Gambier Islands

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Mangareva Cathederal. Successful Jesuit priests from the Gambier Islands moved on to Tahiti.
Pacific Island Guide  >  French Polynesia  >  Gambier Islands

General Information

Gambier Islands or Mangareva.  The Mangareva Islands, or Iles Gambier, are volcanic islands which lie at the eastern end of the Tuamotu Archipelago about 900 miles from Tahiti. The inhabited islands comprise Mangareva, Taravai, Aukena, and Akamaru, with some smaller islands which are surrounded by an outer coral reef through which there are three deep passages. On the bounding reef there are a number of coral islets. Short valleys on the main islands have fertile soil capable of growing cultivated plants.
Native traditions indicate that the earliest settlers filtered through from the Tuamotus.  Bananas, sweet potatoes, taros, and yams were also introduced, and as they do not grow in the neighboring Tuamotu atolls, they were probably introduced from the Marquesas, as was the paper mulberry, for clothing.

The staple food of the islands is fermented breadfruit. The pig was present in the past, for it appears as a historical memory, but neither the dog nor the fowl was present. In the course of time, canoes were succeeded by rafts, both for fishing and inter-island transport.

The majority are Protestant. LDS Missionaries have begun to work here. These atolls have a population of about 6,500 people.
 France’s creation of a protectorate for Tahiti in 1871 and the departure of Father Laval brought about an end to theocracy in the Gambiers. Today Gambier's main industry is jewellery-making of mother-of-pearl.
Taken from Christianity, which continues to play an important part in their lives. Currently, 55 per cent of the population is Protestant, about 30

They are: Mangareva (Pearl), Taravai (Belcher), Temoe, Aukena (Elson), and Akamaru (Wainwright)

Historical Background

1300 Native tradition says Tupa arrived from Iva  and introduced the breadfruit, coconut, and other trees. He also introduced the worship of the god Tu and the building of maraes.

1400 Much of the lush forestation on Magareva was depleted.

1500-1800 Civil war and cannibalism happened on the islands.

1800-1850 Whaling ships stopped here..

1823 Frederick Beechey entered the lagoon of the Gambier Islands.
1834 The arrival of Father Honoré Laval, Father François Caret and Friar Columban Murphy of the Belgian Jesuit order of priests.  

The missionaries had learned enough of the language to attempt the conversion of Te Maputeoa, their progress was slow. The king thought they should perform some of the miracles of which they had told him. He suggested that they walked on the lagoon. Laval replied that only God could do that. The time had now come for the king to go to the island of Taravai to hold court on disputes concerning boundaries of family land. The high priest insisted that Laval and his colleagues should go along with the king.  The court convened under a huge sacred banyan tree that still stands at Taravai. While the proceedings dragged on, Laval asked permission to pray. As it was granted, the high priest gave a signal and warriors ran forward with their spears levelled at the kneeling missionaries. Laval and his companions kept on praying.
Legend credits the women of the Gambier Islands for saving Laval and bringing about the turning point in the history of that country. Shouting, the women rushed forward, shielding with their own bodies the menaced missionaries. Amid the confusion, Laval calmly finished his prayer then arose and coolly wrote down in a note book the names of the natives who had intervened to protect him. The high priest disappeared never to return.
The king ordered the notebook brought to him. The missionaries paid no attention. When he repeated the order, Laval replied that if the king wanted his name in the book, he would have to come to them. And the king came. It was from that moment that Pere Laval was the virtual of the Gambiers and stayed that way for the whole of his day.
Under his rule, the stone images of the ancient gods were shattered; the temple platforms destroyed; and the natives brought into complete subjugation to Laval. It was said that there were 9,000 inhabitants when Laval began his reign and by 1843 only about 1,500 remained, of whom only two families were said to be the sole survivors of the ancient Mangarevan stock.
For as time went on, Laval's zeal seemed to have approached madness. The people were forced to wear modest garments and without protest they accepted the teachings of the new God, who, they thought, might be another manifestation of their own. Christian marriage came for the first time to the Gambiers. The customary freedom of the younger folk were forbidden and a native police force, directed by Laval, inflicted severe penalties for infringements of his moral code.

1836 Caret and Murphy leave for Tahiti and Laval becomes the ruler.  He installed a code of strict moral laws and forced the natives to dress. over more than a decade, he inforces a huge building program, resulting in some 116 coral and stone buildings, including a 1.200 seat cathedral (Saint-Michel) was build in Rikitea, the largest in French Polynesia. During his rule, 5,000 of the 6,000 native people died. And the people died.
The entire population of Mangareva was not sufficient for the labours which Laval had set them to do. So, as the story is told, he had the people of neighbouring islands brought en masse to Mangareva to join in the work.
And still the people died.
Forced labour, unaccustomed clothes, the punishments inflicted by the ecclesiastical police, the sudden reversal of established customs, the enforced sterility in the convents and monasteries that he built for native converts, and tuberculosis induced by living within stone walls, all are believed to have contributed to the depopulation of the islands.
But more than anything else, the cause must have lain in the hopelessness that overtakes a people when their entire cultural structure is uprooted. It is probable that many natives, in Laval's time, never really comprehended the principles of the faith he tried to give them, or found comfort in it.
As the tale is told, over five thousand people had died in ten years and the whole city that had been built now lies in ruins among the straggling vines of the encroaching jungle.
The situation on Mangareva may well have gone on for the rest of Laval's life, or until the last Mangarevan had perished. But secular influences intervened with Laval's rigid administration coming into conflict with sea captains and traders who resented his stringent laws and his monopoly of business. One Jean Dupuy had arrived in Mangareva as agent for a commercial firm. He had fallen foul of Laval's code and had been thrown in jail. Dupuy had smuggled a report to his employers, who complained to the governor in Papeete. Hence it came about that the Compte Emile de la Ronciere disembarked one day at Mangareva and was horrified at what he saw.
His first act was to order the prison opened. Among the prisoners who stumbled out were two small boys. They had been imprisoned for laughing while Mass was being held. Ronciere called for the records of vital statistics and as he read of the shrinking birth rate and the enormous toll of death his face grew even more grave. When he asked Laval what kind of government resulted in 5,000 deaths over ten years, Laval is reported to have replied "Ah, Monsieur le Compte, they have but gone more quickly to heaven."
Pere Laval was called to Tahiti by the Bishop and he died in Tahiti in 1880 and was buried in the Mission cemetery there.
1841 Hurricane in the Gambier Islands.

1862 Peruvian slave traders try to kidnap natives.  They discover Laval's desportic reign and report him.

1870 Laval is removed from Managareva and taken to Tahiti.  Only 463 native people are left on Mangareva.

1996 Of the 6,000 people in Mangareva, 55% are Protestant, 30% are Catholic, 6% are Mormon (Church of Jesus Christof Latter-day Saints), and 2% are Adventist.

Parts of the above story are from The Leaning Wind by Clifford Gessler, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1943

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