A Very Brief History of French Polynesia
- It's believed that the islands now known as French Polynesia, were settled as part of the Great Polynesian Migration, which began around 1500 BC. (Austronesian peoples navigated by the sun and stars to find other islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled, were the Marquesas Islands (in about 200 BC). The more southerly Society Islands were discovered around 300 AD.
- European encounters first began in Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago, in 1521, with Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, sighted Puka-Puka in the. The Spanish were followed by the Dutch. In 1722, Jakob Roggeveen (for the Dutch West India Company), charted six islands in the Tuamotus and two in the Society Islands; one of these was Bora Bora.
- The first European navigator to visit Tahiti, was British explorer Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He was followed by James Cook. The first actual European settlers (but not for very long) were Spanish, followed by Protestants from the London Missionary Society and then French catholic missionaries. The island kings and their subjects were converted and France annexed the islands, gradually expanding, despite resistance form the kings and the odd skirmish with the British.
- The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l'Océanie (Establishments in Oceania). In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia).
Facts and Factoids
- French Polynesia is now an overseas collectivity of France (which means it is semi autonomous) and its sole overseas country - a special designation.
- It consists of 121 islands and atolls, which stretch an astonishing 2,000 kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean. Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. The islands are divided into five groups: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands.
- In the 1960s, the overwater bungalow (as seen below) was created on the island of Moorea
- It is thought that the word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word tatau.
- About 10% of the population of French Polynesia today is Chinese. The Chinese were brought to the area in the mid-1800s to work in the plantations.
- Tahiti is home to the Pearl Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to pearls. Pearl diving was staple industry. So, French Polynesia's nickname - Pearl of Polynesia - is doubly suitable.
Flying into French Polynesia
I'm visiting the Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, starting in Papeete (and going on to Bora Bora and Moorea. The 'big island plane' from Rarotonga has 48 seats, but fewer than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.)
Papeete - Pardonnez Moi
Papeete (Water Basket) is the capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti, the most populous island (69% of the people live here). Tahiti is known for its black volcanic sand beaches. The city developed, primarily, because the French moved their French nuclear weapon test range from Algeria, (which had won independence), to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, some 930 miles to the east of Tahiti. The two detonations were both followed by rioting, on Tahiti.
And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight. And I walked straight through immigration, without even a stamp in my passport.
My hotel, for the one night, has given me a 'lagoon view' room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.
French food and sophistication and stunning tropical scenery. Sublime. Though there are local twists, of course, Poisson cru, for example, is fish marinated in coconut milk.
Next up, Bora Bora and Moorea.