Îles Marquises

April 25 2014

Of all major Pacific island groups, the Marquesas, 850 miles northeast of Tahiti, suffered the greatest population decline from diseases brought by Western explorers: from over 78,000 in the eighteenth century to about 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth and 4,000 by the beginning of the twentieth.

The population had increased to 8,548 by the time of the 2002 census, not including Marquesans residing on Tahiti, and 9,264 at the 2012 census.

The island furthest from any other inhabited place is Tristan da Cunha in the bleaker south Atlantic. But the Marquesas, like other Pacific islands, are further from a continent than Tristan: 3,000 miles from the nearest continental landmass (Mexico).

The Polynesians arrived before AD 300. Ethnological and linguistic evidence suggests from the region of Tonga and Samoa. The islands were given their European name by Álvaro de Mendaña, who reached them in 1595. He named them after his patron, García Hurtado de Mendoza, 5th Marquis of Cañete, Viceroy of Peru.

Cook visited them on his second voyage. An American maritime fur trader, Joseph Ingraham, visited the northern Marquesas while commanding the brig Hope in 1791 and called them the Washington Islands.

In 1813 Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hiva for the US, but Congress never ratified the claim. France took possession and established a settlement there in 1842, abandoned it in 1859, re-established control 1870 and later incorporated the islands into French Polynesia, which is now a pays d’outre-mer of France.

“The race is perhaps the handsomest extant […] yet death reaps them with both hands” (Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas, posthumously-published memoir of a visit to the Marquesas and other islands in 1888). publicanthropology.org:

Marquesas 1.

Some Marquesans feel neglected by politicians in Tahiti. Some favour a direct link with Paris instead of dependence on Papeete. Some Marquesan political leaders, fearful that Tahiti might proclaim independence, have declared themselves in favour of separating from French Polynesia. Pro-independence Tahitian leaders have accused the French central government of encouraging the separation of the Marquesas.

Melville’s Typee is about the Marquesas. Gauguin died on Hiva Oa, Jacques Brel is buried there. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the Marquesas are a place of exile for those considered dangerous to the World State. Thor Heyerdahl spent a year on Fatu Hiva and wrote about his disillusionment.

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