Thursday, July 15, 2021

American scribbler

Portrait of Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti. Print by George Baxter, 1845. 
© The Trustees of the British Museum
"Poor Pomare! An American scribbler, Herman Melvil, has just told the world that Queen Pomare is a Tartar, a Jezebel, and calls in question her sobriety and her conjugal fidelity...."
-- John J. Jesson

In a letter to the editor of The Patriot (London, England) John J. Jesson of Runcorn alluded to disparagement of Tahiti's Queen Pomare in Herman Melville's Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas (1847). Jesson wrote in reply to critical comments by George Charter in a previous letter from Raiatea dated July 10, 1847 and published in the London Patriot on February 14, 1848. Fearing that "Pomare is a stranger to vital godliness," Charter had faulted the bad influences of the French government and "Popery" as encouraged and extended by Catholic missionaries.

Early in his long rebuttal, excerpted below, Jesson invokes Melville (misspelled Melvil) as the "American scribbler" who slandered Pomare as a domineering "Tartar" and promiscuous "Jezebel." From the London Patriot of March 23, 1848; found on The British Newspaper Archive with digitized pages added in July 2021:


SIR,— The letter you inserted last month under the above head filled me with surprise and regret. I cannot allow the Rev. G. Charter’s remarks on that noble band of Christian patriots, the Tahitians, and on the much injured and long exiled Queen Pomare, to pass unnoticed. I can give Mr. Charter credit for sincerity, but I cannot acquiesce in his views.

The various charges involve the personal character and regal administration of the Queen. Poor Pomare! An American scribbler, Herman Melvil, has just told the world that Queen Pomare is a Tartar, a Jezebel, and calls in question her sobriety and her conjugal fidelity; and now the Rev. G. Charter charges her with despotism and hypocrisy.

Now, Sir, I unhesitatingly declare before the world and before God, that such charges are unmanly and untrue. For several years I very frequently visited the Queen in company with brother Howe and others, and I never saw or heard anything from her of any of her people that could induce such a conclusion—but just the reverse....

... Friend Charter conceived an early antipathy to Queen Pomare, and in sober truth, I believe no love is lost between them. But, in the name of all that we revere, let not personal pique govern sentiments which are given to the world, and that to the prejudice of a spirit-smitten Christian woman and a deeply injured Queen....
Runcorn, March 14, 1848

Jesson was then pastor of the Congregational or Independent Chapel in Runcorn. The Biblical Review and Congregational Magazine for January 1847 announced that "The Rev. J. J. Jesson, late of Tahiti, has accepted the invitation of the church at Runcorn, Cheshire, to be its pastor, and enters on his labours the first Sabbath in the year." As narrated in Historical sketches of Nonconformity in the County Palatine of Chester (London and Manchester, 1864) Jesson had been

 "driven by French persecution from the island of Tahiti, South Pacific."

In his 1848 letter to the Patriot editor, Jesson has succinctly and fairly paraphrased the satirical treatment of "Pomaree" in Omoo chapter 80 where Melville indeed figures the Tahitian queen as "a Tartar" and "a Jezebel":

The reputation of Pomaree is not what it ought to be. She, and also her mother, were, for a long time, excommunicated members of the Church; and the former, I believe, still is. Among other things, her conjugal fidelity is far from being unquestioned. Indeed, it was upon this ground chiefly that she was excluded from the communion of the Church.

Previous to her misfortunes, she spent the greater portion of her time sailing about from one island to another, attended by a licentious court; and wherever she went all manner of games and festivities celebrated her arrival....
The Tahitian princess leads her husband a hard life. Poor fellow! he not only caught a queen, but a Tartar, when he married her. The style by which he is addressed is rather significant—"Pomaree-Tanee" (Pomaree's man). All things considered, as appropriate a title for a king-consort as could be hit upon.

If ever there were a henpecked husband, that man is the prince. One day, his cara-sposa, giving audience to a deputation from the captains of the vessels lying in Papeetee, he ventured to make a suggestion which was very displeasing to her. She turned round, and, boxing his ears, told him to go over to his beggarly island of Imeeo, if he wanted to give himself airs.

Cuffed and contemned, poor Tanee flies to the bottle, or rather to the calabash, for solace. Like his wife and mistress, he drinks more than he ought....

... Though Pomaree Vahinee I. be something of a Jezebel in private life, in her public rule she is said to have been quite lenient and forbearing.

In the same chapter Melville attributes the "diminution of the regal dignity" over time to "the influence of the English missionaries at Tahiti." 

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