The Marquesas, high-rise volcanic islands with jagged peaks and razor-edge ridges, are 740 miles northeast of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Experts believe that Marquesans may have come to their archipelago from Samoa more than 2,000 years ago. The islands lack coastal plains and coral reefs; the number of good anchorages is limited. Warring tribes lived in narrow valleys and sometimes cannibalized their enemies. Today 10,000 islanders, few of them full-blooded Marquesans, raise copra, taro, breadfruit, coffee, and vanilla beans watered by mountain streams.
The largest and most populated island is Hiva Oa, the burial place of French artist Paul Gauguin. Other islands in the southeastern group are Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, and two uninhabited islands, Motane and Fatu Huku, where Captain James Cook visited in 1774. Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana de Neira sighted the islands in 1595 and named them for his patron, Marquesa de Mendoza.
The northwestern group of islands consists of Ua Pu, Ua Huka, Eiao, Hatutu, and Nuku Hiva, which inspired Herman Melville to write Typee. In 1791, American sea captain Joseph fngraham sighted the group and named them the Washington Islands. There is no truly urban center in either group today.
During the 18th century, the 100,000 Marquesans had a Neolithic technology based on stone, bone, and shell—clubs with flared semicircular upper ends carved with faces and geometric designs, ancestral tiki, and spears. Accomplished fishermen and sailors, they had the most extensive tattooing in all of Polynesia and raised pigs, dogs, chickens, tubers, and tree fruits from Southeast Asia and sweet potatoes from South America.
When Gauguin arrived in 1901, he found only 1,500 Marquesans left. Contact with Europeans and internal feuding had reduced the population. During the early 19th century, the whalers who came to trade feathers and whale teeth for sandalwood and sweet potatoes also introduced new diseases. In addition, after France took possession of the Marquesas in 1842, many islanders were taken to South America as indentured laborers.
The Marquesas remain an overseas territory of France and have had internal autonomy since 1984. Public officials control resources, and patronage characterizes regional politics. France controls defense, foreign affairs, nationality and immigration, justice, higher education and research, communication, and currency; islanders send representatives to Paris. Marquesans, whose imports far exceed exports of fruit and flowers, depend on French social programs and military spending. Health care and education are free, and there is a 98% literacy rate. Most Marquesans are proud of their connection with French culture, but some want to return to traditional ways. The French outlawed many traditions and initiated a system of individual land ownership and equal inheritance; people became Catholics and assumed gender roles with men as breadwinners.
Islanders speak both French and Tahitian, the dominant Polynesian language. Older people continue to speak Marquesan, a language similar to Samoan. All maternal and paternal relatives are considered to be kin; use rights to land and mutual aid come from bilateral kin groups. Polynesian social hierarchies no longer exist, but islanders continue to keep genealogies. Reciprocity, generosity, and hospitality are valued. Display of imported goods—autos, appliances, and clothing—is evidence of class structure. Higher status jobs are held by European Polynesians or Polynesian Chinese with university degrees, whereas lower status clerical and public works jobs are held by Polynesians.
- Finney, B. R. (1973). Polynesian peasants and proletarians. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.
- Hanson, F. A., & Hanson, L. (Eds.). (1990). Art and identity in Oceania. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Thompson, V. M. (1971). The French Pacific Islands. Berkeley: University of California Press.