The French Conquest of Polynesia

Arriving Hakaui

The latter half of the twentieth century marked a profound shift in global politics and economics caused, at least in part, by the decolonization of large parts of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Although many European countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands retain overseas dependents, France alone remains in control of territories of significant populations and geographical breadth. France’s territories d’outre-mers are concentrated in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Indian Ocean, and have an estimated population of about 2.6 million people (INSEE 2009). French Polynesia, a massive array of high islands and atolls consisting of the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Gambier and Austral Islands, was made a protectorate in 1842, conquered in 1847 and officially annexed in 1880. It remains in French hands today and has become largely dependent on metropolitan France for economic stability. Despite that, it retains a widely used indigenous language and strong ethnic identity (unlike say, Hawai’i where native Hawaiians make up only a fraction of the population). Why would a miniscule chain of islands, surrounded by similarly sized and peopled island nations remain so long under the yoke of foreign rule? More importantly, why would that foreign power retain its hold on a few tiny islands, literally on the other side of the globe?

The answer can be found not so much in the intrinsic economic or strategic value of French Polynesia itself, but more so in the historical relationship between France and her age-old rival, England. As Edward Dodd writes, “here in microcosm was, and still is, a test-tube study of the evils and dubious blessings of the implacable Anglo-French drive to colonial conquest” (Dodd 1983 p.36). Prior to her subjugation of Polynesia, France had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats at the hands of the English, and the idea that the persistent drive for colonialism further and further from home could be the answer to a sort of national inferiority complex is intriguing. In this paper I specifically propose that France’s determination to hold on to her overseas colonies (in this case Polynesia) despite home front popularity or economic value, through the age of de-colonialism, can be directly attributed to her military and colonial frustrations in the early nineteenth century through WWII and beyond.

In the years preceding the conquest of Polynesia, France had been frustrated time and time again in her colonial ambitions. The so-called “French and Indian War” had come to a climax on the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec in 1754, costing both sides their commander, and the loss of Canada and a foothold in North America for the French. Coincidentally, three important figures for the history of Europeans in Polynesia were all present at this battle. Samuel Wallis was a midshipman aboard one of the English General Wolfe’s transport ships, Louis Antoine de Bougainville was an up and coming aide-de-camp for the celebrated French general Montcalm, and James Cook was surveying the St. Lawrence River, a mission that would lead to his nomination for captaincy of the Endeavor. After her famous and gruesome revolution, a newly republican France, eventually led by Napoleon Bonaparte, achieved fleeting success followed by near total defeat. Her fleet was humiliated by superior British naval prowess at the Nile in 1798 and most famously, at Trafalgar in 1805. In the meantime, France was given the dubious distinction of being a European power overthrown by one of her colonies, after a slave revolt in Haiti led to the collapse of the plantation system in 1804. It is a bitter irony indeed that the French Revolution, certainly a catalyst for later colonial expansion, also influenced the first successful de-colonial movement in Latin America. Needless to say, the newly “liberated” people of France were in need of a victory, especially if they wished to remain a world superpower along with their rivals across the channel.

The first European to drop anchor off Tahiti was the aforementioned Englishman Samuel Wallis, captain of the Dolphin, in 1767. His visit was brief and confrontational, and he had not yet returned home when the second European visitor to Tahiti set sail. Thus, the Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville also “discovered” the island in the spring of 1768, naming it “La Nouvelle Cythère” after the island in Greek mythology where Aphrodite rose from the sea. Unlike Wallis, whose journal was not published contemporarily, Bougainville gave a detailed account of his experience of Tahiti in his immensely popular book Voyage autour du monde, a text unequaled in firing the imaginations of Europeans concerning Polynesia and presenting Tahiti as paradise on Earth. As he writes, “I thought I was transported into the garden of Eden…as numerous people there enjoy the blessings which nature flowers liberally down upon them” (Bougainville, 228). Bougainville's book proved an inspiration for the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who published a fictionalized account of the voyage in which he compared and contrasted the “noble savagery” of the Tahitians with what he perceived to be the ills and insanities of modernizing European society. This idealization and romanticism of Polynesia by Frenchmen is a theme repeated throughout descriptions of her islands and served to create a two-fold and seemingly irreconcilable image of her people. The first was the indecent, heathen and savage islander in dire need of civilization, and the latter a pure, innocent and inherently beautiful society, corrupted by the cruel machinations of white men.

A common theme of French colonialism has been a certain romanticism and fascination with exotic locales and their peoples. Perhaps this is best understood in the context of other nation’s relationships with their colonies. Author Edward Dodd succinctly explains a key difference between English and French strategies and attitudes concerning colonialism. “The English bested the French in the long run because [they] came to stay, to work, to become Americans and Australians. Frenchmen came to suffer a necessary separation from La Belle France, always harboring…a craving to return home again” (Dodd 1983 p.36). If separation from France was indeed a cause for suffering, perhaps the natural response upon returning home is to remember, present or create the land of exile as the exotic other, sensual, mysterious and even dangerous. Although the islands of French Polynesia have a population of “demis,” people of French and Polynesian ancestry, who have dominated the economic and political spheres of the region, they have never amounted to more than a fraction of the population.

Paul Gauguin, a Frenchman who did come to stay, perpetuated this romanticism through his art, but his journal provides a more nuanced and critical view. “A profound sadness took possession of me. The dream which had brought me to Tahiti was brutally disappointed by the actuality. It was the Tahiti of former times which I loved” (Gauguin 1919 p.18). This point is less about the inherent qualities of the French, but illustrates the unique relationship she had with her colonies, different from her rival England, whose colonials would stake out new and lasting identities in foreign lands. 

Romanticism aside, a very real struggle was taking place on Tahiti in the first half of the eighteenth century, once again involving France and her hated rivals. It was a battle fought, not between armies or navies, but between missionaries of very different faiths. The first seventeen envoys of the London Missionary Society arrived in Tahiti aboard the ship Duff in 1797. They represented an assortment of Evangelical groups, and many were seeking a respite from Anglican domination at home. Their reception was poor at first, not malicious, but characterized by general indifference. It would take a mutually beneficial relationship between the missionaries and a relatively minor chief for their efforts to come to fruition.

Before about the year 1791 (when total control was established is uncertain), Tahiti never had a single ruler or ruling clan. This was confusing to many Europeans, including Cook, who brought with them the presumption that there must be a supreme monarch. Because of Cook, nearly all British incursions into Tahiti centered around Matavai Bay on the northern coast of the island. This area was ruled by the relatively minor Pomare clan led by their chief Tu (called “Tynah” or “Otoo” in early accounts), a man of Tuomotan descent who had married into the clan near Matavai. Because of his constant contact with the British, Tu was elevated into an extremely advantageous position, and allegedly declared to Cook that he was king of the island. Mutineers of the famous ship Bounty, some of whom chose to stay in Tahiti upon their return in 1789, further aided him. With a combination of aggressive tactics, the help of the mutineers and most importantly, their muskets, Tu and the Pomare clan seized much of Tahiti by 1791.

With the death of Pomare I (as Tu became known) in 1803, his son and heir Pomare II, quickly realized the advantage he would gain by aligning himself with the missionaries, and by extension the British. Pomare II’s reign was fraught with civil war between rebellious chiefs, and he deemed it wise to convert to Christianity to ensure the support of the missionaries, people who doubtless saw an advantage in having a powerful Tahitian ally. If Pomare II was aided by one British introduction, he was defeated by another—alcohol. After his conversion and pacification of Tahiti, Pomare succumbed to severe alcoholism and died during the eighteenth year of his reign (Dodd p.68 1983). His son Pomare III was only a boy when he inherited the throne and was not immediately recognized as the sovereign due to his youth. He was the pride of the missionaries, who had dedicated themselves to the education of the Ari'i children. However, Pomare became sick on his way to Tahiti to assume the throne from his childhood home of Raiatea and died soon after, leaving his older sister Pomare IV (née Aimata) as queen of the island in 1827.

Queen Pomare was a staunch supporter of the missionaries. She was well educated by their standards, as well as a devout Christian. She found her most trusted ally in the Reverend George Pritchard, a missionary and later British consul in Tahiti. Among her enemies were a collection of chiefs who were resistant to a Pomare hegemony, two French priests, François Caret and Honoré Laval (infamous from their autocratic domination of the Gambier Islands), and their Belgian benefactor, Jacques Moerenhout. One of Pomare's first acts as Queen was to outlaw Catholic missionaries in her kingdom. Moerenhout, though the American consul to Tahiti, saw an advantage in French influence in Tahiti for reasons that may have been as simple as nationalism. In defiance of the ban, he conspired to have the French priests brought to Tahiti in 1836, and they began preaching out of his home in Pape'ete. On Pritchard's advice, Pomare had the French priests deported by force in the middle of the night aboard a ship bound for Valparaiso. Incensed at what was perceived to be the workings of the British, Moerenhout and the French constituent on the island appealed to France for aid. It came in the form of Commodore Abel Dupetit Thouars, who dropped anchor in Pape’ete aboard the war ship Venus in September 1838. The Queen was presented with a series of demands, including a written apology to the French government, the reinstatement of Catholic missionaries, a cash sum, possession of the harbor island of Motu Uta and a twenty-one gun salute. The latter was the most problematic as the Queen possessed only one cannon and not enough powder or shot (Dodd 1983 p.84). Dupetit Thouars was initially condemned for this action, one that was essentially unordered, but the victory-starved public was eager to crown a hero, and the commodore fit the bill. He was promoted to admiral and returned to Tahiti with more ships and soldiers in 1842, stopping first to assert French control over the Marquesas Islands.

A stronger motivation than simple national pride for France’s interest in Polynesia was the Queen’s obvious preference toward the British. After the disastrous ‘treaty’ with the Commodore, she sent a letter to Queen Victoria asking for British protection. She pleaded, “Lend us your powerful hand, take us under your protection; let your flag cover us, and your lion defend us” (quoted in Dodd, 87). Pomare received only a letter acknowledging that her plea had been received. It became painfully obvious to the dispirited Queen and Pritchard that Britain would not go to war with France over a series of islands, half a world away. Fearing the worst, Pomare fled to Raiatea, traditional stronghold of the Ari’i families. Sensing a general indifference from the British, Admiral Dupetit Thouars returned to Pape’ete from his base on Nuku Hiva. Quickly finding minor discrepancies in his treaty with the Queen, he declared Tahiti to be a possession of the King of France and seized the royal palace with 600 men. Once again the French government was shocked at this audacious act of vigilantism but was not willing to give back that which the admiral had so conveniently taken. Queen Pomare’s trusted Englishman Pritchard was expelled soon after, sending him on an ultimately fruitless mission to Queen Victoria to ask for intercession on Pomare’s behalf. Britain, content with the largest and most lucrative prizes in the Pacific (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong), remained thoroughly uninterested in flexing its muscles to the East.

Resistance to French rule began almost immediately, with disgruntled Tahitians fleeing to the interior and organizing militarily. They faced three major problems: a serious shortage of guns and ammunition, the fact that not all of the traditional chiefs were willing to back the rebellion, and the French navy controlled the waters between them and potential allies on other islands. The Tahitians, based at the hinterland camp of Papenoo, were initially successful in containing the French in the vicinity of Pape’ete and Fa’a. French troops were even driven off of the islands of Bora Bora and Huahine with heavy casualties on both sides. Eventually, a naval blockade, superior armament and more ammunition were enough for the French to bring the rebellion under control. The French-Tahitian war of 1846-47 accomplished very little strategically for the French besides reasserting their control, but is illustrative of the lengths to which France was willing to go in the mid-nineteenth century for colonial success, albeit only nominally, at the expense of the British. The only losers in this “diplomatic game of chess” were the Tahitians. Pomare was forced to return from exile and legitimize the protectorate in the presence of her mortal enemy, Dupetit Thouars. She died in 1875 and was replaced by her son Pomare V. His reign was cut short five years later when France dissolved the monarchy and officially annexed the Society Islands, the Tuomotus and the Marquesas. He was given the consolation prize of an honorary command in the French Foreign Legion.

France now had a colony in the Pacific but it quickly became apparent that the value of such a prize would be hard to determine. Polynesia had no major industries or valuable exports, was largely a subsistence-based economy, was clearly hostile to French interference and not in any mood to abandon British evangelicalism for French Catholicism—the latter a fact apparent even today, after 130 years of French rule. Today, the Marquesas archipelago remains a stronghold of Catholicism in comparison to the religious pluralism of the Tuamotus or Society Islands. What eventually came about is what can appropriately be described as "colonial stagnation." Tahitian life remained more or less the same economically, subsisting mostly on fishing and gardening. French law was imposed martially (a trait of Europeans the Tahitians had known since Wallis) and Polynesia was given a modicum of autonomy (i.e. the French governor was in charge) with overall authority given to the Assembly in Paris. French entrepreneurs followed in the wake of annexation and began to develop the first cash crop plantations: vanilla, coprah, coffee and cotton. With exceptions, the French did not come to stay and become Franco-Tahitians. Thus the society remained both traditionally stratified among the Tahitians, with a ruling elite of French businessmen, politicians and soldiers at the top. Tahiti would languish in the economic, political and social milieu through World War II and beyond. Tahitians would even fight in the trenches of the First World War in defense of the homeland of their conquerors.

We now have discussed the past, France’s colonial frustrations, her rivalry with Britain and her pacification of Polynesia. Now we must fast forward to the end of the Second World War and the era of decolonization.

France was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940 and the country was quickly overrun. Oddly enough, Polynesia remained one of the only “free” parts of France during the five-year period of occupation. Though the allies eventually defeated the Germans, France and her strongman Charles De Gaulle were determined to return their nation to a position of power on the world stage. In a post-war world this meant nuclear armament. The United States had emerged as France’s biggest rival in the Pacific, and both it and the USSR (as well as Britain) were atomically capable. A period of economic recovery allowed France to develop its nuclear program and they began testing in Polynesia in 1966; after all other capable nations had ceased. The nuclear testing is not the focus of this paper, but suffice to say it would continue despite regional and international outcry until 1996. The convenience of Polynesia as an out-of-the-way proving ground for nuclear weapons was probably the driving factor behind French resistance to decolonization there, but there are other reasons as well. Post-war France engaged in two armed struggles to retain colonies, one in Algeria and one in Indochina. Both proved ultimately fruitless and no defeat was more humiliating than that to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Polynesia had the unfortunate distinction of being both a nuclear testing ground as well as a colony that France could not lose by military force.

Tahitians were given French citizenship and the title of “Territoire d’outre mer” in 1946. In the past fifty years they have achieved significantly more autonomy but have not yet moved for official independence. Recent political instability and economic dependence are powerful motivations for retaining overall French rule. What is important for our purposes is that the historical motivations for colonization and retaining the colonial system are very different from the motivations for keeping that system in place today.

It has been argued that colonial frustrations, military defeat and a historic rivalry with the British were the driving factors behind French/Tahitian relations at the time of colonization and annexation. Post-world War II this drive was exacerbated by nuclear ambitions and an increased rivalry with the US in the Pacific. What is most critical to note, is the minor role that the Tahitians themselves have played in deciding their own fate. Before independence can be achieved, serious economic and political issues unrelated to the original motivations of colonization, must be resolved.

Owen Daniels, Macalester College



Bougainville, Louis-Antoine , Johann R. Forster, J Nourse, and Thomas Davies. A Voyage Round the World: Performed by Order of His Most Christian Majesty, in the Years 1766, 1767, 1768, and 1769. London: Printed for J. Nourse, bookseller to His Majesty, in the Strand, 1772. 

Gauguin, Paul. Noa Noa: the Tahitian Journal. New York: Dover Publications, 1985.

Dodd, Edward. The Rape of Tahiti: A Typical Nineteenth-Century Colonial Venture Wherein Several European Powers with Their Iron, Pox, Creed, Commerce, and Cannon Violate the Innocence of a Cluster of Lovely Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1983. 

Bambridge, Tamatoa. "Généalogie Des Droits Fonciers Autochtones En Nouvelle-Zélande (aotearoa) Et À Tahiti." Canadian Journal of Law and Society. 22.1 (2008): 43-60. 

Kahn, Miriam. "Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site." American Anthropologist. 102.1 (2000): 7-26. 

"Testing, Testing: France. (nuclear Tests Suspended )." The Economist (us). (1992). 

Diderot, Denis. Supplement Au Voyage De Bougainville. 1772. Project Gutenberg. 24 Dec. 2002. Web. 11 Jan. 2011. <">.

Panoff, Michael. "The French Way in Plantation Systems. (France in the Pacific: Past, Present, and Future)." The Journal of Pacific History. (1991). 

Maamaatuaiahutapu, Keitapu. “Modern Polynesia,” Lecture at the Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA, 4 Jan. 2011. 

Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (2009).