The South Pacific islands have romantically impacted the Western imagination since Tahitians gave a maring, bare-breasted welcome to an English sea captain and his crew in 1767. to European minds back then, the Pacific Islanders seemed to be Rousseau's "noble savages," living guilt-free lives beside crystal-clear lagoons. Fletcher Christian committed the world's most famous mutiny, in part because of his obsession with a Tahiian vahine. Missionaries soon arrived to save these heathen souls, and traders came to sell them whiskey and guns in exchange for sea cucumbers, coconuts, and land. Literary giants such as Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, W. Somerset Maugham, and James A. Michener spun great yarns about the islands, and actors like Clark Gable and Mel Gibson (both portraying Christian) brought colorful island characters to life on the silver screen.


Despite the inroads of modern materialism and the moral fervor of Christian fundamentalism instilled by the missionaries, today's travel posters don't lie about these languid islands. Palm-draped beaches beckon us to get away from it all. blue lagoons and colorful reefs offer some of the world's best diving and snorkeling. Steep mountain valleys await hikers to visit islanders who live much as their ancestors did centuries ago. And uninhabited islets beg to be explored under sail.

best of all, the proud and friendly Pacific Islanders sand ready to welcome you to their shores and to explain their ancient customs and traditions. If the enormous beauty of their islands doesn't charm you, then their highly infectious smiles surely will.


The islanders had been living on their tiny outposts for thousands of years before Europeans had the foggiest notion that the Pacific Ocean existed. Even after Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and discovered this largest of oceans in 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan sailed across it in 1521, more than 250 years went by before Europeans paid much attention to the islands that lay upon it. For most of that time, the Pacific was the domain of Spanish sea captains, whose job was not discovery but bringing loot from the rich Spice Islands (now Indonesia and the Philippines) to Peru. Magellan stumbled upon few Pacific islands, and none below the equator. Alvaro de Mendana discovered some of the Solomons, Cook, and Marquesas islands in 1568 and 1595, respectively, and in 1606 Pedro Fernandez de Quiros happened upon some of the Tuamotu, Cook, and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) islands. Otherwise, the Spanish missed the south Pacific islands. Dutchman Abel Tasman discovered and explored much of Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, and Fiji in 1642, but the Dutch did nothing to exploit his discoveries, nor did they follow up on those of Jacob Roggeveen, who found Easter Island and Samoa in 1722.


The South Pacific came to Europe's attention during the latter half of the 18th century when a theory came into vogue that an unknown southern land - a terra australis incognita - lay somewhere in the southern hemisphere. It had to exist, the theory went, for otherwise the unbalanced earth would wobble off into space. King George III of Great Britain took great interest in the idea and in 1764 sent Capt. John Byron (the poet's grandfather) to the Pacific in H.M.S. Dolphin. Although Byron fame home empty handed, King George immediately dispatched Capt. Samuel Wallis in the Dolphin. Wallis had no better luck finding the unknown continent, but in 1767 he stumbled upon a high, lush island known as Tahiti. Canoeloads of Tahitians, including multitudes of young women clad only in grass skirts paddled out to give him a rousing welcome. Less than a year later, the Tahitians similarly welcome French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. So enchanted was Bougainville by the Venus-like quality of Tahiti's women that the named their island New Cythere - after the Greek island of Cythera, associated with the golden Aphrodite (Venus).

Bougainville continued west, discovering several islands in Samoa and exploring the Solomon Islands, of which the island of Bougainville - now part of Papua New Guinea - still bears his name. so does the bright tropical shrub known as bougainvillea. He was the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe and was treated to a rousing reception when he returned home in 1769. he brought with him a young Tahitian, whom the Parisians saw as living proof of Rousseau's theory that man at his best lived an uninhabited life as a noble savage.


After Wallis arrived back in England the Lords of the Admiralty put a young lieutenant named James Cook in command of a converted collier and sent him to Tahiti. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Cook was a master navigator, a mathematician, an astronomer, and a practical physician who became the first captain of any ship to prevent scurvy among this crewmen by feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables. His ostensible mission was to observe the transit of Venus - the planet, that is - across the sun, an astronomical even that would not occur again until 1874, but which, if measured from widely separated points on the globe, would enable scientists for the first time to determine longitude on the earth's surface. cook's second, highly secret mission was to find the elusive southern continent.

Cook's measurements of Venus were somewhat less than useful, but his observations of Tahiti, made during a stay of 6 months, were of immense importance in understanding the "noble savages" who lived there. cook then sailed southeast to carry out the secret part of his mission. He discovered the society Islands northwest of Tahiti and the Australs to the south, and then fully explored the coasts of New Zealand and eastern Australia, neither of which had been visited by Europeans since Tasman's voyage in 1642. After nearly sinking his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, he left the South Pacific through the strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which he named for his converted collier, the Endeavour. He returned to London in 1771.

During two subsequent voyages, cook visited Tonga and discovered several other islands, among them what now are Fiji, the cook Islands, Niue, New Caledonia, and Norfolk Island. His ships were the first to sail below the Antarctic Circle, although he failed to sight Antarctica, he put to rest the theory that a large land mass lay in the tropical south Pacific. On his third voyage in 1778-79, he discovered the Hawaiian islands and explored the northwest coast of North America until ice in the Bering Strait turned him back. He returned to the Big Island of Hawaii, where, on February 14, 1779, he was killed during a petty skirmish with the islanders.

With the exception of the Hawaiians who smashed his skull, Captain cook was revered throughout the Pacific. Although he claimed many of the islands for Britain, he hoped they never would be colonized. He treated the islanders fairly and respected their traditions. the Polynesian chiefs looked upon him as one of their own. today, you'll find a cook's Bay, a Cooktown, a Cook Strait, any number of Captain Cook's landing places, and an entire island nation named for this giant of an explorer.


Based on reports by cook and others about the abundance of breadfruit, a head-size, potato-like fruit which grows on trees throughout the islands, a group of West Indian planters asked King George III if he would be so kind as to transport the trees from Tahiti to Jamaica as a cheap source of food for their slaves. The king dispatched Captain William Bligh, who had been one of cook's navigators in command of H.M.S. Bounty in 1787. One of Bligh's officers was a former shipmate named Fletcher Christian.

Their story is one of history's great sea yarns. the bounty was late arriving in Tahiti, so Christian and the crew frolicked on Tahiti for 6 months waiting for the next breadfruit season. they obviously enjoyed the affections of young Tahitian women as well as the balmy climate, for on April 28, 1789, on the way home, they overpowered Bligh of Tonga. After setting the captain and his loyalists adrift, Christian and eight other mutineers, along with their Tahitian wives and six Tahitian men, disappeared with the ship. Bligh and his men miraculously rowed the Bounty's longboat some 3,000 miles to the Dutch East Indies, where they hitched a ride back to England. The royal Navy then rounded up the Bounty crewmen left on Tahiti, of whom three were later hanged.

Christian's whereabouts remained a mystery until 1808, when an American whaling ship discovered the last surviving mutineer on remote Pitcairn Island. The mutineers, after landing there in 1789, had burned and sunk the Bounty (the ship's rudder has been recovered and now is on display at the Fiji Museum in Suva). Their descendants still live on Pitcairn and elsewhere in the south Pacific. 


Captain William Bligh, one of cook's navigators, returned to Matavai Bay in 1788 in command of H.M.S. Bounty on a mission to procure breadfruit as cheap food for plantation slaves in Jamaica. One of Bligh's handpicked officers was a former shipmate, Fletcher Christian. Delayed by storms of Cape Horn, Bligh missed the breadfruit season and had to wait on Tahiti for 6 months until his cargo could be transplanted. Christian and some of the crew apparently didn't want to leave, so much had they enjoyed the island's women and easygoing lifestyle. for whatever reason, the Bounty's 1,015 breadfruit plantings made it only to Tonga before Christian staged a mutiny on April 28, 1789. He set Bligh and 18 of his loyal officers and crewmen adrift in a longboat with a compass, a cask of water, and a few provisions. Christian sailed the bounty back to Tahiti, where he put ashore 25 other crew members who were loyal to Bligh. After searching unsuccessfully for a hiding place, the mutineers returned to Tahiti for the last time. Christian, eight mutineers, their Tahitian wives, and six Tahitian men then disappeared. In one of the epic open-boat voyages of all time, Bligh and his crew miraculously made it back to England via the Dutch East Indies, thence to England, whereupon the royal Navy sent H.M.S. Pandora to Tahiti to search for the bounty. It found only the crewmen still there. Four eventually were acquitted. Three were convicted but pardoned, including Peter Heywood, who wrote the first English-Tahitian dictionary while awaiting court martial. Three others were hanged.

The captain of an American whaling ship that happened upon remote Pitcairn Island in 1808 was astonished when some mixed race teenagers rowed out and greeted him not in Tahitian but in perfect English. they were the children of the mutineers, only one of whom was still alive. Bligh collected more breadfruit on Tahiti a few years later, but his whole venture went for naught when the slaves on Jamaica insisted on rice. (See Jane Resture's 'Tahiti Aspects - Introducing French Polynesia' Web site)


The American ship that found the mutineers' retreat at Pitcairn was one of many whalers roaming the south Pacific in the early 1800s. Their ruffian crews made dens of iniquity of many ports such as Lahaina and Honolulu in Hawaii, Papeete and Nuku Hiva in what is now French Polynesia, and Levuka in Fiji. Many crewmen jumped ship and lived on the islands and later went to Tahiti, in the early 1820s, was Herman Melville. He returned  to New England and wrote two books, Typee and Omoo, based on his south Pacific exploits. They were the start of his literary career.

Along with the whalers came traders. some of them sailed from island to island in search of sandalwood, pearls, shells, and the sea slugs known as beche-de-mer, which they traded for beads, cloth, whiskey, and guns and then sold at high prices in China. Others established stores that became the catalysts for Western-style trading towns. The merchants brought more guns and alcohol to people who had never used them before. They also put pressure on local leaders to coin money, which introduced a cash economy where none had existed before. guns, alcohol, and money had far-reaching effects on the easygoing communal traditions of the Pacific Islanders.

Diseases brought by the Europeans and Americans were even more devastating. The Polynesians had little, if any, resistance to such ailments as measles, influenza, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, and venereal disease. Epidemics swept the islands and killed the majority of their inhabitants. While the traders were building towns, other arrivals were turning the bush country into plantations: cotton in Tahiti, sugar in Fiji, coconuts everywhere. With the native islanders either disinclined to work or unable to do so. Chinese indentured laborers were brought to a cotton plantation in Tahiti in the 1860s. After it failed, some of them stayed and became farmers and merchants. Their descendants now form the merchant class of French Polynesia. the same thing happened in Fiji, where East Indians were brought to work the sugar plantations.


The reports of the islands by Cook and Bougainville may have brought word of noble savages living in paradise to some people in Europe; to others, they heralded heathens to be rescued from hell. so while alcohol and diseases were destroying the islanders' bodies, a stream of missionaries arrived on the scene to save their souls. The 'opening' of the South Pacific coincided with a fundamentalist religious arrival in England, and it wasn't long before the London Missionary society (LMS) was on the scene in Tahiti. Its first missionaries, who arrived in the LMS ship Duff in 1797, were the first Protestant missionaries to leave England for a foreign country. They chose Tahiti because there "the difficulties were least."

Polynesians, already believing in a supreme being at the head of a hierarchy of lesser gods, quickly converted to Christianity in large numbers. As an act of faith, the puritanical missionaries demanded the destruction of all tiki, which they regarded as idols (as a result, today most Polynesian tikis carved for the tourist souvenir trade resemble those of New Zealand, when the more liberal Anglican missionaries were less demanding). The missionaries in Polynesia also insisted that the heathen temples (known as maraes) be torn down. Many now have been restored, however, and can be visited in the islands. 

Roman Catholic missionaries made less puritanical progress in Tahiti after the French took over in the early 1840s, but for the most part the South Pacific was the domain of rock-ribbed Protestants. The LMS extended its influence west through the cook Islands and the Samoas, and the Wesleyans had luck in Tonga and Fiji. today, thanks to those early missionaries, Sunday is a very quiet day throughout the islands.


Although Captain cook laid claim to many islands, Britain was reluctant to burden itself with such far-flung colonies, beyond those it already had - Australia and New Zealand. Accordingly, colonialism was not a significant factor in the history of the South Pacific islands until the late 19th century. The one exception was France's declaring a protectorate over Tahiti in 1842. The situation changed half a century later, when imperial Germany colonized the western islands of Samoa in the 1890s (at the same time that novelist Robert Louis Stevenson arrived to live there). Britain took over Fiji and agreed to protect the Kingdom of Tonga from takeover by another foreign power; France moved into New Caledonia and the united States stepped into the eastern Samoan islands, but they were later annexed to newly independent new Zealand. Thus, within a period of 50 years, every South Pacific island group except Tonga became a colony.

After World War I, when Germany was stripped of its colonies, New Zealand took over in Western Samoa. Otherwise, the colonial structure in the South Pacific remained the same, politically, until the 1960s. Economically, the islands came under the sphere of Australia and New Zealand. Large Australian companies, such as Burns Philp and Carpenters, built up trading and shipping empires based on the exchange of retail goods for copra and other local produce, and Australian and New Zealand banks came to dominate finance in most islands outside the French and American territories. 


Although thousands of Pacific Islanders went off to fight with their colonial rulers during World War I, the islands themselves escaped action, with two exceptions. First, a small German naval force under Admiral Graf von Spee sped across the Pacific during 1915, sinking Allied merchant ships and shelling the town of Papeete. Two years later, the colorful Count von Luckner brought his German raider Seeadler into the Pacific, to hunt for merchant prey. After 3 months' prowling, which netted only three small sailing vessels, the Seeadler was swept onto the reef at Mopelia atoll in the remote northern Cook Islands. Van Luckner and five crewmen set out in the ship's launch for Rarotonga to commander another ship. He could have captured the town of Avarua but steered away when he saw a "ship" in port - in reality, a wreck sitting upright on the reef. He then beaded for Fiji, where, deceived as to the actual British force ont he island, he surrendered to one armed policeman and 5 unarmed constables sent to investigate. 


The South Pacific leaped onto the front pages in World War II. Within weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, the Japanese drove south to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where, in July 1942, they began constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal. The U.S. marines invaded Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi on August 8, and during the next 6 months one bloody jungle skirmish and sea battle after another took place. by February 1943, with Guadalcanal entirely in U.S. hands, the Japanese advance in the southwestern Pacific had been stopped. The stage was soon set for the Allied counteroffensive that would island-hop its way toward Japan.

Although the south Pacific fighting took place only in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, many other islands played significant supporting roles. Airstrips and training bases were built all over the south Pacific (many of the airfields are still in use today). Out-of-the-way islands, such as Bora Bora and Aitutaki, became refueling stops on transpacific flights, and the Samoas and Fiji were invaded by thousands of U.S. Marines and GIs preparing for the fighting farther west and north. Entire communities with modern infrastructures were built in weeks - only to be abandoned almost overnight when the war ended.

The war's effect on the islanders was profound. The profusion of new things that arrived on their islands, and the wages paid them for working on the Allied bases, brought a wave of Western influence. The experience was so overwhelming on some Melanesian islands that local "cargo cults" began worshipping Americans or the airplanes with which they brought "mana from haven." The soldiers, sailors, and marines also left behind another legacy, thousands of mixed-race children.


Colonialism began to crumble in the south Pacific when new Zealand granted independence to Western Samoa in 1962 and, 3 years later, gave complete local autonomy to the Cook islands, Fiji became independent of Great Britain in 1970. Elsewhere, Britain left the Solomon Islands in 1978, and in 1980 Britain and France gave up their condominium government in the New Hebrides, which became the independent Republic of Vanuatu.

All these young nations have governments based on the Westminster parliamentary system, with wrinkles tailored to fit their citizens' traditions. Almost everywhere there is a council of chiefs to advise the modern-style ministers on custom and tradition. In a modern vestige of the old chiefly system, the national governments tend to have strong individuals at the helm. Elections in these small countries, where everyone seems to know everyone else, often are hard fought and sometimes biter. Usually, the victors take office, while the vanquished keep on grouching until the polls open again. Fiji's bloodiest military coups in 1987, which overthrew that country's first Indian-dominated government, was a shock to observers, since it was directly opposed to this democratic tradition. Fiji has since adopted a constitution providing for an elected parliament.

Of the old colonial powers, only the United States and France remain.

As American nationals, American Samoans are eligible for most U.S. federal aid programs and U.S. passports (about two-thirds of all American Samoans reside in Hawaii or the U.S. mainland). Moreover, except for Washington's control of their budget, they already have almost complete say over their domestic affairs. They are not clamoring for independence. The problems facing French Polynesia are a good deal thornier. many Tahitians would like to see their islands free of France and actively campaign for independence. But Paris considers French Polynesia to be an "integral part" of France - so integral, in fact, that France's joining the European Union may force French Polynesia to allow citizens of EU nations to freely migrate and live there - an upsetting thought to many residents of these land-starved islands.

Between 1966 and 1992, the French exploded 210 nuclear weapons in the Tuamotu Archipelago, about 750 miles southeast of Tahiti, first in the air and then underground. The tests were vociferously opposed, especially by New Zealand, where French secret agents sank the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985. that same year, the regional heads of government, including the prime ministers of new Zealand and Australia, adopted the Treaty of Rarotonga, calling for the south Pacific to become a nuclear-free zone. After a lull, French President Jacques Chirac decided in 1995 to resume nuclear testing, a move which set off worldwide protests, a day of rioting in Papeete, and a Japanese tourist boycott of French Polynesia. After six underground explosions, the French halted further tests, announced plans to close the testing facility, and in 1996 signed the Treaty of Rarotonga.


Underlying many political issues in the south Pacific is the fundamental question of land rights. there simply isn't much land in these islands, and the indigenous peoples want to maintain their customary ownership of it. thus, when Vanuatu became independent in 1980, it abolished freehold property and returned all land to its customary owners. Similarly, when it appeared in Fiji that the Indian-dominated government would rewrite the laws protecting Fijian land rights in 1987, the military stated two coups. (Fiji has since returned to civilian control and in 1999 elected an Indian as its prime minister). Despite an occasional riot in Tahiti the coups in Fiji, and the usual fistcuffs after too many beers on a Friday night, violence is not the usual way by which islanders solve their problems, whether political or personal. they prefer what they call the "Pacific way"; discussion, compromise, and consensus, often achieved during all-night sessions over a bowl of kava, the slightly narcotic drink much favoured in the islands for ceremonial as well as pleasurable purposes.

Just as the islanders are protective of their land, so they're concerned about the surrounding ocean. For example, the Pacific island states have opposed drift-net-fishing; it not only kills dolphins and other sea life unnecessarily they argue, but also strips them of a vital natural resource/ The islanders also are involved in efforts to reduce pollution of the oceans. Many of them see a looming threat in the greenhouse effect; an increase in world temperatures could raise the world's se level by melting part of the polar ice caps, thus endangering many of the low-lying islands.

The Islanders

The early European explorers were astounded to find the far-flung south Pacific islands inhabited by peoples who shared similar physical characteristics, languages, and cultures. How had these people - who lived a late - Stone Age existence and had no written languages - crossed the vast Pacific to these remote islands long before Europeans had the courage to sail out of sight of land on the Atlantic? Where had they come from? those questions baffled the early European explorers, and they continue to intrigue scientists and scholars to this day. 


Thor Heyerdahl drifted in his raft Kon Tiki from south America to French Polynesia in 1947 to prove his theory that the Polynesians came from the Americas, but most experts now believe that the Pacific islanders have their roots in Southeast Asia. The generally accepted view is that during the Ice Age a race of early humans known as Australoids migrated from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia, when those two countries were joined as one land mass. Another group, the Papuans, arrived from Southeast Asia between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Several thousands of years later, a lighter-skinned race known as Austraonesians pushed the Papuans inland and out into the more eastern south Pacific islands.

The most tangible remains of the early Austronesians are remnants of pottery, the first shards of which were found during the late 1960s in Lapita, a village in New Caledonia. Probably originating in Papua New Guinea, Lapita pottery spread as far east as Tonga. Throughout the area it was decorated with geometric designs similar to those used today on Tongan tapa cloth. Lapita was the only type of pottery in the south Pacific for a millennium. Apparently, however, the Lapita culture died out some 2,500 years ago. by the time European explorers arrived in the 177s, gourds and coconut shells were the only crockery used by the Polynesians,  who cooked their meals underground and ate with their fingers off banana leaves. Of the islanders covered in this Web site, only the Fijians still make pottery using Lapita methods.   


The islands settled by the Papuans and Austronesians are known collectively as Melanesia, which includes Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. Fiji is the melting pot of the Melanesians to the west and the Polynesians to the east. The name Melanesia is derived from the Greek words melas, "black," and nesos, "island." The Melanesians in general have negroid features - brown-to-black skin, flat or hooked noses, full lips, and wiry hair - but the interbreeding among the successive waves of migrants resulted in many subgroups with varying racial characteristics. That's why the Fijians look more African-American than Polynesian. Their culture, on the other hand, has many Polynesian elements, brought by interbreeding and conquest.


The Polynesians' ancestors stopped in Fiji on their migration from Southeast Asia but later pushed on into the eastern south Pacific. Archaeologists now believe that they settled in Tonga and Samoa more than 3,000 years ago and then slowly fanned out to colonize the vast Polynesian triangle. These extraordinary mariners crossed thousands of miles of ocean in large double-hulled canoes capable of carrying hundreds of people, animals, and plants. They navigated by the stars, the wind, the clouds, the shape of the waves, and the flight pattern of birds - a remarkable achievement, for a people who on land used no metal tools and gave up the use of pottery of any kind thousands of years before.

Most Polynesians have copper skin and black hair that is straight or wavy rather than fuzzy. A well-built, athletic people, many have become professional football and rugby players in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Their ancestors fought each other with war clubs for thousands of years, and it stands to reason that the biggest, strongest, and quickest survived. The notion that all Polynesians are fat is incorrect. In the old days, body site did indeed denote wealth and status, but obesity today is more likely attributable to poor diet. On the other hand, village chiefs still are expected to partake of food and drink with anyone who visits to discuss a problem, hence, great weight remains an unofficial marker of social status.


Although Polynesians frequently experienced wars among their various tribes, generally their conflicts were not as bloody as those in Fiji. Nor were they followed as often by a cannibalistic orgy at the expense of the losers. Polynesian developed highly structured societies, and to this day they place great emphasis on hereditary bloodline when choosing leaders. Strong and sometimes despotic chiefdoms developed on many islands. he present king of Tonga carries on a line of central leaders who were so powerful in the 1700s that they conquered much of Fiji, where they installed many Polynesian customs, including their hereditary chiefly system. Just to make sure, the victorious Tongans forced the conquered Fijian chiefs to take Tongan wives. As a result, today Tongan blood flows in the veins of many Fijian chiefs, some of whom have the Polynesian title tui.

In some places, such as Tahiti, the Polynesians developed a rigid class system of chiefs, priests, nobility, commoners, and slaves. Their societies emphasized elaborate formalities, and even today, ceremonies featuring kava - a slightly narcotic drink - play important roles in Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. Everyday life was governed by a system based on tabu, a rigid list of things a person could or could not do, depending on his or her status in life. Tabu and its variants (tapu, tambu) are used throughout the South Pacific to mean "do not enter"; from them derives the English word taboo.

Western principles of ownership have made their inroads, but by and large everything is both Polynesia and Fiji - especially land - is owned communally by the family. In effect, the system is pure communism at the family level. If your brother has a crop of taro and you're hungry, then some of that taro belongs to you. The same principle applies to a can of corned beef sitting on a shelf in a store, which helps explain why islander-owned grocery shops often texter on the edge of bankruptcy. While many islanders would be considered poor by Western standards, no one in the villages goes hungry or sleeps without a roof over his or her head. Most of the thatch roofs in Polynesia today are actually bungalows at the resort hotels, nearly everyone else sleeps under tin.

It's little wonder, therefore, that visitors are greeted throughout the islands by friendly, peaceable, and extraordinarily courteous people.


Before the coming of Christian missionaries in the 1800s, the Fijians believed in many spirits in the animist traditions of Melanesia. the Polynesian, however, subscribed to a supreme spirit, who ruled over the plethora of lesser deities who, in turn, governed the sun, fire, volcanoes, the sea, war, and fertility. Tikis wee carved of stone or wood to give each god a home (but not a permanent residence during religious ceremonies, and great stone maraes were built as temples and meeting places for the chiefs. Sacrifices - sometimes human - would be offered to the gods, and cannibalism was not unknown in Polynesia, although it was not as widely practical there as it was in Fiji and Melanesia.


Traced by linguists to present-day Taiwan, the Austronesian family of languages are spoken across a wide area, extending from Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, through Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and parts of Vietnam, to the South Pacific as far as Easter island, off the coast of South America. No other group of ancient languages spread to so much of the earth's surface. today, the Polynesian islanders still speak similar languages from one major island group to another. For example, the word for "house" is fale in Tongan and Samoan, fare in Tahitian, 'are in Cook Islands Maori, hale in Hawaiian, and vale in Fijian. Without ever having heard the other's language, Cook Islanders say they can understand about 60% of Tahitian, and Tongans and Samoans can get the gist of each other's conversations.

Thanks to the American, British, New Zealand, and Australian colonial regimes, English is an official language in the cook Islands, both Samoas, and Fiji. It is spoken  widely in Tonga. French is spoken alongside Tahitian in French Polynesia, although English understood among most hotel and many restaurant staffs.


Before the Europeans arrived, the typical South pacific diet consisted of bananas, coconuts, and other fruits. Staples were starchy breadfruit and root crops, such as taro, arrowroot, yams, and sweet potatoes. The roofs and lagoons provided abundant fish, lobsters, and clams to augment the meats provided by domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens. Taro leaves and coconut cream served as complements. corned beef has replaced dog on today's menu, otherwise, these same ingredients still make up what is commonly called an "island feast." Like their ancestors, today's islanders still prepare their major meals in an earth oven, known as himaa in Tahiti, lovo in Fiji, and imu or umu elsewhere. Individual food items are wrapped in leaves, placed in the pit on a bed of heated stones, covered with more leaves and earth, and left to steam for several hours. The results are quite tasty, with the steam spreading the aroma of one ingredient to the others.

When the meal has finished cooking, the islanders uncover the oven, unwrap the food, and, using their fingers, set about eating their east of umukai (island food) in a leisurely and convivial manner. Then they dance the night away. The underground oven still is widely used on special occasions and for big family meals after church on Sunday. If you're lucky enough to be invited, don't miss a family feast. Otherwise, many restaurants, especially those at the resort hotels, prepare traditional "island night" feasts for their guests. don't worry: You can use knives and forks instead of your fingers.

The Islands And The Sea

A somewhat less than pious wag once remarked that god made the south Pacific islands on the sixth day of creation so He would have an extraordinarily beautiful place to relax on the seventh day. Modern geologists have a different view, but the fact remains that the islands and the surrounding sea are possessed of heavenly beauty and a plethora of life forms.


The Polynesian islands were formed by molten lava escaping upward through cracks in the earth's crust as it has crept slowly northwestward over the eons, thus building great seamounts. Many of these - called "high islands" - have mountains soaring into the clouds. In contrast, pancake-flat atolls were formed when the islands sank back into the sea, leaving only a thin necklace of coral islets to circumscribe their lagoons and mark their original boundaries. In some case, geologic forces have once again lifted the atolls, forming "raised" islands whose sides drop precipitously into the sea. Still other partially sunken islands are left with the remnants of mountains sticking up in their lagoons.

The islands of Tonga and Fiji, on the other hand. were created by volcanic eruptions along the collision of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. Although the main islands are quiet today, they are part of the volcanically active and earthquake-prone "King of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean.


Most species of plants and animals native to the south Pacific originated in Southeast Asia and worked their way eastward across the Pacific, by natural distribution or in the company of humans. the number of native species diminishes the farther east one goes. Very few local plants or animals came from the Americas, the one notable exception being the sweet potato, which may have been brought back from south America by voyaging Polynesians.


In addition to the west-to-east difference, flora changes according to each island's topography. the mountainous islands make rain from the moist trade winds and thus possess a greater variety of plants. their interior highlands are covered with ferns, native bush, or grass. The low atolls, on the other hand, get sparse rainfall and support little other than scrub bush and coconut palms. Ancient settlers brought coconut palms, breadfruit, taro, paper mulberry, pepper (kava), and bananas to the isolated mid-ocean islands because of their usefulness as food or fiber. Accordingly, they are generally found in the inhabited areas of the islands and not so often in the interior bush.

With a few indigenous exceptions, such as the tiare Tahiti gardenia and Fiji's tagimaucia, tropical flowers also worked their way east to the company of humans. bougainvillea, hibiscus, allamanda, poinsettia, poinciana (the flame tree), cotton, frangipani (plumeria), ixora, canna, and water lilies all give colorful testament to the islanders' love for flowers of every hue in the rainbow. The aroma of the white, yellow, or pink frangipani is so sweet it's used as perfume on many islands.


The fruit bat, or "flying fox," and some species of insect-eating bats are the only mammals native to South Pacific islands. Dogs, chickens, pigs, rats, and mice were introduced by early settlers. There are few land snakes or other reptiles in the islands. the notable exception are geckos and skinks, those little lizards that seem to be everywhere. Don't go berserk when a gecko walks upside-down across the ceiling of your bungalow. They are harmless and actually perform a valuable service by eating mosquitoes and other insects.

The number and variety of species of birdlife also diminishes as you go eastward. Most land birds live in the bush away from settlements and the accompanying cats, dogs, and rats. For this reason the birds most likely to be seen are terns, boobies, herons, petrels, noddies, and others that earn their livelihoods from the sea. Of the introduced birds, the Indian myna is the most numerous. Brought to the South Pacific early in the century to control insects, the myna quickly became a noisy nuisance in its own right.


The tropical South Pacific Ocean virtually teems with sea life, from colorful reef fish to the horrific Great White sharks featured in Jaws, from the paua clans that make tasty chowders in the Cook Islands to the deep-sea tuna that keep the canneries going at Pago Pago. More than 600 species of coral created the great reefs that make the south pacific a divers' mecca, 10 times the number found in the Caribbean. Billions of tiny coral polyps build their own skeletons on top of those left by their ancestors, until they reach the level of the tide. Then they grow outward, extending the edge of the reef. The old skeletons are white, while the living polyps present a rainbow of colors; they grow best and are most colorful in the clear, salty water on the outer edge or in channels, where the tides and waves wash fresh seawater along and across the reef. A reef can grow as much as 2 inches a year in ideal conditions. Although pollution, rising seawater temperature, and a proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish have greatly hampered reef growth - and beauty - in parts of the South Pacific, there are still many areas where the color and variety of corals are unmatched.

Most island countries have tough laws protecting their environment, so don't deface the reef. You could land in the in the slammer for breaking off a gorgeous chunk of coral to take home as a souvenir. The lagoons formed by the reefs are like gigantic aquariums filled with a plethora of tropical fish and other marine life, including whales, which migrate to Tonga and Fiji from June to October, and sea turtles, which lay their eggs on some beaches from November through February. Nearly every main town has a bookstore with pamphlets containing photographs and descriptions of the creatures hat will peer into your face mask. Most south pacific countries restrict the use or spear guns, so ask before you go in search of the catch of your life. Sea turtles and whales are on the list of endangered species, and the importation of their shells, bones, and teeth is prohibited by many countries, including the United States.


30,000 B.C..   Australoid peoples settle in southwest Pacific
7,000-3,500 B.C.   Papuans arrive from Southeast Asia.
3,000-1,000 B.C.   Austronesians arrive from Asia, push eastward.
1,000 B.C.   Polynesians migrate eastward to Samoa and Tonga.
1513   Balboa discovers the Pacific Ocean.
1521   Magellan crosses the Pacific.
1568   Medana discovers the Marquesas and some of Cook and Solomon Islands.
1606   De Quiros discovers islands in the Tuamotus, Cooks, and New Hebrides (Vanuatu)
1642   Abel Tasman explores western Pacific, finds Tonga and Fiji.
1722   Roggeveen happens upon Easter Island and Samoa.
1764   Byron fails to find Terra Australis Incognita.
1767   Wallis discovers Tahiti.
1768   Bougainville also discovers Tahiti.
1769-71   Captain Cook observes transit of Venus from Tahiti, explores South Pacific.
1772-74   On second voyage, Cook finds New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, more of the Cook Islands, and Fiji.
1778-79   Cook explores northwest America, dies in Hawaii.
1789   Fletcher Christian leads mutiny on the Bounty.
1797   First missionaries arrive in Tahiti.
1800-1810   Whalers, merchants, and sandalwood traders flock to islands, bring guns and whiskey.
1808   Last Bounty mutineer discovered on Pitcairn.
1820-50   Beche-de-mer trade flourishes, Western-style towns founded in Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji.
1842   France annexes Tahiti, Herman Melville arrives in Papeete the same day.
1848   Tonga captures eastern Fiji.
1858   Fiji asks to become a British colony.
1865   First Chinese brought to Tahiti to harvest cotton.
1874   Britain accepts Fiji as a colony.
1879   First Indians brought to Fiji.
1884   International Dateline established.
1888   Britain, foiling France, declares protectorate over the cook Islands.
1889   Unrest in Western Samoa, hurricane destroys U.S., British, and German warships at Apia. Robert Louis Stevenson settles in Apia.
1890   Germany takes Western Samoa, U.S. gets Eastern Samoa, Britain claims protectorate over Tonga.
1891   Painter Paul Gauguin arrives in 'Tahiti.
1894   Robert Louis Stevenson dies in Samoa.
1901   Paul Gauguin dies in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
1915   During World War I, German Admiral von Spee shells Papeete.
1917   Count von Kuckner captured in Fiji after his German raider runs aground in the Cook Islands.
1933   Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall publish Mutiny on the Bounty, a bestseller.
1935   Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, is a smash box-office hit.
1941   Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, begin advance into the South Pacific.
1942-44   Allied forces strike Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands, use other islands as bases for attacks on Japanese.
1947   James A. Mitchener's Tales of the South Pacific is published; gives rise to musical and movie South Pacific.
1959-60   International airports open at Tahiti and Fiji.
1960   MGM remakes Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando.
1962   Western Samoa becomes independent.
1965   Cook Islands gain local autonomy in association with New Zealand.
1966   France explodes first nuclear bomb in Tuamotus.
1970   Fiji gains independence from Britain.
1978   Solomon Islands become independence.
1980   New Hebrides become independent Vanuatu.
1985   Treaty of Rarotonga declares South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone.
1987   Fiji's military overthrows elected government.
1990   U.S. President George Bush and island leaders meet at summit conference.
1992   France halts nuclear testing in Tuamotus; Fiji elects civilian government.
1995   French resume limited nuclear testing, protesters riot in Papeete, Japanese tourism boycott Tahiti.
1996   French and nuclear testing program.
1997   Western Samoa officially changes name to Samoa; French Polynesia embarks on hotel-building campaign.
1998   Fiji adopts multiracial constitution.
1999   Fiji elects first Indian prime minister.

Tahiti - Aspects


Australia Home Page

Pacific Islands Radio

Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!


Hosted By Topica















Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter
to get the latest news, information and Web site updates!
Please enter your email address below,
then click the 'Join' button
for your free Newsletter!
 Join newsletter! 
Search Jane's Oceania Travel Page Search the Internet

Oceania Time Zones
Oceania Weather

Back to Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Back to Jane's Oceania Home Page

(E-mail: -- Rev. 19th November 2008)



eXTReMe Tracker