Rangiroa and the Tuamotu Archipelago:  Documentation

Arriving Hakaui

"People from Oceania," Bibliographisches Institut 1885-1890. Meyers Konversationslexikon.

European eyes first saw the Tuamotu Archipelago, a branching cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 1605-1606 when the Spanish explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quirós happened upon Marutea atoll (Buck 85).  At first, European explorers and whalemen were the primary means of contact between the Tuamotus and the rest of the world. They were the original sources of information for Europe about the archipelago and the most significant outside influence on the Tuamotus from the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century. Archeologists took the reins in the late nineteenth century and continued throughout the twentieth century in their pursuit of understanding of the Paumotu people. Their documentation of this area through journals, letters, and fiction writing provides an intriguing view of island life both before and after European contact and influence. Changes in Paumotu culture viewed through the eyes of foreigners with vastly different cultural values provides the only written record of the enormouse changes experienced here over the past 400 years.

The French explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, was one of the first Europeans to encounter the Tuamotus. His impression as recorded in his journals was the most extensive early documentation of the archipelago as an isolated, uninhabitable group. He noted that the Tuamotus are difficult to navigate and offer few resources, so he and his crew did not stay long. ”This land seems to be cut into two islands and the strip of land that joins them may itself be drowned,” he wrote in his journal, along with his description of the place as a “bad country, dangerous archipelago” (Bougainville, 52). Bougainville gave the islands a name that would stay with them as other explorers navigated the treacherous reefs—the Dangerous Archipelago. His desire to move on quickly was also a result of the fact that the islands had few resources to offer him and his crew. Bougainville’s negative impression of the Tuamotus can be summed up in his description of one island as a “wretched and inaccessible tongue of land” (Bouganville 51). This dismissal of the Tuamotus as uninhabitable had interesting implications when he spotted a few local Paumotus along the beach.

[The men] came out again, approximately 15 in number, carrying very long sticks that they came brandishing along the seashore and after this parade they retired to the trees where, from the Étoile, they sighted a few huts. These men seem to be fairly tall. Who will tell me how they have been transported to this place and what links them to other human beings? Have Deucalion and Pirrha’s [sic] stones been flung as far as this isolated lump of earth? (Bouganville 48).

Bougainville’s primary reflection upon seeing the natives is curiosity about how they managed to survive in what he had deemed an uninhabitable land. He develops his questions about the existence of the natives later in his account of another atoll, musing: “a bunch of coconut trees gave us the impression of having been cultivated by the hand of man. And anyhow, is this quite extraordinary place growing or decaying? How is it peopled? ... A fine field for conjectures” (Bouganville 51). In this statement, Bougainville sets the stage for a very important subject of scientific study in French Polynesia—the origins of its people. Bougainville’s dislike of the physical environment of the Tuamotus coupled with his curiosity regarding the people set the stage for the future of European interaction with the archipelago.

The most significant body of early American documentation of the Tuamotus is from the 1838-1842 Wilkes voyage. To Americans, the unique character of the Tuamotus made them an exciting subject for scientific inquiry in the fields of biology, geology, and anthropology. Several botanists onboard the Wilkes voyage were able to document the somewhat empoverished flora of the islands, and their work was later processed and published in the United States (Eyde 29). James Dwight Dana, the expedition’s geologist, made great use of the Tuamotus in his study of the geology of South Pacific island chains.His observations of the atolls in the Tuamotus and in other archipelagos allowed him to add scientific depth to Darwin’s primitive theory of atoll formation (Appleman). Dana was also the first person to accurately group the South Pacific archipelagos, including the Tuamotus (Appleman).

The scientists on board the Wilkes expedition were in a unique position to observe the people of the Tuamotus, who were in different stages of contact with Europeans depending on the island. As Adrienne Kaeppler, a scholar who has studied the Wilkes Expedition, explains, “in addition to illuminating indigenous traditions, the Expedition collections illustrate traditions in transition as well as the development of new genres of objects made specifically for trade—the forerunners of the tourist market” (Kaeppler 127). The anthropological and ethnographic studies carried out in the Tuamotus by Wilkes and his scientific staff offer important observations of a people in transition. Wilkes’ meticulous record of observations in the Tuamotus, despite difficulty navigating and an inability to gain a large number of resources, reveals the scientific curiosity the Tuamotus must have presented during that time.

Wilkes’ log contains rich documentation of the Expedition’s many encounters with native people, expressing his benevolent but condescending impression of the natives. One of his priorities was to befriend local people, which he illustrates in a letter to the crew a few days before their first landing, encouraging them to treat the natives with respect. However, he qualifies the type of respect to be given by reminding the crew “that savage nations have but vague ideas of the rights of property, and that theft committed by them has been the great cause of collision between them and civilized nations” (Wilkes 308). 

When Wilkes entered the scene, Paumotus were just beginning to adjust to a newly constant European influence on their lives—he documented their attempt to juggle both the benefits and the drawbacks of European contact. The struggle for balance is evident in a passage where Wilkes describes the simultaneous introduction of Christianity and whiskey:

This was the first island on which we observed the dawning of Christianity and civilization. The native missionaries, although they are yet ignorant of most of the duties enjoined upon a Christian, still do much in preparing the way. Many learn to read, and some even to write, under their tuition; yet they have many impediments thrown in the way of their efforts by the introduction of spirits by the whites. (Wilkes 328)

Due to their remote location and small population base, the Paumotus were some of the last Polynesians to encounter Christianity. Because of the limitations of European missionaries, Paumotus often learned about Christianity from native missionaries who traveled from other islands. However, the effectiveness of these missionaries varied greatly from island to island depending on reception by the natives. Wilkes was keen to observe such differences and offers his opinion on the state of development throughout his journals. In a comparison between two islands, Wilkes makes it clear that Christianity was the most important common denominator in “civilized” places. Upon coming to a Christian island from a relatively isolated one, Wilkes describes that it

appeared as though we had issued out of darkness into light. They showed a modest disposition, and gave us a hearty welcome. We were not long at a loss as to what to ascribe it: the missionary had been at work here, and his exertions had been based upon a firm foundation; the savage had been changed into a reasonable creature (326).

Aside from this island, Wilkes observed that the Tuamotus as a whole were later than other archipelagos in their interaction with Europeans and rate of conversion. Because Puamotus had yet to experience the “dawning of Christianity” by the hands of the Europeans, they remained “[un]reasonable creatures” in the eyes of Wilkes. This impression often overshadows elements of native life that Wilkes respected, such as their accurate knowledge of geography or expert seafaring skills. Nevertheless, Wilkes’ scientific curiosity about the Tuamotus and its state of “development” represent the next stage in European opinions of the Tuamotus.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary account of his trip to the Tuamotus illustrates the longevity of some of the ideas communicated by earlier explorers such as Bougainville and Wilkes, combined with a new appreciation for the Puamotu people. Starting at the very beginning of his voyage, Stevenson acknowledges the difficulty of navigating the Tuamotus, just as Bougainville had done: “In no quarter are the atolls so thickly congregated, in none are they so varied in size from the greatest to the least, and in none is navigation so beset with perils, as in that archipelago that we are now to thread” (94). Throughout Stevenson’s writings there is an acknowledgement that the remote nature of the islands renders them perilous, a notion that echoes the sentiments of most foreigners that tried to brave the corals and approach the rocky shores of the atolls.

For Stevenson, the isolation of the Tuamotus and the inconsistency of European contact gave the islands a dangerous allure, and what had previously been seen as too risky to navigate became an exciting adventure: “The islands might be called the sirens’ isles, not merely from the attraction they exerted on the passing mariner, but from the perils that awaited him on shore. Even to this day, in certain outlying islands, danger lingers; and the civilized Paumotuan dreads to land and hesitates to accost his backward brother” (110).  Beyond his description of the Tuamotus’ allure, Stevenson describes the island culture as feisty and hard working. This is clear in his description of the differences between a Marquesan and a Puamotuan:

I should take the two [Marquesan and Paumotuan] races, though so near in neighborhood, to be extremes of Polynesian diversity. The Marquesan is certainly the most beautiful of human races, and one of the tallest—the Puamotuan averaging a good inch shorter, not even handsome, the Marquesan open-handed, inert, insensible to religion, childishly self-indulgent—the Puamotuan greedy, hardy, enterprising, a religious disputant, and with a trace of the ascetic character(110).

Stevenson, like Wilkes, acknowledged the effect of European contact on the Tuamotus and concluded that the interaction between the two cultures often left Paumotuans with the short end of the stick. After observing a native funeral he wrote, “I believe all natives regard white blood as a kind of talisman against the powers of hell. In no other way can they explain the unpunished recklessness of the Europeans” (121). Stevenson’s account of the Tuamotus represents more contact with natives than either of the explorers that came before him. His documentation of the people and their culture represents a third stage in understanding of the Tuamotus that is much more benevolent.

A visit to present day Rangiroa in the Tuamotus clarifies the concerns that early explorers had about visiting the place. To begin, no amount of preparation or study of an area can prepare a person unaccustomed to island living for its small size. On first glance it is inconceivable that a significant population could secure the resources necessary to sustain life on it. Indeed, resources are scarce; much of the island’s food is imported because the small land area and sandy soils makes large scale agriculture—with the notable exception of copra—a relative impossibility. Because of this dependence on imports, the island has few resources to spare for travelers. The visit of just one cruise ship leaves the island scrambling for resources as they wait for the next supply boat.

Rangiroa’s expansive lagoon also hints at older notions of the Tuamotus as expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson—as a mysteriously dangerous place because of its isolation. Sitting in Rangiroa’s lagoon with the knowledge that another thin strip of land lies on the other side, but without eyesight strong enough to know what it looks like or who may be living there, is eerie. Even today, the Tuamotus’ size and distribution makes development of large scale infrastructure difficult, leaving residents of Rangiroa responsible for procuring fresh water on an individual basis. Arrival on this island does not instill a sense of safety in a sailor that the high rises and bustling streets of Papeete offer.

Despite the confirmation of some early notions of the Tuamotus, a modern visit also allows the time and comfort to appreciate aspects of the island that early explorers were blind to. Rangiroa’s gorgeous, healthy coral reef is a sight to be seen—a fact that explorers overlooked until Wilkes’ scientific voyage. Additionally, the people of the Tuamotus, their culture, and the amazing resourcefulness they must have possessed to sustain life in such a resource-limited environment is something not well reported by early explorers. Such information was later extensively studied by archaeologists and ethnologists, who were keenly interested in an island culture that had remained isolated from European contact for so long.

The questions about and observations of the Paumotu people made by Bougainville, Wilkes, and Stevenson are echoed in later studies carried out by twentieth-century archaeologists. Bougainville asked, “how is it peopled?” (48) as he wondered how people could live in such a remote environment. Kenneth Emory, one of the first archeologist and ethnologist to study French Polynesian cultures, wondered about this too. He conducted extensive studies on the Tuamotu Archipelago. Emory was similarly puzzled: “Looking at the Tuamotus from the outside, they would appear to be uninhabitable, barren; if stranded on the Tuamotu islands few Europeans would be able to subsist” (7). How people survived on these difficult atolls is a most remarkable question of the research. Kenneth Emory concludes it was the Paumotu’s knowledge of boat building, long-distance travel, food preservation and usage that allowed populations to sustain themselves. The majority of this information comes from the telling of ghost stories or sea stories, which has allowed the culture to live on although material artifacts have disintegrated.

Emory went to the Tuamotus in the 1930s and then, forty years later, in the 1970s. During this time, he noted that "vast changes have … certainly taken place since our observations between 1929 and 1934, so that much if not most of what is here described can no longer be learned about or observed in the atoll" (vi).

It is fortunate that Emory had been to the Tuamotus in the 1930s, so that earlier observations could be contrasted with observations made in the 1970s. Emory wrote of this saying, “our pre-World War II Tuamotu Expeditions were, in a sense, a salvage operation. Although we entered a world of Polynesians who were still under the sway of an essential part of their ancient culture, this past was rapidly losing its hold.” (239) Even in 1901, Stevenson noted that the Paumotu had a culture in transition. Luckily, as Emory and Stevenson observed, the Paumotus still retained a part of their rich oral tradition as mentioned before. Emory says the Paumotus were known for “enriching their culture with myths and legends, songs and chants, and long marae ceremonies. It was the survival of all but the last of these that made the Paumotus of the 1930s (as compared to Tahitians) so vastly more interesting to an ethnographer”(5). There was extensive research done on myths, legends, songs, and chants during the twentieth century by such notable anthropologists as Kenneth Emory, Edwin Burrows, Frank Stimson, Edward Tregear, Herve Audran, José Garanger, Anne Lavondés, Paul Ottino, and Leon Seurat. Song recordings reveal much about the day-to-day life, as in most cases, they contain literal instructions on how to accomplish daily tasks. There are few archeological sites in the Tuamotus, a fact which can be attributed to their strong oral culture and lesser material culture.

It is often acknowledged that limited resources forced populations to move to neighboring islands. Kenneth Emory says of migration in the Tuamotus: “Food source depletion impelled people to move to uninhabited islands with fresh resources”(3). Although reefs and offshore fishing supplied Paumotus with most of the food they needed, sometimes these stocks would be depleted or would have to be supplemented. As Emory says,“many of the fish near the reef and within the lagoon were poisonous to eat during part of the year at many of the atolls or parts of the atolls” (42). Tuamotuans typically supplemented their supply of reef fish by fishing in deeper areas of the coasts of the atolls. Doing this required skilled canoe makers and seafarers. Emory says of Tuamotuan canoes, “the vital need for seaworthy craft and the paucity of timber forced the Paumotus to make their canoes of small pieces ingeniously fitted and lashed together.  [They] were able to build great double-canoes capable of transporting the population from one island to another”(3). The Paumotu people were very adept seafarers, the legendary Paumotu chiefs were known for their love of adventure and the sea. Herve Audran wrote of the renowned chief, the Great Moeva: “According to tradition he was a navigator beyond compare, a skillful seaman of the first order—in a word, a veritable sea-wolf” (II: 26). Edward Tregear, another anthropologist who studied the Tuamotus in 1893, echoes the superior seafaring reputation of the Paumotu people as he writes, “Their vessels are immensely fine and strong double-canoes, in which they are able to take long voyages”(193). These facts provide evidence that voyaging was still going on in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This use of boating and navigational skills allowed Paumotus to overcome limited island resources and accommodate growth in population. It should also be noted that not all sea voyaging was peaceful; there are various cruel historical accounts of chiefs who would voyage to islands and murder the inhabitants as a means to obtain resources and space for their people (Audran, Part III).

The Paumotupeople utilized available resources to obtain, cultivate and preserve food. The main foods eaten in the Tuamotu atolls were fish, tridachna clams, turtles, pandanus fruit and coconuts (Emory 7).  Emory mentions that coconuts “were picked by twisting them until the stem broke (tirifaki). To decrease the chances of the nut splitting when it hit the ground, the picker held the nut upright, the pointed end in his palm, and gave it a spin before allowing it to fall” ( Emory 30). Paumotus developed remedies for traditional food sources that could be poisonous, such as cooking toxic reef fish with the juice of the nono apple (Emory 42). There were also many references in Emory’s work to fish, tridachna clams, pandanus fruit, taro and octopus being smoked or dried so that they could be used in times of scarcity or off-seasons, as was the case with the pandanus fruit. Anthropologists Beechey and Byron mentioned fish-drying racks for the same purpose in 1831 (qtd. Emory 16).

Paumotus ate a large number of pandanus fruit as compared to other Polynesians, and they relished them. There were many ways to eat pandanus and all parts of the fruit could be used. Besides the fruit itself, the sprouting aerial roots, the pith at the base of the leaf cluster, the budding leaves, the soft inner core, and the male flowers were also eaten, showing the ingenious use of materials by Paumotus (Emory 23-28). There were methods described for keeping pandanus or crushed cones for months after cooking, and for keeping uncooked pandanus in pits for months. When looking at the methods for eating other foods it is evident that every part of the animal or plant was used in some way.

It should be noted that drinking water was difficult to obtain and the islanders worked hard to collect rainwater. On some islands, pits were dug to a certain depth to obtain rainwater without mixing it with the salt water table just below that. Coconuts and taro may have been grown more formally, as reported by Emory, and starting in the 1900s with the introduction of coconut groves to supply the copra industry, the islanders drank the water from coconuts. Any additional foods used by the islanders were mainly obtained by scavenging. Although most information on food preparation and preservation was obtained during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, linguistic studies by Stimson support the traditional use of these foods and the deep knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation of how to preserve and use them. There existed a vast array of terms, songs and chants about the detailed parts of various fruits, as well as the ripening stages of coconuts, pandanus, turtles, fish, tridachna clams, and birds. The Paumotu language included terms for each stage of cooking for the foods they ate, some terms specific to the material being used while some are broader. The presence of these words in their language suggests that this cultural knowledge was ancient, common and valued.

Europeans voyagers were keenly interested in the physical appearance of Paumotus as compared with other Polynesians, based upon the detailed notes that they took. This remained important in the archaeological field; research was done in an attempt to understand the distribution of Polynesians and to make sense of differences between islanders, and to discern if distinct Paumotu characteristics existed. Tuamotuan legends include mention of the size difference among different Polynesian islanders. In 1924, Louis Sullivan made detailed assessments of various Polynesian islanders because he notes, like other explorers, that the Polynesians are not a “uniform racial type” (22). His research documented the following: in terms of height the Paumotu man is 172 cm on average, Tahitians, Cook islanders, and Tongans are taller by 1 cm on average, based on living men in 1924. An additional measure, a “nasal index,” was also devised on which the Paumotus measured 80, the majority of other races smaller, the Tahitians and Tubuai equal and Marquesans, Easter islanders, and Cook islanders larger. These results appear to indicate that there was not a lot of inter-island contact as evidence seems to suggest the people were physically distinct from one another. In the story “The Hivas and Tavas” by Audran, he describes the Paumotus’ fear and subsequent killing of members of a foreign race who were of enormous size.

Bougainville asks the overarching question, “What connects Tuamotuans to other human beings?” It is only in the 21st century that scientific proof was provided to reveal contact between the Paumotu people and other island cultures. Kenneth Emory notes that “no stone suitable for adzes occurs in the Tuamotus, and so all adzes there were made of shell or of imported basalt, or were imported adzes” (102). He observes that Marquesan adzes, and Tahitian-style adzes were found in the Tuamotus, indicating evidence of trade between islands. Furthermore, Emory cites Dr. Chester K. Wentworth as discovering an adze that looked very similar to one made of basalt from O‘ahu. (102). The adzes collected by Emory in 2007, and by Collerson et al provided scientific proof through isotope analysis that trade existed between Hawai‘i and Tahiti and that the Tuamotu atolls were used as a stopping point. Collerson et. al described the Tuamotus as the “navigational crossroads of eastern Polynesia.”

In Emory’s notes from 1975, he described the character traits of the Puamotu, saying they were a lively and cheerful bunch, they played games and they were adventurers. Emory wrote, “The Paumotus were and are extremely fond of games, sports, and amusements, covered under the term makeva” (231). Paumotu amusements included juggling balls made of coconut or pandanus leaf, and “manipulation of string figures, accompanied by chants” (Emory 233). There are accounts describing how they sang and danced often, using drums and a type of trumpet.  McClean categorizes the Tuamotuan songs into 4 different types: fagu which expressed grief, koivi which were lighter songs, pehepehe which were rhythmic recitations that glorified the land, and napa rulu which were dancing songs (115).

Emory concluded that his studies and those of others had only begun to scratch the surface of the rich culture that the Paumotu people once had. As early as the seventeenth century, the increasing interactions between Spanish traders, as well as changes introduced by English missionaries in the nineteenth century, resulted in a Paumotu culture that was becoming very much diluted. After the 1960s, there was a lack of research done on the Tuamotus, perhaps paralleling the belief that much of the ancient culture has been forgotten or lost. Furthermore, it is disappointing that much of the research on the Tuamotus does not identify individual island cultures that are distinctive within the archipelago region. Emory argues that the culture in this vast area was varied as he states, “The culture, however, was not uniform. Striking differences in physical types, language, and cultural element were revealed by the Bishop Museum Survey” (240).

In over 400 years of European contact with the people of the Tuamotu Archipelago, perceptions about the islands, the people, and their culture have changed with increased research and understanding. While early explorers saw the archipelago as uncivilized and remote, later scholars became interested in the rich cultural values and practices that allowed its people to survive in a harsh environment. Ironically, as the tools to understand and appreciate that culture increased, the way of life archeologists were interested in studying quickly began to disappear. Increased interest in the Paumotu people peaked with the establishment of the French nuclear testing program in the second half of the twentieth century. The subsequent international outrage at the continued testing over a thirty-year period has help to lead to a new appreciation of Paumotu people and their culture. Perhaps in the post-nuclear testing world, international understanding of Paumotu people will continue to improve as the people themselves gain the tools necessary to communicate their own side of the story, creating a new chapter in the documentation and understanding of the Paumotu people.

Sonya Falcone, Colgate University
Emily Leshner, Wheaton College



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