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The Gambiers were populated in three waves from the 10th to the 13th centuries, and there is much speculation that they may have been an important stopping point on the Polynesian migration routes to New Zealand or Easter Island.

The Sacred Heart Congregation, the first Catholic mission in French Polynesia, was established here in 1834 and quickly converted the entire population. Father Honoré Laval, leader of the mission, and his assistant François Caret became virtual rulers of the archipelago. Until persistent complaints about his behaviour led to his exile on Tahiti in 1871, Laval ran the islands like his own personal fiefdom.

Laval transformed the islands, building wide roads, a huge cathedral, nine churches and chapels, monuments, lookout towers, quays and numerous buildings, including a prison. Unfortunately, at the same time, the people of the Gambier Archipelago simply died out. When Laval arrived the population may have been 5000 to 6000, spread across the four main islands, but by 1887 the population had dropped to 463 and only recently has it once again passed 1000.

What role Laval played in this disaster is an open question. One view is that European diseases, which were imported by whalers and trading ships, caused the annihilation of the population, and that Laval was merely an observer. The opposite view is that Laval was a single-minded bigot who wiped out native culture and then worked the islanders to death constructing a collection of absurdly overambitious monuments to his beliefs. Laval's own memoirs actually recount with delight the destruction of the idols and symbols belonging to the old religion.

Today Mangareva is known for producing some of the finest and most colourful pearls in Polynesia.