French Polynesia, History
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Marquesas Islands were settled by ad 300 by Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa Islands. The western portion of the Society Islands was probably inhabited by ad 800.
Significant European contact in the region began in 1767, when British explorer Samuel Wallis came upon what is now Tahiti. French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville followed soon after, and British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1769. Cook named Tahiti and called its surrounding islands the Society Islands after his sponsor, Britain’s Royal Society.
The first European settlers in the area were members of the London Missionary Society who arrived in 1796. By 1815 Pomare II, a prominent local chief, had converted to Christianity, and the religion spread quickly through the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago. In 1836 French Catholic missionaries arrived in the area but were driven out by Christian Tahitians. The expulsion of these missionaries, along with the desire to develop a naval base in the Pacific, heightened French interest in the region. In 1842 France made the Marquesas and Tahiti a protectorate. French colonization of the other islands followed. In 1880 King Pomare V, the last of the Pomare lineage, officially ceded his kingdom of Tahiti and Moorea to France. Beginning at this time, the islands were administered as part of French Oceania. The boundaries of French Polynesia became fixed with the annexation of the Austral Islands in 1900.
In the early 20th century the port town of Papeete grew as the main economic, administrative, and religious center for the region. During World War II (1939-1945) the island of Bora Bora, in the Society Islands, became a refueling station for United States forces. American influence helped inspire French Polynesian nationalism among Tahiti residents and the desire for more cultural, economic, and political freedom. In 1946 the colony became an overseas territory of France, and a territorial assembly was created to manage local affairs. In the late 1940s an independence movement emerged in the region, led by a carpenter and war veteran named Pouvanaa Oopa. Oopa’s pro-autonomy party gained the majority of seats in the territorial assembly in 1953 and 1957. In a referendum held in 1958, island voters chose to remain a territory of France rather than become independent and lose French economic aid..
In 1963 an international airport opened in Papeete, spurring growth in tourism. Three years later, France began a nuclear testing program on uninhabited islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago, establishing a large support facility in Papeete. The growth of tourism and nuclear testing transformed the basis of French Polynesia’s economy from subsistence agriculture to services and increased the territory’s foreign dependency. Movements for greater autonomy continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in several statutes that gave the territorial government more power.
In the early 1990s Tahiti’s high prices and international antinuclear sentiment caused a serious decline in French Polynesia’s tourism industry. The industry experienced some recovery in 1993, when France suspended nuclear testing in response to international and local criticism. However, this action resulted in a sizable loss of employment in the military and in services related to the military.
Nuclear testing resumed in September 1995, sparking full-scale riots that destroyed much of Papeete’s business district and airport tourist facilities and resulted in a further decline in tourism. Although some participants may have been sincerely voicing concern over the environmental dangers of nuclear testing, many of the rioters were unemployed and disillusioned young men who were using the nuclear issue as a pretext to vent their frustrations.
Nuclear testing was halted again in early 1996, shortly after the French government confirmed scientific reports that radioactive isotopes had leaked into the waters surrounding islands where testing had occurred. Although France denied that the isotopes posed a threat to the environment, in March 1996 the French government signed the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, which banned nuclear testing in the region. The halting of testing caused widespread unemployment in French Polynesia, and France promised to contribute substantial economic aid over a period of years to help the territory diversify its economy.