In ancient times, the island was known as Vava'u, perhaps supporting the theory that it was colonised by inhabitants from the Tongan island of the same name. 'Bora Bora' roughly translates as 'first-born', indicating that this may have been the most important island after Ra'iatea. According to local myth, the legendary Hiro, the first king of Ra'iatea, sent his son Ohatatama to rule Bora Bora.
Due to the shortage of level ground on Bora Bora, land pressures created an unusually defensive population of fierce warriors. Only Huahine managed to resist the warriors of Bora Bora at their most expansive.
James Cook sighted Bora Bora in 1769 on his first voyage to French Polynesia, and a London Missionary Society (LMS) base was established on the island in 1820. Bora Bora supported Pomare in his push for supreme power over Tahiti, but resisted a French protectorate (established over Tahiti in 1842) until the island was annexed in 1888.
During WWII a US supply base was established here, prompted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. From early 1942 to mid-1946 Operation Bobcat transformed the island and, at its peak, up to 6000 men were stationed on Bora Bora. Today the runway on Motu Mute is the clearest (and most useful) reminder of those frenetic days. Until Faa'a airport on Tahiti opened in 1961, this was French Polynesia's international airport. Eight massive seven-inch naval cannons were installed around the island during the war; all but one are still in place.
Reports of a discoloured lagoon and bleached coral (the result of El Niño) spread like Chinese whispers in 2001. Although the entire Pacific was affected, Bora Bora was particularly vulnerable as it has only one pass into its lagoon. The water is a sparkling aqua once again, but the damage to the coral is irreversible.
There has been a general effort to clean up Bora Bora in recent years, and local children on cleaning bees are a fairly common sight. But you'll still see and smell more rubbish than you'd hope to, particularly in the remote northern parts of the island. It's a fragile situation: the island is dependent on tourism but is at risk of deterring visitors because of overdevelopment, while at the same time its major drawcard - marine life - is seriously under threat. Let's hope the juggling act can be managed, because this is a truly beautiful part of the world.