The Polynesian islands were formed by hot spots, or molten lava escaping upward through cracks in the earth’s crust. Over the eons, the earth’s crust has moved northwestward, thus building great seamounts or “high islands.” Erosion and weathering of these islands over time caused them to sink back into the ocean, forming flat atolls with coral surrounding their lagoons and marking their original boundaries. In some instances, an atoll may be elevated by the same plate tectonics, forming “raised” islands with extremely steep sides. Partially sunken islands can be identified by the remnants of mountains protruding from their lagoons.
French Polynesia consists of five great archipelagos arrayed in chains running from southeast to northwest: the Society, Austral, Tuamotu, Gambier, and Marquesas Islands. 35 islands and 83 atolls compose French Polynesia, which altogether cover a vast area of the eastern South Pacific Ocean, between the latitudes of 7° to 28° south and the longitudes of 131° to 156° west – more than 5 million sq km! However, the land area of these islands and atolls only total approximately 3500 sq km.
The Society Islands, so named by Captain James Cook because the distances between them are not considerable, are subdivided into the Windward Islands (so named because they sit to the direction of the prevailing trade wind) and the Leeward Islands (so named because they are downwind of the former islands). Tahiti, along with neighbouring Moorea, is part of the Society Islands. Its capital city, Papeete, which is located at the latitude 17° south and longitude 149° west, is also considered the capital and main tourist centre of French Polynesia .
With an area of 1045 sq km, the island of Tahiti accounts for nearly a third of the land area of French Polynesia. Two or three shield volcanoes formed Tahiti when they joined at the isthmus of Taravao more than a million years ago. Today, the rounded summits of Mount Orohena (2241 m) and Mount Aorai (2066 m) rise in the center of Tahiti-nui, while Mount Rooniu (1323 m) rises in the center of Tahiti-iti. On Tahiti-nui (big Tahiti), deep valleys radiate in all directions from the central peaks, and steep slopes drop abruptly from the high plateaus to coastal plains; it has a rugged and rocky coast in the northeast because the absence of a barrier reef exposes the land to intense, pounding surf; the south coast of Tahiti-nui is sheltered by a barrier reef, resulting in a broad and gentle landscape with large gardens and coconut groves. Tahiti-iti (small Tahiti, also called Taiarapu Peninsula) is a peninsula without a road around it. The populations of both Tahitis are concentrated along the coast, with almost no inhabitants in the interior of each. Furthermore, Tahiti does not possess white and golden sand beaches but instead has mostly brown or black beaches of volcanic sand.
It is estimated that the eastern Polynesian islands, which include French Polynesia, were colonized around the beginning of the 1 st millennium A.D.; the Polynesians are estimated to have been on the Society Islands by A.D. 600. The plants, animals, culture, and traditions of the Polynesians thus were carried along and brought to the various islands. Centuries later, Europeans would arrive in Polynesia, including Tahiti. In fact, the island nation was unknown to the Europeans until English Captain Samuel Wallis discovered and claimed it for King George III in 1767. Interestingly, Wallis had not intended to find the lush island but was secretly sent by King George III to find terra australis incognita – the mythical southern continent that was thought to keep the earth in balance.
The French would arrive in 1768, with explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville claiming the island for the king of France. In 1847, Queen Pomare would accept French protectorate over the island but of course not before Tahitian resistance (the Tahitian War of Independence lasted from 1844 to 1847). Tahiti would become a French colony in 1880, a French overseas territory in 1946, and a French overseas country in 2000; although Tahitian efforts toward independence are strong and relentless, full independence for the island nation has yet to be achieved.
Evidently, the various periods of colonization and continual migration of people has influenced Tahiti. Of the 2002 population of 245,405, about 63% are pure Polynesian, 12% European (primarily French), 17% mixed Polynesian and European, 5% Chinese, and 3% mixed Polynesian and Chinese.