July 8, 2014 – May 28, 2015
Polynesia means many islands. All of Polynesia includes 10 million square miles in a triangular area of the Pacific Ocean ranging from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. This area includes more than 360 islands, and there is approximately 1,000 square miles of ocean to each square mile of land.
French Polynesia is approximately at the center of this triangle, and its area spans 1.5 million square miles of ocean. It includes 130 islands in four archipelagos with a combined land mass of 1,500 square miles. These archipelagos include the Marquesas, the Tuamotus (including the Gambiers), the Society Islands, and the Austral Islands. French Polynesia also includes Clipperton atoll which is a small distant atoll approximately 700 miles off the coast of Mexico.
The history of French Polynesia prior to European contact was unwritten, and most of it has been lost over time. Archaeological evidence has dated the early settlements on the islands, but little else is known.
The first European contact was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Numerous other explorers – Captains Wallis, Bouganville, Cook, and Bligh - visited the islands over the next 300 years, but they were of little consequence. The islands were being ruled by the Pomare dynasty of Tahiti.
In the 18th century, sailors aboard the exploration ships brought disease to the islanders. The Polynesians lacked immunity to these diseases, and many died.
In the late 18th century – 1797 - the London Missionary Society sent thirty-some missionaries to the islands to convert them to Christianity. They developed a code of behaviors – eventually called the Pomare Code – which prohibited many traditional beliefs and rites. The code forbade native cultural practices such as dancing, tattoos, their gods, and music.
Meanwhile, Pomare II, who was an important chief, became an ally of the French colonials. Not all clans supported the chief’s relationship with the French, and there was a battle between clans in 1815 that Pomare II won. He became King Pomare. He converted to Christianity, and his conversion helped the missionaries implement the Pomare Code.
Within a few years, the rivalry between the French and British forced the islanders to declare their loyalty to one or the other. The Tahitians had asked the British to make their islands a British protectorate, but the British refused. The French offered the islands protection, and the islanders declared their allegiance with France. Pomare II’s daughter, ‘Aimata Pomare IV, signed a protectorate treaty with France in 1842, and they moved toward annexation. In 1843, France took possession of Tahiti and Moorea. In 1880, France overthrew King Pomare V of Tahiti, and Tahiti became a French colony. Within a few years, France annexed the other islands of what would become French Polynesia.
French Polynesia became a French overseas territory after World War II, and they have experienced increasing independence since. They gained full internal autonomy in 1984, and they have the greatest degree of autonomy possible while remaining under the direction of the French Republic. Plans exist for them to become completely independent, but the timing of this independence is unknown.
French Polynesia Today
Each archipelago is different from the others. The Society Islands, Marquesas, and Austral Islands are high volcanic islands. The Tuamotus are low atolls (except Makatea which is a raised atoll). Geologically, the oldest group is the Tuamotus, then the Society Islands, then the Marquesas.
None of the islands have any native land animals. There are, however, a few native bird species and many fish.
Parts of Polynesia, specifically Samoa and Tonga, have probably been populated since around 3000 to 2500 BC. French Polynesia has been settled since around the 3rd to 8th century with the original settlers coming from Samoa and Tonga.
Today’s population is approximately 250,000. Seventy eight percent are Polynesian, 12% are European, and 10% are Asian – mostly Chinese. Seventy percent live in Tahiti. The population throughout the islands is mostly Christian with a few Buddhists among the Chinese population.
Most French Polynesians speak multiple languages; however, French is the common language and spoken by most. The Marquesans also speak Marquesan. The Tuamotun also speak Pumotun. The Tahitians also speak Tahitian. Little English is spoken.
In the outer islands, which are most of French Polynesia, most income is from the production of black pearls, copra, vanilla, or coffee. Although black pearls were previously a good source of income for the islanders, the market crashed, and most pearl producers have resumed copra production which is government subsidized. There is tourism in much of the Society Islands.
The cost of living is high throughout the islands. Little is produced in the islands, and most everything is imported.
The currency throughout French Polynesia is the French Polynesian Franc – XPF. One US dollar is equivalent to approximately 91 XPF.
French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France – Territorie d’Outre-Mer. As such, they are partially independent, but the government is overseen by the French government. The French-appointed High Commissioner controls foreign affairs, police, finance, and justice. There is a French military presence throughout the islands.
The original center of religion and government in the islands was on Raiatea. However, that center is now Tahiti.
Our Time in French Polynesia
Bud sailed through French Polynesia with his then-young family in 1987 – 27 years ago. He looked forward to revisiting some places and seeing old friends. Nita had not previously been to French Polynesia, so she was open to whatever experience Bud chose.
We made landfall in the Marquesa Islands on Hiva Oa – one of the islands Bud had previously visited. While in the Marquesas, we also visited Ua Pou and Nuku Hiva.
We then sailed to the Tuamotus and made landfall on Kauehi. This is another island Bud had previously visited.
We then went to the Society Islands - starting in Tahiti. We visited Tahiti, Mo'orea, then Raiatea.
Bud found that much had changed, but much had remained the same. We discuss island-specific experiences on separate pages.
Neither of us speak French, and neither of us has any desire to learn. We probably don’t know 30 words between us. We cannot even count! That created some communication challenges, but we struggled through.
We had to pay the ‘bond’ that is imposed on visiting sailors. The French government requires each person on board to deposit in a French Polynesian bank an amount supposedly equivalent to a one-way flight to your home country. Is this to assure them that they will get you out of their territory? Air fare from Tahiti to Hawaii is not expensive, but we were charged the same rate as anyone from anywhere in the US - $3,750 USD. We will get most, but not all, of this back when we leave the country next June.
We both enjoy the Pacific Island cultures, and we looked forward to being in French Polynesia and among its island culture.
Come along to the Marquesas
or the Tuamotus
or the Society Islands