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History of French Polynesia
07-19-2011, 12:35 PM

The first European reports of the Polynesian islands came in the early 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese explorers but the islands were not claimed as European territories until the 18th century. An attempt to claim the island of Tahiti itself was made by Samuel Wallis in 1767 for England, but the territory ultimately came under French possession a year later, claimed by Antoine de Bougainville. His account of the islands as an untouched paradise caught the imagination of many back in Europe.

The native population of the Polynesian islands was a result of migration from the north as a portion of Southeast Asia began to settle in the island territories between Hawaii, the Easter Islands, and New Zealand. Tahiti, as the largest island, became the center of government.

The established dynasty of Tahitian kings fought against European colonization before succumbing to France in 1880 with the last king Pomare V. Members of the Pomare dynasty converted to Christianity early in the colonization period, though the last ‘queen’ of Tahiti, Marau Salmon, wife of Pomare V, was of Jewish-Tahitian descent.

French colonists found immigration to the Tahitian islands very difficult. The idea of the islands as a paradise was very different from the stark reality of unknown diseases and poor living conditions. Health problems plagued both the native population as well as the colonists, as they were introduced to then unfamiliar diseases such as typhus, influenza, and smallpox, brought over by the European settlers. The construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 catapulted Tahiti into becoming an essential station between American and Australia, but the standard of life did not improve for another fifty years or so.

The islands are still a French overseas collectivity, but established independent interior autonomy in 1984. France maintains a military presence on the island, and while the official language is French, many native Polynesians maintain the Tahitian language, particularly on the outlying islands further away from the Tahitian island itself. Political debates continue over the idea of gaining independence from France, general opinion is heavily divided.

The tourist industry has become an essential source of income to the economy, spearheaded by the establishment of French owned luxury resorts. Images of paradise-like beaches and palm trees have once again become symbols of French Polynesia. As synonymous as the South Sea islands are to the pearl industry today, the establishment of Tahiti as an important source of cultured pearls has only occurred within the last twenty years.
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