The Queen of Tahiti

Hibiscus, Tahiti, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, transit of Venus, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, Natalie Waddell

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is one of some 300 species within the Hibiscus genus, which in turn is part of the Malvaceae family of flowering plants. It is sometimes known as the Queen of Tahiti.

It is one of many plant genera with a genetic characteristic known as polyploidy, in which there are more than two complete sets of chromosomes, unlike most other species including humans.

This means the plant’s offspring may be completely different from their parent, or indeed any ancestor, essentially creating the possibility of random expression of any or all the characteristics of generations that have gone before.

Because of this, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis has become popular with hobbyists who cross and re-cross varieties, creating new names for the progeny as they go along. Such hybrids are often sterile but those that aren’t further increase the complexity of varieties, leading to virtually unlimited types.

When Sydney Parkinson painted the picture above, the Queen of Tahiti, as far as the crew of the Endeavour who sailed there in 1769 understood, was a woman by the name of Purea or ‘Oberea’, as the British called her.

Several of the men, including lieutenant John Gore and ship’s master Robert Molyneux, had visited Tahiti two years earlier when they sailed there aboard the Dolphin, captained by Samuel Wallis. This was the first time European’s had visited the island and at that time Purea was already estranged from her husband, a chief by the name of Amo.

The pair were both highborn ‘arioi’ – followers of Oro, the Tahitian god of fertility and war – and had had a child named Teri‘irere. Purea had kept Teri‘irere, against Amo’s will and against arioi custom, which forbid them from having children among themselves; unless their babies were killed they lost their sacred status.

Nevertheless, both Purea and Amo remained close political allies and were determined to pass on their sacred status to Teri‘irere and install him as the highest chief in the land.

Queen of Tahiti, Purea, Oberea, Venus, Aphrodite, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium,When the Dolphin arrived, its crew dressed in red tunics (Oro’s sacred colour), Purea befriended them in an attempt to consolidate her power. However, after Wallis and his men set sail, relations between Purea, Amo and their rivals deteriorated. Another Tahitian chief, Tutaha (who the Endeavour’s naturalist Joseph Banks later nicknamed Hercules, was determined to see his great-nephew Tu installed as future leader.

When French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and his ships La Boudeuse and Étoile landed at Tahiti in 1768, the political jostling to win the foreigners’ favour continued – Tutaha this time securing the advantage.

When the French ships sailed away Tahiti descended into a bitter civil war, eventually won by Tutaha, forcing Purea and Amo to flee along with Teri‘irere.

When Captain James Cook and the Endeavour arrived at the island in April 1769, those who had visited previously immediately noticed that something untoward had happened.

“We did not find the inhabitants to be numerous and therefore at first imagined that several of them had fled from their habitations upon our arrival in the Bay but Mr Gore & some others who had been here before observ’d that a very great revolution must have happen’d – not near the number of inhabitants a great number of houses raiz’d, har[d]ly a vestage of some to be seen, particularly what was call’d the Queens,” Cook wrote in his journal.

On April 28, Purea appeared for the first time, as Cook recalled:

“This morning a great number of the natives came to us in their Canoes from differant parts of the Island, several of whom we had not seen before. One of these was the Woman called by the Dolphins the Queen of this Island; she first went to Mr. Banks’s tent at the fort, where she was not known, till the Master, happening to go ashore, who knew her, and brought her on board with 2 Men and several Women, who seem’d to be all of her family. I made them all some presents or other, but to Oberiea (for that is this Woman’s name) I gave several things, in return for which, as soon as I went on shore with her, she gave me a Hog and several Bunches of plaintains. These she caused to be carried from her Canoes up to the Fort in a kind of Procession, she and I bringing up the rear.

“This Woman is about 40 years of Age, and, like most of the other Women, very Masculine. She is head or chief of her own family or Tribe, but to all appearance hath no Authority over the rest of the Inhabitants, whatever she might have when the Dolphin was here. Hercules, whose real Name is Tootaha, is, to all appearance, the Chief Man of the Island, and hath generally visited us twice a week since we have been here, and came always attended by a number of Canoes and people; and at those times we were sure to have a supply, more or less, of everything the Island afforded, both from himself and from those that came with him, and it is a Chance thing that we get a Hog at any other time. He was with us at this Time, and did not appear very well pleased at the Notice we took of Oberiea.”

The above top illustration comes via the Natural History Museum. The above right drawing, ‘The Queen of Otaheite taking leave of Capt. Wallis,’ is from the National Library of Australia. Among the sources for this article is an excellent book I’ve discovered by Anne Salmond, called Aphrodite’s Island.

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