Voyage Into Mystery: The European Discovery of Easter Island

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Voyage Into Mystery: The European Discovery of Easter Island


Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) made the first European discovery of Easter Island on Easter Day, April 5, 1722, and ended 1,400 years of isolation on the island. Triangular shaped, Easter Island or Rapa Nui as it is known locally, is located 2,300 miles (3,700 km) west of the Chilean coast in the South Pacific Ocean. Over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the nearest populated center, Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated settlements in the world. The island is small, only 60 square miles (155 sq km), and is barren except for the hardy grasses that grow there, but is noted because of the large mysterious statues or moai that dot the island. Although the discovery of this island was not considered important at the time, it has since attracted the attention of archaeologists and scientists from all over the world.


It was largely the hunt for riches and commerce that led to the exploration of the South Pacific Ocean by Europeans. It was commonly believed there was a large super continent called terra australis incognito in the Southern Hemisphere, and many expeditions left for the Pacific in search of it. Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was the first European to sight the Pacific in 1513, and seven years later Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) rounded South America and sailed across the Pacific Ocean. It was the Spanish, interested in trade, who led the initial explorations of the South Pacific from 1567-1606. The Dutch, who were excellent seamen, followed. Jakob Le Maire (1585-1616) was an entrepreneur who explored the Pacific in 1615 and 1616, followed by fellow Dutchman Abel Tasman (1603-1659) in 1642, who worked for the East Indian Company.

Roggeveen's voyage used the knowledge of the Dutchmen who preceded him, as well as that of Englishmen William Dampier (1652?-1715) and Edward Davis. In 1687 Dampier and Davis were in the Pacific in search of the southern continent and reported "seeing" a low sandy island, and Davis said he could make out the faint outline of mountains in the background. This was of particular interest to Roggeveen, who had inherited from his deceased father the rights to an expedition to the South Pacific with the West Indian Company. Retired from a position with the East Indian Company, Roggeveen renewed the proposal with the rival West Indian Company. Desirous of finding terra australis and aware of the accounts given by Dampier and Davis, the company approved the expedition and provided Roggeveen with three ships, the Arend, African Galley, and Thienhoven. Roggeveen and his crew of 233 departed from Holland on August 21, 1721.

Crossing the Atlantic, they touched briefly at the Falkland Islands, and sailed for Le Maire Strait and Cape Horn. It was a three-week passage to the Pacific during cold weather, which correctly convinced Roggeveen there was a large landmass in the polar region, but he thought it was part of terra australis. The next stop was the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile, where Roggeveen was so enthralled that he planned to return and establish a settlement. From these islands, Roggeveen sailed west, looking for Dampier's island.

The crew aboard the African Galley was the first to see the what was subsequently named Paasch Eyland (Easter Island), on April 5, 1722. Excited, Roggeveen and his crew thought it could indicate the presence of the elusive southern continent. Staying offshore, they noticed smoke coming up from various parts of the island the next day. Roggeveen decided to send the well-armed Arend and Thienhoven closer to look for a suitable place to lay anchor. With bad weather on April 7, the ships were not able to drop anchor, but an islander did canoe out to visit one of the ships. The Dutch were amazed by the totally nude man who boarded their ship. He was described as being well-built and tall, with tattoos all over his body. The islander was equally amazed by the Dutch, and marveled at their well-built ship. The crew sent him back with two strings of blue beads, a small mirror, and a pair of scissors. Following this, Roggeveen brought his ships closer to the island and was disappointed to see it did not fit the description of Dampier's island. On April 8, all ships set anchor offshore, but the weather was still too bad to go ashore, and the following day more islanders came out to meet the Dutchmen. They too admired the Dutch ships, and were so bold they stole the hats right off the men's heads and dove back into the ocean. Roggeveen organized a shore party of 134 men on the same day. While cautious, the crew was curious about the island, as they could see on shore the huge megaliths that have made the island famous.


Rowing ashore on April 10, 1722, Roggeveen and his crew climbed over the rocks that covered the shoreline and began marching into the interior, but were deluged by a large gathering of islanders. As they were coming into formation, Jacob heard shots fired from the back. An islander had tried to grab a musket from one of the men, who in return struck him, while another islander grabbed at the coat of one of Roggeveen's men. In defense, the islanders picked up rocks and the nervous crewmembers shot at them. In the end, 10 to 12 of the islanders lay dead, while several more were injured. Settling down quickly, the islanders tried to restore the peace by presenting Roggeveen with large amounts of fruit and poultry. Relations remained friendly, and Roggeveen was shown around part of the island. He noticed about 20 well-made huts, and several poorly-made canoes. A lack of women and children were also noticed. Naturally, the statues were of great interest to Roggeveen, with some of them as a high as 30 feet (9.1 m), and carved in human form. It was difficult for the Dutch to understand how the statues could have been erected since there were no trees to provide poles for leverage. Roggeveen concluded, incorrectly, they were made of clay and surfaced in stone. Only remaining on the island one day, the three ships sailed eastward in search of Terra Australis, which Roggeveen was convinced must be close.

Roggeveen sailed on in search of the southern continent. In mid-May he came to the fringes of the Tuamotus Islands, were he lost 10 men in an altercation with local residents. His poor luck continued, when he lost one of his ships on the reefs that surround the Tuamotus. The men became discouraged after sailing in the Pacific for another month, still unable to find the continent. A meeting was held, and Roggeveen decided to sail west for the Dutch outposts in Batavia (Jakarta).

Enroute to the outposts, Roggeveen passed the island of Bora-Bora and then the Samoan Islands. Roggeveen and his expedition were the first Europeans to see the Samoan Islands, but only went ashore briefly to get fresh fruit and water. By this time the crew was ravaged by scurvy, which killed 140 crewmembers. Passing between the island groups of Tuvalu and Kiribati, they headed north of New Guinea and onto the Moluccas, which were part of the Dutch East Indies. They arrived at Batavia in September 1722, where the rival East Indian Company confiscated their ships claiming they were trespassing on their territory. Virtually taken prisoner, they were escorted back to the Netherlands by the company. Later, the East Indian Company was taken to court and ordered to pay restitution to Roggeveen and his crew.

It was nearly 50 years before the island was revisited by Europeans, then by the Spanish, led by Don Felipe Gonzalez, who arrived in 1770. They too noticed there were no women on the island and suspected the islanders had underground hiding places. It was also noticed by the Spanish that the moai were not made of clay, but of stone. Four years later the island was visited by Captain James Cook (1728-1779), who actually saw the entrances to the underground caves, but was not permitted access. It was on Cook's second voyage (1772-75) to the Pacific that he proved the southern continent Terra Australis did not exist. The French arrived at Easter Island in 1786 and confirmed the existence of the caves when they were escorted through the hidden caverns. But disaster struck in 1862, when the Peruvians conducted a major slave raid on Easter Island, taking more than 1,000 people. Later they were forced to return their captives to the island, but by then illness and disease had killed most of them. The survivors returned to the island only to spread smallpox to the remaining population, reducing it to just 111.

While European intrusion on the island had devastating effects, its ecology and civilization were already in a state of crisis when the Europeans arrived. Rapa Nui was once a sub-tropical island, thickly covered in palm trees and home to many different bird species. Polynesians, as it has been determined, probably first came to the island around a.d.400. A rich and complex society developed and the population swelled to nearly 10,000. Rival clans developed and each built moai for political as well as religious reasons. A period of decline came in a.d. 1500, as the growing population put too much pressure on the island's ecosystem, and all the palms were cut down to move moai or to supply fuel for the islanders. As resources dwindled, wars followed and the population fell to approximately 2,000, while Easter Island was reduced rock and grass. After a long and colorful history Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888. The islanders became full Chilean citizens in 1965, when a civilian governor was appointed to the island.

Since Roggeveen did not find the southern continent, his sponsors considered his expedition a failure, though Roggeveen, along with explorers like Captain Cook, contributed greatly to European knowledge of the South Pacific. Roggeveen's findings inspired the imaginations of laypersons and scientists alike, and archaeologists have learned much about the lives and travels of ancient humans from Easter Island. The moai have long been the subject of fascination and controversy, with some even suggesting the giant megaliths were built by aliens. Easter Island's fate also serves as a reminder of Earth's fragility, and the responsibility we have to preserve and protect it for future generations.


Further Reading

Bohlander, Richard E., ed. World Explorers and Discoverers. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Heyerdahl, Thor. Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958.

Orliac, Catherine, with Michel Orliac. Easter Island: Mystery of the Stone Giants. Translated by Paul G. Bahn. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.