History of Tahiti

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The island of Tahiti is a popular tourist destination today, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson we'll explore the history of Tahiti and see what that has meant for the island today.


If I start talking about Tahiti, there are probably a few images that would come to mind: black-sand beaches, crystal-blue waters, maybe a Tahitian-style luau with the warm fire from torches lit against a clear black sky and rhythms of Polynesia. If there's one thing that Tahiti doesn't suffer from, it's a PR problem. But asides from these tourist-centric clichés, how much do we really know about this island? Tahiti is the largest island of French Polynesia, a series of islands in the South Pacific, and the capital of this chain. There are just under 200,000 people who call the island home. Officially, they speak French, although many also speak the native Tahitian language as well. There's a lot more to Tahiti, but at least this is a start. So, how did they get to be a world travel destination today? Well, let's take a little tour through their history and see what Tahiti has meant to the world over time.

Many of us know little about Tahiti outside of travel magazines

Ancient Tahiti

We could start looking at Tahiti's history dating back to when the island was formed out of volcanic activity around 1.4 million years ago, but maybe we should focus on the island's human history. Being so remote, it took people a little while to get to Tahiti. The first people to arrive were ethnically Polynesians, a sailing people who hopped across several islands from Indonesia eastwards over centuries and arrived in Tahiti around 300 BCE. Ancient Tahitian societies were small chiefdoms, being ruled by a single leader and organized by family networks. We call this a kinship-based society. Various leaders of each family, or clan, would unite together in times of war or for fishing, trading, and ritual ceremonies.

Arrival of Europeans

Europeans entered the South Pacific in the 1500s, as Spanish and Portuguese ships competed to find quicker routes to East Asia and its lucrative trade routes. The Spanish, sailing from Spain to the tip of South America and across the Pacific, were the first to record seeing the island we call Tahiti in 1521. The first to land there were English sailors under Captain Samuel Wallis in the late 17th century. Wallis claimed the island for England, however just after this a French explorer named Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed on the opposite side of the island, and thinking it unclaimed, claimed it for France.

The Kingdom of Tahiti

For the next few centuries, English and French explorers charted and explored the island, and their fascination with it grew, particularly after the English sailor, Captain James Cook, published maps and thousands of illustrations of the island. With French, English, and occasionally Spanish ships claiming ownership of Tahiti, the Tahitians were becoming reasonably concerned and in the late 18th century one local chief developed an idea. Promising the British stable trade relations and use of the island, the Tahitian chief Pomare gained their favor, and most importantly, their weapons. Pomare's armies unified the various Tahitian clans, including those on a few neighboring islands, into a single unified kingdom. The Kingdom of Tahiti would last almost a century, from roughly 1788 to 1880.

Pomare unified the Tahitian clans into a single kingdom

Tahiti as French Colony

For a while, the Kingdom of Tahiti did well, and establish local rule of the island supported by the British. Missionaries, soldiers and even scientists (Charles Darwin amongst them) were welcomed as guests and the island seemed to thrive. However, wars between France and England destabilized the Pacific, and in 1847, Queen Pomare of Tahiti decided to accept French protection of her kingdom, loosely bringing the island into the French Empire. After her death in 1880, Tahiti formally became a French colony.

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