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The Society Islands are an island group within French Polynesia, is a collection of 118 islands covering a vast area of the southeastern Pacific Ocean. The Islands were formed in 1903 under the name French Establishments in Oceania ( tablissements fran ais de l'Oc anie), by uniting several French colonies.

Captain Samuel Wallis of the Royal Navy.

Captain Samuel Wallis of the Royal Navy "discovers" Tahiti in the Society Islands

Samuel Wallis (April 23, 1728 - January 21, 1795) was an English navigator who circumnavigated the world. In 1766 he was given the command of HMS Dolphin to circumnavigate the world, accompanied by the Swallow under the command of Philip Carteret. The two ships were parted shortly after sailing through the Strait of Magellan, Wallis continued to Tahiti, which he named "King George the Third's Island" in honour of the King (June 1767).


He returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in May 1768. He was able to pass information of his voyage to James Cook who was due to depart for the Pacific. Some of the crew from the Dolphin sailed with Cook.

In 1957, the Islands were renamed French Polynesia and the area was divided into five subdivisions; Clipperton Island (which is a French possession administered from French Polynesia): Leeward Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu and Gambier Islands, Tubuai Islands, and the Windward Islands.

The original inhabitants of the islands were great seafaring people with extraordinary navigational abilities to guide them to their settlements, which included Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand.

The influence of the early Polynesian language, music and dance is seen throughout the South Seas.

Tahitian Mountains. Paul Gauguin

Whenever the first Tahitians embarked on a journey, even if for a few weeks, they brought with them everything needed to survive indefinitely, including taro and yams in seedling form, cuttings from breadfruit and banana plants, pigs, hens, and dogs. Paths leading into the island interiors were heavily planted with fruit and bearing plants.

Migration between islands over time changed the flora somewhat, but the magnificent landscape remained basically the same as it had been for thousands of years. In the 19th century, sailors, travelers, and missionaries introduced their favorite plants to increase local food resources and to make themselves at home in this new land.

The first Europeans to visit what is now Polynesia came in the late 1500s, but Tahiti wasn't "discovered" until 1767, when Englishman Samuel Wallis landed on the island. Less than a year later, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, unaware of Wallis' arrival, declared the island as the property of France. It wasn't until 1847 that the title dispute with England was resolved in France's favor.

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Captain Cook Making Astronomical Observations
Alberto Salinas, Artist

Captain Cook sailing into Tahiti and Moorea in 1774. He estimated the population of Tahiti to be around two hundred thousand.

1782: Captain Cook's Second Voyage to Tahiti.

While in Tahiti, he saw a flotilla of two-hundred war canoes with about ten thousand warriors set out for Moorea. In 1777 he returned to discover that the assault had been unsuccessful.

Chief Mahine of the Moorea clan Marama allowed him to drop anchor in what is now known as Cook's Bay. In 1789, Captain William Bligh was faced with a mutinous crew abroad the HMS Bounty. The first missionaries came to the islands in 1797.


At the end of the 18th century, European sailors arrived in Tahiti, and noted good conditions of anchorage in the harbour, accessible by a natural channel, protected by a barrier reef and offering a wide and deep berth. With development of trade, Papeete became a small town, and then when missionaries and representatives of royalties and the State arrived, it became the religious and political centre. After annexation by France in 1843, Papeete became the administrative centre of the French protectorate.

Saga of South Seas Whaling. Granville Allen Mawer.

Vessels flew abundantly in the harbour. Quickly the Port became an important port of call, receiving numerous whaling ships and schooners trading with islands (mother-of-pearl, copra, vanilla, etc.) Face to the increase of traffic, we built landing stages in wood but then replaced it by a wharf built in masonry.

Captain Rimbeaud was at the origin of the new city plan and constructions around the harbour. Development of the city progressively extended from 1850 to 1900 and in 1860 the first landing stages were built. At the end of the 19th century, the first wharf built for receiving cargo ships was the Cruise ships wharf, located in the Papeete downtown. A local fleet of about ten ship-owners was doing shipping service between Tahiti and her islands, carrying goods and passengers.~ Port De Papeete

The Colonies, March 4, 1876, London, United Kingdom


Under the general name of the Society Islands may be included the "Georgian Isles," forming the eastward or windward portion of that group of which Tahiti and Eimeo are the most important; the western group, or Society Islands proper, containing Eaiatea, Huahine, Borabora, &c.; and the Paumotu or Low Archipelago, or the "Islands of the Shallow Waters," as the native name implies, which latter extend eastward from Tahiti. This scattered archipelago is situated for the most part between the parallels of 15 and 20 south latitude, and the meridians of 14 and 155 west longitude. Not only are the majority of these islands of surpassing loveliness and fertility, with a delightful climate and magnificent mountain scenery, but they are inhabited by a most interesting race of people, at whose history we will briefly glance, from their heathen state when visited by Captain Cook in 1769, down to their comparatively civilised condition at the present day.

The Tahitians and the inhabitants of the surrounding islands are a fine looking race of people, belonging to the same true Polynesian type as the Marquesans, whom we sketched in our preceding article. In stature they are somewhat above the middle height; but less masculine in appearance than the Sandwich Islanders or the New Zealanders.

The women are slight in youth, but, amongst the higher class, frequently become very stout at a more advanced age. They are in colour only a shade darker than the brunettes of Sicily or the South of Spain; whilst the men, who are more exposed to the sun, are consequently of a deeper bronze. They have fine black eyes, white and regular teeth, a soft skin, and plump, rounded forms, with limbs of beautiful proportions. Their jet black hair is perfumed with fragrant oils, and decorated with flowers. The chiefs are taller than the common people, being seldom under six feet in height. At the time of their birth the complexion of the Tahitian infants is but little, if any, darker than that of European children. Those parts of the body that are constantly covered with their "tappa," dresses (the cloth made from the bark of the paper-mulberry tree) are much lighter than those which are exposed. Like the Marquesans they are very careful of their complexions, and have also a method of bleaching themselves. The dress of the two sexes is nearly the same, except that the men wear the "maro," a piece of tappa cloth which covers the loins, and passes between the limbs. An oblong cloak of tappa, with a hole to let the head through, after the fashion of the Mexican "poncho," hangs before and behind; a third garment is wrapped about the waist, whilst a flowing square mantle covers the whole, producing a graceful effect of drapery.

Tattooing was formerly practised, but not to the outrageous extent indulged in by the Marquesans, the face being generally left untouched. Their dwellings consist of elegantly-shaped huts or houses, with roofs thatched with palm trees, and supported by small wooden pillars arranged in an oval form. The sides are either covered with mats or left open, according to the state of the weather. The floor is strewn with dried grass, upon which are laid mats of beautiful workmanship. These rustic dwellings are scattered about in the most agreeable and picturesque manner in the midst of luxuriant plantations or shaded by groves of palms, bananas, and bread-fruit trees. A prominent feature in the character of the Tahitians is their love of indolence, in which the too great bounty of nature has permitted them to indulge. Their magnificent valleys abound in trees that produce sufficient fruits to supply all their necessary wants ; the bread-fruit, the banana, the orange, and the cocoanut, all put forth their spontaneous abundance.

Road Hog Tahitian Style photograph copyright Dianne Levy.Their hogs require no care, feeding upon fruits that would otherwise rot and waste upon the ground; whilst their coasts and reefs abound in fish of every kind, which can be obtained at the cost of just sufficient labour to afford them an agreeable pastime. Their "taro" plantations are irrigated by means of weirs placed across the numberless mountain streams at spots where the valleys enlarge between the steep sides of the hills. One great charm of the Tahitians is their extreme cleanliness. Their clothes as well as their persons are kept without spot or stain; and they usually bathe in the running streams or in the sea two or three times a day. They eat no salt, but employ instead of it a mixture of sea-water, cocoanut milk, and the root of the "t"; the breadfruit and "taro" is dipped into this mixture and then sucked into the mouth with a loud smacking sound. The children are fed upon "poe," which is made of bread-fruit and taro mixed and pounded with a little sugar. The little creatures are laid upon their backs and crammed with balls of "poe" about the size of nuts.

The costumes formerly worn by the women and girls of the Society Islands in the performance of their dances were remarkably graceful and elegant. On their heads they wore a quantity of plaited hair, which was brought round the head several times, and adorned with the blossoms of the Cape jasmine, forming a really beautiful "coiffure." Their necks, shoulders, and arms were uncovered ; below this they wore a sort of black cloth, made of "tappa," fitting close to the body. At the side of each breast, next the arm, was placed a rosette of feathers; upon their hips rested a quantity of cloth, plaited very full, which reached up to the breast, and fell down below into long petticoats, concealing the feet; the plaits above the waist were brown and white alternately, whilst the flowing skirts were all white. In their ears they often wore large pearls, which were highly valued. The love of flowers for purposes of decoration, so general among the Polynesian race, is strongly developed by the Tahitans, as was instanced on the visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh to Tahiti in the Galatea, when a bevy of the most beautiful girls enveloped his Royal Highness in garlands of blossoms until he was completely hidden from view.

The ancient battles of the Tahitians amongst contending tribes frequently assumed the form of naval engagements; their large double canoes being employed for that purpose. Some of these measured seventy feet in length. The head and stern were raised in a semi-circular form, particularly the latter, which was sixteen or eighteen feet high. These double vessels were fastened together side by side at a distance of about three feet by strong poles of wood, laid crosswise and lashed to the gunwales. Upon the fore part a stage or platform was erected about ten feet long, supported by pillars of wood six feet high, on which the warriors were accustomed to stand, armed with slings and spears whilst below this stage sat the rowers hot received below any that were wounded, and supplied fresh men to take their places. The kings and queens in former times always appeared in public on the shoulders of their attendants; and the greatest respect was universally shown to them, as they were regarded as demigods, and their power looked upon as absolute. The highest ambition of a Tahitians chieftain was to possess a splendid "morai" or family tomb; and their funerals were of a solemn and affecting character.

Gauguin in Tahiti. Authors George Shackelford, Clare Freches-Thory, Paul Gauguin.

Songs of a plaintive nature were sung, and the mourners drew blood from their bodies by cutting themselves with sharks' teeth, which mingled with their tears. The ceremonies were of various kinds, lasting several days. The sacred beds under which the dead bodies remained exposed until they were dried, and the "morais" or burial places, paved with stones, and surrounded by walls, were placed in the most romantic and secluded situations, and generally shaded with dark, funereal-looking trees. Before the advent of the missionaries, human sacrifices occasionally took place on the death of a king, or to propitiate some imaginary deity. Their religion was pure idolatry, mixed up with the all-pervading " tapu" that once more or less accompanied the religious heathen ceremonies of the whole Polynesian race from the Sandwich Islands to New Zealand. Their idols were of two kinds, the one consisting of rude representations of the human figure; whilst the other, and with them the most potent form, being merely certain combinations of "tappa," sinnet, and feathers rolled round sticks, and not displaying even the most remote semblance to any living form.

An extraordinary institution called the Areoi Society, formerly existed amongst the people of the Society Islands. The Areois were a sort of privileged libertines or strolling players, who formed themselves into a society for the worship of the god Oro, and the practice of immoral dances and pantomimes. They spent their time in travelling from one island to another, exhibiting their performances and spreading a moral contagion throughout society. On board the canoes in which they voyaged they erected temporary temples for the worship of Oro.

Captain Cook on the Island of Otaheite. Isaac Roberts.

The magnitude of these expeditions and the numbers belonging to the fraternity, may be imagined from the fact that Captain Cook on one occasion, in Huahine, witnessed the (departure of seventy canoes filled with Areois. They believed in a future state, and taught the audacious doctrine that a paradise of delights, similar to that of the Mohammedans, was to be obtained by leading a life of unbridled sensuality in the present world.

Human Sacrifice on a Morai in O'Taheite in the presence of Captain Cook.

Human sacrifice in the presence of Captain Cook. Tahiti.

The first Tahitian who ever visited Great Britain was Omai, a native of Raiatea, one of the leeward group of the Society Islands, who was brought home by Captain Cook; but, although he saw much of civilization during his stay in this country, on his return he relapsed into the state of barbarism and idolatry then prevalent in his native land.

In the year 1796 the London Missionary Society sent out their first missionaries to the Society Islands. In 1814, Pomare, the King, was converted to the Christian faith, and shortly afterwards the great body of the inhabitants renounced idolatry, and destroyed their idols or handed them over to the missionaries. Consequent upon the general reception of Christianity was the abolition of the profligate practices of the Arooi society.

Boats of Ulietea in the Society Islands
observed by Captain Cook.

Ten miles west from Tahiti lies the beautiful and picturesque island of Eimeo, which is almost forty miles in circumference, and has a population that is now reduced to about 900 souls. On this lovely island is established the South Sea Academy for the education of the children of missionaries and others in the South Sea Islands. Several of the Royal Family of Tahiti have received instruction at this Academy, and the merchants arid traders now established in the various neighbouring islands gladly avail themselves of the excellent instruction and unvarying kindness that awaits their children at Eimeo.

Bathers In Tahiti by Paul Gauguin.

Bathers. Tahiti. Paul Gauguin. Nude Bathers. Gauguin.

Ever since 1814 the missionaries have been remarkably successful in educating the Society Islanders, who are now all Christians, and many have gone to other island groups as Christian teachers. Commodious churches and good school-houses have been erected; and a vast change for the better has taken place in the habits, dress, and mode of life of this interesting Polynesian race. They have been taught to build comfortable houses, and to manufacture furniture ; and they are described as a social, cheerful, and busy-moving community. Many engage in ship-building, unaided by Europeans, forging their own bolts, and performing all the various branches of work with the skill of ordinary artisans. The people of Huahine are active and enterprising traders, and their flag, which is the same as the old red and white ensign of Tahiti, is known and respected even as far as the Sandwich Islands and California.

The so-called French "protectorate" of Tahiti seems to have proved distasteful to the inhabitants, who entertain a decided feeling of hostility to their foreign rulers. The French have erected a good fort commanding the entrance to the harbour of Papeite; and have a frigate and a war steamer or two at anchor there, with a force of about 300 soldiers on the island. The resources of the place have of late greatly diminished, and it is now with difficulty that ships touching there can obtain supplies. The French forcibly seized the neighbouring island of Huahine, from which, however, they were expelled by the natives, who finally gained their independence, together with that of the other islands of the leeward group, by an arrangement between the English and French Governments.

Bora Bora Reef.

Bora Bora.

Tahiti was ruled by the Pomare dynasty until 1880, when the islands became a French colony. In the 1800s, missionaries from Europe and America came to the islands and converted the natives to Christianity. The perpetual warfare and human sacrifices of the old ruling order might explain why Polynesians of all classes found it easy to convert. The marae or temples dedicated to ancient deities were destroyed. Today, the majority of Tahiti's inhabitants are devoutly Protestant or Catholic.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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