Easter, the island ravaged by Europeans

Easter island

Waters: Polynesia / South Pacific Ocean

State: Chile

Geographical coordinates: 27° 07′ 10″ S, 109° 21′ 17″ W

Super Fit: 164 km2

Open to visit

You have to imagine the amazement that the silhouette of Rapa Nui (the original name of Easter Island) must have provoked among Polynesian navigators when it loomed on the horizon. At the height of the island civilization of the same name, the approaches to the island were bristling with huge stone busts that turned their backs on the sea. , were representations of the ancestors of the islanders.

The Europeans who made the “discovery” – according to the colonialist expression still too often used today – of the island a few centuries later, in 1722, were not entitled to this breathtaking spectacle. The statues lay on the ground, knocked down. The inhabitants of the island, who had erected for centuries more than a thousand of these giants – some moai measured up to 9 meters high – had in the meantime gradually abandoned this practice to devote themselves to the cult of the birdman, an ancient deity, present in several islands of Polynesia.

A century and a half later, in 1872, when the French writer Pierre Loti, embarked on a frigate, stopped over on the island, it was desolation, as he noted in his Diary of an aspirant to La Flore:

“The population, whose provenance is moreover shrouded in disturbing mystery, is gradually dying out, for unknown causes, and there remain, we were told, only a few dozen savages, starving and fearful, which feed on roots; in the midst of the solitudes of the sea, [l’île de Pâques] will soon be only a solitude too, of which the giant statues will remain the only guardians.

Ecological suicide

According French ethnologist Alphonse Louis Pinartwho visited the island at the same time, its population would have fallen from 2,500 people to only a few hundred during the 19th century.e century.

This catastrophic demographic situation has given rise in the Western world to attempts at an explanation, making the Rapa Nui people the architect of their own extinction. The fact that the moais were found lying on the ground when the first European ships arrived in the 18e century has been misinterpreted as an indication of a civil war that would have broken out on the island, during which the Rapa Nui would have killed each other.

Rapa Nui lost its inhabitants for a variety of reasons, all related to the European presence on the island.

In the absence of forest on the island, we have long seen the index of an ecological suicide: the inhabitants of the island would have overexploited the resources, causing a famine which would have decimated them. This myth of ecological collapse sealed the legend of this mysterious island for decades, fueling morbid fantasies – some even going so far as to speak of an “Easter Island syndrome”.

Recent archaeological research, including that of the Belgian specialist Nicolas Cauwe, of which we strongly recommend exciting interviews broadcast on France Inter and Radio Francecategorically refute these two theses, for several reasons.

First argument: no trace of weapons attesting to violent combats was found on the island, and moreover, the moaïs were not knocked down with brutality, but delicately dismantled from their bases, as evidenced by the good condition preservation of statues.

Second argument: if the primary forest of the island has indeed been deforested over the centuries by its inhabitants, it was not only to transport on tree trunks the blocks of tuff in which the moais were cut at various points of the island, but above all to extend their arable lands. Prosperous until the arrival of the Europeans, the island has known no shortage.

Diseases and slavery

Rapa Nui lost its inhabitants for a variety of reasons, all related to the European presence on the island. The dozens of Western boats that docked on the island in the 19e century with Catholic missionaries on board first brought with them various diseases, such as tuberculosis and leprosy, against which the Rapa Nui had no immunity. Slave traders also visited the island on several occasions to capture more than a thousand islanders, who they then sold to the operators of the guano deposits on the Peruvian islands of Chincha.

The passage of a certain Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, captain of the French Navy who landed in 1868 with missionaries, also marked a bloody turning point on the island. Brutal, power-hungry, he proclaimed himself king of the island two years later and transformed the agricultural lands of the natives into sheep farms, reducing women, men and children to slavery. He will end up assassinated a few years later. Its presence on the island caused several disaster departures of missionaries and natives, creating diasporas on other Polynesian islands.

Global warming, and with it the predicted rise in the waters surrounding Rapa Nui, could well engulf the moai.

Intensive sheep farming was not abandoned, however, passing into the hands of the Chilo-Scottish Williamson-Balfour Company at the end of the 18th century.e century, the island having in the meantime been annexed by Chile, whose coast is 3,500 kilometers away… This overexploitation of the island’s meadows will continue until the beginning of the 1950s, ravaging its flora.

The gradual return of the Pascuan diaspora will repopulate Rapa Nui. About half of the 8,000 individuals that make up the island’s current population are descendants of the very first people who inhabited the island. Today, however, Easter Island is threatened by another danger, also from the outside world: mass tourism.

Before the pandemic, around ten planes landed at the island’s international airport every week. Every year, around 160,000 tourists come to admire the enigmatic stone remains of the Rapa Nui National Park, listed since 1995 on the Unesco heritage list. Since the pandemic, the island has been rethinking its relationship to its archaeological heritage and to tourism.

That’s not all. Another disaster is looming on the horizon: global warming, and with it the predicted rise in the waters surrounding Rapa Nui, could well engulf the moai posted near the coast. Another threat from afar to hang over this island known to be the most isolated piece of land in the world.


Source: Slate.fr by www.slate.fr.

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