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Easter Island Travel Guide

Statue of St. Peter
Statue of St. Peter, patron saint of fisherman, at Caleta Hanga Roa.

History of Easter Island

The Colonial Period

In 1883 Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific. With their new imperial power, the Chileans annexed Easter Island in 1888, erroneously believing that the island would become a port of call after the opening of the Panama Canal. Their lack of knowledge is illustrated by plans to open a naval base when no potential for harbor construction existed on the island. As this became apparent, they leased most of it to a British wool operation, which ran the island as a company estate until the lease was revoked in 1953.

The tens of thousands of sheep devastated the vegetation, causing soil erosion, and stones were torn from the archaeological sites to build walls and piers. During this long period, the Rapanui were forbidden to go beyond the Hanga Roa boundary wall without company permission, to deter them from stealing the sheep.

In 1953 the Chilean Navy took over and continued the same style of paternal rule. The islanders remained confined to the area around Hanga Roa until 1966. After local protests, the moderate Christian Democratic government of Chile permitted the election of a local mayor and council in 1965.

Elections were terminated by Pinochet's 1973 military coup, and Easter Island, along with the rest of Chile, suffered autocratic rule until the restoration of democracy in 1990. In 1984 archaeologist Sergio Rapu became the first Rapanui governor of Easter Island, and all subsequent governors have also been Rapanui.

The 1993 filming of Kevin Costner's US$20 million epic Rapa Nui brought the world to Easter Island in the way the 1962 filming of Mutiny on the Bounty transformed Tahiti.

Continue to   History: Rapa Nui Today   »