History and Culture of Tahiti

The islands of Tahiti, also known as French Polynesia, have a long and colorful history with a culture made up of many influences, resulting in a unique French/Polynesian blend in food, music and language. Additionally, there are numerous cultural similarities between Tahiti and other South Pacific islands such as Fiji and Hawaii.

Tahiti history

The islands of the South Pacific are thought to have been colonized over the course of many centuries beginning with migrations from Asia to Australia, 1000 BC. This part of the world was unknown to Europe until the 16th century when Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the globe.

Mount Otemanu on Bora Bora, viewed on a a BigDay site inspection in 2007. Although Magellan himself didn’t live to complete the trip, news of the discovery of the islands in the South Pacific reached Europe.

In 1767, French ships, commanded by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, dropped anchor, spending long enough in the islands to cure his crew of scurvy. Upon his return to France, Bougainville told of the idyllic life of the natives on Tahiti in the book Voyage, published in 1771.

One of the best known visits to the islands was by the H.M.S. Bounty and her crew in 1789, when mutineers sought refugee in French Polynesia and those who did not escape to Pitcairn Island were ultimately caught by British authorities five months later. This event introduced the native people to modern weapons and military action.

British and French missionaries soon arrived in Tahiti, and attempted to destroy Polynesian culture by banning tattoos, demolishing temples and traditional art and imposing the Bible and its teachings upon the people.

During the 1840s, the islands were annexed by France. The ruling king and family were forced to abdicate and ceded the islands to France. A colony was established in 1880.

In the late 1890s, post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin moved to Tahiti and later on the Marquesas, painting idealized portraits of the exotic people.

In the 1930s, the Bounty stories made it to Hollywood, resulting in various films, including Marlon Brando’s version 1962. During its filming, Brando took a Tahitian wife and purchased an atoll where he established a resort. The filming of the movie in Tahiti and its subsequent popularity helped to develop tourism in Tahiti today.

Tahiti culture

Traditional Tahitian weavers. Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme. In Tahiti and her islands, traditional arts include the dying skill of creating tapa, a cloth made from the bark of young trees, weaving, sculpture – especially the Tiki, and the missionary-loathed dancing, called tamure.

Detailed, intricate tattoos are considered a sign of beauty and often hold symbolic importance for Polynesians. In fact, the word ‘tattoo’ originated in Tahiti! For more information, visit Tahiti Tatou.

Tahitian food combines various influences. Les Roulottes, or roadside stands, specialize in tamaaraa, where a hole with warmed stones help cook the food, which is wrapped in banana leaves. Les Roulottes are commonly found in Papeete, although a few others exist in Moorea.

Extended family is very important to Polynesians and Sunday is the day of worship. In past times, the marae – large, open air temples – were the center of worship, although today the average Polynesian is much more likely to attend church.

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