Easter Island Flag

Easter Island Travel Guide

Rock Carving
Rock carving of a European ship,
Rano Raraku quarry.

History of Easter Island

European Contact

European impact on Easter Island was among the most dreadful in the history of the Pacific. When Jacob Roggeveen arrived on Easter Sunday 1722, there were about 4,000 Rapanui (though the population had once been as high as 20,000). Roggeveen's landing party opened fire and killed a dozen islanders; then the great white explorer sailed off.

González (1770), Cook (1774), and La Pérouse (1786) were the next to call, but contacts with whalers, sealers, and slavers were sporadic until 1862 when a fleet of eight Peruvian blackbirders kidnapped some 1,400 Rapanui who were sold as slaves to big landowners on the continent. Among those taken were the king and the entire learned class. Missionaries and diplomats in Lima protested to the Peruvian government, and eventually 15 surviving islanders made it back to their homes, where they sparked a deadly smallpox epidemic.

French Catholic missionaries took up residence on Easter Island in 1866 and succeeded in converting the survivors; businessmen from Tahiti arrived soon after and acquired property for a sheep ranch.

Both groups continued the practice of removing Rapanui from the island: the former sent followers to their mission on Mangareva, the latter sent laborers to their plantations on Tahiti. Returnees from Tahiti introduced leprosy. By 1877 the total population had been reduced to 110. One of the business partners, Jean Dutrou-Bornier, had the missionaries evicted in 1871 and ran the island as he wished until his murder by a Rapanui in 1876. The estate then went into litigation, which lasted until 1893.

Continue to   History: Colonial Period   »