Marquesas Islands

views updated May 23 2018

Marquesas Islands

ETHNONYMS: 'Enata, Marquesans, Te'enana


Identification. 'Enana; and the cognate 'enata simply mean "people," and this word was contrasted with hao'e, which came to mean "white foreigners." "Marquesans" derives from the Portuguese name of the island group, "Las Marquesas de Mendoca."

Location. The Marquesans inhabited the six larger islands of the Marquesan Group: Nukuhiva, 'Ua Pou, 'Ua Huka, Fatuiva, Tahuata, and Hova Oa; smaller islands such as Eiao were perhaps intermittently occupied. The rugged islands are divided by deep valleys, which are often well watered and which sustain rich vegetation, in contrast to the arid, eroded, and frequently excessively steep slopes. The group is situated around 8-11° S and 140° W. The closest inhabited islands were atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago, about 450 kilometers to the south and southeast; larger Polynesian populations were more remote. Many Marquesans now live in Tahiti, the central island in the Overseas Territory of French Polynesia.

Demography. Estimates of precontact and early populations are highly variable and insecurely founded. A figure of 35,000 is much lower than many figures cited, but it seems justified by comparative evidence from better-documented Islands. While some depopulation took place between 1800 and 1840, there was a more tragic decline associated with smallpox and other epidemics in the subsequent half-century. A reliable estimate in 1842 was just over 20,000; this fell to 5,000 in the 1880s and reached a low point of less than 2,000 during the 1920s. The population has gradually increased since then, and in the mid-1980s there were about 5,500 Marquesans resident in the islands, and several thousand people of Marquesan origin or descent were living in Tahiti at that time.

Linguistic Affiliation. Marquesan is a language in the Eastern Polynesian Group of Austronesian languages, closely related to Hawaiian and Tahitian. A complex pattern of dialect variation has diminished in recent decades, but there are still distinct differences between southern and northern parts of the group and a variety of local peculiarities.

History and Cultural Relations

The Marquesas Islands, like the Society Islands, appear to have been settled from western Polynesia by about 200 b.c.; populations spread gradually from the larger and more hospitable valleys on the southeastern coasts of the large islands to occupy more arid and rugged areas throughout the group. There is little evidence for exchange or sustained contact with other eastern Polynesian populations, and it appears that Marquesan societies developed essentially in isolation during the periods preceding European contacts in 1595 and 1774. Marquesan culture emerged as a singular form, but it was still recognizably related to other Polynesian groups; there were numerous correspondences between the traditional institutions of the islands and those in Tahiti, Hawaii, and other eastern Polynesian archipelagoes. Early contacts with European explorers entailed barter and sexual relations, but since most vessels' visits were of short duration, they had little Impact. The first substantial European intrusion into Marquesan affairs was that of David Porter of the U.S. Navy in 1813; Porter fortified a settlement for his operations against British whaling vessels and became embroiled in local warfare against the occupants of Taipi Valley (later made famous in Herman Melville's novel, Typee ). For the first rime, Marquesans were profoundly impressed by the efficacy of firearms and the power of Whites, and chiefs and warriors throughout the group subsequently made great efforts to obtain the former and make friends with the latter. Trade thus developed a more systemic presence in the Marquesan economy. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries attempted to gain footholds in the group, but they had very little influence in the period up to 1840, a time of severe depopulation. The French annexed the islands in 1842 but subsequently maintained a minimal presence. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the Catholic mission's influence grew, and by the 1880s most Marquesans were nominally Catholic. The French gave indigenous chiefs no recognition, and the combination of a fluid indigenous hierarchy, disease, and intrusions led to a decline of tribal political forms. By the 1870s, chiefs appear to have been unimportant, and in the twentieth century rights to such titles rarely have been claimed or deployed. While in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries social life was marked by collective endeavors in warfare, ceremonial feasting, and nondomestic production for segregated rank groups, Marquesas society of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had a more nucleated character, consisting of immediate families engaged in Production for consumption and some cash cropping. Tribal divisions have ceased to be significant, and public ceremonies are now almost exclusively church or state events (such as Basrille Day). State services were limited until the 1920s, and institutionally the Catholic mission is still very prominent. Major changes followed the establishment of the French Nuclear testing program at Muroroa Atoll; salaried employment: associated with the construction of the test site itself and substantial military and administrative facilities on Tahiti was only part of a much bigger wave of economic expansion that: brought more consumer goods and a marked increase in dependence on imported products. Recent political developments in the territory of French Polynesia have led to greater local representation and consultation on development and political matters, but the history of contact between Marquesans and Whites has generally been marked by the denial of self-determination for Marquesans and this policy has rarely been actively resisted.


The form of island geography had a strong influence on the dispersal of aboriginal settlements. Before contact, the Population density was high, and most valleys were densely occupied, even in their upper reaches, by "tribal" groups (mata'eina'a ) usually consisting of 200-800 people. In some cases these groups occupied more than one valley, or valleys were occupied by more than one mata'eina'a. Frequent warfare meant that territories changed, and dispossessed groups were often forced into marginal areas such as small arid Valleys and smaller islands. French administration has concentrated health services, schools, and employment in the towns of Taiohae, Nukuhiva, and Atuona, Hiva Oa, as well as in smaller centers on each of the other islands. Consequently, these valleys now have substantial populations, while other sites of formerly dense occupation are abandoned or sparsely inhabited. Contemporary settlements are usually clustered by the shore; churches and sports fields are prominent.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Marquesans were and are horticulturalists, and they were distinctive in Polynesia for particular emphasis on the cultivation of breadfruit, which was preserved and fermented in large pits. Bananas, plantains, and various tubers were cultivated, and there was a limited amount of taro irrigation. Fishing was always of considerable importance, but pigs were kept mainly for ceremonial consumption. Since European contact, citrus, cassava, cattle, goats, and various other plants and animals have been introduced that broaden the subsistence base considerably. Now, however, imported foods such as rice and tinned fish have displaced locally produced vegetables. There are many coconut trees, from which the cash crop copra has been produced since the last century; this is generally of low value, and attempts have been made to broaden the islands' commercial base with coffee, timber, and various other crops, but these have not yet been extensively developed.

Industrial Arts. Before contact and during the nineteenth century, there was a broad range of specialist craft producers, who made wooden articles, ornaments, stone utensils, and weapons; women produced tapa (bark cloth) and mats. At various stages these crafts were abandoned, but wooden and stone articles are still produced for handicraft shops in Tahiti and the tourist resorts on the larger islands, rather than for the Marquesans themselves. Women on the island of Fatuiva now seem to be the only eastern Polynesians who still produce tapa, which is sold to visitors on yachts or to agents for Tahitian shops.

Trade. Although there appears to have been little preContact voyaging or trade between the Marquesas and other Eastern Polynesian archipelagoes, exchange in birds' feathers (for ornaments), adz stone, and turmeric took place within the group. Small stores, often run by Chinese, are found in most settlements and a great deal of food and manufactured articles are imported via Tahiti.

Division of Labor. In the early contact period food Production and consumption were segregated in various ways; fishing and house building were male activities, while women produced mats and bark cloth. Some male servants engaged in "female tasks," while high-ranking women were relatively unconstrained by sex roles and could, for example, go to war with men. Although the sex-typing of occupations is not sharp and women as well as men engage in a variety of forms of wage labor, Christian mission influences and the policies of the colonial administration have meant that women are primarily associated with the home and men with various external revenue-generating or food-collecting activities.

Land Tenure. In the early nineteenth century there was great emphasis on the rights of firstborn children (whether male or female) to inherit property, and those who followed often fell into some dependent status. However, the complexities of a cognatic system, and the fact that marriage often took place within valleys (such that individuals would not move far from their natal lands) meant that land rights were highly contested; even if the firstborn was the theoretical owner, others might have use rights that were, in effect, unconditional. Prominent warriors and others of high status often owned substantial tracts of land that were farmed by dependents who effectively exchanged their labor for security and access to the means of production.


Kin Groups and Descent. The main units in Marquesan society were territorial rather than descent-based; although residence was normally patrivirilocal, cognatic reckoning permitted strategic affiliation and mobility. With mata'eina'a ("tribes") the main corporate action groups were factions associated with a particularly powerful figure, which developed through political manipulation and economic dependence, and tapu grades associated with particular occupations, such as fishing, wood carving, etc.; these groups were sometimes also feasting and ritual groups.

Kinship Terminology. Marquesan kin terms are of the Hawaiian type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Marquesas are well-known in comparative marriage studies for the institution of nonfraternal polyandry, but this feature of their society often has not been adequately contextualized within indigenous rank structures and Economic relations. Only women of high rank had secondary husbands, who were virtually always also servants or Otherwise of much lower status than their primary, often chiefly, husbands. Conjugal relations varied with social status: in the upper levels, marriages were often contracted between elite families from different valleys or islands, for the purpose of initiating or consolidating political alliances; at middle levels, there was greater local endogamy; and relations among Commoners were said to be more fluid and promiscuous.

Domestic Unit. Marquesan men and women of rank often ate in segregated clubhouses, while dependents had no autonomous households of their own. Hence domesticity was structured by wider economic and ritual relations, especially by tapu principles that required those of rank, and most men generally, to eat separately. Polyandry, and the associated Relations of rank and dependence, broke down in the second half of the nineteenth century, and families approximating the Western nuclear model developed.

Inheritance. In the nineteenth century inheritance was structured by the principles of primogeniture and birth-orderbased rank; in the northern part of the group especially, it appeared that children other than the firstborn would inherit little. Inequality was, however, qualified by the extension of use rights and altered by periodic seizures and redistributions of land.

Socialization. Infants and children were raised by both parents and older siblings; adolescents and young adults were expected to behave in a relatively uncontrolled and antisocial manner.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Marquesan society was Hierarchically structured on the basis of tapu principles, ritual occupations, sex, age, chiefly rank, and property. Power acquired through warfare or shamanistic accomplishment was as important as legitimate claims to rank. As indigenous rank structures broke down, other forms of privilege associated with particular forms of paid employment developed. The class distinctions now apparent in the Marquesas are the same as those that exist elsewhere in French Polynesia, and they derive from education, government or professional employment, and in some cases investment.

Political Organization. As in other eastern Polynesian groups, there were "chiefdoms," but these did not usually constitute clearly defined territorial domains. Within valleys, there were often several competing chiefs, sometimes with crosscutting loyalties. Most islands were split into dual divisions, the constituent tribes of each notionally sharing Descent from one of a pair of brothers. In the northern part of the group this division did seem to structure warfare, but even there conflict within as well as between the groups occurred. There was no chiefly leadership at the division level.

Social Control. In the early nineteenth century disputes were resolved through arbitration or fighting; the losers in any major conflict sometimes left the islands in canoes to search for a new home. Sorcery was widely practiced, but it was done in the interests of individuals rather than as an expression of collective authority. Marquesan law was never recognized by the French colonial regime.

Conflict. Warfare was endemic in early contact society, and it was systematically linked with rivalrous feasting and competitive food production in the struggle for prestige and land. Factional disputes within particular valley populations were also common, and they often resulted in the displacement of chiefs and other prominent families.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Indigenous religion was strongly dualistic, postulating a living world of light (ao ) and a world of ghosts, deities, darkness, and night (po). The presence of deities (etua ) in this world was believed to be vital for making work efficacious and for securing life and prosperity. There was an extensive hierarchy of deities, ranging from the founding originators of the cosmos to their particular expressions in the gods of occupations and places, and there also were apotheosized shamans and chiefs, often linked with local temples (me'ae). The aggrieved ghosts of major shamans were often propitiated to relieve famine, and many lesser figures were associated with illness and other misfortunes. Since the late nineteenth century, more than 90 percent of Marquesans have become Catholics, most of the remainder being Protestants descended from Hawaiian mission teachers. Modern Marquesan religion has not been adequately investigated, but syncretic elements appear to persist, including belief in a range of evil spirits, such as ghosts of women who have died in childbirth.

Religious Practitíoners. There were two major classes of indigenous priests: shamans (tau'a), who were directly inspired by deities and in some cases were thought responsible for agricultural fertility; and tuhuna o'ono, who recited chants at chiefly ritual and performed sacrifices. Of these, there were many particular specialist healers and priests associated with occupations such as fishing. Sorcerers were renowned and widely feared.

Ceremonies. Traditionally, the largest events appear to have been commemorative mortuary feasts for chiefs and shamans; these ceremonies often took place some years after death and required considerable quantities of food and many human sacrifice victims. Major ceremonies were also associated with the life crises of chiefs and chiefly children, especially the firstborn. The main public events now are mostly church events, along with some French national days.

Arts. Both men and women, especially those of high Status, were extensively tattooed using anthropomorphe and abstract designs that also recurred in wood carving and on ornaments. Massive stone tiki (anthropomorphic ancestral figures) and petroglyphs were also carved.

Medicine. Illness was attributed to soul loss, possession, or sorcery. Healers generally treated illness in one of three ways: they identified the cause in tapu violation, resulting in an offense to a deity; they removed harmful objects or spirits from the body; or they diagnosed sorcery, which might be lifted if fines were paid. The range of herbal medicines was extensive.

Death and Afterlife. Death was usually attributed to Sorcery. Spirits were thought to roam the islands for a period and then congregate at certain rocky headlands where they would plunge beneath the sea and into the afterworld, known as Havai'i, which was supposed to be internally differentiated.. Those of higher status, who had more pigs or human victims sacrificed for them, were sent to more pleasant parts; those whose tattooing was not rubbed off their skin after death were not admitted at all but instead had their spirits torn to pieces.

See alsoHawaiians, Tahiti


Dening, Greg, ed. (1974). The Marquesan Journal of Edward Roberts. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Dening, Greg (1980). Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kirkpatrick, John (1983). The Marquesan Notion of the Person. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press.

Thomas, Nicholas. (1990). Marquesan Societies: Inequality and Political Transformation in Eastern Polynesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Marquesas Islands

views updated Jun 08 2018

Marquesas Islands Volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, s of the Equator. The islands, part of French Polynesia, include Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Nuku Hiva; the capital is Taiohae (on Nuku Hiva). They were first discovered by a Spanish navigator in 1595. The French took possession in 1842. During the 19th century, European diseases killed many of the native Polynesians. The islands are mountainous, with fertile valleys and several good harbours. Exports: tobacco, vanilla and copra. Area: 1049sq km (405sq mi). Pop. (2002) 9400.

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