The Lapita people, precursors of Polynesians, prospered in Samoa for more than a millennium before overcrowding caused a new wave of eastward expansion that reached the Society and Marquesas Islands sometime around 200 B.C.
By that time, a distinctive Polynesian identity, religion and culture had evolved that would be the basis for the several related societies to be developed in the various islands of Polynesia.
The Spanish were the first to discover the Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands around 1600. More than a century and a half later, British and French navigators, whalers, traders and missionaries competed to further their own interests all over the Pacific. In 1836, two French Catholic missionaries from the Gambier Islands came to Papeete where English Protestant missionaries had become advisers to Queen Pomare IV. Their immediate arrest and deportation became an international incident with France demanding reparations. The problem festered until 1842 when the French intervened militarily to arrest and deport the British missionary they held responsible for causing the incident. Rebellions that broke out on several islands were subdued by the French, leaving them in control of the Society Islands. Later, the Gambier Islands were annexed in 1881 and the Australs in 1900.
French Polynesia was directly involved in both World Wars and in 1946 the Islands became an Overseas Territory within the French Republic. It comprises the Society Islands where Tahiti is located, the Austral Islands directly to the south, the Gambier Islands to the southeast, the Tuamotu Islands to the northeast and the Marquesas Islands further out northeast.
The construction of the Faaa airport opened French Polynesia to international tourism and markets and now Papeete has become one of the major crossroads of the Pacific.
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This was my second visit to Papeete. I remembered having taken a picture of the City Hall in 1996 so I took a new one to see if my photographic skills had improved during the last six years. I'll let you be the judge of that.
The Notre Dame Cathedral, on the left below, is right in the center of the Papeete. It is also an important landmark easily recognised by anyone who has been here before
I prefer horizontal pictures because that is the way I see the world around me. Maybe that's why I seldom use vertical photos. When I have to, I generally present them in pairs so I'll match the Notre Dame Cathedral on the left, with this photo, on the right, of the big church in Taravao village on the south side of the island.
Regular hotels are rather expensive in Tahiti so I stayed at the Pension Fifi which is very conveniently located just across the highway from the airport in Faaa. I shared a dorm with a dozen other people but it only cost 11 $US a night. I can recommend it if you don't mind sleeping in a big dorm.
The Pension Fifi was not only cheap, which is rare in Tahiti, but it was an easygoing, pleasant place with lots of atmosphere and a great crowd of fun-loving people who knew how to cook good food. Around the table, starting on the left, we have, Olivier Ben Meloud, Jean-Luc Collomb, me, Frank Donin, Bruno Sallé, Yves Souillard, Maté Azai (the friendly Polynesian who ran the place with his wife), and Eric Duter. We had a ball!
Impromptu parties like this one just don't happen in big hotels!
Papeete is charmingly French with sidewalk cafés serving strong coffee and sandwiches made from freshly baked "baguettes". It is as French as Honolulu is overwhelmingly American.
Given the importance of eating well in the French culture, it is not surprising to find the municipal market in the centre of town, next to the Cathedral.
I think that eating well is an art, just like music or painting. Art is the pursuit of refined sensuous pleasure. Sensuous pleasure is felt when stimuli from the senses cause natural drugs such as serotonin and dopamine to be released in the brain. Stimuli from the taste buds cause pleasure by the same mechanisms that function with stimuli from the eyes or the ears. Some people think that the art of eating well is somehow inferior to the "real" arts. That's their problem...
I also think that the development of all art forms is a measure of civilisation. Creativity and refinement in art distinguish advanced civilisations from more primitive ones.
Since I consider that eating well is an art form, I can say that the creativity and refinement evidenced in the eating habits of various nations are a measure of their relative degree of civilisation.
Art for art's sake, is a luxury that can be afforded only by individuals whose basic needs of survival have been satisfied. During most of mankind's history, art for art's sake has been reserved for a small privileged elite while the masses struggled to survive. In my view, the extent of popular access to art for art's sake is also a measure of the relative degree of civilization of a given society.
Bringing all this back to the subject at hand, which is food, I will state that although I have the greatest respect for the French and Italian cuisines I think that neither of them are a match for the Chinese art of eating well. I leave it to you to use the criteria of creativity and refinement to evaluate your own national cuisine and to form an opinion about the American fast food madness that is presently invading the world.
The Papeete market is mostly a food market but it also offers some handicrafts and tourist souvenirs.
Papeete is a great destination for yachties crossing the Pacific
The port also serves a number of ferry lines linking Tahiti to the other islands of French Polynesia. This one goes to the nearby island of Moorea.
These two ships, the R4 and R3, used to offer luxury cruises around the Society Islands. They have been tied up at this Papeete dock since September 2001 when their owner, the Renaissance Cruises Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Florida.
Here's a stern view of the R3 and R4 that are immobilised until the courts decide what to do with the remaining assets of Renaissance Cruises Inc. in order to recover the 1.3 billion dollars owed to more than 5000 creditors.
The Museum of Tahiti and the Islands at Punaauia, a few km south of Papeete, has four halls covering the natural environment, the origins of the Polynesians, Polynesian culture and the history of Polynesia. Definitely a must see!
This large wall map shows the main island groups and the more general division of Oceania into Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
This exhibit of Polynesian "Tikis" from various islands, was of particular interest to me because I was going to Easter Island in the following week.
In ancient Polynesian society, power was hereditary and the genealogy of leaders expressed the history of each community. The memory of outstanding leaders was honored by carving images called "Tikis" said to represent them. This practice reached its extreme expression in the giant "moai" that characterize Easter Island.
Here are some examples of dugout canoes with attached outriggers.
This quiet volcanic pebble beach on the museum grounds is a lovely place to have a picnic.
In the distance can be seen the mountainous island of Moorea, the second most popular tourist destination in French Polynesia.
This fine grained black volcanic sand beach is only one of many around the island. This photo was taken near the village of Papara, on the south coast of Tahiti .
Here, like in Hawaii and Rarotonga, there is very little left of the original Polynesian culture except some names and fine museums. Cannibalism and tribal warfare are a thing of the past. The ancient gods have been completely eradicated and replaced by various flavors of Christianity. Social customs and values are now definitely modern... and are becoming more and more global every day.