Salmon's father, Alexander Salmon (Solomon, 1822–1866), was an English Jewish merchant. While secretary to Pōmare IV of Tahiti, he fell in love with her twenty-year-old daughter Oehau. For three days the queen abrogated the law forbidding a Tahitian to marry a foreigner, gave Princess Oehau the title ari‘i Taimai, and they married.
Their daughter, Johanna Marau Ta‘aroa, married her uncle, the future King Pomare V, and was de facto ruler as Queen Marau (1877–1880) until he abdicated to the French colonial government. Another daughter married the Scottish merchant John Brander.
Their son, Alexander Jr, known as "Pa‘ea" (Mangarevan for 'hobble'), inherited his father's business interests and became co-owner with Brander of the Maison Brander copra and coconut oil plantations in Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Cooks.
The Maison Brander owned a large sheep ranch on Easter Island for exporting wool. The ranch was managed by the megalomaniacal convicted murderer Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, who had acquired additional land and appointed his Rapanui wife "Queen". This was the low point in the island's history; by 1872 its resident population had been reduced to 111.
In 1871 Alexander Jr had picked up rudimentary Rapanui from his hundreds of indentured Easter Island laborers at the Mahina coconut plantation on Tahiti. In 1877 Queen Pōmare IV died, and Alexander's sister became regent. John Brander also died that year, and Dutrou-Bornier was assassinated. Alexander set off for Easter Island to manage the sheep station in around October 1878 with twenty Tahitian workers and an unknown number of Rapanui whose indentures had expired and ran the island for a decade. He introduced the coconut, the first sizable tree on the island since its deforestation two centuries earlier, apart from some fruit trees at the SSCC Catholic mission and Dutrou-Bornier's estate.
Salmon returned to Tahiti 1883–1884 for business. Upon his return to Easter Island he bought up all remaining land apart from the SSCC mission at Hanga Roa. As owner of nearly all the island and sole source of employment, Salmon was de facto ruler.
As he was not a religious man, and a Jew, the priests did not like him, especially Hippolyte Roussel, who had been forced to leave the island in 1871 due to conflict with Dutrou-Bornier but who visited again in 1879. Bishop Jaussen in Tahiti appointed a Rapanui, Atamu te Kena, "king" to protect church interests from the Maison Brander, but Salmon ignored him and he never had any influence. However, Salmon was an honest man and sincerely interested in the welfare of the people, and the population started to recover. This was the era of the strong Tahitian influence on the Rapanui language and culture.
In addition to wool exports, Salmon developed a tourist industry. He encouraged the manufacture of Rapanui artworks, including imitation rongorongo inscriptions, and helped sell them to passing ships for good prices as cultural artifacts, though he never claimed they were genuine. The artisans knew currency exchange rates and could deal with Europeans and Americans on their own terms.
Salmon served as the principal informant for the British and German archaeological expeditions to the island in 1882 and for the Americans in 1886, as guide, translator, and hotelier.
The information he provided, despite its ofter poor quality, is still among the most important of Easter Island's early historical period. He also sent three genuine rongorongo tablets to his niece's husband, the German consul of Valparaíso, which are now kept in Vienna and Berlin.
- Fischer, Stephen. 2005. Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. Reaktion Books ISBN 1 86189 282 9
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