Art & Literature

GIS & Mapping


Base Camp
French Polynesia and Tahiti


Just how the Polynesian peoples came to populate their islands of the Pacific is a subject of some debate. What is clear, however, is that they were great sailors and navigators who traversed vast distances of open ocean to settle as far and wide as present-day French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand, parts of the New Guinea island, Tonga and the Cook Islands. It's thought that they left South-East Asia around 3000 or 4000 years ago and began to arrive in present-day French Polynesia around 300 AD. Islands were originally ruled by chieftains who commanded huge fleets of outrigger canoes; religious practices at this time included human sacrifices.

Some of the first European visitors, which included Samuel Wallis (1767), Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1768) and James Cook (1769), returned with stories of a paradise on earth inhabited by 'noble savages' and Venus-like women whose sexual favours were freely offered to the visitors. Europe was abuzz with stories of a tropical haven of free love when Bougainville returned to Paris and this myth attracted the likes of Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin.

The most famous event in the region's recent history was the mutiny on the Bounty. It was on Tahiti and the Austral island of Tubuai that Fletcher Christen and his mutineers sought refuge after setting William Bligh and his faithful crew members adrift in a tiny open boat near the Tongan islands on 28 April 1789. And, ultimately, it was on Tahiti that the long arm of British law rounded up those mutineers who hadn't escaped to Pitcairn Island, and made them face British justice.

At the time of the mutiny, the Polynesian islands were ruled locally by important families - there was no all-prevailing ruler. The Polynesians had long realised the power of European weaponry and had courted earlier visitors to make allegiances in regional power struggles. While Cook, Bougainville and others had resisted this, the Bounty mutineers offered themselves as mercenaries. The Pomares, just one of the powerful Tahitian families, secured their services and, as a consequence, came to control most of the islands.

Soon whalers and traders were calling in at the Polynesian islands, trading weapons for fresh food, introducing the notion of prostitution and spreading European diseases to which the islanders had no natural immunity. Protestant missionaries were deployed to put an end to all that nudity, erotic dancing, wanton sex and heathen religion, and traditional Polynesian culture rapidly fell apart. The islands' population plummeted and the tyrannical Protestant missionaries razed Polynesian temples (maraes) to the ground, forbidding any activities that were not devoutly Christian.

And then the French came. They were already in control of the Marquesian archipelago to the northeast and after much filibustering, political browbeating and intimidation, managed to oust the English and secure most of what would become French Polynesia in 1842. Queen Pomare IV, who had already done much to unify the islands under her rule, was forced to yield to the French and spent the rest of her 50-year reign as a figurehead.

At the turn of the 20th century the Polynesian islands became part of the Établissements français d'Océanie (French Pacific Settlements) and a programme of rapid commercial expansion was introduced. Chinese labourers came to work on vanilla and cotton plantations, and copra and mother-of-pearl production became the cornerstone of the French Polynesian economy. Nearly 1000 Polynesians were sent to Europe to fight the Germans in WWI, and 5000 US soldiers landed on Bora Bora soon after the USA's entrance into WWII to thwart the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

The French had been testing weapons in the Sahara Desert, but Algerian independence caused General de Gaulle to announce in 1963 that the tiny atolls of Moruroa (often misspelt 'Mururoa') and Fangataufa in the Tuamotus would serve as the new sites for weapons testing, and the Centre d'expérimentations du Pacifique was born. As a result of continuing world opposition, the testing shifted underground in 1981. Of course the French claim that the testing is perfectly safe but don't seem prepared to conduct it on French domestic soil.

In 1995 when French president Jacques Chirac announced that a new series of underground tests were to be conducted, the world reverberated with protest and condemnation. Riots in the streets of Papeete saw hundreds of cars overturned and buildings set alight, and the Chilean and New Zealand ambassadors were recalled from Paris. The tests were completed in early 1996 and the French government has since stated that the nuclear-testing programme is over. After more than 150 separate tests of up to 200 kilotons (10 times more powerful than the bomb which levelled Hiroshima) the dust has once again settled around the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, though the longer-term effects remains to be seen.

There is now a considerable groundswell of calls for independence from France, but the orthodox political powers, headed by President Gaston Flosse, have made it clear this will not happen - at least not in the medium term - and France seems unlikely to relinquish its overseas territories. French Polynesia currently has a 41-member Territorial Assembly elected by popular vote every five years. The Republic of France is represented in the territory by a high commissioner appointed by the Republic. Over a 20 year period, ending in 1996, the island group took over internal management, but calls for independence are a permanent fixture on the political map.

The Quiz for this unit is below. You may complete and send in anytime.

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Bring back a picture from this unit on Explorers from Polynesia. Save, the copy and past your picture here.

Describe the type of ships the Polynesian Explorers sailed in. Use the Encyclopedia to find information about Polynesian sailing ships from that time period.

Draw a map which shows the routes you would choose between the South Pacific and North America. Paste a copy of the picture here.

Describe how Europeans first encountered Polynesian People

You may when done, or If you want to start over.