The history of their names : The Tuamotu and Gambier Islands

The enchanting landscapes of the Tuamotu Islands, the largest archipelago in the country. Pictured is Fakarava atoll ©Benthouard.comIn the Tuamotu Islands, the pass at Rangiroa atoll ©Benthouard.comThe coastline of Tikehau atoll is typical of those seen in the Tuamotu Islands ©Benthouard.comFakarava atoll ©Benthouard.comBeach on Tikehau atoll ©Benthouard.comThe Tuamotu Islands—a world mainly comprised of ocean ©Benthouard.comThe archipelago has 77 atolls © P. Bacchet“Discovered” by European navigator Magellan in 1521, 500 years later the Tuamotu Archipelago is one of the top places to visit in our islands. Here is Tikehau atoll ©Benthouard.comPartial view of the Gambier Archipelago with its high islands © P. BacchetBeach on the island of Taravai in the Gambier Archipelago © P. BacchetJohn James Gambier (1756-1833), admiral of the Royal Navy fleet after whom the archipelago is named © DRRikitea Cathedral built between 1839 and 1858 © P. BacchetFakarava atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago ©Benthouard.comAukena Island in the Gambier Archipelago © P. BacchetRangiroa atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago © P. Bacchet
5/5 - (4 votes)

French Polynesia has five archipelagoes. Each one has its own language, topography and particularities as well as its own name. However…when, how and why did these island groups receive their names? Here is a chance to discover the history while visiting the islands. Our guide is writer Patrick Chastel. He takes us to the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands in this second segment of a three-part series.


Strangely enough, despite the Tuamotus being at a much lower sea level than the high islands, the first European navigators to venture the South Seas spotted them before the Marquesas. Indeed, nautical charts soon revealed the presence of atolls in this immense stretch of water, thanks to Fernand de Magellan during his attempt to travel around the world in 1519. This great navigator discovered the strait between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America that bears his name. Afterwards, Magellan entered the Pacific which he named because he found it surprisingly calm after brutal weeks spent in the maze of canals that separate the two oceans. In 1521. Magellan sailed the high seas and saw an atoll. Without stopping, he named it San Pablo, which for a longtime was thought to have been Puka Puka atoll, but now it is believed to be Fakahina.

He saw other islands which seemed to him as deserted and uninhabited as the first. Convinced of a lack of any interests or resources, he named all of them the “Unfortunate Islands.” Continuing his journey, Magellan was the first to come across the Philippine Islands, named in honor of the future King of Spain, Philip II. Unfortunately, Magellan died in this archipelago on the island of Samar in 1522 when he intervened in a conflict between natives. Other Spanish expeditions in the South Pacific followed, sometimes ending dramatically like in the case of the caravel San Lesmes, which grounded on a reef in 1526. The 70 surviving crewmen found refuge on an atoll, but it was never known which one. In 1606, Pedro Fernández de Quirós, chief pilot of Álvaro de Mendaña’s expedition to the Solomon Islands, spotted several Tuamotu atolls. He even made a short stop at Hao before continuing on his way to what would become Vanuatu. Ten years later, Takaroa, Takapoto, Manihi and Rangiroa atolls were recognized for the first time during the expedition of Dutchmen Jacob Le Maire and brothers Willem and Jan Schouten.

In 1765, an English expedition led by commodore John Byron circled Napuka and Tepoto atolls, which he named “Disappointment Islands.” He stocked up on supplies, namely coconuts, on Takaroa and Takapoto, which he named “King George Islands,” after the British sovereign. Sailing to Tahiti in 1768 with the ships La Boudeuse and l’Étoile, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville ventured into the middle of the atolls. He had no interest in visiting this group of islands, which he appropriately named the “Dangerous Archipelago.” Indeed, the reefs under the surface of the water—often only visible at the last moment—plus strong currents between the atolls, regularly caused numerous groundings and shipwrecks.

Out of all these different names that European navigators assigned over the years, the only one that remained was the one used by the inhabitants of these islands: the Tuamotus. It is the most extensive archipelago in French Polynesia with 77 atolls. Whereas in Tahitian the word motu means island, the word tua can be translated as either “open sea,” “high seas,” as in “islands in the open sea.” In a more ancient sense, it means “numerous, multiple, in large quantities.” Thus, the word Tuamotu would have the same meaning as the word “Polynesia,” which is Greek for “numerous islands.”


To the extreme east of the Tuamotu Islands is the Gambier archipelago, whose largest island is Mangareva. The Gambier Islands are distinguishable from the Tuamotus due to their high mountain relief. In 1797 the English ship Duff, commanded by Captain James Wilson, was on its way to Tahiti. The journeys of Wallis and Cook made it possible to gain better knowledge of this part of the world and stirred the interest of religious authorities in Great Britain. About twenty young missionaries from the London Missionary Society were on board, charged with the task of evangelizing these distant islands which geographers soon named Oceania. On route, Duff came across a small group of islands that the navigators had not mentioned. The captain did not stop, but decided to name them the Gambier Islands in honor of Baron John James Gambier, Admiral of the Royal Navy fleet and ardent defender of the missionaries’ actions throughout the world.Wilson named the highest point of Mangareva Mount Duff after his ship. It looks over Rikitea, the main village and capital of this archipelago of six islands and numerous islets. The Duff reached Tahiti on March 5, 1797 and cast anchor into Matavai Bay. The arrival of the missionaries from the London Missionary Society has remained a very important day in French Polynesia, as it marks the day the Gospel arrived in the country. It is a public holiday celebrated every year.

Patrick Chastel

Next edition: The Society Islands and the Australs