Tahitians of Polynesia

Alternative names: Maohis
Location: French Polynesia, eastern Pacific
Population: 115,000
% of population: 72%
Religion: Protestant Christian
Language: Maohi and other indigenous languages, French

The Polynesian peoples of Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia come from five archipelagos, each with its own distinctive culture and language — the Society Islands, which contain the largest island Tahiti; Tuamotu Archipelago; Marquesas Islands; Mangareva Islands and the Austral Islands. Although their land area is tiny (3,265 square kilometres, together with over 5 million square kilometres of ocean in the eastern Pacific), they make up the territory of French Polynesia, presently an Overseas Territory of France. It has a population of about 160,000; 115,000 of whom are indigenous Polynesians, about 20,000 French settlers and 30,000 Chinese and demis, those of mixed ancestry.

Polynesians have lived in these islands for thousands of years. Tahiti island came into contact with European explorers from 1767 and from 1790 onwards whaling vessels called there regularly for rest and trade. Foreign contact proved disastrous for Tahitians and by the beginning of the nine-teenth century only around 10% of the population survived. At the same time missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived, who not only succeeded in converting most of the remaining inhabitants of the Society Islands over the next 20 years, but also laid the beginnings of a plantation society. Tahiti was annexed by the French in 1842 and despite Tahitian resistance in the following years became a French protectorate, and later in 1880 a colony called French Oceania. The French presence was always fairly small and confined to a few islands, as was the Chinese; as a result traditional Polynesian life on most of the islands remained relatively unaffected by the outside world well into the twentieth century.

Three hundred Tahitian volunteers fought in the European theatre with the Free French Forces. After their return to Tahiti some formed a group around a war veteran, Pouvanaa a Oopa, who founded the first Polynesian Political Party, the Rassemblement Démocratique des Populations

1Tahiti is the name of the largest island in French Polynesia. In this entry we use the name to denote all the indigenous inhabitants of French Polynesia in order not to confuse them with other Polynesian peoples such as Maoris in New Zealand or native Hawaiians.

2 Demis quite frequently identify themselves as indigenous Polynesians in culture and political affiliation; thus for example Pouvanaa a Oopa, Francis Sanford and Charlie Ching, three Tahitian nationalists, are of demi ancestry. Many Tahitians also have French, English or Chinese names.

Tahitiennes (RDPT) and was several times elected as Polynesian representative to the French National Assembly. Political reforms in 1957 extended the numbers in the local Territorial Assembly and created a local executive body, the Government Council, of which Pouvanaa became vice-president and minister of the interior. In the referendum on the future of the French colonies, held in 1958, local politicians were banned from electioneering by radio; thus while most of French Polynesia voted to stay with France, Pouvanaa’s RDPT gained a majority “no” vote in Tahiti and Moorea where they had been able to hold meetings against the option of staying with France. Soon after, Pouvanaa and other RDPT ministers were dismissed from the Government Council, arrested and, after a year, charged, tried and found guilty of the unauthorized use of weapons and attempted destruction of buildings. Pouvanaa was sentenced to eight years of solitary confinement followed by 15 years’ banishment. This ended effective Polynesian opposition to the French presence for many years.

In 1966 France began its atmospheric nuclear testing programme in French Polynesia at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. These tests drew protests from other Pacific nations and in 1974 France, who had not signed the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, announced that it would continue future tests underground. To date there have been 41 atmospheric nuclear tests and 107 underground. The military and nuclear industry have played a major part in the Polynesian economy and employed around 15% of the workforce, although critics say that little of the income generated goes to indigenous Polynesians and that it has seriously distorted the local economy, drawing people away from an agricultural and fishing livelihood on the islands to the capital Papeete. There are fears of radiation contamination, although to date there have been no authoritative health surveys of the effects of the tests. Protests against testing have continued from other Pacific nations and environmental groups.

Pouvanaa was allowed to return to Tahiti in 1968 and was later elected to the French Senate. Meanwhile an Autonomist Movement had sprung up, led by a younger generation of Polynesians, most notably Francis Sanford and John Teariki. The Autonomists were a loose coalition of parties and factions; however all wished to see an end to nuclear testing and greater powers of self-government, and sometimes also complete independence. The Autonomists had first gained a majority in the Territorial Assembly in 1962 and won several times thereafter. Elections to the Territorial Assembly in 1977 resulted in the Autonomists retaining their majority, following which increased autonomy was granted; but in the elections of 1982 the pro-autonomy parties lost their overall majority to a Gaullist party, which opposed further loosening of ties with France. From 1985 pro-independence activities increased, partly in response to the situation in New Caledonia, although opposition parties tended to remain fragmented and some small groups apparently advocated violence. The Protestant Church, to which most Polynesians belong, has also spoken out against testing. In October 1987 a dispute at Moruroa docks led to a strike in Papeete and, after riots and arson, the French government declared a State of Emergency. Troops were brought in from France and New Caledonia and trades unionists were jailed (and later released). As a result the ruling coalition in the Territorial Assembly split and a new majority coalition, which included pro-independence parties, was formed. In August 1988 Tahiti’s first political coalition to oppose nuclear testing was launched, but it was not until July 1989 that the President of the Territorial Assembly agreed to call a special session to discuss whether the tests should be allowed to continue and whether independent health surveys should take place. While the open discussion is considered a step forward there appear to date to be no positive moves by the French government to grant further autonomy or independence to French Polynesia, although recent announcements state that nuclear testing may be downgraded or moved elsewhere.

Although Polynesians still comprise the majority of the population within French Polynesia (unlike New Caledonia) they are a disadvantaged majority. The extensive military construction programme initially raised employment and wages for Polynesians but it also resulted in the abandoning of the coconut and vanilla plantations, along with traditional agriculture and fishing, and brought people from the outlying islands to Tahiti island, whose population doubled in 10 years with most of the newcomers settling in hillside slums in Papeete. Unemployment has since risen and wages have fallen. Most Tahitians work as unskilled labourers and almost 40% of the population work in the public sector. Imports outnumber exports by 10 to one, further increasing Polynesian dependence and undermining self-sufficiency.

(See also Kanaks of New Caledonia)

3 Polynesians fear that the integration of the EC after 1992 will lead to an influx of settlers from other EC countries. Ninety per cent of the Polynesian electorate boycotted the June 1989 European Parliament elections in protest against integration.