Introducing French Polynesia

The largest and most heavily populated island in French Polynesia, Tahiti has evoked the magical image of an idyllic tropical paradise since canoes of young Tahitian vahines gave uninhibited, bare-breasted receptions to the European explorers of the late 1700s. Today its name often is used synonymously with this overseas territory of France.


Don't be surprised to find noise and traffic jams on Tahiti, especially in the territory's bustling capital of Papeete. A freeway runs across the mountains to a wealthy suburb along Tahiti's west coast, and tract houses scale the flanks of the island's serrated ridges. Papeete's sleazy bars that once made the town a den of iniquity are long gone. Chic bistros and high-rise shopping centres have replaced its stage-set wooden Chinese stores, and the glass and steel of luxury resorts on the edge of town have supplanted its cheap waterfront hotels. But beyond Papeete, the awesome beauty of these islands is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. On Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, and Tahiti's other companion islands you will witness the other-worldly mountain peaks, multihued lagoon, and palm-draped beaches that have come to symbolize the south Pacific.

French Polynesia Today

French Polynesia sprawls over an area of two million square miles in the eastern south Pacific. that's about the size of Europe, excluding the former Soviet Union, or about two-thirds the size of the continental United States. The 130 main islands, however, consist of only 1,500 square miles, an area smaller than Rhode Island, with a population of 220,000 or so.


The territory's five major island groups differ in terrain, climate, and to a certain extent, people. With the exception of the Tuamotu Archipelago, an enormous chain of low coral atolls northeast of Tahiti, all but a few are high islands., the mountainous tops of ancient volcanoes, that have been eroded into jagged peaks, deep bays, and fertile valleys. All have fringing or barrier coral reefs and blue lagoons worthy of postcards. The most strikingly beautiful and most frequently visited are the Society Islands, so named by Captain James cook because they lay relatively close together. These include Tahiti and its nearby companion Moorea, which also are known as the Windward Islands because they sit to the east, the direction of the prevailing trade wind. to the northwest lie Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Maupiti, and several smaller islands. Because they are downwind, of Tahiti, they are also called the Leeward Islands.

To James A. Michener's eye, Bora Bora is the most beautiful island in the world. Others give that title to Moorea in a close race. It's all a matter of degree, for these are definitely the world's most dramatically beautiful islands. The 69 low-lying atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago run for 720 miles on a line from northwest to southeast, across the approaches to Tahiti from the east. The early European sailors called them the "Dangerous Archipelago" because of their tricky currents and because they virtually cannot be seen until a ship is almost on top of them. Even today they are a wrecking ground for yachts and inter-island trading boats. Two of them, Moturoa and Fangataufa, are used by France to test its nuclear weapons. Others provide the bulk of Tahiti's well-known black pearls. Rangiroa, the world's second-largest atoll and the territory's best scuba diving destination, is the most frequently visited. With a smaller and shallower lagoon Manihi is the territory's major producer of black pearls. 

The Marquesas, a group of 10 high islands, sit beyond the Tuamotus some 750 miles northeast of Tahiti. They are younger than the Society Islands, and protecting coral refs have not enclosed them. As a result, the surf pounds on their shores, there are no encircling coastal plains, and the people live in a series of deep valleys that radiate out from central mountain peaks. The Marquesas have lost their once-large populations to 19th-centuiry disease and the 20th-century economic lure of Papeete; today their sparsely populated, cloud-enshrouded valleys have an almost haunted air about them.

The seldom-visited Austral Islands south of Tahiti are part of a chain of high islands that continues westward into the cook Islands. the people of the more temperate Australs, which include Rurutu, Raivavae, and Tubuai, once produced some of the best art objects in the south Pacific, but these skills have passed into time. Far on the southern end of the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands are part of a semi-submerged, middle-aged high island similar to Bora Bora. the hilly remnants of the old volcano are original outline of the island before it began to sink. the largest of these remnant islands is Mangareva.

Impressions: It is no exaggeration to say, that to a European of any sensibility, who, for the first time wonders back into these valleys - away from the haunts of the natives - the ineffable repose and beauty of the landscape of such that every object strikes him like something seen in a dream; and for a time he almost refuses to believe that scenes like these should have a commonplace existence. -Herman Melville, 1847


French Polynesia officially is an "overseas territory" of France or as the French like to say, it's "an integral part" of France. Local voters cast ballots in French presidential elections and choose two elected deputies and a senator to the French parliament in Paris. The metropolitan French government decides matters of defense, justice, and foreign affairs, and it plays a significant role in law enforcement. the city of Papeete and a few other communes have their own local police forces, but French gendarmes are in control of many parts of the territory. The man wearing the round de Gaulle hat who stops you for riding a motorbike without a helmet is more likely to be from Martinique than from Moorea.

French Polynesia elect 30 members of a Territorial Assembly which in turn selects is own president, the territory's highest-ranking local official (who often is referred to as the president of French Polynesia). Except for defense, justice, national police, and foreign affairs, the Assembly and its council of Ministers decide most issues affecting the territory. this may have changed by the time you arrive, for French Polynesians have been pressing for more autonomy from Paris in recent years. this is especially so since France stopped testing its nuclear weapons in the territory and told the locals they would have to go it alone economically by 2006 (see "The Economy," below).

A small but vocal movement would like to see the territory completely free of France. the village of Faaa surrounding the airport on Tahiti is a hotbed of such pro-independence sentiment. You'll see more English used in Faaa than anywhere else, as evidenced by stores with American-sounding names such as "Cash and Carry," "magic City," and "Kiddy shop."


The territory would be bankrupt were it not for billions of francs poured in by the French government. although many islands gripe about the French, most Tahitians have readily accepted the largesse Paris has sent their way to pay for modern schools, roads, hospitals, airports, and other public projects. the result is a grossly inflated economy. In reality, French Polynesia has only two industries: tourism and black pearls (upwards of two million pearls are exported annually). Otherwise, little is produced or grown locally, including most foodstuffs. Yet professionals and government employers earn Parisian-level salaries. for ordinary workers, the minimum wage is about US$7 an hour - compared to US$1 or less on the other South Pacific islands.

No one pays income tax here, but everyone needs all that money just to exist, for heavy Customs duties and a value-added tax translate into relatively high prices for everything except bread, rice, sugar, and a few other basics. Most foodstuffs grown or produced in French Polynesia are more expensive than their imported counterparts; for example, you'll pay less for frozen vegetables from California than for locally grown produce. Tender beef and lamb from new Zealand are less costly than the fish caught offshore and sold in the markets. Frozen imported chicken is much less expensive than local pork, the traditional "Sunday meal" throughout Polynesia. Butter is cheaper than margarine. Just remember that you are not alone; local residents pay the same duty-inflated prices in their grocery stores as you will.

The good times may be rolling to an end, however, for when it began demanding its Tahiti-based nuclear testing program in 1996 (see "History," below), France advised the territory to start earning its own living within a decade. Since tourism is the only industry capable of quickly creating badly needed private sector jobs (more than half of the population is under 20 years old), the territory has experienced a boom in hotel construction, much of it spurred by highly favorable tax treatment of local investments by French citizens. To bring in tourists to fill the new rooms, the territory launched its own international carrier, Air Tahiti Nui. For visitors, there's one saving grace. Since there is neither tipping nor a sales tax here, which can add 25% to your bill elsewhere, you should find that a meal at most non-hotel restaurants costs about the same as at comparable restaurants in American cities.


Surely Captain Samuel Wallis of H.M.S. Dolphin could hardly believe his eyes that day in 1767 when an army of large grown-skinned men paddled more than 500 canoes across the lagoon at Matavai Bay, many of them loaded with pigs, chickens, coconuts, fruit, and topless young women "who played a great many droll and wanton tricks" on his scurvy-ridden crew. Secretly sent by King George III to find terra australis incognita - the mysterious southern continent that theorists said was necessary to keep the earth in balance, - Wallis had instead discovered Tahiti.

The French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville was similarly greeted when he arrived at Hitiaa a year later. Bougainville noted that one young woman "carelessly dropped the cloth which covered her and appeared to the yes of all beholders much as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian shepherd - having indeed the form of that goddess." With visions of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, Bougainville promptly named his discovery New Cythere in honor of her hometown. It has ever since been known as The Island of Love.

Bougainville stayed at Hitiaa only 10 days, but he took back to France a young Tahitian named Ahutoru, who became a sensation in Paris as living proof of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory, that man was at his best a "noble savage." Indeed, Bougainville and Ahutoru gave Tahiti a hedonistic image that has survived to this day. the real Venus played a role in "Tahiti's history when Captain James cook arrived in 1769 on the first of his three great voyages of discovery to the South Pacific. cook's job was to measure the transit of the planet across the face of the sea, which if successful would enable navigators for the first time to accurately measure longitude on the earth's surface. cook set up an observation point on a sandy spit on Tahiti's north shore, a locale he appropriately named Point Venus. His measurements were of little use, but cook remained in Tahiti for 5 months. His studies of the island contributed greatly to the world's understanding of Polynesian cultures.

Cook used Tahiti as a base during his two subsequent voyages, during which he disproved the southern continent theory, discovered numerous islands, and charted much of the south Pacific.


Based on reports by cook and others about the abundance of breadfruit, a head-size, potatolike 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.


The discoverers brought many changes to Tahiti, starting with iron, which the Tahitians had never seen, and barter, which they had never practised. the Tahitians figured out right away that iron was much harder than stone and shells, and that they could swap pigs, breadfruit, bananas, and the affections of their young women for it. Iron cleats, spikes, and nails soon took on a value of their own, and so many of them disappeared from the dolphin that Wallis finally restricted his men to the ship out of fear it would fall apart in Matavai Bay. A rudimentary form of monetary economy was introduced to Polynesia for the first time. The English word "money" soon entered the Tahitian language as moni. Wars were fought hand-to-hand with sticks and clubs until the bounty mutineers hiding on Tahiti loaned themselves and their guns to rival chiefs, who for the first time were able to extend their control beyond their home valleys. With the mutineers' help, chief Pomare II came to control half of Tahiti and all of Moorea.

A much more devastating European import was diseases such as measles, influenza, pneumonia, and syphilis, to which the islanders had no resistance. Captain cook estimated Tahiti's population at some 200,000 in 1768. by 1810 it had dropped to less than 8,000.


The "opening" of the South pacific coincided with a fundamentalist religious revisal in England, and it wasn't long before the London Missionary Society (LMS) was on the scene in Tahiti to save the souls of the "heathens" discovered by Wallace and cook. the first LMS missionaries who arrived in the 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." they toiled for 15 years before making their first convert, and even that was only accompanied with the help of Chief Pomare II. the missionaries thought he was king of Tahiti, but in reality Pomare II was locked in battle to extend his rule and to become just that. He converted to Christianity primarily to win the missionaries' support, and with it, he quickly gained control of the entire island. The people then made the easy intellectual transition from their primary god Taaroa to the missionaries' supreme being. They put on clothes and began going to church.

The Protestant missionaries had a free hand on Tahiti for almost 30 years. There were few ordained ministers among them, for most were tradesmen sent to Tahiti to reach the natives useful Western skills, which the London Missionary society considered essential for the Tahitians' successful transition to devout, industrious Christians in the mold of working-class Englishmen and women. Some of the missionaries stayed and went into business on their own (some island cynics say they "came to do good and stayed to do well").


The Protestant monopoly ended when the first Roman Catholic priests arrived on the scene from France in the 1830s. the Protestants immediately saw a threat, and in 1836 they engineered the interlopers expulsion by Queen Pomare IV, the illegitimate daughter of Pomare II, who by then had succeeded to the throne created by her father. when word of this outrage reached Paris, France sent a warship to Tahiti to demand a guarantee that Frenchmen would thereafter be treated as the "most favored foreigners" in Tahiti. Queen Pomare politely agreed, but as soon as the warship left Papeete, she sent a letter to Queen Victoria asking for British protection. Britain declined to interfere, which opened the door for a Frenchman to trick several Tahitian chiefs into signing a document requesting that Tahiti be made a protectorate of France. The French were in fact interested in a south Pacific port, and when word of the document reached Paris, a ship was dispatched to Papeete. Tahiti became a French protectorate in 1842. 

Unaware of the document signed by the chiefs, Queen Pomare continued to resist. Her subjects launched an armed rebellion against the French troops, who surrounded her Papeete palace and forced her to retreat to Raiatea. The fighting continued until 1846, when the last Tahitian stronghold was captured and the remnants of their guerilla bands retreated to Tahiti Iti, the island's eastern peninsula. A monument to the fallen Tahitians now sands beside the round-island road near the airport at Faaa, the village still noted for its strong pro-independence sentiment. giving up the struggle in 1847, the queen returned to Papeete and ruled as a figurehead until her death 30 years later. Her son, Pomare V, who liked the bottle more than the throne, ruled 3 more years until abdicating in return for a sizable French pension for him, his family, and his mistress. Tahiti then became f full-fledged French colony. In 1903 all of eastern Polynesia was consolidated into a single colony known as French Oceania, which it remained until 1957, when its status was changed to the overseas territory of French Polynesia.


America isn't the only home of trendy tattoos. With their increasing interest in the ancient Polynesian ways, many young Tahitian men and women are getting theirs - but not with the modern electric needles used elsewhere.

Tattooing was unknown in Europe when the 18th-centuiry explorers arrived in Tahiti. They were shocked, therefore, to find many Polynesians on Tahiti and throughout the South Pacific to be covered from face to ankle with a plethora of geometric and floral designs. In his journal, Capt. James cook described in detail the excruciatingly painful tattoo procedure, in which natural dyes are hammered into the skin by hand. the repertoire tapping of the mallet gave rise to the Tahitian word tatau, which became tattoo in English.

Any Tahitian with plain old skin was rejected by members of the opposite sex - which may explain why members of Cook's crew were so willing to endure the torture to get theirs. At any rate, they began the tradition of the tattooed sailor.

Appalled at the sexual aspects of tattoos, the missionaries stamped out the practice on Tahiti in the early 1800s. Although the art continued in the remote Marquesas and in Samoa, by 1890 there were no tattooed natives left in the Society Islands.

When a British anthropologist undertook a study of tattooing in 1900, the only specimen he could find was in the royal college of Surgeons. It had been worn by a Tahitian sailor, who died in England in 1816. Before he was buried, an art-loving physician removed his skin and donated it to the college.


Except for periodic invasions by artists and writers, French Polynesia remained an idyllic backwater from the time France took complete possession until the early 1960s.

French painter Paul Gauguin gave up his family and his career as a Parisian stockbroker and arrived in 1891; he spent his days reproducing Tahiti's colors and people on canvas until h died in 1903 on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Stories and novels by writers such as W. Somerset Maugham, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rupert Brooke added to Tahiti's romantic reputation during the early years of this century. In 1932 two young Americans - Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall - published Mutiny on the Bounty which quickly became an enormous bestseller. Three years later MGM released an even more successful movie version with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in the roles of Christian and Bligh, respectively.

The book and movie brought fame to Tahiti, but any plans for increased tourism were put on hold during World War II. Local partisans sided with the Free French, who gave permission for the United States to use the islands in the war against Japan. In 1942 some 6,000 U.S. sailors and marines quickly built the territory's first airstrip on Bora Bora and remained there throughout the war. A number of mixed-race Tahitians are descended from those American troops.


Even after the war, the islands were too far away and too difficult to reach to attract more than the most adventurous or wealthy travelers who arrived by ocean liner or by seaplane. then two early 1950s events brought rapid changes to most of French Polynesia. First, Tahiti's new international airport opened at Faaa in late 1960. Shortly thereafter, Marlon Brando and a movie crew arrived to film a remake of Mutiny on the bounty. This new burst of fame, erupted with the ability to reach Tahiti overnight on the new long-range jets, transformed the island into a jet-set destination, and hotel construction began in earnest. 

Second, France established the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique, its nuclear testing facility in the Tuamotus, about 700 miles southeast of Tahiti. a large support base was constructed on the eastern outskirts of Papeete. Together, tourism and the nuclear testing facility brought a major boom to Tahiti almost overnight. Thousands of Polynesians flocked to Papeete to take the new construction and hotel jobs, which enabled them to earn good money and experience life in Papeete's fast land. In addition some 15,000 French military personnel and civilian technicians swarmed into the territory to man the new nuclear testing facility, all of them with money and many with an inclination to spend it on the local girls. The Tahitian men struck back, brawls erupted, and for a brief period in the 1960s the island experienced one of its are moments of open hostility between the Tahitian majority and the French.

That's not to say there weren't hard feelings all along. An independence movement had existed since the guerilla skirmishes of the 1840s, and by the 1970s it forced France to choose between serious unrest or granting the territory a much larger degree of control over its internal affairs. In 1977 the French parliament created an elected Territorial Assembly with powers over the local budget. The vice president of the Assembly was the highest elected local official. A High commissioner sent from Paris, however, retained authority over defense, foreign affairs, immigration, the police, civil service, communications, and secondary education. This system lasted until 1984, when the French Parliament set up the present system.

The Islanders

About 70% of French Polynesia's population of 220,000 or so are pure Polynesians. About 4% are of Asian descent (primarily Chinese), and some 14% are of mixed races. the rest are mostly French and a few other Europeans, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders. Members of the Polynesian majority are known as Tahitians, although persons born on the other islands do not necessarily consider themselves to be "Tahitians" and sometimes gripe about this overgeneralization. they all are called Tahitians, however, because more than 70% of the territory's population live on Tahiti, and because the Polynesian language originally spoken only on Tahiti and Moorea has become the territory's second official language (French is the other). Of the approximately 160,000 persons who live on Tahiti, some 100,000 reside in or near Papeete. No other village in the islands has a population in excess of 4,000.


Many Tahitians now refer to themselves as Maohi (the Tahitian counterpart of Maori), a result of an increasing awareness of their unique ancient culture. Their ancestors came to Tahiti as part of a great Polynesian migration hat fanned out from southeast Asia to much of the south Pacific (see "The Islanders" at Jane Resture's South Pacific Web site). These early settlers brought along food plants, domestic animals, tools, and weapons. By the time Captain Samuel Wallis arrived in 1767, Tahiti and the other islands were lush with breadfruit, bananas, taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and other crops. Most of the people lived on the fertile coastal plains and in the valleys behind them, each valley or district ruled by a chief. Wallis counted 17 chiefdoms on Tahiti alone.    


Tahitians were highly stratified into three classes, chiefs, and priests, landowners, and commoners. Among the commoners was a subclass of slaves, mostly war prisoners. One's position in society was hereditary, with primogeniture the general rule. In general, women were equal to men, although they could not act as priests. A peculiar separate class of wandering dancers and singers, known as the arioi, travelled about the society Islands performing ritual dances and shows - some of them sexually explicit - and living in a state of total sexual freedom. the children born to this class were killed at birth. The Polynesians had no written language, but their life was governed by an elaborate set of rules that would challenge modern legislators' abilities to reduce them to writing. Most of these rules were prohibitions known as tabu, a word now used in English ad "taboo." the rules differed from one class to another.  


The ancient Tahitians worshipped a hierarchy of gods. At its head stood Taaroa, a supreme deity known as Tangaroa in the cook Islands and Tangaloa in Samoa. Below him was Tane, the god of all good and the friend of armies, and Tu, who was more or less the god of the status quo. Mana, or power, came down from the gods to each human, depending on his or her position in society. The highest chiefs had so much mana that they were considered godlike, if not actually descended from the gods. They lived according to special rules and spoke their own vocabularies. No one could touch them other than high-ranking priests, who cut their hair and fed them. If a high chief set foot on a plot of land, that land automatically belonged to him or her; consequently, servants carried them everywhere they went. If they uttered a word, that word became sacred and was never used again in the everyday language. Then the first king of Tahiti decided to call himself Pomare, which means "night cough," the word for night - po - became tabu for a time. It isn't anymore.

The Tahitians worshipped their gods on marae built of stones and rocks. Every family had a small marae which served the same functions as a chapel would today, and villages and entire districts - even islands - built large marae that served not only as places of worship but also as meeting sites. Elaborate religious ceremonies were held on the large central marae. Priests prayed hat the gods would come down and reside in carved tikis and other objects during the ceremonies (the objects lost all religious meaning afterward). Sacrifices were offered to the gods, sometimes including humans, most of whom were war prisoners or troublemakers. Despite the practice of human sacrifice, cannibalism apparently was never practised on Tahiti, although it was fairly widespread in the Marquesas Islands.

The souls of the deceased were believed to be taken by the gods to Hawaiki, the homeland from which their Polynesian ancestors had come. In all Polynesian islands, Hawaiki always lay in the direction of the setting sun, and the souls departed for it from the northwest corner of each island.


The sexual freedom that intrigued the early European explorers permeated Tahitian society, although it was not without its limits. Except for the nobility sex was restricted to one's own class. Teenagers generally were encouraged to have as many partners as they wanted from puberty to marriage so that they would learn the exotic skills necessary to make a good spouse. Even within marriage there was a certain latitude. Married men and women, for example, could have extramarital affairs with their sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, respectively. Since first cousins were considered brothers and sisters, the opportunities for licensed adultery were numerous. The old rules have disappeared, and sexual relations in Tahiti today are governed by a mishmash of morals. Like elsewhere in the south Pacific islands, the coming of Christianity and its ethics had left Tahitians with as much guilt over adultery as anyone else. On the other hand, the European moral code was not accepted as readily as was the belief in god, and premarital sex has continued to be practised widely in French Polynesia. Prostitution, which was unknown before the coming of the Europeans and their system of sex-for-nails, is widespread in Papeete's cash economy.

As in other Polynesian societies, homosexuality was accepted among a class of transvestites known as mahu, a fact that started the early explorers and shocked the missionaries who followed. Mahus still abound in Papeete, especially at the nightclubs that cater to all sexual preferences and at the resort hotels, where the mahus perform as women in some dance reviews. Women were not considered equal in this respect in ancient times, however, and lesbianism was discouraged.

Note that the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) virus is present in French Polynesia. Accordingly, visitors should exercise at least the same degree of caution and safe sex practices as they would at home.


6th century A.D. Polynesians arrive (estimated time)
1595 Alvaro de Mendana discovers the Marquesas Islands.
1606 Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sails through the Tuamotus

Searching for terra australis incognita, Captain John Byron on H.M.S. Dolphin finds some tuamotu ilands but misses Tahiti.

1767 Also on H.M.S. Dolphin, Captain Samuel Wallis discovers Tahiti, claims it for King George III.
1768 French Captain Antoine de Bougainville discovers Tahiti.
1769 Captain James cook arrives to observe the transit of Venus on the first of his three voyages of discovery.
1788 H.M.S. Bounty under Captain William Bligh arrives to take breadfruit to the Caribbean.
1789 Lt. Fletcher Christian leads the mutiny on the bounty.
1797 London Missionary Society emissaries arrive looking for converts.
1827 Queen Pomare IV ascends to the throne.
1837 Protestants deny French Catholic priests permission to land. Irate France demands full reparations.
1838 Queen reluctantly signs ultimatum of French Adm. du Petit-Thours.
1841 French traders took Tahitian chiefs into asking for French protection. They later disavow it.

Tahiti becomes a French protectorate. Herman Melville jumps ship, spends time in  the Calaboosa Beretane (British jail). He later writes Omoo about his adventures.

1844 44 Tahitians wage guerilla war against the French.
1847 Queen Pomare acquiesces in full French protection.
1862 Irish adventurer William Stewart starts a cotton plantation at Atimaono.
1865   The first 329 Chinese arrive from Hong Kong to work Stewart's plantation. It fails, but most of them stay.

Pierre Loti (Julian Viaud) spends several months on Tahiti. His The marriage of Loti is published 8 years later.

1877 Queen Pomare IV dies at age 64.

King Pomare V abdicates in return for pensions for him, his family, and his mistress. Tahiti becomes a French colony.

1888 Robert Louis Stevenson spends 2 months at Tautira on Tahiti Iti.
1891 "Fleeing from civilization," the painter Gauguin arrives.
1893   Paul Gauguin dies at Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, apparently of syphilis. All of eastern Polynesia becomes one French colony.
1914 Two German warships shell Papeete, sink the French navy's Zelee.
1917 W. Somerset Maugham spends several months on Tahiti.
1933 Charles Nordhoff and James Normal Hall publish Mutiny on the bounty, n instant best-seller.
1935 Clark Gable and Charles Laughton star in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty.
1942 U.S. Marines build the territory's first airstrip on Bora Bora.

Faaa International Airport opens, turning Tahiti into a jet-set destination/ Marlon Brando arrives to film a second movie version of Mutiny on the Bounty.

1963 France chooses Mururoa as its nuclear testing site.
1966 France explodes the first nuclear bomb above ground at Mururoa.
1973 Infamous Quinn's Bar closes, is replaced by a shopping centre.
1977 France grants limited self-rule to French Polynesia.
1984 Local autonomy statute enacted by French parliament.
1992 France halts nuclear testing, hurting local economy.

Conservative French President Jacques Chirac permits six more underground nuclear explosions; anti-nuclear riots in Papeete, Japanese boycott Tahiti tourism.


France halts nuclear testing, signs Treaty of Rarotonga (declaring South Pacific to be nuclear-free, tells French Polynesia to start earning its own way.

1997 Tourism rebounds, construction begins on several new hotels.
1999 Local officials propose increased autonomy from France.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 14th Novembher 2008)


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