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vendredi 11 avril 2014

The Marquesas Archipelago

These islands of so many Western dreams

Beyond Gauguin and Brel, the Marquesas Islands form the archipelago the most surprising and perhaps the most endearing of the whole French Polynesia.

An unknown card, but with so evocative names…
The Marquesas archipelago is geologically the youngest of the French Polynesia.

The early sailors probably from Samoa set foot on Polynesia, three centuries before our era.

They have had 1900 years for developing a society and a very particular culture until the first Europeans reach Marquesan coast, under the command of the Spanish Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, in 1595.

Today, the Marquesans are strongly different from the other people of Polynesia by a visceral attachment to a culture and a way of life very specific.

Geography of the Marquesas
At 1600 km northeast of Tahiti, The Marquesas extends from 600 to 1000 km south of the Equator. These are the most northern islands of French Polynesia. The archipelago is compound of two very distinct groups of islands: the North Marquesas whose the main island is Nuku Hiva, and the South Marquesas where the most important is Hiva Oa.

The northern islands are six, divided into two groups. The three main, Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou and Ua Huka, are the biggest and Eiao, Hatutaa and Motu One are smaller and further to the north.

The five southern islands, smallest, are called Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Moho Tani (or Molopu), Fatu Hiva and the rock of Motu Nao. 

The set is 997 km2 of land area.

Taiohae, the largest town of Marquesas on Nuku Hiva island
Here, no lagoon but steep mountains with sharp peaks that sometimes exceed 1100 meters. Deep and narrow valleys where settled most of the villages and some beaches.

In the interior, there are (as on Nuku Hiva) trays where the most of the Marquesan agriculture and livestock thrive.

This particularly rugged relief regularly offers breathtaking sceneries. Thus, for example, the waterfall Vaipo at Nuku Hiva, the second highest in the world with 350m!

The impressive waterfall of Vaipo at Nuku Hiva
Most places are named because of the majestic landscapes: Hiva Oa, Great Crest; Nuku Hiva, Creast of the Cliffs; Fatu Hiva, the Nine Rocks or the Ninth isle; Fatu Huku, the Piece of Stone; Ua Pou, the Two Pillars, without forgetting the stunning “Bay of Penis” (penis: “verge” in French), renamed “Bay of Virgins” (“vierge” in French) by the missionaries !!!

The Marquesas and the history
After the Spanish Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira’s discovery of these islands in 1595, the Marquesan people were forgotten by the new world for two centuries. Until the arrival of James Cook who was staying there over a month.

It’s only in 1791 that the American Joseph Ingraham discovered the northern islands. But only two months later, the French Etienne Marchand took possession of the islands in the name of France and dubbed them  “The Islands of the Revolution”…

In 1842, Aubert du Petit-Thouars integrated the entire archipelago French Establishments in Oceania. So the annexation is complete and final.

The Marquesas Islands are incorporated into The Overseas Territories of French Polynesia in 1958, after the victory of the “yes” in the referendum.

The drama of the Marquesas Islands
During his stay in 1774, James Cook evaluates the Marquesan population at about 100,000 souls. In 1926, only 2094 are living there!

Imported diseases as syphilis and tuberculosis are the main cause of this depopulation which caused the disappearance of the Marquesan people. In the census of 2007, they were 8,658.

To this figure must be added a large diaspora, based primarily on Tahiti where there is probably more Marquesans who are living there than in their islands.

The extreme isolation of the archipelago is probably its greatest drama and its greatest opportunity. The Marquesans survived probably thanks to the intelligence and dedication of some religious, but that is another story…

The Marquesas Islands today
If we can now go to the Marquesas by plane (several daily flights to Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa), these islands remain preserved from a particularly insidious and rampant modernism that has so distorted the islands like Tahiti and Moorea. The best way to discover the archipelago is still the schooner (mixed cargo) Aranui which offers a wonderful coastal navigation from island to island.

The idyllic Bay of Hane at Ua Huka
Particularly well preserved, the Marquesan culture can only surprise the visitor by its richness, beauty and diversity. It suffices to be convinced, to be interested in Marquesan tattoo today considered a benchmark in the domain.

Beyond the myths of Gauguin and Brel, the Marquesans are a proud and hospitable people and are the first wealth of the Marquesas.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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