Back To CourseGeography Study Guide
8 chapters | 64 lessons
Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tahiti became an important colony for France. Not only was it an important center for French ships trading across the world, but technological advancements in the 19th century made it a popular tourist destination as well. In the 1890s, the French painter Paul Gauguin moved to the island and fell in love with its colors, arts, and honestly, its women. His paintings would be fundamental parts of the avant-garde artistic movement of France. France was fond of its Polynesian islands, and after WWII started granting them greater autonomy. The entire island chain was reorganized into French Polynesia in 1957, which recognized the Polynesians as French citizens and gave them more political rights. Throughout the 1980s, the islands gained more and more autonomy, and in 1998 French Polynesia was recognized as a country with its own president and legislature, although still technically belonging to France. Still, France continued to expand Tahitian autonomy throughout the early 2000s, and the island is basically self-sufficient today. That means it can control its own investments, commerce, and economy, including its most lucrative industry. You guessed it: tourism.
The island of Tahiti is the largest of a series of islands in the collective group called French Polynesia. The island was first inhabited in roughly 300 BCE by seafaring Polynesians who organized into kinship-based clans. These clans ruled over Tahiti for centuries until the arrivals of Europeans between the 16th and 17th centuries. External pressures helped inspire the clan leader Pomare to ally with Britain and use their weapons to consolidate power over the islands, starting the Kingdom of Tahiti in the 18th century. About a century later, the kingdom was turned into a French protectorate thanks to international colonial wars, and by 1880 was a formal French colony. All of French Polynesia became important to the French over the next centuries, and after WWII France started steadily granting more and more autonomy to the islands. Today, Tahiti enjoys a great deal of autonomy, as well as a pristine reputation as a world-class tourist destination.
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Back To CourseGeography Study Guide
8 chapters | 64 lessons