How Unfortunate: Easter Island


Easter Island has one of the most unfortunate histories of any colonial areas in the world. It is a microcosym that tells the tale of human excess and the terrible toll of European colonialism. Consider its isolation. Its nearest neighbor is over 1,200 miles away. Because of this isolation, it is one of the most recently inhabited areas in the world; yet despite this its history is numbered by a series of coincidental shipwrecks.

We are not even sure when the island’s original inhabitants arrived or even where they came from. The range of dates range from 300 CE to 1200 CE. Although popular knowledge has it that polynesians colonized the island, a variety of sweet potatoe grows on the island whose only close relative is found in Latin Americe. Sweet potatoes cannot float, and the only conceivable way they would get to the island would be via human transport. Perhaps the Polynesions went to Latin America and come back. Who knows.

This is where all the fresh water comes from. No joke.

This is where all the fresh water comes from. No joke.

The island that the original settlers found when they first arrived is nothing like in the present. First off, although it is at the tip of the Polynesian islands, it is by no means a tropcal island. Evidence shows that the island was at one point covered by forest. However, as the population grew, the trees were cut down, eventually to the point of the complete deforestation we see today. Soil samples tell us that a very good amount of the native plants died during that process. For what its worth, this coincided with the rise of the famous moai statues. This bit of irony meant that a seafaring people had out competed themselves from escaping the island by boat. They still made rudimentary boats out of reeds grown in a crater on the island, but nothing that could cross an ocean.

Their civilization was surprisingly advanced, considering their situation. In fact, they came up with their own written language, rongorongo, notable is it one of precious few writing systems developed independantly in human history. For a very long time they had a clear class system, where a king ruled the island through the power of the gods. The moai were carved and erected in their honor when they died. At some point there was a coup, where the king was overthrown. A series of wars took place across the island, resulting in the statues being knocked down. Soon, a strange form of government took place, which historians call the birdman cult.

There is a small island just off of Easter island where a certain type of bird lives. The waters in

This is the island they had to swim to

This is the island they had to swim to

between are teeming with sharks. In the spring, young men would swim across the straight. Oh yeah and they had to climb a stark cliff to do it. Whoever brought an egg back to their “tribe” was put in charge of distribution of the islands rescources for a year. This caused a lot of problems. Obviously each “Birdman” would favor his tribe would do his best to stock up while he was in charge. Many credit this system with the islands rapid decline. This was the system in place when missionares arrived. The aboriginal people tend to be referred to as the Rapanui, so we’ll call them that from here out.

You may be wondering why, in fact, we call the island Easter island . Well, the first white dudes sailed up to the island on Easter Day 1722. There are no good harbors on the island. The only water is found in a crater in the middle of the island and as we discussed earlier, the island was barely able to support their population. They moved on, but not before killing a few islanders.

The esteemed Captain Cook visited briefly in 1774. Several ships passed by. At one point a French guy mapped the island, and estimated the population of the island to be around 1000. The natives eventually became hostile to parties wishing to land. The Europeans, of course, left venereal disease and often took women for, ahem, lascivious acts.

No langing here

No landing here

Things took a nasty turn in 1862 when 8 Peruvian ships descended and took nearly 1,500 Rapanui as slaves (roughly 1/3 to half of the population). A year later they were released, and 15 returned to the island, bringing with them smallpox. This killed uncountable amounts of natives, causing chaos and tribal warfare. A missionary came with his partner in 1866, bringing with him tuberculosis, which killed approximately 1,200 Rapanui, including the last member of the old royal order, a 13 year old prince, whose father, the last king, was one of the slaves who died in Peru. The missionary’s efforts were not in vain, however. By the time of his death, he had converted the island to Roman Catholicism. Whew.

The French captain who had brought the missionaries saw an opportunity, and bought up the better part of the island by exchanging fairly useless trinkets. He married a Rapanui, set up a sheep farm on the island and had two daughters. He ruled through coertion, and shipped off a good number of Rapanui to Tahiti to work for some of his buddies, and the missionaries brought almost 250 with them when they left. When the captain was murdered there were only 230 Rapanui left. 6 years later there were 111 left, only 36 of which had offspring. In less than 10 years, only 5% of the Rapanui people were left. It is because of this that we know precious little about their culture.

The island remained a sheep ranch, and a relative of the french captain came and ruled for 10 years, and helped the Rapanui to make some cash by making traditional artwork. Some Americans came by, did some digging and dynamited some stuff while they were playing archaeology. A Chilean guy eventually bought everything up, and ran the island as a sheep ranch. He walled off the villiage where the Rapanui lived, and would not let them enter or leave. Most of them had little clothing, and their prized posessions were stuff that washed up during shipwrecks. The Rapanui rebelled in the early 1900’s, but the Chilean government rolled in and put a stop to it.

The island changed hands until 1966, when the Rapanui were given Chilean citizenship. Since then there has been serious investigation into their culture, and they are doing rather well, all things considered. The US constructed a very long runway, to be used by the space shuttle in case of an emergency.

I’m really sorry that most of my stories tend to  be bloody or sad. Unfortunately, most stories worth telling are rarely happy. The story of the Rapanui is truly one of the cautionary tales for the human population. We would all be well served to understand our impact. It can be directly seen on this island, 1,200 miles from civilization. If you can call the Polynesian islands civilization.

Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] where people dug stuff up in good faith, but it turns out they were ruining any hope of further investigation. Not to get too preachy, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Also, these guys […]

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