One of the most remote places on earth, tiny EASTER ISLAND is home to 5000 or so people. Around half are indigenous (who generally refer to themselves as Rapa Nui; mainland Chileans call them pascuenses), with the rest being mainly continentales (mainland Chilean immigrants). The Rapa Nui have fine-boned Polynesian features and speak their own Polynesian-based language (also called Rapa Nui) in addition to Spanish. Virtually the entire population lives in the island’s single settlement, Hanga Roa, and most islanders make their living from tourism, which has been growing steadily ever since an airstrip was built here in 1968.

The key points of interest are found within Parque Nacional Rapa Nui, which comprises much of the island. Highlights include Rano Kau, a huge volcanic crater and site of the ceremonial village of Orongo; the Rano Raraku quarry, where almost all the moai were carved; and the largest ahu (platform) on the island, Ahu Tongariki, which boasts fifteen moai. Archeological treasures aside, Easter Island has much to offer outdoor enthusiasts, from diving in waters with arguably the best visibility in the world to surfing major waves off the island’s south coast.

Easter Island is two hours behind mainland Chile. The weather is fairly constant year-round, with an average temperature of 23°C (73°F) in January and February, and 18°C (64°F) in July and August. Late January and early February is the busiest time, as the islanders stage the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival.

Brief history

Easter Island was “discovered” and named by Dutch naval commander Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday, 1722. In the absence of any written records left by the islanders, Roggeveen’s log is the earliest written account of the island. His party spent only a single day on land, long enough to observe the “particularly high erected stone images”. After their departure, it was another 48 years before Easter Island was revisited, this time by Spanish commander Felipe González, who mapped the island and claimed it for King Carlos III of Spain during a six-day stay.

Four years later, Captain Cook anchored here in the hope of restoring the health of his scurvy-ridden crew. He, too, observed with incredulity the “stupendous figures”, though he noted that some lay strewn on the ground, toppled from their platforms. Later visitors reported an increasing number of fallen statues, and by 1825 all of the moai on Hanga Roa bay had been destroyed.

The arrival of the slave traders

In 1805, the island was raided by the first of the slave traders, when an American schooner captured 22 men and women to be used as seal hunters on the Juan Fernández Islands. After three days at sea, the prisoners were allowed onto the deck, whereupon they promptly threw themselves overboard and drowned in a desperate attempt to swim back to the island. Between 1862 and 1864, Peruvian sailors captured over two thousand five hundred islanders, who were shipped off to work as slaves in the guano mines.

After many of the islanders had died from disease and the appalling conditions in the mines, the Bishop of Tahiti finally managed to persuade the Peruvian government to repatriate the remaining prisoners – most of whom died on the voyage home. Tragically, the sixteen who made it back infected the rest of the islanders with smallpox and TB, reducing the population to around one hundred. Critically, the loss of life was accompanied by the loss of a crucial part of the island’s culture and collective memory, for the last ariki henua (high chief), moari (keepers of sacred knowledge) and tangata rongo rongo (specialist readers) were among those who perished.

Missionaries and plantations

A certain degree of stability came when the first missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in 1864 and set to converting the islanders to Christianity, a mission fully accomplished by the time of his death, four years later. The peace was disrupted, however, when a French plantation owner, Jean-Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier, bought up large tracts of land and proceeded to run the island as his personal ranch, paying the islanders a pittance for their hard labour and resorting to violence when they wouldn’t cooperate. When the missionaries opposed Doutrou-Bornier’s exploitation, he attacked their missions, forcing them to flee the island. He dealt a further blow to the island’s slowly recovering population by sending all but a hundred islanders to Tahiti to work on his partner’s plantation, before finally being murdered in 1877 by the oppressed islanders.

Chile’s annexation

The Chilean government acquired first Doutrou-Bornier’s lands, and then most of the remaining land on the island, leaving only the village of Hanga Roa in the possession of the islanders. Then, on September 9, 1888, the Chilean Navy – apparently with the islanders’ consent – officially annexed Easter Island, declaring it Chilean territory. Chile subsequently leased it to Williamson Balfour, a British wool-trading company, which virtually governed the island according to its own needs and interests.

In 1953, the company’s lease was revoked and the Chilean Navy stepped in to resume command, though the islanders were given no say in the running of the island. It was not until 1964, that they were allowed outside Hanga Roa (let alone off the island), and granted full citizenship and the right to vote.

The drive towards autonomy

Since the return to democracy, the management of some local affairs, including education, which is now bilingual, has been transferred to the islanders. However, many continue to call for greater autonomy and even secession, expressing concern over the pace of development, the impact of the growing tourist industry and the increasing numbers of mainland Chileans settling on the island. At the time of writing, legislation was set to be passed in the Chilean parliament to give the Easter Island authorities greater powers to regulate tourist numbers (and potentially levy a visitor charge).

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