A History of the Islands...

HISTORY / 20th CENTURY / LANGUAGE / POPULATION / CLIMATE

3,500 years ago, Polynesians left Southeast Asia and arrived on the islands. They brought with them plants, animals and families to settle. They had no navigational equipment, but followed natural guides such as the stars and birds' flight. They were considered the best navigators of their time.

In 1767, English Captain Samuel Wallis became the first European to set foot on Tahiti. He was an explorer for King George III, and claimed the island for him. The crew traded beads, looking glasses, and knives for food. To the alarm of those responsible for the seaworthiness of the HMS Dolphin, crew also pulled nails from the vessel to trade for sexual favors from the native women. Tahitians used the nails for fishing hooks.

As Captain Wallis was returning home to England, the French arrived. It was 1768 when explorer Louis Bougainville arrived, claiming the island a possession of France, unaware of his tardiness in the matter. Bougainville, a distinguished scholar, made excellent observations of the society and documented them fully.

The next year, Captain James Cook arrived in the South Pacific with three ships to observe and record accurate measurements of the transit of Venus for scientists who need this information to calculate the size of the solar system. His exploration is considered to be the best in English history, even though the experiment was a failure (the equipment at that time was not accurate enough). Cook and his crew spent three months on the island of Tahiti, gathering a wealth of information about the island and its people. He was to return two other times before his death in 1779.

In 1788 the infamous HMS Bounty arrived in Tahiti. Captain Bligh was a former sailing master who had traveled to Tahiti with Captain Cook. His mission was to retrieve plants to be used as a source of food for slaves in the West Indies. The crew enjoyed their six month stay, not wanting to leave. Three weeks after departing the islands, a group of men led by Fletcher Christian mutinied, turning Bligh and 18 other crew members adrift in a 23-foot cutter with minimal provisions.

Christian and his men ended up on Pitcaim Island, quarreling and eventually killing one another. Bligh and his crew survived forty-one days in their open craft before arriving in the island of Timor in Indonesia. He was promoted to admiral and later became governor of New South Wales in Australia.

In 1797 thirty missionaries arrived from London. Within a few years, they had converted nearly everyone to Christianity. They had also persuaded the natives to many English customs, such as drinking tea and sleeping in beds.

In 1843 France took formal possession of Tahiti and proceeded with colonization. When the Tahitians realized the French were staying and forcing new customs on them, they launched a three year war. Their power was limited, though, and they gave in.

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Until the world wars of the 20th century, Tahiti had little influence from countries other than England, France, and some trading with Japan. During WWI, the U.S. set up airfields on islands across the Pacific. Suddenly Tahitians were learning about America, and soldiers began informing the United States about this virtually unknown paradise.

An international airport was built to accommodate the many new visitors. Money was pumped into the economy.

Businesses began to prosper greatly. Tahiti had arrived in the 20th century.

In 1977 French Polynesia was granted a larger degree of liberty with a new constitution. This provided Polynesians with a greater voice in internal affairs, including management of their own budget.

The modern world is catching up with the South Pacific. Consumerism has caught on. However, Tahiti still maintains its island charm.

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Although the official language of French Polynesia is French, the "unofficial" language, Tahitian, is spoken as much, if not more. It is not uncommon to hear locals speaking a combination of Tahitian and French. Before the arrival of the missionaries in the 1700's, the Tahitian language had never been written. The missionaries took the sounds of the language and matched them to letters in our alphabet. As a result, only sixteen letters are used: five vowels, A, E, I, O, U; and eleven consonants, B, F, G, H, K, M, N, P, R, T, and V. The pronunciation for the vowels is the same as the Spanish language; ah, ay, ee, oh, oo. The consonants are pronounced the same as in English.

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The indigenous people of French Polynesia are Maohi (Mah-wee). They are Eastern Polynesians, as opposed to the Western Polynesians of Tonga and Samoa. The indigenous people are not the only inhabitants. The population breakdown is as follows:

70% - Polynesian
10% - Polynesian/Eurpean
9% - European
4% - Chinese
4% - Polynesian/Chinese
3% - Polynesian/Other

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Sine French Polynesia is located in the tropical zone of the southern hemisphere, the weather can only be described as "tropical". Also, being south of the equator, their seasons are opposite of those in the United States.

Severe tropical storms are not very common in the area of French Polynesia. The last hurricane that caused any significant damage was in December 1989.

The weather described above basically pertains to the Society Islands.

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