The isolated islands of Polynesia were among the last places on Earth to be settled by humans and were also some of the last places to be colonised by Europeans. Without written language, little is known of the islands’ history before Europeans arrived. When the islands were ‘discovered’ by Western explorers in the late 1700s, word of an idyllic way of life turned the region into a dream destination that, in many ways, retains the same allure today.

Mysterious Sweet Potatoes & Pre-Columbian Chickens

Current genetic and linguistic evidence has proved Thor Heyderdahl’s Kon Tiki theory – that the first Polynesians came from South America – to be incorrect. That doesn’t mean that South America is completely out of the picture, however. All of the plant species introduced by the first Polynesians were of Southeast Asian origin save one, the sweet potato, which hails from Peru and Columbia. Studies show that this wily tuber arrived first to the Marquesas Islands sometime around AD 300. The Peruvian word for sweet potato is kumar. The Polynesian word is umara or kumara. You do the math.

Then there’s the chicken. Chickens are originally from Asia and until recently it was believed that Europeans were the first to introduce poultry to South America. But in late 2006, chicken bones found in southcentral Chile were carbon dated to be from over 100 years before the first European explorers arrived on the continent. DNA testing has proved that these pre-Columbian chickens are nearly identical to those found on Easter Island.

Mutiny On The Bounty

There have been some colourful chapters in the history of European exploration in the Pacific, but none captures the imagination like the mutiny on the Bounty. It all started when Captain Bligh, an expert navigator who had learnt his trade under James Cook and had already visited Tahiti, was sent off to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean after someone had the bright idea that breadfruit would be a good food source for Caribbean slaves.

Bligh’s expedition started late in 1787. After an arduous 10-month voyage, he arrived at a time when breadfruit-tree saplings could not be transplanted. The crew remained on Tahiti for six long, languorous months. Eventually, with the breadfruit trees loaded on-board, the Bounty set sail, westbound, for the Caribbean.

Three weeks later, on 28 April 1789, when passing by Tonga, the crew, led by first mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied and took over the ship. The storybook version has Bligh depicted as a tyrant who deserved mutiny, but it’s speculated that the reasons for the crew’s takeover could have been due to Christian’s mental instability or that a good portion of the crew had fallen in love with Tahitian women.

Bligh was pushed onto the Bounty’s launch with 18 faithful crew members and set adrift. Proving his unmatched skill as a champion navigator, Bligh sailed his overloaded little boat across the Pacific and amazingly made landfall in Timor after a 41-day, 5823km voyage that was promptly written into the record books. By early 1790, Bligh was back in England; an inquiry quickly cleared him of negligence and a ship was dispatched to carry British naval vengeance to Tahiti.

Meanwhile, Christian and his mutineers returned to Tahiti before sailing off to find a more remote hideaway. Ultimately 16 mutineers decided to stay on Tahiti while a smaller group left with Christian and the Bounty to inhabit Pitcairn Island. Today, thanks to Fletcher Christian’s mutiny, the odd Tahitian-British colony still on Pitcairn Island is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire.

Vengeance arrived for the mutineers on Tahiti in 1791 in the shape of Captain Edward Edwards, who made Bligh look like a thoroughly nice guy. He quickly rounded up mutineers and informed the men’s new Tahitian wives that the men were going back to Britain to get their just desserts.

Bligh himself was back on Tahiti in 1792, this time in command of HMS Providence and with 19 marines to ensure there was no repeat performance. Bligh duly picked up his breadfruit saplings and transported them in record time to the Caribbean. As it turned out, the slaves never developed a taste for the fruit.

Tupaia & Omai: Polynesian Diplomats

Europeans explorers were enchanted and fascinated by Tahiti and its people, and they were both thrilled and honoured when the opportunity arose to take adventurous islanders on as shipmates.

On James Cook’s first voyage, Tupaia, a high priest of noble lineage, joined the HMS Endeavor near Tahiti (with his servant Taiata) and sailed onward with the ship’s exploration of the Pacific. A highly educated man and brilliant navigator, Tupaia also proved to be a skilled diplomat and linguist. The Tahitian language was similar enough to other Polynesian languages that Tupaia was able to announce the European’s intentions on their arrival to new island groups. His noble stature also impressed his Polynesian cousins – in New Zealand he was welcomed as a near god and in Maori oral history, Tupaia is remembered and mentioned far more than Cook. Unfortunately Tupaia never made it to Europe – he died, along with a huge number of Cook’s usually healthy crew, of dysentery in Batavai (modern day Jakarta) on the long trip back to Britain.

During Cook’s second Pacific voyage, the mission’s flagship HMS Adventure took aboard Omai (although it’s now thought his name was just Mai), an islander from Ra’iatea. Omai sailed back with the ship to England where he lived for two years before returning to Polynesia on Cook’s third voyage. During his stay in London, Omai became popular with the aristocracy, not only for his exotic background but for his charm and good looks. His most famous encounter is a meeting with King George III whom Omai greeted with ‘How do King Tosh!’

It’s said that when Omai returned to live in Huahine that his many European possessions instilled jealousy in his fellow Polynesians and that the adventurer was never able to fully reintegrate back into island life. When Captain Bligh visited Tahiti on the HMS Bounty (before the mutiny) in 1789, he was told that Omai died about two and a half years after Cook’s departure.

Boenechea & the First Missionaries

In 1772, Don Domingo de Boenechea, a Spaniard, sailed the Aguilla from Peru and anchored in the lagoon off Tautira on Tahiti Iti. Boenechea installed two missionaries and established Tautira as the first long-term European settlement on the island.

In 1775, the Aguilla again returned from Peru. The two Spanish missionaries, who had been spectacularly unsuccessful at converting ‘the heathen’, and who from all reports were terrified of the islanders, were more than happy to scuttle back to Peru. Boenechea died on Tahiti during this visit, and thus ended the Spanish role on Tahiti. He is buried by the Catholic church that today bears his name in Tautira on Tahiti Iti.

What’s A Marae?

Scattered throughout the islands, the most visible remains of ancient Tahitian culture are in its marae, open-air places of worship. Today Polynesians have fully embraced Christianity and many of these temples have been destroyed in the name of agriculture, dismantled to construct churches, used as house foundations or simply left to become engulfed by vines and weeds.

Births, deaths and family events were celebrated at simple family marae; larger marae were temples of chiefs where village meetings, sacrifices and wider religious ceremonies were practised. The largest and most important temples were the royal marae, such as Ra’iatea’s Taputapuatea, which had influence over the whole of Polynesia, attracting chiefs from afar who would pledge allegiance to the kings.

Getting There is Half the Fun

The Great Polynesian Migration is one of the world’s most outlandish yet mysterious historical events. Early Polynesians (hailing, it’s believed, from either Taiwan or Southeast Asia) some 3000 to 4000 years ago tossed chickens, dogs, pigs, vegies and the kids into canoes and sailed into the wild blue yonder. And they found islands, lots of them. Using celestial navigation as well as now-forgotten methods of reading cloud reflections, wave formations and bird-flight patterns, Polynesians could find islands in the vast Pacific far better than we could find a last-minute seat on Air Tahiti during Christmas holidays.

Nothing remains of the boats used to make these voyages, so we have to make do with descriptions given by 18th-century Europeans. Forerunners of the catamaran, the canoes had two parallel hulls fused together by cross beams or platforms; they could be driven by sail, paddle or both. They could carry up to 70 people – the plants, seeds and animals needed to colonise the new land were carried on the connecting platform.

The first settlers in French Polynesia landed in the Marquesas, having journeyed via Samoa, sometime around 200 BC. From here they went on to discover the Society Islands around AD 300.

Paradise: Behind the Scenes

The Polynesian islands, and thus French Polynesia, were blessed with a situation unique in history: habitable, fertile islands where the pioneers could create their own society and religion in a place nearly devoid of danger. What this society was like before European contact is up to speculation, but for most of their island history, Polynesians would have lacked very little. Music, dance and the arts were revered and a big part of island life.

Yet it wasn’t free from problems. Overpopulation caused shortages of farming areas, particularly for taro, and wars frequently broke out between clans. The outcome of these wars was cruel: the defeated were often massacred and their marae (traditional temples) destroyed. The victors would then take possession of the defeated clan’s lands.

Society also wasn’t as sweet as European explorers perceived it. Underneath the smiles was an extremely hierarchical, structured and aristocratic system that was nearly feudal in nature and heavily ritualised. High chiefs known as ari’i ran the show and their positions were inherited; tahua were the priests; middle-class landowners were called raatira; the arioi were a group of itinerant artist-troubadours whose role it was to entertain everyone; and last were the manahune, which consisted of the bulk of the population including fishermen, farmers and servants. Human sacrifices were occasionally needed in religious rituals and these would invariably come from the manahune. Infanticide was also practised in circumstances where a girl of lower stature got pregnant by an ari’i. The arioi were not allowed to have children at al, so would practise infanticide if primitive birth-control or abortion methods didn’t work.

Despite this dark side, the unanimous reports from the first European explorers told of an exceptionally happy population who were uninhibited in showing their emotions; they were as quick to cry as they were to laugh.

Paradise & Its Droll, Wanton Tricks

Imagine months at sea in cramped, squalid quarters, with many of the crew suffering from scurvy, and happening upon a mountainous isle exploding with fruit, water and women. It was in these circumstances that, around 1500 years after the islands were settled, the first European explorers ventured into the region.

The Expeditions of Captain Cook

History depicts Captain James Cook as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Indeed, Cook’s navigational and surveying skills, his ability to control unruly crews and keep them healthy and, above all, his cultural understanding, did set him apart. He is described as having been a dispassionate and tolerant man; it’s often claimed he did not want to harm or offend the islanders, and that he made concerted efforts to befriend them.

In three great expeditions between 1769 and 1779, Cook filled out the map of the Pacific so comprehensively that future expeditions were reduced to joining the dots. Cook had been sent to the Pacific with two ambitious tasks. One, which was for the Royal Society, was to observe the transit of Venus as it passed across the face of the sun. By timing the transit from three very distant places it was hoped that the distance from the Earth to the sun could be calculated. Tahiti was selected as one of the three measuring points (the other two were in Norway and Canada). Cook’s second objective was to hunt for the mythical great continent of the south.

The instruments of the time proved to be insufficiently accurate to achieve Cook’s first objective, but Cook’s expeditions did yield impressive scientific work. As a result, Cook’s voyages communicated the wonders not only of Tahiti but also of New Zealand and Australia to an appreciative European audience.

But Cook’s composure was far from impenetrable. During his last voyage in particular, his footsteps were not as light as he had claimed he wanted them to be. Stories of the voyage show that the once-tolerant man became less so – in particular he was angered deeply by any sort of theft and in one instance even ordered an islander’s ear be cut off for stealing the ship’s property.

The reasons for Cook’s death and possible consumption (his remains were ‘cooked’, although no one is sure if he was eaten) in Hawaii have been debated. His journal, in which he had dutifully written for almost every instance of his journeys, remains uncharacteristically blank in the period before his death. Some speculate a cultural misunderstanding may have occurred, while others say Cook had become increasingly tyrannical and insensitive. Whatever the case, even though he was murdered, the captain’s bones were distributed among Hawaiians in a manner usually reserved for the highest chiefs.

Guns, Disease, Whisky & God

Once the Europeans came on the scene, traditional Polynesian society took a beating. It was a three-pronged affair: a jab to the ribs with high-tech European weaponry, a blow to the head by an influx of diseases and hard liquor and, finally, a kick in the groin by some Old World Christianity.

Enter the French

The French takeover of what is now French Polynesia was essentially a war of the missionaries. British clergy were an unofficial colonial power via the Pomare clan in the Society Islands, the Australs and the Tuamotus, but the French Catholic missionaries were in firm control in the Gambier Archipelago from 1834 and the Marquesas from 1838. In 1836, two French missionaries from the Gambier Archipelago were quietly dropped off near Tautira at the eastern extremity of Tahiti Iti; they were promptly arrested and deported by the British.

The deportation of the two French missionaries was considered a national insult to the French. Demands, claims, counterclaims, payments and apologies shuttled back and forth until 1842, when Rear Admiral Dupetit-Thouars arrived in La Reine Blanche, pointed his guns at Pape’ete and took power. Queen Pomare IV was forced to yield to the French.

The queen, still hoping for British intervention, fled to Ra’iatea in 1844 and a guerrilla rebellion against the French broke out on Tahiti and other islands. The presence of French forts around Tahiti confirms that it was a fierce struggle, but eventually the rebels were subdued, and by 1846 France had control over Tahiti and Mo’orea. In 1847, Queen Pomare was persuaded to return to Tahiti, but she was now merely a figurehead.

Queen Pomare died in 1877 and was succeeded by her son, Pomare V. He had little interest in the position and effectively abdicated power in 1881; he drank himself to death in 1891.

The Nuclear Era

French Polynesia continued to be a valuable strategic port for the French, especially when the islands’ economies of vanilla, cotton, copra and mother of pearl were flourishing during WWI, and during WWII, when American forces used Bora Bora as a military base. But postwar, as the territory’s exports declined, a more practical usage of it was devised. In 1963 Moruroa and Fangataufa, atolls in the Tuamotus, were announced to become France’s nuclear test sites. Atmospheric nuclear explosions began in 1966. The Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP; Pacific Experimentation Centre) soon became a major component of the French Polynesian economy.

Over the next 30 years, 193 tests were performed on the two atolls and more than 130,000 people worked for the CEP. In 1981, 17 years after the USA, Britain and the USSR agreed to halt atmospheric testing, the French drilled bomb shafts under the central lagoons of the atolls and finally moved the tests underground. In 1995 French president Jacques Chirac announced a new series of underground tests, and a storm of protest erupted worldwide. Rioting broke out in Pape’ete but fell on deaf ears in France. The final rounds of tests were concluded in early 1996, and it was announced there would be no further testing in the Pacific.

International opposition to nuclear testing was also growing. In 1985 French secret service agents bombed and sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbour, New Zealand, killing four people. The ship was on its way to protest testing on Moruroa Atoll. Only two of the agents were caught by New Zealand authorities and, although they were found guilty, France pressured them to release the prisoners to a Club Med–style prison on Hao, in the Tuamotus. France reneged on the agreement after two years and the bombers were sent back to France.

For many years the French government denied that the tests posed any ecological threat to the region. Finally, in 1999 a French study reported that there had been radioactive leakage into underground water, and later that same year the existence of cracks in the coral cones of Moruroa and Fangataufa were also acknowledged. A 2006 study conducted by the French Polynesian Territorial Assembly concluded that Tureia in the eastern Tuamotus and the Gambier Archipelago would have been exposed to nuclear fallout during atmospheric testing; because there were never any dosimeter measurements taken on these islands, what the levels of radiation would have been has not been proved.

In November 2008, the French defence minister announced a bill setting the standards for nuclear-test workers’ compensation, which passed in 2010. Still, two associations, the Association of Nuclear Test Veterans (AVEN), which is made up of former French military personnel, and Moruroa e Tatou, which has more than 4000 French Polynesian members, have been lobbying the French government for any compensation for well over a decade, with little – or no – gains. On top of this, the environmental impacts of the tests have been disregarded by the legislation.

In January 2012, France approved a motion that would restore Moruroa and Fangataufa (previously under control of the French defence ministry) to French Polynesia’s public domain. The bill would, among other things, let French Polynesia monitor radiation levels rather than rely on French reports, which it has come to mistrust. Pundits say this bill has little chance of passing.