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History of Rapa Nui

The pre-European history of Rapa Nui may be lost for the most part, as nothing written exists, but many of the icons, artifacts, statues and Moais have been re-erected or restored.

It is estimated that Rapa Nui was first discovered and populated by sea farers from Polynesia in the 4th century A.D. According to local legend the discovery of the island was by King Hotu Matua who dreamt of the island. The king then set sail from the Polynesian Island of Marae-Renga with a number of fine men to search for the island. After several days at sea they came upon the island and King Hotu Matua recognized the beautiful beach of Anakena that he had seen in his dream.

In 1999, a reconstruction with Polynesian boats was carried out, reaching Easter Island from Mangareva in 17 days. It is still a wonder that the early settlers found the tiny island amidst the vastness of the Pacific.


Easter Island was put on the world map when the Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen spied it on Easter Sunday of 1722 and christened the place Easter Island. Rapa Nui is the chosen name of the islanders for their home, but another mystical name by which the islanders refer to Rapa Nui is “Te pito o te henua” which means “navel (belly button) of the world”, as the islanders understandably were so extraordinarily isolated that they deemed their home the center of the world. The closest neighbors to the island are on Pitcairn Island 2250 kilometers northwest.


Then in 1770 Rapa Nui was visited by the Spanish sailor Felipe Gonzalez, who mapped the island and claimed it for King Carlos III of Spain - never mind that the islanders remained unaware that they had a new king. Four years after Gonzalez, Captain Cook briefly anchored off Rapa Nui to try and get provisions for his crew, however there was little food to be found, so he continued on his voyage to find the southern trade route.


The first slaves were abducted from Rapa Nui in 1805 by an American schooner. The 24 captured islanders were taken to help hunt for seals, but when after three days at sea they where allowed on deck, they all leapt overboard to swim home and drowned. Between 1862 and 1864, Peruvian slave traders raided the island, taking about 3,000 people as slaves and shipping them to mainland Peru to work in guano mines or estates. The Peruvians were persuaded to repatriate the slaves in 1864, but most died on the voyage home. The sixteen who survived the voyage tragically infected the islanders with tuberculosis and smallpox, further reducing the population.

The slave raids during the 1860s and enforced population transfers of the 1870s had a crushing impact on Rapa Nui. They decimated the island's population, which may have dwindled to just 100 people, and shattered its culture. Despite hundreds of books and thousands of papers on the "mysteries" of Rapa Nui, including on the supposed "ecological suicide" of the natives, these destructive European incursions of the 19th century, which nearly wiped out Rapa Nui's civilization, have been largely ignored by historical research.


Throughout the early and mid-1800s visitors noted that more and more Moais had been destroyed or toppled. In 1868 The Englishman Linton Palmer visited Rapa Nui and reported that not a single Moai statue was left standing.Culturally speaking, the worst thing that an enemy can do is to topple your Moai, so it is thought that the statues may have been tipped over during tribal arguments or even wars between the different clans.



In the late 1860s the French plantation empire of Jean-Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier bought huge tracts of land on Rapa Nui. Dutrou forced the islanders to work under miserable conditions and for little pay: He would resort to violence when the people wouldn’t co-operate. In 1877 the islanders rose up in revolt, killing Dutrou and his family, and effectively ending his tyranny. The Chilean government acquired the land that had belonged to Detrou-Bornier. Over the following years after Dutrou’s death, Chile bought up nearly the entire island, leaving only the town of Hanga Roa in the possession of the islanders.


From September 9th 1888, when Chile annexed Rapa Nui, to the present day, the island has remained under Chilean government.


At that time Chile took no real interest in Rapa Nui and leased the island to the English wool trading company Williamson Balfour. The activities of Williamson Balfour caused soil erosion and damaged the island’s fragile eco system. In 1953 the wool trading company’s lease was revoked and the island was once again managed by the Chilean government. It wasn’t until 1964 that the islanders had a say in how their island was run and were allowed to leave the island. In the same year islanders where given full citizenship of Chile and allowed to vote. Nowadays, the islanders enjoy freedom and a democracy equal to most developed civilizations. Both Spanish and the language Rap Nui are taught in schools.Nonetheless, the islanders do not consider themselves 100 per cent Chilean, as their connections to Polynesia can be clearly seen in their features, clothing and beliefs.




Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Easter Island: Traditions of Easter Islanders,

By Zenan Delaney

Screenwriter, producer, actor, director, radio host, travel journalist and writer, Zen's a permanent tourist with years of social...

19 Jun 2009

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