A Brief Post-contact History of Easter Island

Easter Island’s long isolation was ended on Easter Sunday, 1722, when a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, discovered the island. He named it for the Holy day. One can only imagine the astonishment of the islanders as the first ships appeared on the horizon. The Dutch, in turn, were amazed by the great statues, which they thought were made from clay.

A Spanish Captain, Don Felipe Gonzales, was the next to land at Easter Island, in 1770. He claimed the island for the King of Spain. The famed English explorer, Captain James Cook, stopped briefly in 1774, and a French admiral and explorer, La Perouse, spent 11 hours on the island in 1786. These early visitors spent little actual time on the island. They were searching for water, wood, and food but the island had few of these items and it also lacked a safe anchorage. They soon sailed onward. None of the early visitors saw the famous quarry where the statues were carved. Some noted that the land seemed well-cultivated, with fields neatly laid out. Comments were made of the unusual boat-shaped houses, and nearly all mentioned the lack of serviceable canoes.

At first contact with the Western world, curiosity and the desire for exotic items resulted in the islanders greeting visitors eagerly. But the behavior of the Europeans was unpredictable and sometimes deadly. Over-excited islanders were assumed dangerous and some were shot for little or no reason. Such occurrences caused them to violently reject later-arriving ships, particularly if a previous one had caused trouble. All outsiders were undifferentiated: tangata hiva (man from elsewhere).

Western ships fascinated the Rapanui islanders who were dazed by the size of masts and the amount of wood. They inspected everything from cables to anchors. After one such inspection, islanders returned the next day with a long string and re-measured the ship; obviously some thought the original report had been exaggerated and demanded a recount!

In 1830, the captain of the ship Seringapatam described the islanders: the men are Copper colored, Athletic, tall and well made. I saw none [males] under five feet eight, and I measured one who was six feet three. The women and a few [of] the men are of a much lighter color. Their bodies are longer and the Pelvis narrower than those of England, or indeed in Civilized Europe; but their limbs, feet, hands, eyes and teeth are handsome and beautiful. The men have all good teeth also. . . . From the waist downwards, both before and behind, the women are most tastefully and beautifully tattooed.

Whalers also came in the 1800’s, looking for whales, water and women. Islanders eventually became infected with various diseases for which they had no immunity.

An American ship, Nancy, arrived in 1805. Her captain was looking for laborers for a seal-hunting colony in the Juan Fernandez group. They kidnapped 22 men and women, intending them as laborers to work on the island of Mas Afuera. After several days of sailing, the islanders were allowed on deck. The men immediately jumped overboard. Unable to recapture them, the crew shot at them. It is said that one man managed to swim back to the island; the others drowned. What happened to the women is unknown. Later on, other whaling ships kidnapped islanders when they needed to replace crew members, or desired women.

Disaster arrived in the 1860’s when Peruvian slavers came, looking for captives to sell in Peru. Easter Island was not the only island to suffer but it was the hardest hit because it was closest to the South American coast. Eight ships arrived to Easter Island in December 1862. About 80 seamen assembled on the beach while trade goods such as necklaces, mirrors and other items were spread out. At a signal, guns were fired and islanders were caught, tied up, and carried off to the ships. In the confusion, at least ten Rapanui were killed. A second and third landing was attempted in the following days, but defensive measures forced a retreat back to the ships. More than 1400 Rapanui islanders were kidnapped. Some were sold in Peru as domestic servants; others for manual labor on the plantations. Food was inadequate and discipline harsh; medical care was virtually non-existent. Islanders sickened and died. As word of the activities of the slavers spread, public opinion in Peru became hostile to this trade in human beings. Newspapers wrote angry editorials and the French Government and missionary societies protested. Convinced that the entire “immigration scheme” was damaging the reputation of Peru in the eyes of the rest of the world, the Peruvian Government announced that they would henceforth “prohibit the introduction of Polynesian settlers”.

Peru decided to send the captured islanders back. A barely seaworthy ship was selected to return them. Although large enough for 160 passengers, the Peruvians packed 470 islanders on board. The ship became an unsanitary pest-ridden hellhole, filled with smallpox and dysentery victims. By the time the ship sailed, 162 islanders had already died and many others were ill. The ship headed to Easter Island to drop off 100 Rapanui islanders. But when they reached the island, only fifteen were still alive. They were put ashore, along with smallpox. The resulting epidemic nearly wiped out the population. The ship sailed on to the west with its miserable cargo, headed to other islands that had been hard hit by the slaving trade.

The religious order, Societe de Picpus, was charged with “Christianizing” the Eastern Pacific. A grim picture had been described of the situation on Easter Island, and Eugene Eyraud, a lay member of the Sacred Hearts Congregation, responded. He landed with equipment to set up a proper mission but, in a short time, all his possessions were stolen and he became a virtual captive. He was rescued nine months later, in 1864. But, by 1866, Eyraud was back on Easter with backup: a priest from the Sacred Hearts order, Father Hippolyte Roussel. They were later joined by other priests and lay assistants.

For the disheartened islanders, the food and medicines provided by the missionaries were an incentive for conversion. Such exotics as horses and wheelbarrows were introduced. They taught the islanders, and converted them to a western lifestyle. But the Rapanui continued to die from introduced diseases. Eyraud himself died of tuberculosis.

A French sea captain and former officer in the Crimean Army, Jean-Baptiste Onexime Dutrou-Bornier, was the captain who brought the two French missionaries to the island. He quickly visualized the opportunities on a largely unpopulated island without European jurisdiction, and he returned in 1868 with plans to take over the island. He bought up land in exchange for trivial gifts, built a fancy wooden house, proclaimed himself lord of the island, and took a Rapanui wife. Two daughters were born; their descendants still live on the island today.

Meanwhile, the missionaries established a church and school at the village, Hangaroa, (then known as Sainte Marie de Rapanui). Dutrou-Bornier cooperated with the missionaries at first, but found himself at war with them when they objected to his claim of authority over the islanders. He wanted to ship islanders to Tahitian plantations, but the missionaries had their own plans to ship the Rapanui to missions in southern Chile or Mangareva. For three years they skirmished. Then he led a group of his supporters against the missionaries. Buildings were burned and crops destroyed. The missionaries were recalled. Later, the island was further depopulated, as many Rapanui were induced to leave for other islands: nearly 200 went to Tahiti to work on plantations and another 150 were moved to the Gambier Islands. Only about 175 islanders remained under Dutrou-Bornier’s control, and the island was turned into one vast sheep ranch. In 1877, Dutrou-Bornier’s reign ended when he was murdered by islanders.

The first Chilean ship to come into Rapa Nui was the Colo-Colo, in 1837. It was some 40 years before another official Chilean visit. On the continent, in 1877, Chile was warring with Peru and Bolivia over borders. Although Chile had (on paper) the most warships in the Pacific, she desired to acquire other symbols of power and her attention was drawn to the only unclaimed inhabited island in the South Pacific. In 1888 a Chilean Captain, Policarpo Toro Hurtado, took formal possession of the island in the name of the Republic of Chile. Twelve Rapanui chiefs ceded sovereignty to Chile “for ever”.

It was believed that the island had agricultural as well as strategic potential as a naval station but, until World War II, the Chilean government had little interest in it. The whole island had been turned into a sheep ranch, and all the Rapanui islanders were confined to Hangaroa village. A businessman from Chile, Enrique Merlet, took control of island by purchase, lease, and occupation. A wall was constructed around the village and islanders were forbidden to venture into the rest of the island without permission. To secure the wall, it was supplemented by guards, gates, and fencing. If islanders protested against forced labor, Merlet burned their crops. The Williamson-Balfour Company succeeded Merlet. Known as CEDIP (Compania Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua), it became the effective sovereign of Easter Island.

In 1868, J. Linton Palmer came on the HMS Topaze; Admiral Lapelin came on the La Flore in 1872, Lieutenant-Capt. Geiseler arrived on the Hyane in 1882, and the USS Mohican came to the island in 1886, bringing Paymaster Thomson. All of these visitors collected artifacts for various museums, including some statues that were laboriously removed from the island.

Like so many Polynesian islands, Easter Island was notorious for shipwrecks that ultimately impacted island life. Usually the effects (an increase in births) were felt in the months after the shipwrecked crews had been rescued. The Huntwell was wrecked in February 1871, leaving twelve men stranded on the island. The Indiaman sank off Easter on March 19, 1872, stranding some 30 persons on the island. It was two months before they were picked up by another ship. In 1892, when the Clorinda foundered off the island, survivors were stranded for three months.

A particularly interesting shipwreck occurred in 1913, another of those highly unlikely sagas of the Pacific. A five-masted schooner, El Dorado, broke apart during a storm some 2,700 miles [4,345 kilometers] off the coast of Chile. The captain and crew took to a lifeboat and headed for Easter Island, 700 miles [1,126 kilometers] to the northeast. After nine days, they caught sight of the island from 30 miles [48 kilometers] out. It took them another two days to reach the island through heavy seas. At that time there were fewer than 100 inhabitants left on the island. The ship’s captain, a Mr. Benson, noted that “[they] lived in terror of the thought that some day they may be removed from the island”. Benson commented on the handsome women, and observed that all the crewmen, including the Japanese cook, managed to have a “wife”. Crewmen were treated well by the women, but they complained of the daily fare: ram, lamb, sheep and mutton. After three months on the island, Benson was unwilling to remain longer. He and two of his crewmen sailed off in the ship’s lifeboat, and made it to Tahiti. Some months later, a British steamer rescued the rest of the crew.

Neither the general public on the continent nor the government of Chile paid much attention to Easter Island over the years. It was, simply, a Chilean colony. But life for the islanders was so grim that they revolted in 1914. By that time, living conditions on the island were appalling; islanders were deprived of their land and access to nearly all drinking water. People were without clothing and often food. If a despairing islander stole a sheep to feed his hungry children, he was deported to the mainland. Leprosy was endemic. In desperation the Rapanui petitioned the Chilean government to allow them to emigrate en mass to Tahiti.

A British anthropologist, Katherine Routledge, was on the island in 1914-15 and she observed the uprising. (See The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919). The event that triggered the revolt was a dream by an old prophetess named Angata who dreamed that the island once again belonged to the islanders, and a symbolic feast was to be celebrated. At this news, islanders ranged over the previously out-of-bounds parts of the island, slaughtered animals, and broke into warehouses. A small party of foreigners on the island were under siege at Mataveri, just south of Hangaroa village. Rescue came in the form of the ship Banquedano whose captain restored order. However, he was highly critical of the ranch management and thought the Rapanui had behaved very well not to murder the manager. Despite this, several young islanders were exiled to Chile. When Angata died, the revolt ended.

World War I brought the German fleet to Easter Island, although the island’s inhabitants were unaware of the conflict. The Germans purchased meat from the sheep ranch manager and offered to pay with either a check or gold. Unaware of the war, the check was accepted! The SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich came to the island with a captured French bark in tow. The Germans put the captain and crew of the French ship on shore, as well as some men from an English ship that had been sunk near the Horn. Two months later, a Swedish steamer appeared and took the English crew and most of the Frenchmen with them. Some, however, elected to stay and one married a Rapanui vahine.

The Chilean Bishop Rafael Edwards heard of the plight of the islanders, and came to see things for himself in 1916. He found the conditions desperate and shocking, and he laid responsibility directly on the sheep company which had given all the good water to stock, deprived the islanders of land, confined them to the village, and extracted forced labor from them. Edwards exposed these problems and his efforts resulted in termination of company rule.

As a typical visit from the outside, the ship Carnegie arrived at the island in the early 1920s. A ship had not been seen for six months. Islanders wearing cast-off clothing traded stone fishhooks, spear points, and woodcarvings for clothing, soap, and cigarettes. The Rapanui had no use for money as there was nothing to buy on the island. At that time houses were described as having dirt floors but made of lumber from wrecked vessels; windows were a rare luxury. As a rule, several families occupied a single house, living as one big family. Gourds were used as water vessels where the family had not acquired tin ware from trading. Stealing was punished by one hard day’s labor in the company garden. This punishment was an improvement over that meted out by a former governor who constructed a tight sentry-box and placed the culprit inside for a day. This torture chamber was so small the victim could not move enough to shoo away the flies.

It was during these years that significant changes were made to the island’s ecosystem. The sheep (at one time there were over 70,000) denuded the island. Alien trees, mostly eucalyptus, were planted for shade and windbreaks. Although a fast growing tree, eucalyptus trees shed bark, creating an acidic dry litter beneath the trees, and the roots draw the moisture of the soil away from less hardy native plants. Nothing will grow under them. By making such “improvements” on the land, sheep masters caused the final demise of the indigenous woodland. Various birds were introduced, such as a Chilean partridge and hawks. The latter were brought in to kill off rats and sparrows (which previously had been introduced and had become pests). However, the variety of hawk that was imported lacked an interest in sparrows, and seldom encountered the nocturnal rats. Without natural enemies, pests and predators all flourished.

An ethnologist, Alfred Metraux, came to Easter Island as part of the Franco-Belgian Expedition (1934-35). Accompanied by Henri Lavachery, an archaeologist, Metraux gathered legends, traditions, and myths along with information on the material culture; his work has become a standard reference for the island’s past. Metraux’s books resulted in focusing the world’s attention on the island (See Ethnology of Easter Island, 1971).

In the wake of World War II, the Chilean government exerted increasing state control, expecting to develop Easter Island as an agricultural supplier for the mainland. Little thought was given to its potential for tourism. Naval authorities took control of the island in 1952 because of its “overwhelming geo-strategic importance for national defense”. Naval rule simply perpetuated the method of keeping the island under the same autocratic administration that it had experienced since 1888. The Navy ran the island as if it were a ship. Military control was arbitrary and any hint of mutiny was dealt with. Islanders were still restricted to the village and the Navy had the necessary personnel and firepower to enforce the rules. Rapanui were frustrated and angry. Overbearing and often arrogant Naval Commanders had little regard for their Polynesian subjects, flogging wrongdoers and publicly shaving the heads of men and women who displeased them.

The Chilean Navy became the only link the islanders had with western civilization. Instead of a regular supply ship, it was a Navy ship; a Naval commissary replaced the company store. Some islanders were determined to leave their island prison. In 1954, three Rapanui men escaped in an open fishing boat. They planned their escape by hiding food and water at various places around the island and, when all was ready, they “went fishing”. Twenty-nine days later, nearly dead from thirst, they arrived to an atoll in the Tuamotus, 2,130 miles [3,428 kilometers] away. Others who tried this method of escape were not so fortunate. Most were never heard from again.

The Norwegian Archaeological Expedition came in 1955; it was the first to scientifically excavate sites and attempt to obtain absolute dates. The expedition was headed by Thor Heyerdahl, who previously had rafted from Peru across the sea to the Tuamotu Islands, far north of Easter Island. Heyerdahl’s work had an effect on scholarship for his books triggered much scientific research by others, determined to clarify the archaeological record (see Archaeology of Easter Island. Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, edited by Thor Heyerdahl and E.N. Ferdon Jr., 1961). One of the members of the Norwegian expedition, William Mulloy, returned to the island and was instrumental in re-erecting statues, restoring sites, and initiating an island-wide archaeological survey (see The Easter Island Bulletins of William Mulloy, 1997).

In 1964 a Canadian Medical Expedition (METEI) came to the island in time to witness another revolt. By this date, some islanders had been to the mainland, received an education, and knew that other Chileans could vote. They complained bitterly about Navy rule, travel restrictions, suppression of their language, unpaid labor, inability to vote, and arbitrary Naval decisions that could not be appealed. One islander, Alfonso Rapu, became a leader of this discontent.

News of political unrest reached the outside world. Then, on the second day of January, a French frigate just happened to appear off the island; she was on the way back to France via Valparai­so. The Chilean Navy, convinced that the French were about to take over the island, sent a warship with 40 marines. In the village, rumors spread that Rapu was in danger, and so he was swept up by a crowd of Rapanui women who ushered him into the METEI compound. Shots were fired by navy personnel, but Rapu escaped. Two days later new elections were ordered and Rapu won handily. These confrontations between islanders and the Chilean military were followed by an uneasy peace.

The Americans arrived and built a tracking station for monitoring French nuclear explosions in the Pacific. Weekly flights from Panama dropped materials by parachute and the US provided jobs for many islanders, and paid them money. Islanders became exposed to western ways and were allowed to purchase things from the post exchange. For the first time, currency became sought-after as the Rapanui were able to buy radios, American cigarettes, and other foreign items.

The airfield at Mataveri (just south of the village of Hangaroa) was completed in 1967, and then commercial flights began. It took nine hours from Santiago to Easter. In 1968 the route was extended to Tahiti. More than anything else, it was regular flights to and from the outside world that brought the most significant changes to the island. Today’s flights average five hours from either Santiago or Tahiti. Easter Island’s runway is the longest in Polynesia, having been extended to function as an emergency landing place for the U.S. Space Shuttle.

The village had piped water from wells in 1967 and electricity by the 1970s. Hotels replaced the tented hotel of the early days. Today the village is western rather than Polynesian and stores sell a variety of items. Such modern touches as cell phone, email, computers, video games, and direct TV from Chile mainland have appeared. Increased tourism and more islanders traveling abroad have expanded the horizons of islanders. Changes are apparent, and continuing. Covid-19 has added yet another huge round of changes to the island. Currently only residents can go to Easter Island, no foreign visitors are allowed.


Bahn, Paul and John Flenley. 1992. Easter Island, Earth Island. London: Thames and Hudson.

Thor Heyerdahl and E.N. Ferdon Jr. (eds.), 1961. Archaeology of Easter Island. Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, Santa Fe: School of American Research and Museum of New Mexico.

Lee, Georgia. 1990. An Uncommon Guide to Easter Island. Arroyo Grande, CA: International Resources.

Lee, G. 1992. The Rock Art of Easter Island: Symbols of Power, Prayers to the Gods. Monumenta Archaeologica 17. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology.

McCall, Grant. 1994. Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

McLaughlin, Shawn. 2007. The Complete Guide to Easter Island. Los Osos, CA: Easter Island Foundation.

Metraux, Alfred. 1971. Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Bulletin 160.

Mulloy, William. 1997. The Easter Island Bulletins of William Mulloy, New York: World Monuments Fund and Los Osos, CA: Easter Island Foundation.

Routledge, Katherine. 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island. London: Hazell, Watson and Viney.