If you type “Easter Island” in your preferred browser, your search results will overwhelmingly be aimed towards travel and tourism. Click after click will have you “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” at the beauty that is delicately provided to you by the many tour sites luring you into their web space. You’ll probably get so engulfed in everything that is being promised to you from this seemingly luxurious destination that you’ll forget how little you actually know about Easter Island. It is undeniable that from other popular destinations around the world, Easter Island’s story is one that is seldom mentioned. Feels eerie now, doesn’t it? So, what exactly is the deal with Easter Island?
Easter Island or as it’s also known, Rapa Nui, is a part of Polynesia, but it is officially a territory of Chile. This island in the Pacific Ocean has been tossed around a copious amount of times, often compromising the culture of the Rapa Nui people.
Rapa Nui was undetected for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1722 when it was stumble upon by the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen. He had been in search of the mythical land, Terra Australis when he bumped into this land. Roggeveen landed on Easter Sunday or April fifth of that year, hence the birth of the name of the island. From then on, Easter Island started appearing on maps. After his contribution to geography, Roggeveen continued on his original voyage. Of course, this new addition to the map stirred up excitement among other curious explorers.
Many explorers tried to take over and settle in Easter Island in the years that followed. However, most of them would leave because they wouldn’t find many things of value while on the island. Sometimes these potential settlers wouldn’t even find food or water to logically sustain civilization. This is exactly what the hopeful British settler, James Cook, wrote about when he arrived at Rapa Nui. There seemed to be nothing.
Though most left the island without thinking twice about it, some did stay and try to use the limited resources the island had. To Easter Island’s misfortune, a group of Peruvian smugglers invaded the island in 1862. These smugglers decided to use the natives as slaves. They’d round up as many as they could and send them to work in Chincha. These smugglers even enslaved the literate leaders of the tribes, which would later have a negative effect on the preservation of Easter Island’s culture. This was the first time Easter Island was abused in such a cruel manner, but definitely not the last time. Thankfully, there was international intervention causing the smugglers to put an end to their atrocities. If only that would have undone the damage that had been caused by these people. But sometimes things don’t work out how people envision them. So, instead of having the previously enslaved people of Rapa Nui return to the island unharmed, most of them didn’t even make it back. On top of that, those that did make it back brought diseases with them. This also wiped a large portion of the Rapa Nui population as they all lacked immunity from foreign illnesses.
Despite all the obstacles the people of Rapa Nui had to endure, they still remained loyal to their land. Sadly, their perseverance wasn’t always met with favorable outcomes. They faced a point of no return on September 9th of 1888 when Chile decided to take over the island. The worst part of this situation was that the people of Rapa Nui weren’t provided the proper information on this transaction.
Two contracts were drawn out — one in Spanish and one in Rapa Nui. The Spanish version stated that Chile was going to have complete control of Easter Island, while the one in Rapa Nui said this was going to be an agreement solely for the purpose of the protection of the island and the friendship between two territories. Not being able to understand the Spanish version of the deed, the king of Easter Island at that time, Atamu Tekena, agreed. Chile, without a doubt, lied in order to conquer Easter Island.
Since Chile started out in such a malicious way, there was not much to expect from them. They wanted power and nothing more. In fact, Chile made this clear a few years after they took over Easter Island.
In 1903, Easter Island was practically leased to a Chilean-Scottish company named, Williamson, Balfour & Co., a shipping company that also raised sheep. Everything went downhill once this company released over 70,000 sheep into the island and kept the Rapa Nui people secluded in one section of the island. They cut off the natives from most of their homeland because they didn’t want the people of Rapa Nui to steal the sheep. This situation caused Chile to become complicit to one of the most unfair circumstances Rapa Nui ever faced.
These inhumane conditions came to an end when World War II was underway in 1936 and wool trade was diminished because of it. Regardless of what was going on, this company continued to inhabit Easter Island. It took twenty more years for Williamson, Balfour, & Co. to finally become obsolete and leave the island. At that point, the Chilean Navy took complete control. However, this new leadership didn’t cause any relief to the people of Rapa Nui.
The Chilean Navy forbade the natives to speak their language — the Rapa Nui Language. This caused the Rapa Nui Language to become virtually nonexistent. Aside from that, the Navy didn’t contribute to a better quality of life for the Rapa Nui. After all of the injustices they had experienced, the people of Rapa Nui eventually started demanding for a more humane treatment. This led to them being able to choose their own mayor and having the opportunity to be tax exempt from the land they owned. In the end, it was determined that only natives could own Rapa Nui land.
It is important to note that despite the island’s conditions, its natives and descendants never left. This was partially due to the fact that they used faith to support their decisions. They’ve consistently hoped for the best and placed most of their faith in the spiritual energy or “mana” of influential people who had passed away. Due to this, they let the “mana” guide them to prosperity, regardless of how their situation may look around them. Being that faith is such an important topic for them, they felt the need to exhibit it as loudly as possible. This is how the moais came into Easter Island.
As a way to express their devotion towards “mana,” the Rapa Nuis built large statues, now known as moais, all over the island. The moais were sculpted by the Rapu Nuis and perfected throughout time. These pieces of art started out small and became larger as the natives obtained more skills. These majestic statues were placed facing the villages most of the time, although they were also faced looking into the sea to serve as protection from any exterior forces. Of course, this was all based on their beliefs.
Since the Rapa Nuis placed so much faith in the “mana” of their descendants, they viewed the moais as a way to communicate with them. Though the moais were merely a representation of their spiritual devotion, they expressed their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with their living conditions using the moais. In fact, it is said that many moais were destroyed by the people of Rapa Nui because they were angered by the lack of action from the “mana.”
These sculptures are also part of the reason why people initially became intrigued to travel to Easter Island. Sadly, uninformed travelers have not been able to appreciate these historical masterpieces. I just don’t understand why people are like this. Is it really that hard to have respect for other people’s culture?
I’m assuming that many of you are thinking that the Rapa Nui are extinct, but they’re far from that. Sure, there’s not as many as there could’ve been at some point, but they live on. Actually, people of Rapa Nui descendants currently have one of the largest populations in Polynesia. Therefore, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Nowadays, you can find them fighting for their independence and the preservation of their culture. Regardless of having a lineage that survived impossible conditions, they still lost a bit of themselves. For instance, there is no one at the moment (or no one has been identified) that can read the written artifacts Rapa Nui ancestors left behind. This is unfortunate because there are about 27 tablets, called Rongorongo, with Rapa Nui Language writing on it, but it’s yet to be deciphered.
Easter Island could’ve flourished into something larger than what it is today. Or maybe not. All that is known is that greed hasn’t allowed them to take course in their own destiny. So, what do you think of Easter Island now?