[end theme music]
MULLEN: All right, let’s go to Tahiti.
MULLEN: So, if Tahiti is just a tiny pinprick, why do we even care about it? Well, from the first time Europeans set eyes on Tahiti in the 1760s, there were lots of reasons to be interested in it. The most famous voyager to Tahiti, Captain James Cook, went there to watch the transit of the planet Venus! But he also had other reasons, and so did the Europeans that followed him. According to Patty O’Brien, a historian of the Pacific, Tahiti offered a nice stopover for ships traveling through the Pacific.
O’BRIEN: Tahiti was a very convenient port in which to refresh ships and refresh has a whole lot of meanings in terms of taking on water, food. And also a huge part of the story of Tahiti is the interactions between the incoming men, these voyaging men from Europe, and indigenous people, and particularly, the interactions with Indigenous women, the highly sexualized interactions with Indigenous women.
MULLEN: Patty told me that Tahiti was also attractive for its natural resources: first there was sandalwood, which Europeans wanted for its scent. And then in the nineteenth century, there were whales.
MULLEN: The United States wanted in on these things too. Commercial vessels went into the Pacific Ocean from the earliest days of American independence. But in the 1820s, the United States sent another emissary: the navy.
SMITH: By the early 1820s, the US has created a Pacific squadron. And it was an opportunity for the US to start trying to expand its reach out in the Pacific. And I argue that this is all a part of this concept, an unwritten concept at the time, called Manifest Destiny.
MULLEN: This is Gene Smith, a naval historian. He said that even though the term Manifest Destiny wasn’t coined until 1845, the idea was present in the very earliest days of American culture, and here in the 1820s. The Pacific squadron had some goals to achieve in order to make the Pacific a better place for Americans. We’re going to zero on just one member of this squadron, an officer named Thomas ap Catesby Jones.
SMITH: He should chart the principal islands of the Pacific, we had no charts, no maps, he was to negotiate with local rulers. And he was to promote friendship with these local rulers, so that the Americans would have a favored position with them. He was to protect the growing American commercial interest in the area. And while doing so, it would also be an opportunity to undermine British and French expansion.
MULLEN: This was the key: other imperial powers were angling for a foothold in Tahiti as well. In fact, they had already gotten one. In the 18th century, British missionaries had come into Tahiti and had changed a lot about Tahitian society. For one thing, they had influenced the government to outlaw alcohol– although, as we’ll see, they didn’t do a great job of enforcing that. They had established schools and moral codes that matched up with their Protestant beliefs. But they hadn’t quite brought the Tahitian government under their thumbs as much as they wanted.
MULLEN: This is the environment Thomas ap Catesby Jones found in 1826. Now, during the War of 1812, Jones had been wounded by the British, and he took that very personally–he hated the British and he would do anything them to sabotage them. He saw Tahiti as a place where he could maybe do that.
SMITH: He takes a very forthright position, he tries to win the support of these Tahitians. And he does so by trying to convince the young Queen Pōmare the fourth that the US is an equal nation to the British, the French, and that we would be willing to send a consul to her Island. And we’re willing to provide support to her.
MULLEN: Queen Pōmare was young–she was a young teenager when Jones arrived. Jones’s visit was one of her first encounters with foreign military powers. She was still feeling out how to rule over the chiefs and the other political powers in Tahiti, not to mention dealing with other foreign powers. In particular, the British missionaries were firmly entrenched in Tahiti’s political system and possibly attempting to supplement their power in more nefarious ways.
SMITH: There was also a belief that these missionaries, these British missionaries, were also encouraging former Botany Bay convicts to try to, more or less, try to gain political control over the island. And so Jones responds by offering a very few simple regulations when he arrivs. He said these regulations are more or less designed to counteract the evil effects of the criminals that the British were sending there.
MULLEN: Those regulations became the basis of a sort of treaty between the United States and Tahiti. The treaty included things like most favored nation status for the US, repudiation of American deserters, salvage rights for shipwrecks. But the most important for our purposes was Article 2: “Their majesties do hereby bind themselves to receive and protect a consul, or other agent, whenever the United States shall see fit to send such a person to reside near them.” That consul would be under the protection of the Tahitian government, and he would be treated with most favored nation status as well.
MULLEN: Perhaps Pōmare found this treaty appealing because it seemed less threatening than the European approaches to relations with Tahiti. It seemed like the United States wasn’t interested in territorial acquisition or entrenching political power on the island: they just wanted to expand their commercial reach in the Pacific.
MULLEN: Now, on the American side, this treaty never actually made it through the U.S. Congress. It was never ratified. So technically, its terms were never legally binding. But both the United States and Tahiti mostly acted like they were. And that set the stage for the first American consul in Tahiti.
[music with a slightly eerie feel plays under the next few lines]
MULLEN: The first U.S. consul wasn’t actually an American at all. He was Belgian. His name was Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout, and he became consul in 1836.
MULLEN: Patty O’Brien told me that Moerenhout was one of these guys who tried to go where they thought the resource rushes would happen, and they tried to establish themselves in a commercial sense as a way to increase their political power. Moerenhout got into the pearl business. And he began to weasel his way into the political structures of Tahiti. He also looked for power by writing down what he saw, thus creating what would become one of the definitive–and deeply problematic–works on Tahitian life.
[music ends as O’Brien begins to speak]
O’BRIEN: So he writes a book, which is published in 1837, which is, you know, ethnography, history, personal narrative. And basically, you know, his version of, you know, what he’s seen. He’s sort of, you know, this amateur ethnographer who is deeply invested and deeply prejudiced in, in regards to what he’s doing, because it’s all about establishing himself as an authority on these islands in order to move on to another step in his career, which is as a diplomat, a diplomatic representative in the islands. And he is appointed as the US consul, the first US consul in, ah, in Tahiti.
MULLEN: Once Moerenhout got his consular appointment, it didn’t take long before he was embroiled in a controversy that hit the very heart of Tahitian governance. The problem started in 1836.
[ominous drum beats]
O’BRIEN: When a couple of French priests arrive in Tahiti, because Tahiti to that point, had only had London missionaries, these Protestant missionaries there. There’d been this conversion of the royal house to Protestantism, which meant that the, ah, the populace followed the Royal House.
MULLEN: The most prominent British missionary in Tahiti was a guy named George Pritchard. He had been there a long time, and he was accustomed to being the top religious authority in town. He was not happy that these French missionaries came. In fact, he had some pretty strong words about the situation:
“For Roman Catholics and Protestant Missionaries to labor together in peace and harmony in a small field like this… is just as likely as it is for light to have fellowship with darkness, or Christ and Belial to dwell together in concord.”Colin Newbury, “The Market Expanded” in Tahiti Nui: Change and Survival in French Polynesia, 1767–1945 (University of Hawai’i Press, 1980), 89.
MULLEN: So Pritchard advised the queen, Pōmare IV, to kick these Catholic missionaries off the island. Spoiler alert: this was really bad advice.
[music ends with three hard beats]
O’BRIEN: It’s like the casus belli for the French, because it’s about the mistreatment of their nationals. And this gives them a pretext to come in and seek recompense.
MULLEN: Moerenhout, who technically didn’t have a horse in this race, also played a part in this story. When the missionaries arrived, they came looking for him. He offered to let them stay in a building at the American consulate. When Pritchard and the Tahitians came to get the missionaries in order to evict them, they had to force their way into the consulate. Moerenhout was furious–he struck the American flag from the flagpole and declared the American consulate closed for business. This action was meant to penalize the Tahitians, because without Moerenhout’s say-so, Americans couldn’t dock and unload their wares for selling. But of course that hurt the Americans as well.
MULLEN: Queen Pōmare wasn’t going to tolerate this kind of nonsense. According to the treaty, she couldn’t exactly prosecute him, but she could pull the one string she had: she wrote to the U.S. government and asked that Moerenhout be recalled.
MULLEN: Letters take a long time to go between Tahiti and the United States. Meantime, Moerenhout saw which way the wind is blowing. He was pretty sure that he was going to be recalled as U.S. consul, but since no one else had showed up yet, he kept on doing the job–even though he said he wouldn’t do it anymore. But he didn’t make any friends while doing it. In fact,
O’BRIEN: He generates a huge number of enemies in the islands. So he’s in this very small world. He’s dealing with all the island politics, which have just become so treacherous. Because of all these power plays, because of the, the Imperial games, the traders that are coming in all the shipping that’s coming and going, you know, there’s money, there’s goods, there’s all kinds of things happening The indigenous governments are trying to control things like the flow of alcohol into Tahiti. And, you know, that’s a huge money spinner in terms of, you know, providing grog to the whaling ships. And so Moerenhout engages in that, you know, so he is defying the government. He writes scandalous and, and disparaging things about a number of people, you know, he’s playing all kinds of games. He’s a hated person.
MULLEN: And it wasn’t just the Tahitians who hated him.
MULLEN: One day in June 1838, Moerenhout opened his door to two deserters from an American whaleship, who entered the consulate and attacked Moerenhout and his wife. [drumbeats] They beat the couple with axes until Moerenhout was unconscious and his wife’s skull was fractured. Moerenhout survived the attack; his wife did not.
[drumbeats end with a finality]
MULLEN: A few months later, two years after the Catholic missionaries incident, a French naval vessel arrived to set things straight.
MULLEN: Queen Pōmare looked to the British missionaries to protect the island from the depredations of the French, but what could the missionaries do against a warship or two?
O’BRIEN: Prichard is absolutely sure that the British will come in and support Pōmare in Tahiti, as they have in New Zealand. But that is not what happens.
MULLEN: In fact, Patty says, it was New Zealand that was part of the problem. The British were so busy shoring up their hold on that territory that they couldn’t spare the time for Tahiti.
MULLEN: But now was the time for Moerenhout to make his move with the French. The admiral, a guy named Abel Aubert du Petit Thouars, came to talk to Moerenhout about the whole priest situation, and then he offered him a new position: as French consul. It had been nearly two years since Moerenhout had heard from the United States, and after the attack on him and his wife, Moerenhout did not believe the American government was going to take care of him. So Moerenhout took a new post with France.
MULLEN: Moerenhout’s American successor arrived in March of 1839. He brought the news that Moerenhout was in fact recalled, and had been since July 1837. If Pōmare hoped that the new American consul would be more friendly to Tahitian interests, or would at least not be a terrible person, she was disappointed. [music becomes discordant] It seemed pretty clear from the outset that Samuel Blackler had no intention of following Tahitian laws or doing anything except profiting off anyone he could.
MULLEN: While Blackler got himself set up in the consulate, American whaleships started to arrive with more frequency. Plus, according to historian Peter Eicher, there was more shipping through Papeete, the capital city, than through many ports in Europe. So there were a lot of Americans around Tahiti. It didn’t take long for Blackler to write home to the State Department, in true consular fashion, asking for a U.S. warship to back him up as he tried to control the unruly Americans who came ashore off the whaling ships.
MULLEN: Brian Rouleau, a historian who has studied sailors in the 19th century, told me:
ROULEAU: Some of the most frantic, sort of panicked, correspondence we have between Americans overseas and and sort of authorities at home in the United States is written by missionaries who are complaining about seafarers who are, um, setting a terrible example for indigenous populations in the Pacific. Missionaries complain that sailors are smuggling drink, and sort of intoxicating people who would better spend their time inside of churches and, and learning about the gospel. Sailors are impregnating Indigenous women. Sailors are brutalizing indigenous men in the Pacific. And it’s missionaries who are often writing to naval authorities and diplomatic authorities asking for consular or, or military intervention as a means to control this, from their point of view, this destructive population, this destructive influence
MULLEN: One might argue that this problem was Blackler’s to deal with: these were Americans, on American ships. They were committing serious crimes like desertion and mutiny and even murder. But Blackler saw these sailors’ problems as a failure of Tahiti’s legal and political system. He wanted the Tahitian government to build prisons in order to hold these lawless Americans. When they wouldn’t do it, he felt disrespected. So he wanted a warship not to bring Americans into line, but the Tahitian government.
MULLEN: Blackler did get visits from a warship–in fact, he got several. But things didn’t go as he had expected.
[Music with drums and chimes, plays under first few lines of next statement]
MULLEN: The first American warship Blackler met in Tahiti came just a few months after he arrived. The U.S. Exploring Expedition showed up in Tahiti in September of 1839. Blackler immediately brought his problems to Lt. Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition. He wanted Wilkes to show Pomare and the Tahitians that the United States would not be disrespected.
MULLEN: Now, Wilkes had no particular love for native people–sometimes he was downright antagonistic toward them. Later in the expedition, the U.S. ExEx would wipe out two whole native villages in Fiji. So Wilkes was primed to take Blackler’s side in any disagreements with the Tahitian government. But something smelled fishy to him. Alcohol was illegal in Tahiti, but somehow one of his men had managed to get very drunk while on shore. So Wilkes started looking for the purveyor of spirits that had gotten his man drunk.
MULLEN: And the trail led back to Blackler. It turned out that Blackler had purchased 70 cases of gin that he promised would not be sold on the island–but he was definitely selling them on the island. Wilkes convened a meeting with some of the Tahitian chiefs. After talking the situation over with them, Wilkes learned more about Blackler’s cruelty and capriciousness toward American sailors. So Wilkes did what Blackler least expected: he, and the chiefs of Tahiti, wrote to the U.S. government recommending Blackler’s immediate recall.
[resonant drums play briefly]
MULLEN: But of course, we already know that communications take a long time to get from Tahiti to the United States, and sometimes they don’t get there at all. Wilkes and the expedition left Tahiti, and Blackler stayed. Things simmered along for another few more years until 1841.
[driving rhythm begins]
MULLEN: On May 13, 1841, Blackler noticed some Tahitian constables trying to detain two American sailors. Blackler quickly got involved. He told the sailors to run to the consulate, where they would be safe. The constables chased Blackler and the men, and Blackler wasn’t fast enough to get away. The constables attacked Blackler just outside the consulate, knocking him down. Then they entered the consulate and took the two men away.
MULLEN: Blackler was fine: he had no permanent damage. But his level of anger and bitterness toward the Tahitian government rose to a new level. He wrote home to complain about the violation of his personal and national sovereignty. He demanded that the navy intervene–in this case, not just to send a warship, but to establish a permanent base on Tahiti. And of course he struck the flag–just like Moerenhout. But also just like Moerenhout, he kept on doing business, because that’s how he made money.
MULLEN: But Blackler wasn’t the only one with grievances. The Tahitian authorities wrote a letter of their own to the U.S. government. It was written by Paraita, who was acting as the regent of Tahiti while Pōmare was unable to perform her duties.
MULLEN: Paraita wrote multiple pages to express his disgust and anger at Blackler. For instance, Paraita had his own complaints about violence. When the Tahitians confronted Blackler about his inaction regarding American deserters, Paraita wrote,
PARAITA: “One of our officers put into his hands the law, which he tore up, threw down, and trampled under his feet, with an oath against the law.”Paraita to the President of America, August 18, 1841. Department of State. Office of the Secretary. (9/1789 – ), “Despatches: July 2, 1841 – December 31, 1860” (1906 1789), National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference(RDT2), https://catalog.archives.gov/id/211283501.
MULLEN: And the Tahitian government hadn’t forgotten the incident with the 70 cases of gin, either. Blackler had told the government that those cases were actually bars of soap. When it became obvious that they were not soap, Blackler had tried to keep the officials from confiscating the gin with a sword.
[somber piano music begins]
MULLEN: There were other complaints as well about Blackler’s moral deficiencies. Blackler might have dismissed these complaints as minor or frivolous–even though they really weren’t. But the last point in Paraita’s letter was anything but frivolous. The Tahitian government had denied entrance to an American ship that was known to have smallpox on board. But Blackler had helped the ship land anyway. Then he had sold the goods from the ship without a quarantine period. On August 18th, when Paraita was writing, three people had died, and he reported that the disease was spreading fast. Eventually the smallpox became a full-blown epidemic, and many people died, both Tahitians and white sailors.
MULLEN: Paraita wrote,
PARAITA: What will you think of your consul? Does he not become a man killer? Because he knew there was a bad disease on board.Paraita to the President of America, August 18, 1841. Department of State. Office of the Secretary. (9/1789 – ), “Despatches: July 2, 1841 – December 31, 1860” (1906 1789), National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference(RDT2), https://catalog.archives.gov/id/211283501.
MULLEN: Coincidentally, a U.S. Navy ship had just put in to Pape’ete and was there to hear both sides of this disagreement. The U.S.S. Yorktown arrived in July, and both sides immediately sought the advice and retribution of its captain, John Aulick. In a letter home, Captain Aulick rather understated the problem:
AULICK: On my arrival here, I found our Consul, Mr. Blackler, involved in some very unpleasant difficulties with the Native authorities.John Henry Aulick to Secretary of the Navy, July 21, 1841. United States Naval Academy Nimitz Library, Papers of John Aulick. MS336, Box 3, Folder 3.
MULLEN: Once again, Blackler expected the navy to take his side, and once again, it did not go quite to plan. Instead, Aulick also convened a meeting with the chiefs, on July 5. He didn’t get a chance to talk to the queen, who was out of the city at the moment because she had given birth to her fifth child just a few months ago. From his letters, it seems like he would have rather talked to her, but he had settle for the chiefs under her.
MULLEN: He heard out their complaints about Blackler and talked to them about the attack on him. The meeting didn’t end with any firm solutions to the problem. But in Aulick’s report of the meeting, he noted about Blackler,
AULICK: from all I saw and heard of him, I am clearly of the opinion that he is unfit to be the representative of our country at this or any other place.Journal of John Henry Aulick, July 5, 1841. United States Naval Academy Nimitz Library, Papers of John Aulick. MS336, Box 2, Folder 7.
MULLEN: Blackler wanted Aulick to tighten the screws on the Tahitian government in response to Blackler’s run-in with the constables. But Aulick seemed decidedly uninterested in pursuing it. He told Blackler that he had no instructions from the government about how to handle this kind of situation. He suggested Blackler should write home and he should ask them to send another warship with specific instructions. Given how many times the United States actually sent a warship in response to a consular request, and how much time it took for anything to happen in between these two locations, I’m pretty sure that both Aulick and Blackler knew that this was a brush-off.
MULLEN: Paraita gave Aulick a copy of the letter he was going to send — the one with the litany of complaints. Aulick took the letter to Blackler and told him he would take action — if Blackler could refute these accusations with hard and fast proof. After that, Blackler told Aulick he probably should wait for orders from the government, rather than taking vengeance on the island and its people now. Almost like he knew he was at fault and had a tiny twinge of conscience about his wish to bombard an island.
MULLEN: The Tahitians weren’t the only ones complaining about Blackler–Aulick also received a letter from the wife of George Pritchard, the missionary. As the complaints piled up against Blackler, and as Blackler continued to dig his heels in, you can almost feel Aulick’s annoyance rising. In his first letters to Blackler, he’s very accommodating. By the last letter he sends, he’s just ticked off at the whole thing.
MULLEN: On July 22, when Aulick was getting ready to weigh anchor out of Tahiti, he still hadn’t gotten any kind of refutation from Blackler–and Aulick felt that that was answer enough.
[somber piano music begins]
MULLEN: All of this stuff with Blackler and Aulick and the chiefs of Tahiti was going down while the Tahitian government was in turmoil for a different reason: the problems that had started with the Catholic missionaries hadn’t gone away. [music ends] In fact, they were about to get a lot worse. The British and the French and the Americans all wanted to be in power on the island of Tahiti, and of course the indigenous Tahitians wanted to keep their power. But there was only one group who had brought any kind of force to the island and that was the French. Here’s Patty O’Brien again.
O’BRIEN: It’s a massive sort of power play that’s taking place. And the element of power that prevails is the French Navy.
MULLEN: During the initial fight over the Catholic missionaries in 1836, the French had forced Pōmare to do all kinds of things that gave the impression that the French were in charge. They made her fly the French flag. They made her pay them money in recompense for the treatment of the missionaries–money that the British missionary Pritchard ended up paying. And they could do these things because they had the only muscle in the area: a warship. They eventually left, but in 1842, du Petit Thouars returned, and this time he had bigger plans than just humiliation.
O’BRIEN: He comes back in 1842. And he, at that point, you know, essentially comes armed with an agenda to annex territory, because the, the Treaty of Waitangi has been signed in 1840 and he annexes the Marquesan islands, the Marquesan archipelago, and then he comes back. And he basically brings things to a head in Tahiti, and forces Pōmare to submit to a French protectorate, in 1842, which she doesn’t initially do. I mean, well, she’s forced to sign and then she, she basically writes to the King of France, she writes to Britain,and she says, I was forced, in my very delicate circumstances, to sign this document. And I did not do it of my own free will. And she tries to renege on her signature because she’s pressured and she is pressured because she’s, you know, having babies, she’s breastfeeding and she’s being forced by, by the French Admiral by the, uh, the man who’s acting as the French consul. And also she’s being — her hand is being forced by the, the chiefs, who are also greatly undermining her power as well. So she’s forced to sign a document which makes Tahiti a French protectorate in 1842. But it’s five years before she actually as, as the Queen comes back and fully accepts the realpolitik which is that, that Britain has ceded control of, you know, Polynesia to the, to the French.
MULLEN: Pōmare was the queen of Tahiti until her death in 1877. But it was always under the “protection” of the French from this point on. And remember that guy acting as the French consul? That’s our old friend Moerenhout. The U.S. consuls were there to protect American interests and boost American prestige in the Pacific, but both of these guys had done completely the opposite. Instead of boosting American interests, the first consul had moved on to a different nation’s employ. There, he had helped to orchestrate an imperial takeover. That hurt not only Tahiti, but also Americans who came to Tahiti. And the second consul had instigated an epidemic, disgraced himself, and caused so much ruckus that the name of the United States was mud. Rather than standing up for the rights of the Tahitians, a country that the United States had a de facto treaty with, the Americans stood by and helped to hand it over to the French.
MULLEN: So let’s return to our question of Manifest Destiny. In the case of Tahiti, these two consuls had to choose whether to embrace their nation’s expansionist project or pursue their own possibilities for expansion. In the case of both Moerenhout and Blackler, they chose themselves.
MULLEN: By the way, do you want to know what happened to Moerenhout and Blackler? Moerenhout moved on from Tahiti to take a new appointment from France as a consul to Monterey, Alta California. Blackler never really got any resolution to his complaints or the complaints against him: he died in Tahiti in the fall of 1844.
[theme music begins playing]
MULLEN: Consolation Prize is a podcast of R2 Studios at George Mason University. This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by me, Abby Mullen, and our show notes are by Megan Brett. Our music is, as always, by the amazing Andrew Cote. Special thanks this week to Patricia O’Brien, Gene Allen Smith, and Brian Rouleau for helping us out with their expertise, and to extra thanks to David D’Onofrio of the United States Naval Academy’s Nimitz Library who helped me find some of the papers of John Aulick that you heard today. Our voice actors are Scott Keir, Jason Heppler, and Ricardo Herrera. Rick has a new book coming out in April of 2022, it’s called Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778 — you should definitely check it out.
MULLEN: And one final thing. Our studio, R2 Studios, has just started up a membership program! For free, you can get stickers from your favorite R2 show — which I hope is us — all you have to do is sign up for the R2 Studios newsletter. For a one-time or a recurring donation, you could get a t-shirt or a tumbler. However much you can give, we’re grateful. We make this show, and all R2 shows, on a very small budget, so any amount you can give really helps. You can find out more and become a member at our website, consolationprize.rrchnm.org, or at the much easier to type into your browser studio’s website, r2studios.org. Thanks for supporting great audio and thanks for listening.
Department of State. Office of the Secretary. “Despatches: January 11, 1836 – June 5, 1841.” National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference(RDT2).
———. “Despatches: July 2, 1841 – December 31, 1860.” National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference(RDT2). https://catalog.archives.gov/id/211283501.
Eicher, Peter D. “Adventures in Paradise: Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout, Samuel Blackler, and the Occupation of Tahiti.” In Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands, 217–44. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
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. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780824872397.
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.
Rouleau, Brian. With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire. United States in the World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.
Smith, Gene A. Thomas Ap Catesby Jones: Commodore of Manifest Destiny. Library of Naval Biography. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
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.
Tahiti without the Gospel. [n.p.], 1833. http://archive.org/details/tahitiwithoutgos00np.
Special thanks to Vicky Powys and the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the use of the sound of a Pacific Black Duck.
Our cover art is William Hodges, 1744-1797, British. 1776. Tahitian War Galleys in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite, Tahiti. Painting, landscape; marine art. Place: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. https://library.artstor.org/asset/AYCBAIG_10313608356.