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.
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.
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.
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
Discover what it means to be Tahitian.