Geologically one of the youngest inhabited territories on Earth, Easter Island was, for most of its history, the most isolated. Its inhabitants, the Rapanui, have endured famines, epidemics of disease and cannibalism, civil war, slave raids, various colonial contacts, and have seen their population crash on more than one occasion. The ensuing cultural legacy has brought the island notoriety out of proportion to the number of its inhabitants.
Destruction of society and population
A series of devastating events killed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.
In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted, escalated by Bishop Florentin-Etienne Jaussen of Tahiti. The slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.
Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.
The first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in January 1864 and spent most of that year on the island; but mass conversion of the Rapanui only came after his return in 1866 with Father Hippolyte Roussel and shortly after two others arrived with Captain Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier. Eyraud was suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis) when he returned and in 1867, tuberculosis raged over the island, taking a quarter of the island's remaining population of 1,200 including the last member of the island's royal family, the 13-year-old Manu Rangi. Eyraud died of tuberculosis in August 1868, by which time the entire Rapanui population had become Roman Catholic.
Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier — arms dealer, gambler, bigamist, murderer, slave dealer, encourager of apostasy and alleged ship wrecker — was to have a long lasting impact on the island. He set up residence at Mataveri, aiming to cleanse the island of most of the Rapanui and turn the island into a sheep ranch. He married Koreto, a Rapanui, and appointed her Queen, tried to persuade France to make the island a protectorate, and recruited a faction of Rapanui whom he allowed to abandon their Christianity and revert to their previous faith. With rifles, a cannon, and hut burning supporters, he ran the island for several years.
Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple hundred Rapanui to Tahiti to work for his backers. In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated 275 Rapanui to Mangareva and Tahiti, leaving only 230 on the island. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring.
"Queen Mother" Koreto with her daughters "Queen" Caroline and Harriette in 1877
In 1876 Dutrou-Bornier was murdered in an argument over a dress, though his kidnapping of pubescent girls may also have motivated his killers.
From that point on and into the present day, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.
Neither his first wife back in France, who was heir under French law, nor his second wife on the island, who briefly installed their daughter Caroline as Queen, were to keep much from his estate. But to this day much of the island is a ranch controlled from off-island and for more than a century real power on the island was usually exercised by resident non-Rapanui living at Mataveri. An unusual number of shipwrecks had left the island better supplied with wood than for many generations, whilst legal wrangles over Dutrou-Bornier's land deals were to complicate the island's history for decades to come.
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