Early Tuamotu history is a mystery. One theory is that the Paumotu (people of the Tuamotus) fled from the Leeward and Marquesas Islands following conflicts during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Another theory is that the eastern Tuamotus were populated at the same time as the major Polynesian diaspora moved on from the Marquesas to the Gambier Archipelago and Easter Island, around AD 1000.
European explorers were less than complimentary about the group – in 1616, Jacques Le Maire and Willem Schouten spoke of the ‘Islands of Dogs’, the ‘Islands without End’ and the ‘Islands of Flies’. In 1722, Jacob Roggeveen called them the ‘Pernicious Islands’ and in 1768, French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville dubbed them the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’.
Thus the reputation of the group as an uninviting place was sealed and the Europeans turned their attention towards the more welcoming Society Islands.
When Tahiti was annexed by France in 1842, the Tuamotus, considered dependencies of the Pomares (the royal family of Tahiti), also came under French control.
Christian missionaries established copra production in the 1870s, and by 1900 copra represented 40% of the total exports of the colony. Pearl diving and mother-of-pearl production both enjoyed a golden age around 1850.
From 1911 until 1966, phosphate mining on Makatea was the principal export activity not only for the Tuamotus but for all of French Polynesia. The population of other islands began to decline dramatically in the 1960s as copra production fell away and plastic buttons killed off the mother-of-pearl button business.
In the 1970s, when airstrips were built on many of the islands, the population decline was slowed and the group’s economic prospects began to brighten. The flights back to Tahiti carried not only suntanned tourists but loads of fresh reef fish for the busy markets of Pape’ete.
The 1970s brought another far less congenial employment prospect to the Tuamotus when France’s Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP) took over the central atoll of Hao and began to test nuclear weapons on the western atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.
Pearl cultivation began in the 1980s and the atolls flourished with wealth and reverse migration from the late 1990s till around 2003 when pearl prices began to plummet. Today, on atolls such as Manihi and Tikehau, abandoned pearl farms dot the lagoon. Tourism and fishing are now the main sources of income.