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Tahiti (Winward Islands, French Polynesia)

Last modified: 2005-09-10 by ivan sache
Keywords: tahiti | winward islands |
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[Flag of Tahiti]

Flag of Tahiti - Image by Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005

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History and geography of Tahiti

Quoting the website of the Presidency of French Polynesia:

The island of Tahiti's area of 1,043 square kilometers makes it the biggest island in French Polynesia. Its shape stems from the juxtaposition of two extinct volcanoes of different sizes that are linked by the Taravao isthmus. The result is Tahiti-Nui, or Big Tahiti, the main island, and Tahiti-Iti, or Little Tahiti, the peninsula. The highest mountains on the island of Tahiti are Mount Orohena, with an altitude of 2,241 meters; Pito Hiti (altitude 2,110 meters) and Mount Aoraï (altitude 2,066 meters).
Tahiti is a mountainous island, most of which, like all of the territory's other high islands, is difficult to exploit. As a result, only 150 square kilometers of the island's area is inhabited and exploited. That is why most of the population is found along the island's coastal strip. Tahiti has been, and remains, the required stop for all migrations. For example, it was a priority stop for the first European navigators visiting this part of the world.
Tahiti today has the territory's only international airport and is the center of the territory's economic activity. Its name has become synonymous with a myth.

What began as O Taiti became Tahiti, made famous throughout the world by the paradise tales of the first English explorers. Tahiti's long-lasting myth was reinforced by the 1789 HMS Bounty adventure and the territory's attraction for French painter Paul Gauguin, who arrived in 1891 and died in the Marquesas Islands in 1903. And the history of the European discovery of Tahiti was an adventure that only furthered the dreams.
English Captain Samuel Wallis aboard the HMS Dolphin dropped anchor at Taiarapu on 17 June 1767. Long before him, the Spanish had "discovered" these remote islands, but Wallis was the first European to make real contact with the native Polynesians. He quickly left Taiarapu to find a better anchorage for his ship, choosing Matavai Bay on 23 June. The first exchanges with the Polynesians were stormy and Wallis fired a canon to intimidate the host forces, from whom he intended to resupply his ship with food and water. In order to show his superiority, Wallis officially took possession of the island, which he named "the island of King George III". And thanks to Purea, a charismatic female island chief, Wallis filled his ship's holds and left.

French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville arrived at Tahiti on 2 April 1768, anchoring his ships La Boudeuse and at Hitiaa, where they stayed for 10 days. Accompanying him were an astronomer and a field biologist, neither of whom had enough time to do any work of any consequence due to the short visit. But Bougainville was more sensitive to Polynesian characteristics than Wallis.
Upon returning to France, Bougainville decreed Tahiti a French possession, painting an ideal image of the island, which he named Nouvelle Cythère (New Cytherea, or the New Island of Love). His Voyage, published in 1771, created a big stir. And thus began the famous myth of Tahiti as a paradise.

British Lt. James Cook anchored his ship, HMS Endeavour, a former coal ship, in Matavai Bay next to Venus Point on 13 April 1769. The expedition for this young British Navy officer of 39 years was scientific, the Royal Society of London wanting an astronomer to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. The southern Pacific Ocean offered the best vantage point for this phenomenon. Astronomer Charles Green was given the task of observing Venus' path, while two other scientists were sent with Cook to make a thorough study of Tahiti's flora and fauna. The pragmatic British Navy supported this expedition, but with the condition that during the voyage some additional lands be annexed before the French arrived. Cook's observation of Venus' transit ended up a failure when it was subsequently discovered that Green's readings were not accurate. But Cook brought back to England an enormous collection of new species of plants, birds and insects, all of which made up for the disappointment over the observation.
Cook was an intelligent and sensitive man who kept a daily journal aboard the Endeavour. In it, he wrote down precious descriptions of Polynesian customs, which greatly helped in understanding the maohi, or Tahitian culture.
Cook returned to Tahiti in 1773, taking back to London the first Tahitian to "discover" England. His name was Omai, and he was from the island of Raiatea. He had served as Cook's interpreter during the exploration of other islands. Cook was forced to take Omai with him back to England due to storms that made navigation among Tahiti & Her Islands very difficult. However, once in England, Omai became a big attraction, which was highlighted by him being presented to King George III.

The wave of South Sea expeditions, particularly those to Tahiti, attracted more attention in Europe in 1789, a year after the arrival of the HMS Bounty and the subsequent famous mutiny. Once again the islands of the South Pacific had become attractive.
The first English Protestant missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in 1797. The beginning of the end of British dominance occurred at the start of the XIXth Century, followed in 1842 when France made Tahiti a protectorate. But it took five more years before that protectorate took effect in 1847.
French Admirals Bruat and Dupetit-Thouars installed themselves in a small town, which, besides its ideal harbor, was well known by European and American whaleboat captains and their crews for shore leave. That town, Papeete, took on an even greater strategic importance in the ensuing conflict between Tahitians and French.
Tahiti's King Pomare V ceded his lands to France on 29 December 1880. The French protectorate became Etablissements Français de l'Océanie (French Territories of Oceania) in 1903. Tahiti & Her Islands became French Polynesia, a French overseas territory, in 1957.

Tahiti was affected more than any other island of French Polynesia by the economic and social upheavals that occurred in the early 1960s. There was the construction of an international airport at Faa'a, the development of the Port of Papeete, the transformation of the urban landscape due to the rapid growth in business and the civil service sector. One result was that the island's north coast became the place where the migrating populations from the outer islands ended up. Tahiti experienced during this period a demographic growth greater than the average for all of French Polynesia. Tahiti's population increased from 37,166 in 1956 to 115,820 in 1983.
The urbanization movement overflowed Papeete into the districts of Pirae, Arue and Mahina to the east and Faa'a, Punaauia and Paea to the west. The entire island lived from then on with the rhythm of a built-up town, which became not only a city but the capital of French Polynesia. The city's urban culture spreads to the districts, which, little by little, lose their rural character.

Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005

Flag of Tahiti

The flag horizontally divided in three equal red-white-red stripes flag, used in the past, was prohibited from 1970 until 1975. In 1975 the French authorities did not make that flag official but only allowed its use. The width of the stripes was made unequal (1:2:1) in 1975/1976 to avoid confusion with Austria.
Sources: The Flag Bulletin [tfb] III-2; Vexillinfo [vxf] VII/1982

Ralf Stelter, 27 January 2001

Saquet [saq98] labels this flag as "the Tahitian flag that disappeared at the death of King Pomare V, and which was authorized again in 1975 [to be flown] beside the [French] national flag."

Gunter Zibell, 22 January 2001