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The idyllic, isolated islands of Polynesia were among the last places on earth to be settled by humans and, a thousand or so years later, were also some of the last places to be colonised by Europeans.

No-one really knows why early peoples migrated here or even where they came from. The modern belief is that Polynesian voyages originated from the Philippines or Indonesia, perhaps spurred by territorial disputes or overpopulation. Whatever the reason, ancient Polynesians packed up their outriggers with coconuts, uru (breadfruit), taro, sugarcane, dogs, pigs and chickens and headed out into the blue. These were feats of maritime prowess, not to be matched by Europeans for over a thousand years.


Scattered throughout the islands, mostly forgotten and with only a few restored, 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. Accounts from early European explorers are the only insight we have as to what these once vibrant and sacred sites must have been like.

Rectangular in shape, marae are paved platforms built of painstakingly collected blocks of basalt or coral. Every island has its own distinct design, but the common points are that they all have a paved, level space and an open rectangular platform surrounded by a wall. At one end is the ahu (altar), which was reserved for priests and kings. Depending on the importance and function of the marae, the ahu could have one to several tiers.

Births, deaths and family events were celebrated at simple family marae while 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, that had influence over the whole of Polynesia, attracting chiefs from afar who would pledge allegiance to the kings.

Visitors today will find the most comprehensive and well-restored marae in Opunohu Valley on Mo'orea, where a series of marae are well maintained and even have information boards; at Taputapuatea in Ra'iatea, the most important reaming marae in French Polynesia, and the most impressive to visit; and on the principal islands of the Marquesas. Of course the mystery and feeling of discovery you'll experience with finding an old marae tangled in the bush can make these lost gems equally interesting.

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Contact with europeans

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. Lacking the navigation methods that Polynesians had developed over millennia of Pacific travel, the Europeans searched for islands in the Pacific by means of a rather random needle-in-a-haystack method. The navigational instruments of the day were such that, having chanced upon an island, it was equally problematic to locate it on a return trip.

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The Dolphin anchored at Matavai Bay in Tahiti's lagoon in late June 1767. A quarter of the crew was down with scurvy and Captain Samuel Wallis himself was incapacitated during most of his visit. Initially, the arrival was greeted with fascination as hundreds of canoes surrounded the ship, including canoes carrying young women 'who played a great many droll wanton tricks'. But the locals' fascination turned to fear and they attacked the Dolphin. Wallis retaliated by firing grapeshot at the Tahitians and then sending a party ashore to destroy homes and canoes. Following this a trade relationship developed: the crew was desperate for fresh supplies and the Tahitians, who had not yet discovered metals, were delighted to receive knives, hatchets and nails in exchange.

Wallis only stayed in Matavai Bay for a few weeks, just long enough to name the island King George's Land and claim it for Britain.

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With his ships La Boudeuse and L'Etoile, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville arrived on Tahiti in April 1768, less than a year after Wallis. At this time Wallis was still homeward bound, so Bougainville was completely unaware that he was not the first European to set eyes on the island. His visit only lasted nine days, but Bougainville was a more cultured, considered man than Wallis and had no unfriendly clashes with the Tahitians.

Bougainville explained that the Tahitians 'pressed us to choose a woman and come on shore with her; and their gestures, which were not ambiguous, denoted in what manner we should form an acquaintance with her'. Bougainville's reports of Venus-like women with 'the celestial form of that goddess', and of the people's uninhibited attitude towards matters sexual, swept through Paris like wildfire.

Unaware the Union Jack had already flown over the island, Bougainville claimed Tahiti for France but, like Wallis, he was soon overshadowed when the greatest Pacific explorer of them all arrived on the scene.

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In three great expeditions between 1769 and 1779, James 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. Cook was the perfect man for the task: expert seaman, brilliant navigator, keen observer, inspiring leader and indefatigable explorer. Furthermore, he was ably supported by endlessly enthusiastic and inquisitive associates, most notably the wealthy young Joseph Banks. 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.

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The Spanish, who were firmly established in South America, looked upon the Pacific as their backyard and were less than happy to hear of the visits to Tahiti by other European navigators. In 1772 Don Domingo de Boenechea sailed the Aguilla from Peru and anchored in the lagoon off Tautira on Tahiti Iti. For the third time, the island was claimed by a European nation. Boenechea installed two inept 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.

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The Mutiny on the Bounty

There had been some colourful chapters in the history of European exploration in the Pacific, but none captured the imagination like the mutiny on the Bounty. This most talked-about event made HMS Bounty one of the most famous ships in history and William Bligh's name a byword for bad-tempered cruelty. It also inspired three Hollywood extravaganzas, almost the sum total of cinematic interest in Tahiti.

Bligh, an expert navigator who had learnt his trade under James Cook and had already visited Tahiti, was sent off to convey breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean after someone had the bright idea that breadfruit would make a fine food source for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean.

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.

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.

Christian and his mutineers had not meekly waited for justice to catch up. After dispatching Bligh, the Bounty returned to Tahiti before sailing off to find a more remote hideaway. Two attempts were made to settle on Tubuai in the Australs. After the second Tubuai interlude had ended without success, Christian returned briefly to Tahiti, where the mutineers split into two groups. A larger group of 16 mutineers remained there while a smaller group left with Christian and the Bounty in late September.

Vengeance arrived in 1791 in the shape of Captain Edward Edwards, who made Bligh look like a thoroughly nice guy. He quickly rounded up the 14 surviving mutineers (two had already been killed in disputes) and informed the men's new Tahitian wives that the men were going back to Britain to get their just desserts.

As for Christian, he led the remaining eight British seamen, together with a group of Tahitians, to uninhabited Pitcairn Island, where a settlement was successfully established. Many years later, reports trickled back of a strange English-Tahitian colony, where half the residents bore the surname Christian. Today, thanks to Fletcher Christian's mutiny, Pitcairn Island is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire.

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.

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The rise of the Pomares

Before the arrival of Europeans, islands did not have kings but chiefdoms that warred with each other over resources. European arms soon changed these traditional power structures.

The Tahitians quickly realised the importance of European weaponry and pressed the early explorers to take sides in local conflicts. Most explorers strenuously resisted this, but the Bounty mutineers, along with whalers and traders, were happy to offer themselves as mercenaries to the highest bidder. The highest bidders were the Pomares, one of a number of important families, but by no means the most important at that time.

The mutineers and their weapons helped create the political environment where one group could feasibly control all of Tahiti. The Pomares became the most important rulers of Tahiti. Pomare I, the nephew of Obarea, the 'fat, bouncing, good looking dame' who befriended Wallis, already controlled most of Tahiti when he died in 1803. His son, Pomare II, took over.

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The Missionaries

The early explorers were portents of the dangers to come, and the mutineers played a clumsy part in the introduction of European weaponry. But the real disaster arrived in the late 18th century in the form of the missionaries. The arrival of the missionaries saw the censorship of many important cultural and religious practices.

Descriptions of Tahiti and its people had European intellectuals developing theories about the 'noble savage', but before long the devout were planning to do something about the savages, noble or not. Thirty members of the London Missionary Society (LMS) set out on the Duff to bring Christianity to the Pacific. In March 1797, 25 of them landed at Point Vénus and set to work.

Success was not immediate, and within a few years most of the original missionaries had drifted off. Pomare II fell from power in 1808 and the remaining Tahitian missionaries, too closely associated with him to be safe, also had to flee the island. Pomare II took refuge on Mo'orea and when he returned to power on Tahiti in 1815, he established Christianity as the dominant religion.

The missionaries were an unyielding bunch, and although they had the best intentions, they made no attempt to combine the best elements of traditional Polynesian beliefs with Christianity, but rather smothered many important, ancient customs with a rigid interpretation of Protestantism. Soon dancing was forbidden, cover-all clothing was decreed, tattoos were banned and silence on Sunday was enforced. More difficult to understand and suppress were the practices of infanticide, human sacrifice, polygamy and indiscriminate sex, but these too were added to the list. A century later, the English writer Robert Keable, who had been a vicar with the Church of England, commented about the pioneering missionary William Ellis that 'it was a thousand pities that the Tahitians did not convert Mr Ellis'.

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Whalers & traders

Sailing from England, and later from the New England region of the newly independent USA, whalers and traders began frequenting Tahiti in the 1790s, escaping their harsh shipboard life, buying supplies, introducing alcohol and spreading diseases. These men were rough, hard-drinking and looking for sex. Traders also started to appear from the convict colonies in Australia; they exchanged weapons for food supplies, encouraged prostitution and established stills to produce alcohol.

Listless and plagued by diseases against which it had no natural immunity, the Polynesian population continued to plummet. The population of Tahiti in the late 1760s was estimated around 40, 000; in 1800 another estimate put the population at less than 20, 000; by the 1820s it was down to around 6000. In the Marquesas the situation was even worse: it has been estimated the population dropped from 80, 000 to 2000 in one century.

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Consolidation of power

After 1815 the Pomares ruled Tahiti, but the English Protestant missionaries were the power behind the throne, advising on government and laws and doing their best to keep unsavoury influences, such as whalers and traders, at arm's length. Pomare II soon extended his power over the Leeward Islands, when he forced the traditionally hostile chiefs to form a Christian alliance. The Code of Pomare was instituted in 1819, but Pomare II had adopted Christianity more as a convenience than because of any profound faith. He died in 1821, probably after drinking himself to death. In 1827 his successor Pomare III also died and was succeeded by the young Queen Pomare IV.

The new queen's missionary advisers saw her as an interim ruler until the next king and as a result they turned a blind eye to some of the queen's youthful excesses. The queen was not averse to a little traditional 'indecent' singing and dancing, and 'visiting' passing ships was not unknown. But Queen Pomare actually ruled over Tahiti for 50 years. She skilfully extended her control to islands in the Austral group and forged strategic alliances with other islands in the Society group. Unhappily, she also lived to see her islands fall into the hands of the French.

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The French takeover

The missionaries were effectively a colonial power. Although the LMS missions reigned supreme in the Society Islands, the Australs and the Tuamotus, the French Catholic missionaries were in firm control in the Gambier Archipelago from 1834 and the Marquesas from 1838. In 1836 Father Honoré Laval and François Caret, French missionaries from the Gambier Archipelago, were quietly dropped off near Tautira at the eastern extremity of Tahiti Iti. When the Catholics arrived in Pape'ete they were arrested and deported by the British.

France was already effectively in control of the Marquesas, and the deportation of the two French missionaries from Tahiti was considered a national insult. 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 was forced to yield to the French, and soldiers and Catholic missionaries were promptly landed.

The French moved quickly and arrested George Pritchard, a British missionary, consul and unofficial chief adviser to Queen Pomare; Pritchard was then forced to leave the islands. 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 IV 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; in true Pomare fashion he drank himself to death in 1891.

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French Polynesia today

Over the last few decades, French Polynesia's control over its own government and resources has been widened. Although independence from France is a possibility in the future, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Funds sent from France to help French Polynesia develop its own industries to work towards economic independence have mostly been squandered by the self-serving Flosse regime. Oscar Temaru's new policy to actually help his country's independent economy, receives little support from France and Flosse's cronies are constantly setting roadblocks to make the new regime look incompetent. At the time of writing, Temaru's chance of remaining in office was shaky.

The standard of living in the region is relatively high, and access to adequate health care and fresh water is improving, but French Polynesia is in a vulnerable economic situation, with very few natural resources to draw upon and a system based on imports. The impact of El Niño, felt strongly in French Polynesia as in other parts of the Pacific in recent years, serves as a reminder of how small Pacific nations are at the mercy of the large industrialised and polluting nations.

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