How Did France Colonize Tahiti?

From the home of voyagers to the popular tourist destination it is today, a look at Tahiti throughout history.

If you are still taking a break from your old travel habits or adjusting to accommodate for health risks, this transition period is a perfect opportunity to learn about the history of the countries you are considering to explore.

Many popular destinations are such alluring vacation sites due to the vibrant cultures that travelers can experience. The traditions and practices that have been cultivated by the indigenous people, however, have not always been exempt from being altered by outside influences.

Although Tahiti has managed to regain most of its founding traditions and cultural practices, it is hard to ignore the European influences that are present even to this day.

How Did France Colonize Tahiti?
Image by Damien Chaudet from Unsplash

In order to have a fuller understanding of the history of the island, it is imperative to remember that early Tahitians relied on oral tradition to pass down stories between generations. Consequently, the first documents referencing the isle would be written in the 1500s by Western explorers who stumbled upon Oceania instead of the settlers themselves.

Before this, voyaging Polynesians had centuries to find, settle, and develop their own way of life on this land. Some of their most intriguing customs comes from their relationship with nature and time.

Diadem Mountain at Sunset, Tahiti, John LaFarge, c. 1891, Brooklyn Museum
Diadem Mountain at Sunset, Tahiti, John LaFarge, c. 1891, Brooklyn Museum. PHOTO Wikipedia

Events in nature, or the weather specifically, were used as time markers. The position of the clouds and the sun were utilized to describe the early morning or late afternoon while the blooming patterns of certain flowers signaled midday.

Despite having such thorough methods of recognizing the passage of time, they valued taking time for leisure activities or communing with one another. Outside of those whose labor was needed from their “lord,” tasks were typically completed during the morning. The rest of the day was led by whatever the individual wanted to indulge in. This, however, could also be affected by social class.

There were three main social castes, including: commoners, the laborers and servants, and the Ari’ia particularly important group of people believed to be direct descendants of gods. They wore belts and feathers as symbols of the power they upheld and exercised special privileges and responsibilities.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, like the Tahitians who carry on the traditions of their ancestors, settlers of this land held tattoos as a sacred tradition and used dance as a method of prayer, celebration, and storytelling.

How Did France Colonize Tahiti?
Image by Roman from Unsplash

Though Tahiti makes the Society Islands of French Polynesia today, explorers from other European countries also visited the island for a variety of reasons. Some encountered it searching for quicker trade routes to East Asia while others jumped at the opportunity to claim “uninhabited” land.

One of the first major sociopolitical alterations resulted from mutineers from the HMS Bounty, a merchant vessel under the command of Captain William Bligh. After setting the ship adrift with the captain and his remaining loyal crew members, they settled on the island and offered their strength to the family that would become the Pomare Dynasty.

Royal Family of Tahiti
Royal Family of Tahiti. PHOTO Wikipedia

From Pomare I to Pomare IV, the original traditions and way of life of the Tahitians gradually faded away. Alcohol and disease were first introduced to the people which resulted in a dramatic population decline. Since all the governing power laid with a single family, the island became more unified. British mercenaries eventually arrived and convinced Pomare II to convert to Protestantism which led to the first Legal Codes of 1819. These banned nudity, dances and chants, tattoos, and costumes made of flowers.

By the time Pomare IV became queen, the governing power of the dynasty became more symbolic than influential.

Interest from France surged when two of their Catholic priests are expelled from the island, and Admiral Abel Aubert du Petit-Thouars is sent to collect reparations. After fulfilling his duty by annexing the Marquesas Islands, he later returned to Tahiti and became involved in petitioning for the Queen to sign the country into a French protectorate.

Once the treaty for the protectorate was signed in 1842 and France won the Franco-Tahitian War for Independence, Tahiti became an official colony of France in 1880.

How Did France Colonize Tahiti?
Image by ​​Kazuo Ota from Unsplash

Today, Tahiti is now an autonomous overseas country. France remains in control in areas like education and security, but Tahiti has its own budget, president, and laws. There are also other changes due to the colonization of the land.

French is the official language of the country despite Tahitian being widely spoken amongst citizens and being a requirement for some jobs.

The island also relies heavily on tourism. This is a stark difference from the agricultural products that previously dominated their economy.

Though there have been changes, dance and tattoos have remained reverent to the people of Tahiti which travelers are sure to see on full and proud display if time is spent with the local people.

It is impossible to reverse time and prevent the erasure of the way of life of the indigenous people of Tahiti. But being aware of the cultural storms these natives have weathered may give a greater appreciation for the traditions and customs they have managed to carry with them into the present day.

Jade Hargrove

Jade is a Georgia native who has enjoys trying new foods, podcasts, and long car rides with friends. She hopes to one day travel to every French-speaking country in the world to experience the different dialects and cultures that can be found around the world.

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