A prince in Tahiti

The Prince of Nassau-Siegen, Tahiti, Bougainville, Venus, transit of Venus, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell

After almost a month on Tahiti, Captain Cook and his men were still unaware that since the first British voyage to the island two years earlier, other visitors had been.

As relations between the foreigners and the natives began to mend following the incident with the astronomical quadrant, so the ‘Queen of Tahiti’ paid Cook a visit and asked him to mend a few things of hers.

“She introduced herself with a Small Pig, for which she had a Hatchet, and as soon as she got it she Lugg’d out a Broken Axe, and several pieces of Old Iron. These, I believe, she must have had from the Dolphin; the Axe she wanted to be mended,” the captain wrote in his journal.

“These Pieces of old Iron the Natives must have got from the Dolphin, as we know of no other Ship being here; and very probable some from us, for there is no species of Theft they will not commit to get this Article, and I may say the same of the common Seamen when in these parts.”

Although some of the Endeavour’s men had already begun to suspect that perhaps the French had been in Tahiti after a similar axe was brought to them a couple of weeks previously, the suggestion had been broadly dismissed.

But the sceptics were wrong. The French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had paid a visit in 1768, bringing with him, among others the naturalist Philibert Commerçon, his assistant Jeanne Baré – who, during their stay in Tahiti, was revealed to be a woman – plus an aristocrat suffering from his own identity crisis.

Karl Heinrich Nikolaus Otto de Nassau-Siegen was a descendant of the House of Nassau, which originated in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, today bordered by North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, France, Saarland, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Otto called himself the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, though the last legitimate holder of the title had been Frederick William II, who died without a male heir in 1734. This effectively brought an end to the lineage and Emperor Charles VI transferred the county to the House of Orange-Nassau, controlled by William IV of Orange-Nassau-Dietz.

Otto’s father was Maximilien Guillaume Adolphe, who was born to Charlotte de Mailly after she divorced from Emmanuel Ignatius de Nassau-Siegen – a younger half-brother of William Hyacinth. The latter held the title of Prince of Nassau-Siegen till he was deprived of it in 1707 by Emperor Joseph I, in recompense for a reign of terror that saw him raise taxes to extortionate levels in a bid to replenish a squandered family fortune.

The title was handed instead to Frederick William Adolf, one of whose sons was Frederick William II.

In 1756, the French judiciary posthumously handed Maximilien Guillaume Adolphe the epithet though it was by then redundant. When Otto took it on he also inherited William Hyacinth’s disregard for money, gambling in the courts of Vienna, Warsaw, Madrid and Versailles. On the run from his creditors and having survived numerous duels and notorious affairs, he persuaded Bougainville to take him on his round-the-world voyage when the pair met a dinner party in 1766. The French knew him by the name Charles Henri Nicolas Othon d’Orange et de Nassau-Siegen.

Regardless of his rightful claim to princedom, the Tahitians were persuaded by his aristocratic affectations – the women in particular.

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