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French Polynesia is a French territory in the South Pacific Ocean. Consisting of one hundred and eighteen islands dispersed over an area of about 1,200 miles, French Polynesia is made up of five archipelagos, each with its own topography, culture, and language. The islands that tourists are most familiar with are in the Society Islands; these include Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea. The Society Islands are themselves divided into the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The other four archipelagos are the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands, and the Austral Islands. Fifty-one of French Polynesia's islands are uninhabited. The most populous islands in French Polynesia is Tahiti, on which Papeete, the administrative capital, is located. Tahiti was not the first of the Society Islands to be populated, however. The first settlers of Tahiti came from the much smaller island of Raiatea, which was a politically more important island to the early French Polynesians.

The importance of Tahiti rose with the influence of Europeans on the islands. French Polynesia is a long way away from anything other than other South Pacific islands, but its closest ties are with France rather than with its closest neighbors. Culturally, French Polynesia is making an effort to reclaim its heritage. The Tahitian language is now a subject required in its schools and universities. While politically a part of France, French Polynesia is largely self-governing. Nearly eighty percent of its citizens are ethnically Polynesian, with most of the remainder divided among Chinese and French, with more Chinese people residing on the islands than French. More than eighty percent of its residents identify as Christian, the larger majority being Protestant, followed by Roman Catholic. However, more than twice as many French Polynesians live in France than on the islands, and slightly more French Polynesians are in Hawaii than on the French Polynesian islands.

Given their isolation, the Polynesian islands were among the last places on earth to be settled by human beings, and among the last to be colonized by Europeans. It is believed that the earliest Polynesians came from Taiwan or Southeast Asia in what was known as the Great Polynesian Migration. This was three or four thousand years ago. The first settlers landed in the Marquesas, having first settled Samoa. This was around 200 BC. From there, they came to the Society Islands around 300 AD.

The first Europeans came about 1,500 years after the islands were settled. The first recorded visit was by Captain Samuel Wallis, who anchored at Tahiti's Matavai Bay in 1767. Soon, hundreds of canoes surrounded the ship. Wallis fired grapeshot at the Tahitians, then sent a raiding party ashore to destroy homes and canoes. Nevertheless, trade agreements were eventually reached, as the crew was in need of fresh food and the Tahitians were happy to receive metal hatchets, knives, and other tools since they had not yet learned to use metal. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville came to Tahiti less than a year later, unaware that Wallis had already discovered the island, and Captain James Cook arrived a year after Bougainville. Rather than being greeted by violence, Bougainville and Cook both reported that their crews were seduced by native women, and these reports were quickly exploited by sex-starved sailors. Once visits by Europeans became common, traditional Polynesian society went into a downfall, largely due to a combination of European technology and weapons, diseases for which they had no immunity, and the introduction of hard liquor and Christianity. The takeover of the islands by the French was a war of the missionaries. British clergy was unofficially in control of the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago, while French Catholics were in control of the Gambier Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands. In 1836, two French missionaries were quietly dropped off on Tahiti Iti, which is separated from the larger island of Tahiti by a small isthmus. They were promptly arrested by the British and deported. This set the stage for political posturing on both sides that culminated in Britain yielding to France in 1842.

A guerilla rebellion was waged against the French for several years but, in the end, France was on top. During World War II, American forces used Bora Bora as a military base but did not occupy the islands following the war. Beginning in 1966, France conducted 193 nuclear bomb tests on two atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa, both in the Tuamotus, over a thirty year period. When France announced a new series of tests in 1995, protests broke out worldwide. Nevertheless, the final tests were conducted in early 1996, after which it was announced that there would be no more testing in the Pacific. Today, despite a local government, French Polynesia is not a free association. France retains control over most things

 

 

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