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 were these island groups named ? Here is a chance to discover the history while visiting the islands. Our guide is writer Patrick Chastel. He takes us to the Marquesas in this first segment of a three-part series.
On Friday, July 21 1595, the sun had risen over what was still called the South Seas, and for the passengers on the four ships, the horizon appeared just as void of land as in previous weeks.
However, towards the end of the afternoon and much to the surprise of those on board, the watchman atop the huge mast let out a long cry. Adelantado Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira was alerted that there was an island located to the northwest of the ship’s route. On the captain’s orders, San Jeronimo immediately shifted direction, followed by the rest of the fleet composed of Santa Isabel, San Felipe and Santa Catalina.
The 378 people, all of Spanish origin—including 98 women and children—who had embarked on all four ships, rejoiced at the relative speed (of just one month) which allowed them to sail from Callao, a port in Peru, to the Solomon Islands, the goal of this expedition.
Situated near present-day Papua New Guinea about 1,600km/995 miles northeast of Australia, Álvaro de Mendaña came across the Solomon Islands twenty-seven years earlier during his first voyage in 1568. At the time, the twenty-five-year-old captain had no qualms about braving this rarely frequented ocean in order to increase Spanish possessions and save the souls of South Sea “savages” who were still, as was believed at the time, truly in the hands of the devil. This second expedition was to secure the settlement and colonization of the remote Solomon Islands, while Alvaro de Mendaña y Neira would take possession of the islands in the name of the King of Spain.
Ever since, the term “Marquesas Islands” is all that remains. The English language retained the Spanish version and to this day, we refer to the archipelago as the Marquesas Islands. The Land of Humans archipelago, located in the northernmost part of French Polynesia, consists of eleven islands, of which only six are inhabited: Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou and Ua Huka to the north and Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva to the south.
The visit of these four Spanish ships to the Marquesas lasted only a fortnight. What followed was less fortunate. After a new month at sea, the ships reached the island of Santa Cruz, near the Solomon Islands. But the drama had begun shortly before with the sinking of Santa Isabel, causing the death of its 182 passengers. Once on land, tropical diseases took about fifty men, including Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira. His widow, Doña Isabel, took command of the expedition— which was an exceptional feat for that time—and continued en route to the Philippines. The voyage lasted three months and was marked by the disappearance of the ships San Felipe and Santa Catalina as well as by many deaths due to scurvy.
During a stopover in Manila, Doña Isabel married a nephew of the governor. They left for the coast of Peru on San Jeronimo, the only remaining ship from the expedition. They arrived at their destination at the end of 1596.
Next issue: Tuamotu and Gambier Islands
Unfortunately, bad news circulated quickly early the next morning as they approached the coast. The Adelantado, an honorary title which gave supreme authority over the expedition, found absolutely no resemblance between this land and the Solomon Islands, which he knew well enough to identify. It became obvious that this island was not the one they expected. Indeed, this was a new land. As the boats entered Omoa Bay on Fatu Hiva, the southernmost island of the Marquesas archipelago, they baptized the land Santa Magdalena after the Saint of the Day.
The arrival of these four ships marked the first time since its settlement ten centuries prior that te Fenua ‘Enata, the Land of Humans, came in contact with the existence of an outside world. No one disembarked during this stop; however, outrigger canoes approached San Jeronimo and “savages” climbed on board. Thefts made the crew angry and they used force and weapons to chase away the intruders.
The ships took back to the sea and made their way towards three islands visible to the northwest. Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira named the deserted island Motane San Pedro. Hiva Oa became Dominica and Tahuata, Santa Christina. At Santa Christina, the ships were able to set anchor in Vaitahu bay, which they named Madre de Dios bay (Mother of God).
The next morning, they held a mass on land. At the end of the service, Álvaro de Mendaña took possession of these four islands in the name of His most Catholic Majesty and King of Spain, Philip II. The Adelantado decided to name the islands Las Marquesas de Mendoza in honor of Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, the Marquis of Cañete and Viceroy of Peru, who was greatly in favor of this expedition and who authorized it.