(photo credit: University of Haifa)
The recent discovery of the wreckage of Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour reminded me that although the first Jews arrived in Tahiti with the explorer in 1769, it is the story of Alexander Salmon, who arrived later, that I find to be an enchanting fairy tale. This is the story of a man who was born a stranger into his world and was obsessed with bringing to life a vision, nay, a passion, an overwhelming temptation, that haunted his imagination relentlessly and mercilessly until he fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams: to go to Tahiti in search of fame and fortune.
Alexander Salmon was born in London. His father John Solomon [not Salmon] was a Piccadilly greengrocer and on his mother Rebecca’s side, he was a grandson of a renowned Jewish miniaturist artist, Solomon Polack, who enriched the imagination of the young Alex with stories of wild shores in far-away lands. Eventually, Alex became the personification of W. Somerset Maugham’s protagonist in The Moon and Sixpence, a novel inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin. Maugham unveiled the nature of a prototypically restless soul in a succinct paragraph: “I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. An accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.”
Not happy with the prospect of dealing in prunes and rhubarb in London for the rest of his life, Salmon, like all wandering Jews, burning with the quest of new horizons, under the influence of his creative maternal grandfather, fell under the spell of the Southern Seas. In 1841, at the age of 19, he said his farewells and sailed for his Promised Land, never to return.
The luminous shores that were to intoxicate the spiritual vistas of Gauguin included shrouded mountains that touch the sky; valleys ornamented with intertwined coconut palms, pandanus, hibiscus and pregnant tropical fruit trees in a kaleidoscopic Fauvist panorama; a riotously exuberant land caressed by the easterly trade winds that brought blazing sails to its shores; an attractive race of sea people dwelling in the luxuriance of an innocently indolent life adorned with the fragrant garlands of pleasure, the shy maidens and their weary dreams of terrible myths; soaring forbidding gods and forgiving spirits; oceans that seduce the horizon; songs that beseech the bountiful seas; and voluptuous moons painting the flesh of young goddesses in translucent blue. All these embraced Salmon when he landed in Tahiti after a long voyage.
In a passionate love story where the romanticism the Southern Seas meets Romeo and Juliet, Salmon fell in love with the Royal Princess Oehau in 1842. She was captivating with the irresistible allure of raven hair, incandescent black opal eyes and a soft golden skin. After a brief and secret courtship, the “star-crossed” lovers asked for permission to wed. Displaying more good sense than the Capulets and the Montagues, the King issued a special dispensation for the marriage as matrimony with strangers was strictly prohibited by ancient royal ordinance. Alex, the Jewish lad from Piccadilly, was given the title of Royal Husband.
The wedding was a visual feast worthy of Gauguin’s brush! The royal ceremony was an incomparable pageant immersed in splendors. At the end of the festivities, the couple was escorted by guests carrying candle lights placed in many colored glass bowls creating the impression of an effervescent midnight rainbow to the conjugal bungalow.
Life was beautiful, bountiful and placid. Soon Alex became a fabulously wealthy and an arrogant Polynesian aristocrat.
The author Herman Melville, who visited the island, described him thus: “The lady he wedded being a near kinswoman of the queen, he became a permanent member of her majesty’s household. This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation and was evidently on excellent terms with him. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies. He must have noticed our approach; but instead of rising and offering civilities, he went on talking and smoking, without even condescending to look at us.”
He could resist everything but the temptation to attain wealth and fame in Gauguin’s world. As Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband: “Do you really think, Arthur that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength and courage to yield to. To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not – there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage.”A member of the American Jewish Press Association, the writer’s articles have appeared in the Canadian National Post, The Montreal Gazette, The Canadian Jewish News, Huffington Post & Le Devoir [in French], RealClearPolitics and WZO publications.