Polynesia, in the beginning
When nothing existed, Ta’aroa, the creator god, was alone, swimming in the void. From this emptiness, he created all things. Starting from within the palm of his hand, he created rain, storms and the oceans. After that, the foundations of the earth took shape, then the gods and finally man. The ocean is everything to the Polynesians. The ocean reassures and nourishes. It also makes one tremble when its dark and raging waters tear apart the earth, taking over the coastlines, by breaching the protective reef, or swallowing up the low-lying atolls in its anger. If the ocean takes, it also gives grain, plants, ships, and new people. It leads to the discovery of other islands. In tattooing, the ocean is depicted on the skin of men who roam on its waters in their large twin hull vessels. To the Polynesian, the ocean is a language. It is a link.
In the Polynesian civilization of the South Pacific, Moana, the ocean, is everything. He is the beginning, the origin and the end.
The polynesian triangle
After the conquest, by the ancient Polynesians, of the islands that populate this ocean, various islands groups were formed – Henua Enana (the Marquesas) in the Northeast (going up to as far as Hawaii in the North); Mangareva (the Gambier), Hiti-Au-Revareva (Pitcairn Island) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the East; and Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the Southwest.
Polynesian civilization developed over several centuries in the heart of what was called the Polynesian triangle. It is through Moana that Europeans reached the Pacific, firstly with Magellan in 1521 in Pukapuka, then the exploration of Tahiti by Wallis (1767), Bougainville (1768), and then finally Cook in 1769.
The ancient Polynesians had organized a vast trade, exchanging products, knowledge and techniques between the archipelagos. In the early 19th century, European trading ships sailed the great ocean in search of precious commodities such as sea cucumber (rori), nacre and pearls, sandalwood, oil from copra (coconut) and whales. Over time, schooners replaced canoes and military ships. Thus, island life organized with the arrival of ships in the bays of the high islands and the passes of the atolls. To this day, it is still an event in the more remote islands.
The South Pacific is home to the largest oceanic nature reserves, biosphere reserves as in the case in Fakarava and protected marine zones, including the six Marquesan educational zones, Pukatai, conceived by the Marquesan children.
The kingdoms and principalities that ruled all of the lands of the Polynesian Triangle were not unified prior to the 19th century. However, when the Europeans, especially the English, French and Germans, and later the Americans, imposed their domination over all of the States of Oceania, in their conquest of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was done without consideration to the bonds that united one family to another, its lineage and archipelagoes. Thus, due to agreements and treaties in the 19th century, some archipelagoes of Eastern Polynesia, excluding Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Pitcairn to the East (relatives of the people of Mangareva), Rarotonga (Cook Islands), and the descendants of the people of Raromatai (leeward Islands in the Society archipelago), became French. In all this included 118 high islands and atolls.
The 5 archipelagoes
Today, French Polynesia is divided into 5 archipelagoes and covers nearly 5 million square kilometres. The area is as vast as Europe and yet the land above the sea is rare and the ocean depths remain untouched. While all of the high islands are inhabited, less than half of the atolls of the Tuamotu are populated, leaving thin ribbons of fragile land laid out on the ocean as if emerging from the mists of a dream and reaching them by sea creates great excitement. One of the most useful lessons one can learn from a trip on board Aranui 5 to the end of the Worlds is that land here is nothing without the sea. The land must remain a quest, an aspiration. When you have still not seen anything from the ship’s deck but waves and the dense immensity, deep and grey of the infinite horizon, look to the Polynesians busying themselves: they will have instinctively felt the emanations coming from the land, however faint they may be. They will have already seen the palms of the coconut trees breaching the ocean, their languid treetops breaking the waves. They know that the island is there. For you, it will be the promise of an incredible connection with the world. The promise of an island.
Sitting 1,500 km (932 mi) northeast of Tahiti, welcome to the Marquesas, the “The Land of Men”. A mythical and mystical land, that has beckoned explorers and has inspired writers, painters and artists for centuries. A rugged and breath-taking landscape of peaks, valleys, plateaus and cliffs. A nation of proud and formidable warriors long ago, distinct from Tahitians, with their own language and culture. The Marquesas islands are a World in themselves.
The Marquesas Islands includes 12 high islands, only six of which are inhabited (Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva and Tahuata) as well as one atoll. The 9,350 inhabitants, living on a land surface of 1,000 km² (386 mi²), represents 3.6% of French Polynesia’s population. The landscapes are spectacular: rocky peaks, imposing cliffs, deep bays, and steep valleys. There are many important archaeological remains including striking stone tiki.
The ancient Marquesan culture – for which tattoos are an important symbol of cultural identity – is expressed through traditional dances (haka) as well as through the art of sculpting wood and stone. Famous occidental artists (Melville, Loti, Gauguin, Brel…) have contributed to making the name of these agricultural islands, notable for their citrus production.
This island chain was given its name by Captain Cook, as a tribute to the Royal Society of London who sponsored his first voyage there in 1769.
The Society Islands are separated into two groups: the Windward Islands – with Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao, Mehetia and the atoll of Tetiaroa – and the Leeward Islands – with Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Maupiti and the atolls of Manuae, Maupihaa, Motu One and Tupai.
It is both the demographic and economic heart of French Polynesia, being home to 87% of the population (243,290 inhabitants in 2017) and providing more than 90% of the GDP. The capital (Papeete) is found on the island of Tahiti, as well as Faa’a International Airport, the port, and numerous administrative services, the university, the hospital, museums, industrial zones and most businesses … It is also the arrival point for international tourists visiting French Polynesia.
Situated the furthest South, the Austral Islands include five high islands (Raivavae, Rurutu, Tubuai, Rimatara, Rapa) and the atoll of Maria, giving a total land area of 175 km² (68 mi²). Sparsely populated, with only 6,970 inhabitants, the Austral Islands compensate for their isolation by their more temperate climate which permits agricultural production of taro, potatoes, vegetables, and coffee that are exported to Tahiti. On Rurutu, coastal cliffs, formed by uplifted coral reef, are riddled with caves. Tubuai keeps alive the story of the Bounty’s mutineers that tried to settle there, before finally choosing Pitcairn. Among other things, the Austral Islands are also reputed for their crafts, most notably woven hats and tīfaifai.
The Tuamotu Islands are composed of 76 coral atolls that do not rise more than a few metres above sea-level. They are sprinkled across 1 million km² of ocean, making up just 775 km² (299 mi²) of land. The population of 15,460 individuals is just 6.5% of the total French Polynesian population. With their extensive groves of coconut palms, planted in the 19th century, the archipelago’s economy is built around the production of coprah (dried coconut meat, which is sent to Tahiti to make in to coconut oil). The creation of Tahitian cultured pearls has also significantly influenced the inhabitants of Paumotu. The Tuamotu Islands are a real aquarium and an unmissable destination for those who love scuba diving.
Located 1,650 km (1,025 mi) southeast of the island of Tahiti, extending on from the Tuamotu Islands chain, the Gambier Islands are made up of 8 high islands (the 4 main ones being Aukena, Taravai, Akamaru and Mangareva, with a combined area of 22,8 km² or 9 mi² ), a few islets and an impressive atoll, Temoe. The population of around 1,420 people, since the 19th century, turned this isolation to their advantage by using the huge lagoon, that encircles the 8 islands, in to the largest producer of nacre (mother of pearl). Today it is also one of the main pearl farming centres. On Rikitea, the 19th century Catholic missionaries, Caret and Laval, ordained the building of an impressive architectural complex. Construction took place between 1830 and 1870, included the creation of Saint Michel’s Cathedral, which was recently restored in 2012.