Bringing together mountains, lagoons, and motu, this archipelago is off the beaten path yet offers visitors the most beautiful attractions of the French Polynesian islands
At 1 700 Km (1056 mi) east of Tahiti, the Gambier Archipelago makes up the easternmost point of French Polynesia. After a long flight over the Pacific in order to reach these remote lands, arriving here exposes all the majesty of this little piece of Polynesia as a group of islands unfolds in a vast lagoon. The outlines of the lagoon appear clearly to the north and east, yet almost fade away at the southern and western points. The archipelago consists of the remains of a huge volcanic edifice that was first under water before rising through the surface. Today, the lagoon marks out its contours. For hundreds of thousands of years, eruptions, cataclysmic collapses, erosions and changes in sea level have made most of this mass disappear, leaving the remaining five main high islands and eighteen islets and motu. Mangareva, Akamaru, Kamaka, Taravai and Aukena are the main islands of the Gambier Archipelago. Dominated by Mounts Duff and Mokoto, the two “roofs” of the archipelago, Mangareva is the most populated with the district of Rikitea on the east coast where most of the residents are concentrated. To the northeast is a succession of motu, of which the main one, Totegegie, houses the airport, permitting flight service to the archipelago. Between all these islands, the blues of the lagoon become lighter.
Populated by the 11th century
According to the latest research, the Polynesians inhabited the archipelago by the 11th century AD during a great human migration to settle this area of the South Pacific. Here, Polynesians developed a specific society and culture, notably, but not exclusively, through language. The extent of the complexity of their social organization, arts, and religion is today a source of wonder and inquiry. In particular, the mysterious beauty of the tiki (anthropomorphic representations of gods and religions) distinguishes the art. Similarities have been established between these islands and the cultures of the Marquesas and the Cook Islands as far as language and the creation of religious structures. These common points indicate the exchanges and ties that existed in pre-European times between Polynesian islands despite long distances. Unfortunately, only a few traces and little evidence remain from this Gambier civilization, but researchers and archeologists are working to find out more. Although Polynesians occupied these lands as early as the 11th century, it took until May 24, 1797 for Europeans to see the archipelago for the first time.
The Gambier also became a stopover for whaling ships that traveled all over the South Pacific. The richness of the mother-of-pearl and fine pearls of the lagoon whetted the appetites of traders, adventurers, and traffickers of the colonial era, who exploited all of these resources to the point of excess without any real benefits coming back to the island communities. However, a turning point in recent history is the year 1834 when French Catholic missionaries from the order of the Friars of the Sacred Heart of Picpus set foot onto the shores of the Gambier Islands. Under the passionate leadership of Father Laval, they managed to convert the entire population to Catholicism over the course of a few years. Until 1871, the Fathers dominated all areas of social, economic and spiritual life in the archipelago and turned it into a stronghold of Catholicism. They built the first cathedral of the South Pacific on the island of Mangareva, St. Michel of Rikitea. However, this influence entered into conflict with the aims of the colonial administration, which in 1891, forever annexed the archipelago to France.
Opening out onto the ocean at several points, and sometimes reaching significant depths, the lagoon certainly stands out for its beauty. However, it is also known for the abundance and vitality of its fauna and flora, a fact that is recognized by scientists and specialists. Within this panorama, one must also mention Temoe atoll, which is administratively dependent upon the archipelago. 45km (28 mi) to the east, this uninhabited island rich in archeological sites dating back to the pre-European era, is the true border of French Polynesia. Through extending the Temoe-Gambier axis, you’ll find Pitcairn Island at 500 km (310 mi) away, and farther still, the famous Easter Island, Rapa Nui. Located under the Tropic of Capricorn and therefore much farther south than the Society Islands, the archipelago enjoys a climate that is not as tropical, with lower average yearly temperatures. During July, August, and September, which are winter months in the southern hemisphere, it can be chilly due to the eastern and southern winds that prevail over the archipelago. Visitors need not be taken by surprise and should pack clothes for cooler weather. However, this climate is far from unpleasant. It is invigorating. It also promotes the growth of abundant and diverse vegetation.
Carrying protestant missionaries from the London Missionary Society to Tahiti, the crew on the English Captain Wilson’s ship saw the archipelago, but did not land. However, Wilson still named the archipelago after the Royal Navy officer, James Gambier, who was a strong supporter of the LMS. The highest mountain they saw, they named after the Duff, the ship partaking in the expedition. From the early 19th century, contacts increased between the inhabitants of the archipelago and visitors from the outside. Encounters and civilization clashes ensued with negative consequences from the introduction of firearms, alcohol, and especially diseases, from which the population had no immunities. The epidemics that followed, as well as the exodus of the youngest islanders, contributed to the depopulation of the archipelago, which had about 2200 people at the beginning of the 19th century to about 500 by the end.
A unique journey
Today, the Gambier Islands have a population of about 1400, and for the past 20 years, have undergone economic and demographic growth. The significant development of pearl farming has brought real prospects for young generations of Islanders. Very attached to their islands, residents of the Gambier Islands want to work and live there while preserving their unique quality of life. Modernity brought itself into these islands at the end of the world; however, Islanders maintain and transmit their traditions, and in particular, reo mangareva, the language spoken in the archipelago. At last, there has been a shift in awareness about the importance of tourism, an endeavor that has strong advantages due to the beauty of the archipelago, its rich history, and the existence of a constructed legacy inherited from Christianity. Therefore, there are many reasons visitors from all over the world should come to this archipelago on a quest for a unique experience and a one-of-a-kind journey.
On the trail of the adventurers of faith
“Providence will take care of you!” was the sentence pitched at the missionary fathers of the order of the Sacred Heart of Picpus when they embarked from the French port of Bordeaux in January 1834 on their way to the Polynesian islands. In the early 19th century when Europeans had just “discovered” the South Pacific, this appeal to divine protective forces did not seem so useless since evangelization seemed so risky for the four “Picpusiens,” Fathers Laval, Liausu, Caret, and Murphy. Their mission: to diminish paganism in these remote and unknown islands. Thus began one of the most significant pages of evangelism of the Polynesian islands and more specifically, in the South Pacific. This is a revealing history of contact as well as the confrontation between European and Polynesian civilizations during this 19th century marked by colonial expansion of the greatest European powers. This expansion occurred in many places and in accordance with the French expression, it was the alliance of the “sword and the church” in regards to military and missionary powers.
On this same island, there are also lesser-known remains, but not less moving. The boy’s school, built in 1858 under the leadership of the missionaries, is still intact. At the head of this community was the extraordinary Père Laval. Charismatic, energetic, passionate, and authoritarian, he managed to convert the population of the archipelago with a lot of skill and cunning; but also through knowledge he quickly acquired about pre-European Mangarevan society. It was a society he intended to convert and deeply change in order to expulse any aspects considered pagan; however, it was a society that fascinated him. In his writings, he carefully recorded the results of his observations. He also translated the bible into Mangarevan, which permitted the language to be exposed and preserved. However, as it often happened, it is through stone that Catholic missionaries decided to engrave the new order they established in the Gambier Islands. From 1840 to1870, more than a hundred religious structures, also for common use in the archipelago, were built under the leadership of those who were called the “builder monks.” This was a unique project throughout French Polynesia. Today, the archipelago is representative of this unusual legacy that is evident from island to island. The first stone church of the South Pacific is in Aukena: Saint Raphael of Aukena, blessed in October 1839.
The Picpus Fathers arrived on the small island of Akamaru in the Gambier Islands on August 7, 1834 in a Polynesian society that was still unspoiled and secluded. If the islands were indeed “discovered,” or rather, seen for the first time by Europeans in 1797, it was not until 1826 that Europeans truly landed on the shores of the archipelago with the arrival of the English explorer Beechey. The Catholic missionaries quickly moved to convert the entire population of the archipelago. They celebrated their first mass on August 15, 1834. It was only two years later that they managed to obtain the conversion of the king of the Gambier Islands, Maputeao, who was then baptized and took the name Gregorio. For almost 40 years, the missionaries controlled social and spiritual life on the archipelago through instilling a theocracy to the extent that daily life was dictated by religious commandments.
Between these walls, the teachings bestowed upon young Mangarevan boys still resonate between the walls. A few meters away from there, visitors can find an imposing well-preserved lime kiln, evidence of the importance of this material that was used to build religious structures and homes throughout the archipelago. On the main high islands of the archipelago, visitors can discover chapels, religious structures, schools, and various buildings that go back to this era. A journey on the trail of the adventurers of faith leads to Akamaru Island with its magnificent little church of Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) then onto the island of Taravai and St. Gabriel’s church. This is a journey that would not be complete without discovering a main outcome of stone and faith—St. Michel of Rikitea Cathedral, the first in all of the South Pacific. Completed and blessed in 1841, it represents a true challenge due to its size as well as the construction techniques that were necessary to build it. The church was completely restored between 2010 and 2011, which allowed it to regain all of its former splendor.
Perles, la richesse de l'archipel
Famous and reputed the world over, the Tahitian cultured pearl—its official name—is also in great part a pearl of the Gambier Islands. For more than thirty years, the archipelago has been one of the top places for pearl farming. As soon as the Polynesian pearl adventure began in the 1970s, the Gambier Islands welcomed pioneers of this endeavor convinced of the huge potential held within the archipelago’s immense lagoon to raise pearl oysters, the famous pinctada margaritifera of the Cumingii variety. After prolonged labor with underwater farming, followed by different grafting operations, the latter generated the famous Tahitian pearl. A pearl is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a black pearl; while, conversely, it is distinguished by its amazing range of colors: cherry, pistachio, golden brown, shades of gray and white. Pearls from the Gambier Islands are in fact renowned for their colors and particular nuances. Evidently, the archipelago’s protected ecology and the excellent environmental health of the lagoon are determining factors of this success. However, these factors must not overshadow the hard work, expertise and passion of the people, which equally play a part in the incomparable luster of the Gambier Island pearls. Today, there are more than 80 pearl farms in the archipelago. They employ more than 70% of the population, which is about 700 people. This has a considerable economic impact across the territory, and is also one of the origins of both an economic and social revival. Until the late 1980s, Islanders, especially the young, often left their homelands to head to Tahiti “the capital island” with its many jobs, particularly in administration. This attraction to the “city lights” has been replaced by the shine and luster of Mangarevan pearls. Nowadays, the Gambier Islands welcome French Polynesians from other islands, such as the nearby Tuamotus. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, the archipelago had barely 500 inhabitants. With the pearl boom, they were already more than 1,000 in 1987 and 1,400 in 2012. The vast majority of the pearl farms are located in the northwest part of the archipelago’s lagoon. This area is sheltered from strong waves and winds due to the dominant long natural barrier provided by the island of Mangareva. This place offers a striking canvas with thousands of buoys dotting the lagoon. The buoys mark the long underwater lines dangling with strands of mother-of-pearl, called stations in pearl culture jargon. The boats and barges of the pearl farmers skillfully weave in and out of this colorful maze, as they shuttle endlessly between the underwater “fields” and farms of different sizes, built on the lagoon to be as close as possible to the oysters. Divers, bundled up in their gear, raise the lines and separate out the oysters that must be periodically cleaned. Despite improvements over time, pearl farming remains a difficult endeavor and results are random. Pearl oysters must remain under water for many months so that the layer of mother-of-pearl placed over the pearl reaches the desired thickness. Even though raised in high-scale production, the oyster is still a very delicate animal full of mysteries. The slightest change in its fragile marine environment or outbreaks in disease can jeopardize several years’ worth of work. The islanders accept these obstacles and risks because the pearl, in addition to its beautiful radiance, gives them the invaluable opportunity to live on their native islands to which they are deeply attached.