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Raiatea (Leeward Islands, French Polynesia)


Last modified: 2005-09-10 by ivan sache
Keywords: raiatea | leeward islands | havaii | canton: france |
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History and geography of Raiatea

Quoting the website of the Presidency of French Polynesia:

Raiatea is located in the southern part of the Leeward Islands. Its huge lagoon also incorporates the island of Tahaa.
Raiatea has an area of 238 square kilometers. That makes it the fourth largest island in French Polynesia in terms of area. Raiatea is shaped like an isosceles triangle with a base of 14 kilometers and a height of 20 kilometers. The island is an old former volcanic mass, the last lava having flowed some 2.5 million years ago. Raiatea's tallest point is in the south, where Mt. Tefatoaiti reaches an altitude of 1,017 meters. In the north there is the Temehani volcanic rock plateau, which rises to 792 meters and is decorated by historic peaks. Several big valleys cut deeply into the edges of this high island, creating some of the most favorable places for populations to settle. They include six bays. Alluvial fans--deposits of streams coming from a gorge upon a plain—have partially filled in the bays, offering flat land that helps compensate for the narrowness of the coastal plains.

Raiatea has the reputation of being the cradle of Polynesian civilizations. In ancient times, the island was known as Havai'i fanau'ra fenua, which means "Havai'i, the cradle". Furthermore, famous ethnologist Pearl Buck wrote that according to Polynesian mythology fragments of Havai’i broke off to create other islands, swimming like a fish to become the Windward Islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao, Mehetia and Tetiaroa.
Raiatea also played the role of a religious center beginning in the XVIth Century. The large Taputapuatea marae was built at Opoa in the southeastern part of the island and was dedicated to Oro, the Polynesian god of war. The Oro cult later spread to the Windward Islands, resulting in the construction of maraes on Moorea and Tahiti. Unlike Tahiti, the "sacred" Raiatea has conserved many stone structures among which are the Tainuu and Taputapuatea international marae, where in ancient times priests came from Polynesian islands throughout the Pacific.
At the political level, Raiatea was traditionally divided into nine districts, with Opoa dominating two groups of four chiefdoms each. Originating from Opoa, the Tamatoa dynasty was linked to most of the other ruling families in the Society Islands, particularly the Tapoa and Pomare families. When Lt. James Cook became the first European to discover Raiatea in 1769, both Raiatea and Tahaa were ruled by King Puni of Bora Bora. But due to the frequent reversals that occurred during this period, the Tapoa and Tamatoa families succeeded each other as leaders of Raiatea and refused to let the island become a French Protectorate. In fact, Raiatea offered the greatest resistance to the French Protectorate in 1888. Chief Teraupo withdrew to Avera Valley, refusing all negotiation for many years. As leader of his men, he tried to oppose the progress of troops who came from Nouméa (New Caledonia), but he was taken prisoner on 16 February 1897 after a series of battles around Tevaitoa.

William Ellis and Teuira Henry reported the existence of two stories of floods, handed down orally in the Polynesian tradition. One flood occurred on Tahiti, the other on Raiatea. The story of the Raiatea flood gives a traditional version that makes an analogy with a biblical story, even though, according to missionaries, this version was widespread before their arrival. Ruahatu, god of the sea in Polynesian mythology, had a man's body with the tail of a swordfish. This god of the ocean, disturbed by a fisherman in his coral home, decided to cause the flooding of all the islands until Temehani was flooded. The only survivors were the fisherman, his friend, his wife and child and some animals that went to the Toa-Marama islet, the preferred place of the god of the sea. The sea rumbled, rising over the land and sweeping away everything, trees, houses, birds, animals and fish, as well as all humans who had not believed the fisherman's message. But like Noah of the Bible, the family was saved, along with a dog, a pig and a couple of chickens. The island of Raiatea was later repopulated little by little. The islanders offer as proof of what they say the presence of farere, coral and shells at the tops of their highest mountains.

The 1996 census reported a population of 10,063 persons on Raiatea. The islanders were divided among three districts, Uturoa (3,421), Taputapuatea (3,625) and Tumaraa (3,017). Farming and cattle raising (1,200 heads) have been particularly developed on the east coast. On the west side of the island, the lack of adequate plains hampered farming activities and prompted the people to turn their attention to the taking advantage of the ocean. In 1996, Raiatea had 51 self-employed fishermen who caught 210 tons of fish a year. Uturoa's marsh area was once used for breeding mussels, but the effort was later abandoned. Compared with Bora Bora, Raiatea's tourism is modest for an island with no beaches. Its airport experienced regularly traffic growth from 1990 onward, reaching 98,362 passengers in 1966.

Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005

Raiatea, XIXth century

[Old Raiatea flag]

Old flag of Raiatea, 1847-1880 - Image by Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005

According to the Flags of Paradise chart [brt96], the flag of the Kingdom of Raiatea (that is before the establishment of the Protectorate) is horizontally divided white-red-white-red-white.

[Raiatea Protectorate flag]

Flag of the Protectorate of Raiatea, 1880-1897 - Image by Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005

According to the Flags of Paradise chart [brt96], the flag of the Protectorate of Raiatea was the former flag of Raiatea with the French national flag added in canton.

Ivan Sache, 22 August 2005