(EMPIRE and OCEANIA to 1900 – continued)

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The French in Polynesia, to 1847

In the 1820s, France was eager to catch up with the British and Americans in the Pacific, and the Catholic Church was eager to compete with Protestants there for souls. Catholic missionaries supported by France's government and navy carried a message into the Pacific about the Gospels and the glories of France. They landed in Hawaii in 1827, and there they encountered hostility from New England missionaries, and the Catholic missionaries were expelled from the islands.

In 1834, the French navy landed Catholic missionaries in the Gambier Islands, 14 small mountainous islands more than 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) southeast of Tahiti, in the extreme southeast corner of Tuamotu archipelago. On the main island there, Mangaréva, Father Honoré Laval converted the king, Maputeoa, and within four years the people of Mangaréva were considered Christian.

Father Laval established stringent rules, called the Mangarévan Code. He puts people to work building more than 116 coral stone churches, convents, mills and other buildings. One of the buildings was the highly decorated Cathedral of St Michael, built to accommodate 2000.

French Warships in Tahiti, 1842

French warships in Tahiti, unassailable offshore weapons because of the range of their cannon. French Warships in Tahiti, 1842, enlarged

The population of the Gambiers is estimated to have been between 5,000 and 6,000 when Father Laval arrived. By 1886 there would be only 463.

French Control in Tahiti, the Marquesas and other Islands

In 1836, two Catholic missionaries from the Gambier Islands arrived in Tahiti. British missionaries were advisers to Tahiti's Queen Pomare IV, and the two Catholic missionaries were arrested and deported. France was displeased and demanded reparations. After six years a French warship arrived at Tahiti to arrest and deport the English missionary, the Reverend W T Pritchard, whom the French held responsible for the deportation of their missionaries.

Resistance to the French erupted on several islands. Tahiti's Queen Pomare IV fled to Raiatea. The British missionaries complained. The French gave assurances to Britain that Protestants would be allowed to do their work where the French were dominant. The British were busy in India and Afghanistan and satisfied that they controlled of the areas around New Zealand and Australia.

Queen Pomere

Tahiti's Queen Pomare IV. She was a Christian educated by British missionaries, a friend of the British and resented her loss of power to the French.

In the Marquesas Islands, about 850 miles northeast of Tahiti, whalers and other whites at the main port of the islands were defying the local chief, who was allied with the French. The chief asked the French to intervene. The French obliged, and in late 1842 the Marquesas Islands became another French protectorate.

The French were less successful in the islands of New Caledonia (in Melanesia, between Australia and the Fiji Islands). There, Catholic missionaries arrived in 1843 and father Pierre Chanel was killed and eaten. Because of his martyrdom he was to become Oceania's first saint. In 1853, France would annex the main island among the islands of New Caledonia, and there they would establish a penal colony, and occasionally the French would be the targets of violence by hostile local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, back in Society Islands, including Tahiti, the French were facing trouble. The French had declared the area a French protectorate in 1843, while only a minority supported French domination. Between 1844 and 1847 bloody battles were fought for freedom from French rule, a war that involved every kingdom among the Society Islands. The freedom fighters requested help from the British, which was not forthcoming. With their superior firepower the French crushed the rebellion. The French were unable to make annexations in the area because of diplomatic pressure from Great Britain, so Tahiti and Moorea continued to be ruled by the French as a protectorate. A clause to the war settlement was that Queen Pōmare's allies in Huahine, Raiatea, and Bora Bora would be allowed to remain independent. Queen Pomare IV returned to Tahiti and ruled under French domination from 1847 to 1877.

In Tahiti during the US Civil War, cotton plantations were attempted, and labor was imported from southern China. The plantations were soon abandoned, but the Chinese remained, some becoming traders or growers of crops, and some of them eventually blended with the Polynesians.


A History of the Pacific Islands, by I.C. Campbell, University of California Press, 1989.

Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress, Chapter Eighteen, "In the Pacific," by Jan Morris, 2003

Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian islands, by Gavan Daws, MacMillan Company, 1968.

The Oxford History of New Zealand, Geoffrey W Rice ed. , Oxford University Press, 1992.

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander, 2003.

Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Part 3), by Lawrence James, 1997

Christianity, a Global History, by David Chidester, 2001.

The Oxford History of New Zealand, by Geofferey W. Rice, 1992

A History of the Pacific Islands, by IC Campbell, 1989

On this site: Christianity to Oceania

Additional Reading

Queen Pomare and Her Country, by Reverand George Pritchard, 1878, digitalized and made available online by Google

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