The volcanic islands of the South Pacific, so beloved of travelers, are travelers themselves. For millions of years, they have been sailing east to west, pulled along by the earth's crust. Many volcanoes became too heavy and sank, leaving behind the fringe of coral that becomes an atoll, with a lagoon in the centre.
These distinctive landforms can become motu – coral islands topped with rocks and soil. On these motu grow coconut palms and other tropical plants brought by the first Polynesians. Often, the first impression you get of these low-lying islets is the perfume of flowers drifting across the ocean.
Yet, the true fertility of the motu lies beneath the surface of the ocean, at the foot of the coral
reef and within the lagoon. Millions of fish are quicksilver among the coral. Manta and eagle ray skim the shallows. In deep water, the humpback whales give birth to their calves.
For millions of years, sea turtles have come to nest on the white sands of islands like Tetiaroa. Even before some of the volcanoes emerged from the sea, the turtle has been migrating back and forth across the vast Pacific Ocean.
Navigating by the stars, the first Polynesians arrived in the many islands around 1000BC. On their canoes, they brought chickens, dogs and pigs. They brought coconuts and breadfruit. Soon they had adapted to a life where the sea is as important as the land, becoming expert fishermen and fearsome warriors.
Early Polynesians believed that the islands had been created by the gods from giant turtles, lizards and sharks. They built stone platforms to venerate their gods, known as marae. They established tapu (taboos) that governed everything from fishing to warfare. For more than 1000 years, their civilization thrived, spreading south to Tahiti and eventually to New Zealand.
The great minds of Europe were thirsty for knowledge in the
18th century. Ship after ship set sail from Britain, France and Spain
to discover unknown lands most of which had been
inhabited for millenia.
Captain Cook's expedition in 1769 sought to observe the Transit of Venus to improve navigation. He arrived in Tahiti just a few years after Captain Wallis had raised the British flag and a few months before French ships, under
de Bougainville, made a competitive claim for his empire.
The islands that were the objects
of royal desire soon bewitched
the crews of many ships, most famously The Bounty, captained by William Bligh. His crew mutinied after leaving Tahiti with breadfruit specimens intended for the West Indies. Bligh was cast adrift, while the mutineers under the command of Fletcher Christian sailed off in his ship to live, they hoped, with their Polynesian wives.
The mutiny was only one
notorious example of an ongoing cross-pollination of peoples in Polynesia. French, British and Spanish were soon followed by Chinese workers. In time, an American movie star would come to join the ethnic mix, recreating the mutiny for Hollywood.
Zephyrus is the god of the West Wind, the wind that brought the first Polynesians to their new home. The same wind that carried Spanish, Portuguese, French and British sailors back. But, after a taste of Polynesia, the New Cythera, not all of them wished to return to the east.