The History of

The Islands of Tahiti


The history of The Islands of Tahiti is a rich and fascinating one. Around 4000 BC, a great migration began in Southeast Asia with early settlers traveling across the vast, open ocean to explore the Pacific Islands. Tonga and Samoa were settled as a result of this migration around 1300 BC. Later on, Tahitians launched colonization voyages to the Marquesas Islands around 200 BC.

During the next several centuries, the Tahitian islands were colonized. Eventually, the entire South Pacific would follow. This area, termed the “Polynesian Triangle,” includes Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the southeast and New Zealand to the southwest. As a result of these migrations, the native Tahitians, Hawaiians and the Maoris of New Zealand all originate from common ancestors and speak a similar language known as Ma’ohi.

About Our History

JULY 2017
MARAE TAPUTAPUATEA becomes a UNESCO World Heritage site
Magellan discovers the tuamotu islands
Birthplace of overwater bungalows in 1967

About Tahitian History

The era of European exploration began in the 1500s when “ships without outriggers” began to arrive. In 1521, Magellan spotted the atoll of Pukapuka in what is now the Tuamotu Islands and, in 1595, the Spanish explorer Mendaña visited visited the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. More than 170 years later, Samuel Wallis, captain of the English frigate HMS Dolphin, was the first to visit the island of Tahiti during his journey to discover Terra Australis Incognita, a mythical landmass below the equator thought to balance the northern hemisphere. Wallis named Tahiti “King George III Island” and claimed it for England. Soon after, and unaware of Wallis’ arrival, French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed on the opposite side of Tahiti and claimed it for the King of France.

European fascination with the islands peaked as news spread of both the mutiny of Captain William Bligh’s crew aboard the HMS Bounty, and the tales told of the beauty and grace of the Tahitian people. Fascination with Tahiti and the South Pacific continued to expand with the illustrations of Tahitian flora and fauna and the first map of the islands of the Pacific that Captain James Cook brought back. In the 1800s, the arrival of whalers, British missionaries and French military expeditions forever changed the way of life on Tahiti, while also serving to provoke a French-British rivalry for control of the islands.

The Pomare Dynasty ruled Tahiti until 1880 when King Pomare V was persuaded to cede Tahiti and most of its dependencies to France. By 1958, all The Islands of Tahiti were reconstituted as an French Overseas Territory and renamed French Polynesia. In 2004, French Polynesia became an Overseas Country within the French Republic with self-governing powers and a mission to provide for her people through commerce and investment.

  • Polynesian culture has its roots deep in the mythical origins of great ancestral seafarers who settled in the islands 3,000 years ago.

    Our culture was passed on from generation to generation by the sacred word. The oral tradition sustained our culture through the centuries. At times, our stories seemed to be on the verge of extinction, only to rise up again at the last moment. In this centuries-old tradition, today’s singers chant the magnificent accents of songs – sacred or secular – losing their echoes in the constant murmurs of the ocean over the coral reef. It is in this tradition that dancers find inspiration for their extravagant choreography. This tradition also inspires enthusiasts of va’a (traditional outrigger canoe) to discover the art of building and sailing their fine outrigger canoes over the ocean and lagoons.

    From tradition comes the art of audible percussion from the big, deep pahu and the rattling to’ere, the art of beautiful, complex tattoos, as well as the art of wood sculpture of the Marquesas. Offspring of the great tiki, these stone statues are still standing among the lava of the marae in the bottom of the secret valleys.

    In the bountiful Polynesian Islands, all talents converge with natural splendors to make craftsmanship into an art form.

  • “‘IA ORA NA,” “MAEVA” and “MANAVA”… are three words of greeting with which Polynesians will welcome you.

    Proud of their islands, the Polynesians are happy to share their natural joie de vivre (joy of living) with their guests. It is a joy expressed in dance and music of all kinds; polyphonic chants from a religious, sacred music group along with the rhythm of percussion from traditional instruments, the pahu and toere. There may even be harmonies from guitars or ukulele that liven up local orchestras. It is a joy that Polynesians express through their leisure and indulging in their favorite pastimes such as fishing, surfing and traditional outrigger sailing, or through va’a, the emblematic sport of the archipelagos.

    Testimonials from the Past

    The beauty of The Islands of Tahiti and its people have long captivated visitors to our shore.

    Bougainville (1768): ‘The character of the nation appeared to us as gentle and kindly. It appears that there has never been a civil war on the island nor any specific hatred of any sort although the country is divided into small villages, each with an independent lord; we are convinced that the Tahitians bear good faith to each other and that they never question this. Whether they are in their homes or not, the houses are open day and night. Each person harvests fruit from the first tree they find, takes it into the house and goes in. It appears that for the necessities of life, there is no ownership and everything belongs to everyone.’

    James Morrison, second boatswain on board the HMAV ‘Bounty’ (1789): ‘The young women wear their hair long, falling in waves down to their waists and decorated with the white leaves (hinano) of the fara (pandanus or screw pine) as well as with scented flowers. They also make necklaces with fara seeds and flowers that are beautifully arranged. This is not only very flattering but is a bouquet pleasing to themselves as well as to all who are seated near them. All in all these are the most beautiful women that we have seen in these seas…’

  • Cradle of the Ma’ohi civilization, stretching into the Polynesian Triangle, the Marquesas Islands have preserved impressive parts of customs and lively traditions. The Tiki, stone statues and the me’ae and paepae, religious sites and sacred places comprised of raised stones that are aligned in pyramidal structures, can be found on all the islands.

    The renaissance of traditional art can be seen in the development of the art of tattooing, the first ancestral expression of politico-social-religious values. Today, it is a decoration and ornament for the body, where the aesthetics of the motifs reflect their original meanings.

    It is found again in the renewed expression in dance and polyphonic chants such as the tarava, ute or ru’au that truly express the depths of the soul of the Polynesian people.

    This intense, cultural movement is expressed fully through numerous festive manifestations of which the main one is the grandiose festival of Heiva i Tahiti in July, where groups of singers, dancers, musicians and actors – up to 150 in all – compete in a musical, choreographic and costume extravaganza. Poetry regains its former excellence in the arts of oratory or ‘orero with its spectacular rantings. It is an ancient oral tradition that is often accompanied by the pure sound of the vivo or the nasal flute.

  • The overwater bungalow. This vision of romance was invented in The Islands of Tahiti  in 1967, and has become the quintessential symbol of this South Pacific paradise, and of mutiny-inspiring experiences. Staying in an overwater bungalow is a “can’t miss experience.” When you stay in an overwater bungalow, you get direct access to the renowned Tahitian blue lagoons from a private deck along with all the amenities and service of a first class hotel. The overwater bungalow is the pinnacle of the ultimate private getaway.

    The overwater bungalow was first conceived and built by three American hotel owners known as “The Bali Hai Boys.” They took the traditional local Polynesian grass huts and set them on concrete stilts over the water’s edge. Today, most resorts throughout The Islands of Tahiti feature luxurious bungalows, suites and villas perched over calm and mesmerizing lagoons.

  • Throughout the history of The Islands of Tahiti, many authors, singers, artists, poets and yachtsmen have spent time here. Some of them even died in Tahiti.

    These men and women are part of Polynesia’s historic heritage, with many of them leaving traces of and testimonies to their island life. They were struck by our islands’ charm, hospitality and lifestyle. In their own way, each of them helped promote the fame of our islands worldwide.

    • Herman Melville (1819-1891), the American author and adventurer, was the first to use the South Seas as a setting for a literary narrative (“Typee,” 1846 and “Omoo,” 1847). He spent a few months in Tahiti in 1841 arriving on board an Australian whaler and later spent some time on Moorea.
    • Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the French painter, began living in Tahiti in 1891 and later moved to the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he lived out the last two years of his life. He experienced many misadventures in Tahiti while trying to escape civilization. Gauguin was not always well regarded by the Polynesians – especially the Marquesans. However, he remains one of the most influential painters of his century. He is buried in Atuona Cemetery, Hiva Oa.The Paul Gauguin Museum in Pape’ete (Tahiti) and the Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre in Hiva Oa provide an outline of the life of this nonconformist, as well as reproductions of some of his works.
    • Pierre Loti (1850-1923), the French naval officer and author, penned an autobiographical novel in 1879 with our islands as the setting titled, “Rarahu, a Polynesian Idyll,” also known as “Le Mariage de Loti.” You can swim in the Bain Loti next to a statue of the author erected in 1931 (get directions here).
    • Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), the Scottish novelist, visited our islands aboard his yacht, Cosco, during his journey to the Pacific in 1888. He later wrote “In the South Seas” in 1891.
    • James Norman Hall (1887-1951), the American author, who wrote “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Hurricane” (adapted for the screen) with co-author Charles Nordhoff, made Tahiti his home in the 1920s. He died in 1951 and is buried in Arue on the hillside above his home alongside his Polynesian spouse, Lala, who died in 1985. You can visit the home in which he lived, now converted to a museum and classified as an historic monument: James Norman Hall House in Arue.
    • Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), the English poet, who wrote the famous poem, “Manea” in 1914 after visiting Tahiti. This classic poem helped carve out a place for Tahiti in modern English literature.
    • Alain Gerbault (1893-1941), the aviator, WWI hero, tennis champion and solo yachtsman (he was the first Frenchman to complete an around-the-world journey by sailing boat), lived for six months in Bora Bora in 1932. He returned in 1940. A fierce defender of Polynesia, he wrote eight books condemning colonialism and the destruction the island paradise. In 1941, Gerbault died of malaria in Timor. In 1947, his remains were returned to the main square of Vaitape in Bora Bora where a commemorative plaque was erected in 1951.
    • Marlon Brando (1924-2004), the American actor and director, purchased Tetiaroa after completing the filming of “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1961. He married his co-star, Tahitian Tarita Teriipaia, with whom he lived for 10 years until 1972.
    • Bernard Moitessier (1925-1994), the French yachtsman and author, lived for a dozen years in Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands. Moitessier moved to the atoll of Ahe, where, together with his wife and son, he devoted himself to cultivating organic fruit and vegetables. He was also a strident critic of nuclear testing in the Pacific.
    • Jacques Brel (1929-1978), the Belgian singer-songwriter and actor, retired with his partner to the Marquesas at the end of a successful career aboard his sailing yacht, Askoy. Stricken with lung cancer, Brel lived out the last three years of his life on Hiva Oa. Using his private aircraft, Jojo, Brel provided many services to the islanders. He is buried in Atuona Cemetery.The small Jacques Brel Cultural Centre on Hiva Oa recounts the singer’s life in the Marquesas. His song, “Les Marquises,” describes the simple lifestyle and strength of the inhabitants of “The Land of Men.”
    • Joe Dassin (1938-1980), the American-born French singer-songwriter, died in Tahiti. He lived in Tahaa, where he bought a luxurious villa on the beach between Toretorea Point and Tiamahana (accessible only by boat or on foot). A plaque at Le Retro, a restaurant/bar in Pape’ete, commemorates his death on August 20, 1980 following a heart attack.
    • Alain Colas (1943-1978), the French yachtsman, was the first to complete a solitary round-the-world race in a multihull. He was lost at sea in 1978 during the Route du Rhum yacht race after having passed the Azores. He began living in Tahiti in the 1970s, where he met a Polynesian, Teura Krause, with whom he had three children.
    • Bobby Holcomb (1947-1991), the poet, singer, musician, dancer and painter, moved to Huahine in 1976. He died 14 years later. Holcomb was heavily involved in the Maóhi cultural revival movement alongside other celebrities and artists such as Henri Hiro and John Mairai and is one of the best-known artists in The Islands of Tahiti. He is buried at the foot of the sacred mountain, Mou’a Tapu, in Huahine.
  • Our natural scenery has inspired major directors and producers. Feature films show in Polynesia are primarily adaptations of books originally published in English.

    Here are a few of the most famous films shot in our islands. Film buffs can seek out filming locations during their trip to The Islands of Tahiti.

    • “A Ballad of the South Seas” (1912) was filmed in Papara by the brother of Georges Méliès. Unfortunately, copies this film can no longer be found.
    • “White Shadows in the South Seas” (1927), a co-venture in which Robert Flaherty played a role, was shot in the Marquesas. Considered to be a crowning achievement in exotic film, this film, co-directed by W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, Jr. (who also directed “Trader Horn,” “Eskimo,” the first “Tarzan” films, “San Francisco” and a host of other films), is a very poetic silent film. Admired at the time by the Surrealists, he spoke out against the colonization of the islands of Polynesia, considered a paradise lost.
    • “Tapu / Tabu / A story of the South Seas” (1929), a silent film by the famous German film director, F. W. Murnau, and based on a story by Robert Flaherty dealing with the daily lives of the islanders, was filmed in Bora Bora. A few scenes showing naked swimmers were censored in the United States and in Finland. The film shoot, which lasted eighteen months, was turbulent and shrouded by legend (because of drownings, poisonings and mysterious explosions supposedly caused by magic spells). Murnau and his team were said to have violated several local taboos by setting up their headquarters in an old burial ground and by filming in sacred reefs. To top it off, Murnau died in a car accident eight days before the film premiered in New York.
    • “Last of the Pagans” (1935), was directed by Richard Thorpe, a former actor turned director, based on the Melville novel, “Typee,” and released by Metro Goldwyn Meyer. The film tells the story of two raids aiming to capture humans: the first raid is carried out by a clan from a neighboring island to take wives by force so they can replenish their “stock” and the second is carried out by whites seeking laborers for phosphate mines. The dialogue is in Tahitian with subtitles.
    • “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The first Hollywood version, filmed in 1935, was directed by Frank Lloyd and starred Clark Gable. It played fast and loose with the facts. The better-known 1962 film, shot in 1960/1961 with more than 2,000 actors, 8,000 extras and a budget of $27 million, was a boom to the Polynesian economy. After the shoot, Marlon Brando bought Tetiaroa Atoll. In 1984, a scaled-down version, filmed in Moorea, was released starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins and directed by Roger Donaldson. Although the HMS Bounty was just one of many ships sailing the South Pacific in the 18th century, her mutinous voyage helped make Otaheite (or Tahiti, as it is called now) the world’s most infamous paradise. The drama and beauty of the islands and her people were showcased in the 1932 book “Mutiny on the Bounty” and the movie adaptations of 1933, 1935 (Best Picture), 1962 (Best Picture nominee), and 1984.
    • “Tahiti ou la Joie de Vivre” (1957) was a comedy directed by Bernard Borderie starring Georges de Caunes. A reporter asks to be sent to Tahiti to find heaven on earth.
    • “The Restless and the Damned” (1961), directed by Yves Allégret. The film tells the story of the troubles of a couple who move to Polynesia to seek their fortune in phosphate mining.
    • “Tiara Tahiti” (1962) is a British film directed by Ted Kotcheff. An adventurer living in Tahiti unexpectedly runs into his former commanding officer who had him court-martialled. To get even, he decides to make life tough for his adversary, who now works in the tourism business.
    • “Tendre Voyou” (1966), directed by Jean Becker starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, relates the escapades of a gigolo.
    • “Hurricane” (1979), inspired by the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff, was filmed in Bora Bora and directed by Dino de Laurentis. It is a remake of the 1937 film of the same name directed by John Ford.
    • “Le Bourreau des Cœur” (1983), directed by Christian Gion, was shot on Tetiaroa and stars Aldo Maccione. The film was a huge success at the box office in France (more than 1.6 million tickets were sold).
    • “Les Faussaires” (1994), based on a novel by Romain Gary, “La Tête Coupable,” was directed by Frédéric Blum. The protagonist is an author who has come to Tahiti to write a biography on Paul Gauguin.
    • “Love Affair” (1994), released by Gaumont, is a love story and a remake of the 1939 film of the same name. It was shot in Tahiti and starred Katharine Hepburn in her last appearance in a film.
    • “Les Perles du Pacifique” (1999) is a 13-episode television series produced by Gaumont about life on a pearl farm.
    • “Le Prince du Pacifique, directed by Alain Corneau and shot in Huahine in 2000, stars Thierry Lhermitte and Patrick Timsit.
    • “South Pacific” (2001), a musical comedy directed by Richard Pierce, stars Harry Connick Jr. and Glenn Close.
    • “Couples Retreat” was released by Universal Studios and shot in Bora Bora in October 2008. With only $7 million invested in the film locally, it was the highest grossing film for Universal that year. Nearly fifty journalists were invited to travel to the filming location by the producers.
    • “L’ordre et la Morale” directed by Matthieu Kassowitz, was shot in 2010 on Anaa, a small island in the Tuamotu Islands selected as the setting for events in Ouvea (New Caledonia). Events depicted as taking place in Noumea were filmed in Pape’ete.

    Other TV shows and documentaries

    Every year, the islands are selected as the location for a number of documentaries, TV reality shows, cooking shows and commercials for major international brands. Surfing the waves in Teahupoʻo as well as in a few secret spots in the more distant archipelagos is obviously a favorite subject for film. The same can be said of our sharks and whales (which ply our waters from July to November). The US TV series, “Survivor,” shot in 2002 in the Marquesas (Nuku Hiva), helped publicize the archipelago in North America.

    The Institute for Audiovisual Communication (ICA) is the audiovisual repository for The Islands of Tahiti.

    For the last 10 years, the Oceania International Documentary Film Festival (FIFO) has been screening the best documentaries on the region. FIFO takes place in February each year at the Maison de la Culture.

  • The now generally-accepted theory is that it was from south-east Asia that great migrations took place three to four thousand years ago, leading to the settlement of the Pacific by Polynesian populations.

    Using outrigger canoes with double sails, built out of wood and plaited fibers, these first intrepid navigators, thanks to their knowledge of the wind, currents and stars were able to travel towards the East, colonizing the archipelagos of the Central Pacific (Cook Islands, The Islands of Tahiti…) between 500 BC and 500 AD.

    These great expeditions, that ended in about 1000 AD brought about what is known as the “Polynesian Triangle” that is made up of Hawaii (in the north), Easter Island (in the East) and The Islands of Tahiti (to the west) and of New Zealand (in the southwest). The different languages used in these islands, that stem from the Ma’ohi language, are evidence of the common origin of their inhabitants.

    Aboard massive, double-hulled outrigger canoes called tipairua, Polynesians navigated the vast ocean by stars, winds, and currents and created new civilizations in their wake. Today, the canoe continues to play an important role in everyday Tahitian life and is honored in colorful races and festivals. Centuries before Europeans concluded that the Earth was round, Polynesians had mastered the vast blue expanse of the Pacific.

    Hawaiki Nui Va’a: It is the world’s largest and longest international open-ocean outrigger canoe race and covers a grueling 77 miles. The race encompasses 3 steps: the 1st one links Huahine to Raiatea, the 2nd one links Raiatea to Taha’a and the last one links Taha’a to Bora Bora. The start and finish are celebrated with a grand festival of tahitian food and music.

  • In the 16th century, Magellan, then Mendana respectively, reached the Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands. However, it was the Englishman, Samuel Wallis who is memorable in the European discovery of Tahiti (1767). The following year, the Frenchman Antoine de Bougainville baptised this island, “New Cythera.” A year later, The Islands of Tahiti were divided into several chiefdoms and kingdoms where the Polynesian cosmogony had different divinities. Little by little, Protestant and Catholic missionaries preached the gospel in the islands, and then in 1797, with the help of the Europeans, the chiefs succeeded in establishing their supremacy and created the “Pomare dynasty.”

    In the nineteenth century, The Islands of Tahiti were the scene of Franco-British rivalry that was religious, commercial and strategic at the same time. In 1842, the French Protectorate was finally signed by Queen Pomare IV (on Tahiti and Moorea) then Annexation was accepted in 1880 by Pomare V, last King of Tahiti.

    The 1960s marked a turning point for The Islands of Tahiti that rushed the region into modern times. With the establishment of the CEP (Pacific Experimentation Centre) in 1963, there was an influx of inhabitants to Tahiti, bringing rapid growth to the local economy.

    Chronology of The Islands of Tahiti’s History

    • From 3,000 to 4,000 BC: the waves of settlers in the south Pacific that came from South-East Asia.
    • III – VI century: first human settlements in the Marquesas.
    • From 850 – 1000: colonization of the Windward Islands, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand from Marquesas.
    • 1521: Magellan discovers a part of Tuamotu.
    • 1595: Alvero de Mendena discovers the Marquesas.
    • 1767: Wallis arrives at Tahiti.
    • 1768: Bougainville baptizes this island New Cythera.
    • 1774: Cook takes a Tahitian, Pa’i back to Europe.
    • 1773: Cook’s second voyage to Tahiti.
    • 1777: Cook’s last voyage to Polynesia.
    • 1788-1791: Mutiny on the ‘Bounty.’
    • 1793: beginning of the Pomare dynasty.
    • 1797: arrival of the first missionaries from the ‘London Missionary Society’.
    • 1797: creation of the Pomare dynasty.
    • 1815: the Polynesian chiefs lose the battle of Fei Pi. Pomare II is converted to Christianity.
    • 1819: Pomare II creates the Pomare Code.
    • 1836: English Protestants succeed in expelling the French missionaries.
    • 1841: Depetit Thouar proclaims the French Protectorate of Tahiti.
    • 1844-1847: Franco-Tahitian war.
    • 1847: Pomare IV accepts the Protectorate of France.
    • 1914-1918/1939-1945: numerous islanders set out to assist the French troops.
    • 1958: the EFO (Establissments Français d’Océanie- French Establishments in Oceania) became French Polynesia.

Museums on The Islands of Tahiti

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