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vendredi 16 mai 2014

The Gambier Islands

Fourteen islands in one lagoon

Some 1,700 km from Tahiti, the Gambier Islands, an atoll with 14 high islands in the same lagoon, is a unique geological formation in French Polynesia. Although administratively attached to Tuamotu Archipelago, The Gambier are indeed a separate entity.

Lagoon of Rikitea seen from the summit of Mount Duff
All other Polynesian atolls are compound by a belt of land and corals which forms  a “motu” (reef islets) scattered around the lagoon with sometimes, as in Bora Bora and Huahine, a high island in the lagoon… One another exception to this rule: the two islands of Raiatea and Taha’a (Society Islands), surrounded by the same reef.

The Gambier: 14 islands in one lagoon
Another feature of The Gambier: they have the oldest permanent building of Polynesia. These are religious edifices. They were built by missionaries thanks to the indigenous arms. The best known of these buildings is St. Michael’s Cathedral of Rikitea.

 The last specificity of Gambier is the largest and most famous Polynesian pearl Center, both for the importance and the quality of its production.

The Gambier and history
In the twelfth century the settlement of the Gambier Islands began probably by Marquesas seafarers. It was only much later, in 1687, the English pirate Edward Davis wrote in this logbook he had seen islands: may be The Gambier.

Hundred and ten years later, May 24, 1797, the British sailor James Wilson officially discovered them. Some missionaries traveling to Tahiti on board, he gave the Archipelago the name of Admiral Gambier, a guarantor of the activities of the mission. Furthermore, he baptizes the culmination of these islands (441 meters) the name of his ship: Duff.

It must wait, however, until 1826, to see the first European to set foot on one of these islands: the British officer Frederick Beechey.

He makes the first contact with the Mangarevan people.

The Mangarevans of the early nineteenth century
At that time, the population is about 5,000 souls. These Polynesians have their own language: the mangarevan. Some say they would present the characteristic to be vegetarians, but this statement is in no way verified.

Maputea, the king of the time, lives Rikitea, the main village on the island of Mangareva. The population is distributed on the four main islands of the atoll: Mangareva, Akamaru, Aukena and Taravai.

Gregorio Maputeoa, the last king of Gambier
These are the tales of Beechey about his discovery which make the Gambier Archipelago known.  Its geographical location makes it a quick stopover significant resupplying of many merchant ships.

Already, the particular quality of the oysters that inhabit the lagoon and their abundance allow rapid intense commercial activity development.

The evangelization of Gambier
In 1834, the Congregation of the Sacred hearts (Picpus Brothers) creates, on the deserted island of Akamaru, the first Catholic mission in the South pacific. This is where evangelism really starts throughout Polynesia.

Between 1834 and 1871, when father Laval was forced into exile in Tahiti, the Picpus Brothers erected many buildings for religious purposes.

Our Lady of Peace on the island of Mangareva
The oldest of them is located on the island of Aukena. This is the church of Saint-Raphaël which was erected in 1839. This is the first church built in permanent structure in French Polynesia.

In the same period are also built an imposing cathedral, nine chapels, watchtowers, a prison…

The Gambier and Pearl culturing
If, in the past, four islands of The Gambier were permanently inhabited, today the entire population lives on Mangareva. The other islands are used for various activities, but are deserted at night.

Until the early 1960s, the mainstay resources of the islands is based on the trade of pearl, used mainly for the manufacturing of buttons.

Tahiti has a visionary Robert Wan. He created the first pearl farm in the lagoon of mangareva. Today, there are about a hundred!

Village of Rikitea seen from the slopes of Mont Duff
But this development is at the expense of traditional activities. Self-sufficient in 1960, the Gambier today are importing from Tahiti 85% of what they consume. And the collapse of world prices of the pearl doesn’t help matters.

The tourism in Gambier
There is no hotel in The Gambier. Only a few guesthouses can accommodate tourists.

The other major drawback of the Archipelago lies in its remoteness and in a very limited air service; Air Tahiti provides only two weekly flights.

Yet the Gambier have many arguments to make to develop this activity. In addition to a beautiful lagoon, there is this unique architectural heritage in the world, the extraordinary world of the pearl farmers, and especially a particularly warm and welcoming population.

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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