Death for Tahiti

Long residence in Papeete, Tahiti, has given HUGH CAPET close knowledge of and deep love for the people of the South Seas, and he views with utmost dismay General de Gaulle’s decision to turn the golden isles of Polynesia into a testing ground for nuclear weapons.

SINCE 1842 France has given Tahiti and its surrounding islands a type of protection unique in the world today. Even at the peak of World War II, France with great reluctance gave permission to the United States to build a base on Bora Bora, and only a handful of high-ranking officers were allowed to visit Tahiti, 125 miles away. The Battle of the Coral Sea ended Bora Bora’s usefulness, and in a few years the tropical growth took over.

But now Charles de Gaulle has decided that Tahiti is to be the heart of his Force de Frappe, thus bestowing upon the queen of islands the kiss of death. A missile and military base was planned for Mangareva in the Gambier group, but this installation has been postponed because of the strong opposition of the people there and on tiny Pitcairn Island. Air base and atomic testing sites are now planned for Mururoa and the islands of Hao and Anaa in the Tuamotus. On Tahiti itself, barracks and housing areas are to be erected to house three thousand military and technical personnel. The sleepy port of Papeete, known for its beauty, is to be converted to handle the vast amount of military cargo, which will triple the flow of commercial cargo.

To France, the cost of building such a project will be astronomical, but le grand Charles wants his own bomb, and if the Sahara cannot be used for incubation, then the world may lose Tahiti.

But what would this mean to Tahiti? The economic and political impact would be staggering, and a death blow would be dealt to the budding tourist trade, which at the moment is bringing in an amazing amount of foreign exchange that goes to France. It is true that the Tahitians would have jobs, but the pay would be carefully regulated while the general local economy would be in a mad upward spiral, leaving the native with a reduced standard of living. His land is expensive even by Honolulu standards.

The white man has enjoyed his position in Tahiti because he has been in the minority, but with an invasion of French workers with money to spend and all costs paid by the French government, the feeling would rapidly change. There is some anti-French feeling now, but it is not serious. Tahiti needs France, and it is the French-Tahitian atmosphere that makes the island the pleasant place it is. For this reason, it is the French now living and working in Tahiti who are the most seriously worried about De Gaulle’s plans.

The chain of events that brought French rule to Tahiti began in 1834 with the arrival in Mangareva of two French priests, Father Françoise d’ Assise Caret and Father Louis Jacques Laval. By November of 1836, the bishop of Nilopolis felt that it was time for the two priests to move on to Tahiti and establish a Catholic mission there. Queen Pomare of Tahiti was strongly under the influence of George Pritchard, the British consul and head of the London Missionary Society’s group of missionaries. Pritchard was a good man, and a firm one, who had contributed much to Tahiti and the royal family, but he did not want his territory being cut into by the Catholic Church. Not long after their arrival in Tahiti, the two priests were forced to barricade themselves in a house given them by the acting American consul, Jacques Antoine Moerenhout, because the Queen refused to see them and ordered them to return to Mangareva. The order was not carried out, so the priests were forcefully taken back to their ship in a small canoe.

The Caret-Laval incident soon became an international affair. Moerenhout wrote to the French consul general in Chile two very strong and rather exaggerated letters which were transmitted to the French government. The French government was incensed at the treatment given the two French priests. Orders were sent to Captain Du Petit-Thouars, who was already in the Pacific on a whale fisheries survey, to proceed to Tahiti with his frigate Venus and to demand from Queen Pomare full reparation for the insult done to France. Captain Du Petit-Thouars forced an apology from the Queen and an indemnity of 2000 Spanish dollars for the losses suffered by Fathers Caret and Laval. The money was paid by two British residents because the Queen had no money. The Queen and the British consul had written to the United States government that Moerenhout had meddled in the affairs of the Tahitian state. As a result, he was fired. However, Du Petit-Thouars promptly made him French consul, which did not please the Queen.

In 1842 Du Petit-Thouars returned to Tahiti, this time to establish a French protectorate. This was accomplished with the aid of M. Moerenhout, while the Queen was in Mooréa having her third child. For his services, Moerenhout became commissioner royal under the new protectorate. With the protectorate forced under French guns, a series of incidents began that brought France and England to the brink of war and caused the fall of the French government and the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution of 1848. The island of Tahiti, small as it was, was already playing a part in world events.

Tahiti remained a protectorate until the death of Queen Pomare in 1877. The old Queen was a determined woman and never completely gave in to France. Upon her death she was succeeded by her son, King Pomare V, an easygoing, funloving character who cared only about his personal pleasure. The French government put pressure on the district chiefs and forced the King to abdicate and hand his kingdom over to France. In return he was to receive a sum of 60,000 gold francs per year, an arrangement which he happily accepted, since he was always short of funds, and this constituted a fortune. On December 30, 1880, Tahiti and all its islands became a French colony.

The years under French rule were free of any major problems. Tahiti was considered by French officials to be something akin to Siberia. Though many of them enjoyed the place, few stayed on following their tour of duty. The peaceful atmosphere of the colony attracted many artists, among whom Gauguin is the most famous. Many writers, too, have found the lure of Tahiti irresistible. But the best books about the island remain those written by Cook, Bligh, Bougainville, Loti, Melville, Stevenson, Brooke, Maugham, and Nordhoff and Hall.

Investments in Tahiti have almost always failed; somehow the atmosphere spells doom for all big plans and dreams. But the Tahitian people seem to be happy with their copra, vanilla, and enough work to keep the wolf away from the door. Local schools, in general, are good, and of late the French government has started an excellent hotel and cooking school that may cut down on the mortality rate of hotels. There is little French investment in Tahiti, because the French do not like the red tape conjured up by an ever-growing army of French officials, who no longer have any posts to go to except Tahiti. Americans own all but one of the local hotels.

Tahiti is still ruled by a governor from France. It has a Territorial Assembly voted for by the native population, but this assembly is not a very effective body and is quite susceptible to French pressures. It is in this situation that De Gaulle’s Force de Frappe was cleverly planned. Local politicians have managed to keep their constituents quiet, although the number of French soldiers is increasing with the arrival of each ship. Tahiti’s second-largest and only French-owned hotel has been bought by the army. A company working with French government money is buying up, under threat of expropriation, many of the largest and best residential properties. The company’s first building project was supposed to be for underprivileged Tahitian families. But the rent in the project is much too high for Tahitians to afford, and sanitary facilities are below the standards of the local law. It is now thought that the project will house French workers, probably many from Algeria, and that it was never intended for the local population. Several native politicians are kept on this company’s payroll.

Time is on the side of Tahiti and against General de Gaulle. Already the costs for the Force de Frappe are mounting. French technical officials returning to Paris have called the costs for the Tahiti project “shocking.” The Mirage IV built to carry the A-bomb may be outdated before it is in service. France’s H-bomb, which is to be exploded in the Tuamotus, has been postponed until 1972 because of the delay in the building of the plant for enriched uranium. There is also the possibility of a bomb-testing treaty. There are a lot of circumstances that may save Tahiti, which was called by Captain William Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty “The finest island in the World.”Not the least of the circumstances is De Gaulle himself.

Tahiti needs many things before it gets De Gaulle’s bomb and his kiss of death. Its present hospital is most inadequate and a disgrace to the island. The new air-terminal building is in dire need of being equipped. Also, there is virtually not one paved road into the mountains, and the mountains cover 90 percent of the land. It would be a great pity if France should destroy what it has protected and loved for so long, for the sake of fulfilling a dream of power which would give France an antique bomb at best. De Gaulle has asked Frenchmen to sacrifice, but the average Frenchman does not want the bomb, and the world needs one peaceful little corner.