Spread across nearly 2,000,000 square miles of the South Pacific, in an area as large as the continent of Europe, lies the Territory of French Polynesia and its principal island, Tahiti. Settlers from Southeast Asia are thought to have first arrived in the Marquesas Islands, in the northeastern part of what is today called French Polynesia, around 300 AD and in the Society Islands, including Tahiti, to the west by about 800 AD.
Prior to the first European contact, the islands were ruled by a hierarchy of hereditary tribal chiefs. The first Europeans to visit the area were the English explorers Samuel Wallis in 1767 and James Cook in 1769. French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville arrived in 1768 and claimed the islands for France. In the late 1700s occasional ships arrived in the islands, most notably the H. M. S. Bounty in 1788, captained by William Bligh. The first missionaries, from the London Missionary Society, arrived in the islands in 1797.
By 1815, with the support of the most powerful ruling family in the islands, the Pomares, the British missionaries had secured a strong influence in much of the Society Islands, doing everything possible to eliminate traditional Polynesian culture by barring traditional dance and music as well as destroying carvings and temples associated with native religion. The French continued to hold influence over the Marquesian Archipelago and eventually were successful in expelling the British and securing influence over much of what today constitutes French Polynesia, leaving the ruling Pomare family as little more than figureheads.
In 1880, King Pomare V was forced to abdicate, and a French colony was proclaimed. By 1901, the colony included the Austral Islands, the Gambier Archipelago, the Marquesas Islands, the Society Islands and the Tuamotu atolls to the southeast. The first half of the twentieth century saw periods of nationalistic protest in the colonies which were by then called the Etablissements francais d’Oceanie (French Pacific Settlements). It was not, however, until after World War II, when Tahitians who had served France returned home, that pressure forced the French government to extend French citizenship to all islanders.
The first territorial assembly was established in 1946, and by 1949 the islands obtained representation in the French Assembly. In 1957, the territory was officially renamed the Territory of French Polynesia. The Republic of France is represented in the territory by a high commissioner appointed by the Republic. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, limited autonomy was granted to the territorial government to control socioeconomic policy but not defense, law and order, or foreign affairs. While many citizens seek independence from France, those in control of the local government are widely opposed to such a move.
As is seen in much of the Pacific region, native culture has seen a rebirth in recent years. The Tahitian language is once again taught in schools and even used in government meetings. Once all but obliterated by the missionaries, the traditional arts of music and native dance (tamure) are now celebrated. However, despite this rediscovered culture, increases in tourism, and the various local industries such as fishing and pearl farming, the territory still remains highly dependent on France for its survival.