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ETHNONYMS: Austral Islands, Oparo, Rapa-Iti, Tubuai Archipelago


Identification. Rapa is the southernmost island in the Austral Archipelago. Its name is often given as "Rapa-Iti" ("Little Rapa") to distinguish it from the distant Easter Island, which is commonly known as "Rapa-Nui" ("Big Rapa"). On Rapa itself, however, "Rapa-Iti" refers to a small islet off the east coast of the main island. Early European visitors frequently identified the island as "Oparo," but the source of that name is not clear.

Location. The Austral Islands, occasionally known also as the Tubuai Archipelago, straddle the Tropic of Capricorn in the South Pacific. They form part of French Polynesia and lie to the south of the Society Islands and east of the Cook Islands. The four islands in the group in addition to Rapa are Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, and Ra'ivavae. With coordinates of 27°37 S, 144°20 W, Rapa is located some 420 kilometers south-southwest of Tahiti and 180 kilometers southeast of Ra'ivavae, its nearest inhabited neighbor. Rapa is a small Island of some 39 square kilometers. It is a high island, the cone of a long-extinct volcano. The highest of the peaks exceeds 600 meters. The east side of the cone has been breached by the sea so that the island has the form of a large bay (the volcanic crater) encircled by a ring of mountains. The coast is indented by several bays, each watered by one or more streams. High mountain ridges between the bays, often meeting the sea in precipitous cliffs, make inland travel difficult. Skies are often overcast and rainfall is abundant (slightly over 254 centimeters annually). Rapa becomes noticeably chilly in the winter months and average monthly temperatures range from 17° C in August to 24° C in February.

Demography. When first sighted by Europeans in 1791, Rapa reportedly had 1,500-2,000 inhabitants, but largely Because of introduced diseases the population declined to a low point of only 120 in 1867. In 1964 Rapans numbered only 360, and recent estimates indicate only 400 speakers of the Rapa language.

Linguistic Affiliation. Rapa is grouped with numerous others, including Tahitian, Tongareva, and Cook Islands Maori, in the Eastern Polynesian Subcluster of the Nuclear Polynesian Subgroup of Austronesian languages, though it has virtually disappeared as a distinct language. Tahitian is currently spoken on Rapa as it is in most parts of French Polynesia.

History and Cultural Relations

The first settlement of Rapa has been estimated at about a.d. 950 from genealogical evidence, and the earliest radiocarbon date from the island is a.d. 1,337, plus or minus 200 years. The first European to visit the islands was George Vancouver, in 1791. At that time the population lived in fortified Mountain villages. Remains of at least fifteen of these still prominently mark Rapa's landscape; they are among the largest handmade structures in ancient Polynesia. Apparently population pressure forced the construction of these mountain villages to free scarce arable land for cultivation and for security in a time of frequent warfare. The prospect of the Panama Canal stirred the interest of Britain and France in the 1860s and again in the 1880s, for Rapa was ideally located on the route between Panama and Australia and New Zealand. The British established a coaling station on Rapa in late 1867 and it served monthly steamers until it was abandoned in early 1869. Meanwhile Rapa's strategic location moved the French to establish political power over the island. Rapa was made a French protectorate in 1867 and became a French possession twenty years later. The interest in Rapa as a coaling station was sporadic and short-lived and the island slipped into International insignificance. As late as 1964 three months might pass without a visit from the outside. In that year, however, a weather station was established on Rapa and this gave the Island some importance in the context of the French nuclear weapons testing program.


Sometime prior to 1830 internal warfare ceased, probably Because massive depopulation ended the keen competition for arable land, and the people abandoned the fortified Mountain villages in favor of lowland villages on the various bays, which offered easier access to the sea and to cultivation areas. With further depopulation villages in the outer bays were gradually abandoned and the village of Ha'urei became Rapa's major population center. In 1964 Rapa's population resided in two villages located on opposite sides of Ha'urei Bay (the large, central bay, crater of the ancient volcano).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For the most part, Rapans support themselves by farming and fishing. Taro (Colocasia esculenta ) is the staple, and is eaten at every meal. It is grown in irrigated terraces located in level areas adjacent to the village of Ha'urei, at the head of Ha'urei Bay, and on the outer bays. Rapans sometimes reach their taro terraces on the outer bays on foot, but the rugged terrain makes this difficult and they often travel by water in locally made canoes or whaleboats. These vessels are also used for fishing, which is done with spear guns or hooks and lines in the bays and (in whaleboats only) offshore. Oranges and watermelons are grown for local consumption. The main cash crop is coffee, although in 1964 potatoes were introduced for export to Tahiti. Some pigs are tethered on the outskirts of the villages, and goats, cattle, and a few sheep roam unattended in the hills. Goats are eaten when inclement weather prevents fishing; pork and beef are served at special feasts. Occasionally some goats or cattle are captured and shipped to Tahiti for sale. Goats are owned privately, but cattle belong to the Cooperative Society, an organization of shareholders that also oversees coffee exports and operates a small store on the island.

Industrial Art. Rapan men make wicker baskets in many sizes and often fanciful shapes. Some are used locally, but the more elaborate ones are made for export to Tahiti or for sale to passengers on ocean liners that pass close enough to the Island for whaleboats to go out to them. Some of the locally made whaleboatsgraceful, narrow, and highly seaworthyare themselves works of high artisanry.

Division of Labor. Men are charged with boat construction, most aspects of house construction, and fishing from boats and canoes. Women gather shellfish from the shore, prepare food, do laundry, and take care of small children. Both sexes pick coffee and engage in taro cultivation, although the men build and maintain the irrigation ditches and turn the soil in a terrace prior to flooding. Labor is divided at least as significantly by age as by sex. The heaviest work (boat rowing, turning soil, carrying heavy bags of harvested taro) is done by youths and young adults. After about the age of 40, people begin to leave these jobs to younger members of the household.

Land Tenure. Essential to the Rapan system of land tenure is the proposition that improvements (gardens, groves of trees, and houses) may be and usually are owned separately from the land on which they are located. Both territory and improvements are owned by ramages, known as Opu.


Kin Groups and Descent. The modern ramage or 'opu is a nonexclusive cognatic descent group; that is, it is composed of all legitimate descendants of its founder, counted through both male and female links. So far as territory is concerned, ramage founders were individuals to whom land was awarded in a general land distribution in 1889. Founders of improvement-owning ramages are individuals who create the improvement: who make the taro terraces, build the houses, or plant the coffee groves. Depending on the activity of the founder, then, the ramage composed of his or her descendants may own one or more parcels of territory, taro terraces, coffee groves, houses, or any combination of these. The property of a ramage may be widely dispersed over the island. Because ramage membership passes through both males and females, the various ramages overlap in membership. Membership in some is counted through one's father, and others through one's mother. Most Rapans belong to eight to ten (or more) ramages. A ramage has no function beyond the ownership of property. Its limited affairs are handled by a manager, who is usually the senior male of the group.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are of the Hawaiian or generational type, with terms that mark the relative age of same-sex siblings and cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous. Rapans express a slight preference for virilocality, but in actuality virilocal and uxorilocal residence occur with equal frequency. Cohabiting couples are often reluctant to marry formally, as this is a sign that they are shifting from the carefree life of youth to the sober responsibilities of adulthood. The decision to marry is frequently made upon the application of pressure by lay Officials of the church. Divorce is rare. Should a spouse die, the preferred remarriage is with the brother or sister of the decedent.

Domestic Unit. Households range from 2 to 15 members, with an average of 6.7. Rapans express a preference for extended family households because of greater sociability and economic efficiency. Largely because of interpersonal tensions that develop between constituent families in extended family households, however, the majority of households on the island consist of an elementary family. To improve their economic efficiency and enhance sociability, many elementary family households have formed themselves into work groups, each of which is composed of four to five households. One or two individuals from each household participate in the group, and the group as a whole works on a rotating schedule, devoting a day to each of its member households in turn. Some work groups are composed of neighboring Households regardless of kin ties between them, while others are based on kinship.

Inheritance. Property passes from both parents to all Children. Some gardens may be willed to individual children or foster children, but the usual pattern is to leave property jointly to children according to the rules of descent.

Socialization. Children are raised by their own or foster parents. In fosterage, a child ideally acquires the obligation to support his or her foster parents in their old age. The strength of this obligation depends on how much of a person's childhood was actually spent in the foster parents' home. From the age of 4 or 5 children make their own decisions as to where they will live, and often they move between the homes of their biological and foster parents. In any event, a person's legal status and inheritance rights continue to be reckoned through the biological parents. Couples with few or no biological offspring usually foster children of their more prolific close relatives.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Class distinctions are not visible in Rapan society. Some persons are more active in church, Political, and other affairs than are others, but such involvement depends upon individual leadership qualities. Voluntary associations are organized along village lines. Both villages have funeral clubs, which manage the feast and other practical matters connected with the funeral at the death of someone from a member household, and youth clubs, which form soccer teams, organize entertainment for the 14 July Bastille Day celebration, and undertake other projects for the benefit of the village.

Political Organization. In 1964, the Austral Islands formed one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia. Local government on Rapa at that time was vested in a district council, consisting of seven members elected at large for five-year terms. After their election the new council selected from its number a chief and assistant chief. The District council had relatively little power, and the role of chief was largely ceremonial, but it was coveted nonetheless for its salary. In recent years the government has been reorganized in French Polynesia, giving the territory more internal autonomy from France and increasing the power of local councils.

Social Control. In 1964 Rapa fell under the jurisdiction of a French gendarme stationed on Ra'ivavae, some 180 kilometers to the north. Since then, one Rapan has held the position of local police officer. Social control is provided for the most part, however, by the church. Nearly all Rapans are affiliated with the Protestant church, and one of the primary responsibilities of the elected deacons and their wives is to visit and admonish those whose behavior is not satisfactory. Rapans believe, furthermore, than one should not take communion while harboring ill will toward others, so they often make efforts to resolve their disputes prior to the communion service on the first Sunday of every month. Finally, in this small Society there are few secrets and a good measure of social control is achieved by gossip or the fear of it.

Conflict. Disputes occasionally erupt over accusations of petty theft, hostilities between stepparents and stepchildren, or the location of boundaries between coffee groves. These seldom go beyond shouting matches, which usually take place around mealtimes when many people are in the village and which invariably and instantly draw large crowds. More Permanent factionalism exists between the two villages and Between vaguely defined and shifting groups of families. Issues at stake usually involve the distribution of benefits received from the French government. The head schoolteacher, an official appointed from Tahiti and the individual with whom visiting officials interact most frequently, is a center of factionalism for she is in a good position to steer government jobs and other benefits toward those Rapans who get along with her and away from those who do not. The pastor, probably the most powerful person on the island, may also become a center of dissension if it is sensed that he does not treat his parishioners equally. Factionalism is fueled by a contradiction in the Rapan value system. Those who have nothing special to expect from an individual in a public position trumpet the ideal that such a person is bound to act in the interests of all, while relatives and others with special ties to him or her operate under the expectation that a person's first obligations are to kin and allies. Both of these values are honored in Rapa, and anyone in a position of authority finds it difficult to walk a line between them.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Rapa was converted to Protestant Christianity soon after the arrival in 1826 of Tahitian teachers representing the London Missionary Society. With the Exception of a few Roman Catholics, the entire population of Rapa is Protestant. In addition to Biblical supernaturals, most Rapans believe in the existence of ghosts, normally of persons who have died relatively recently, called tupapau'u They may cause sickness among the living, either out of anger or from a powerful desire to draw a dearly beloved spouse or child to them. If other means fail, a tupapa'u can be stopped by exhuming and destroying the corpse, a practice probably encouraged by Dracula films, which are very popular in Tahiti.

Religious Practitioners . One pastor (a Rapan who was elected as a young man by the church members and sent to Tahiti for seminary training) divides his Sundays between the two villages. In addition to the pastor, a chief deacon serves both villages, and each village has two deacons and an assistant deacon. To the assistant deacon falls the tasks of ringing the church bell and prowling the aisle during services with a long bamboo pole to prod dozing parishioners. All of these officials are elected by the communicant members, who essentially are the married adults.

Ceremonies. Physically, the church in each village consists of a church proper, a meetinghouse, and an eating house. The church is immensely important in Rapan society, with no fewer than eleven church functions each week. Although scarcely anyone attends all of these events, one can easily appreciate the joking remark made by one man that "in Rapa, we spend more time discussing the Bible than cultivating taro!"

Medicine. Some illnesses are thought to be caused by ghosts, but most are attributed to natural causes. Rapans affirm a hot-cold system of illness, whereby an upset of the body's proper temperature equilibrium brings on disease. Medicines are herbal and each one is accompanied by a special massage. Medicines are private property, and nearly every adult woman on the island owns one or more of them. Thus instead of a few practitioners who treat many different sorts of illness, the Rapan system of medicine has a great many practitioners, each of whom specializes in one or a few disorders. Although others may know the herbal recipe for a Certain medicine, it is ineffective unless applied by, or with the express permission of, its owner. No charge is ever assessed for administering medicines, but patients do reciprocate with gifts. Medicines originate in dreams. Someone is sick, no treatment is effective, and then a woman of the household sees, in a dream, her deceased mother or grandmother preparing and administering a hitherto unknown medical concoction of various leaves, water, etc. Upon awakening, the woman prepares the medicine just as she dreamed it. She gives it to the patient, who rapidly recovers. The woman who dreamed it is the owner of the new medicine, and others with the same symptoms come to her to be cured. When she gets old she gives the medicine, and others she may have dreamed or inherited, to individual heirsusually her daughtersand thus medicines pass through the generations.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased are thought to enter the Christian heaven. A funeral service and burial is followed by a large feast. People congregate at the house of the deceased for several evenings after the funeral for Bible discussion and hymn singing, to support the surviving loved ones, and to reintegrate them gently into society.

See alsoRaroia, Tahiti


Caillot, A.-C. Eugene (1932). Histoire de l'ile Oparo or Rapa. Paris: Leroux.

Hanson, F. Allan (1970). Rapan Lifeways: Society and History on a Polynesian Island. Boston: Little, Brown. Reprint. 1983. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Hanson, F. Allan, and Patrick O'Reilly (1973). Bibliographie de Rapa. Paris: Société des Océanistes.