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French Polynesia — History and Culture

Traditional Tahitian culture revolves around a philosophy known as aita pea pea, or ‘ not to worry.’ Most Tahitians are not only generous and friendly to each other, but also to all island visitors. Tahitian oral legends are as colorful as the pareu garments most locals still wear.

History

The first people to set eyes on Tahiti and French Polynesia’s other isolated islands migrated from Southeast Asia roughly 4,000 years ago. Most of today’s South Pacific residents are descendants of these sailors who navigated the Pacific Ocean’s challenging waters aboard wooden canoes stitched with natural fibers. One of the world’s largest displays of ancient Polynesian artifacts is located in the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands (Punaauia, Tahiti).

It took several centuries for all of the South Pacific islands to be settled long before Englishman Samuel Wallis became the first European to arrive in Tahiti in 1767. Although Tahiti became a French territory called New Cythera in 1768, it fell back into English hands the following year during Captain James Cook’s voyage to the Society Islands. Point Venus, the place where Cook saw the planet’s transit in 1769 at Tahiti’s northernmost point, is now a popular picnic spot. Spain’s attempt to conquer Tahiti in 1772 was short-lived.

The Pomare Dynasty’s first monarch, King Pomare I, was also the first ruler to successfully unite the entire island, which had been governed by several different kingdoms and chiefs up until this time. One year after King Pomare I first ascended his throne in 1788, the famous Mutiny on the Bounty occurred when a voyage to transport Tahitian breadfruit to Great Britain was abandoned.

The Mutiny on the Bounty became the inspiration for one of James Norman Hall’s and Charles Nordhoff’s most famous novels over a century later. A perfect replica of Hall’s Tahitian home has become an interesting museum about Hall’s work and life called the James Norman Hall Home (P. O. Box 14167, 98701 Arue, Tahiti).

During the 18th century, Tahiti became a curiosity to many Europeans wishing to see this exotic land with their own eyes. English naturalist Charles Darwin and American artist Alfred Thomas Agate were two of Tahiti’s most famous 18th century visitors. Another artist, Frenchman Paul Gauguin, made Tahiti both his home and the subject of many of his paintings.

The Europeans introduced guns, alcohol, and many fatal diseases to the Tahitians, many of whom perished from smallpox, influenza, or typhus. However, the Europeans also gave Tahiti greater economic stability and a written language. Traditional child sacrifice and cannibalism practices also came to an end. The Tahitians spent many years fighting the French, who declared the island a French protectorate in 1843 and forced King Pomare V to cede Tahiti’s sovereignty to France in 1880. King Pomare V, Tahiti’s last monarch, died in 1891.

Apart from two German gunships attacking Papeete and the sinking of a French gunboat during WWI, the past century has been relatively peaceful for Tahiti. In 1996, the French conducted the last of 193 nuclear bomb tests which occurred over a 30-year period around the Fangataufa and Moruroa atolls. Tahiti remains a French territory whose citizens enjoy the same political and civil rights as mainland French citizens. In 2009, Tahitian royal family descendant Tauatomo Mairau proclaimed himself the heir to the island’s throne, but France has not officially recognized his claim.

Culture

Tahitians describe their laid-back culture as ‘aita pea pea,’ an expression meaning ‘not to worry’ in English. Many Tahitian traditions and oral legends date back to their Maohi ancestors, including the bamboo huts built with pandanus roofs they still live in and the colorful pareus they still wear. The bustling Papeete Municipal Market, the vibrant nightlife of Tahiti’s capital, and the young people practicing their hip-hop skills on the street are the noisiest things visitors are likely to encounter during their stay on this tranquil, yet friendly island.

Modern Tahitian music combines contemporary Western melodies with the traditional nasal flutes, drums, and conch shells still played at many local dances and festivities. No Tahitian celebration is complete without a giant tamara’a Tahiti feast, where layers of hot rocks cover the underground oven where suckling pig, fe’i bananas, breadfruit, and other Tahitian delicacies are cooked.