Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. It is now part of Chile but is little more than a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean, some 2,200 miles west of the mainland.
It’s unsurprising, then, that European explorers only reached the island towards the tail end of the Age of Discovery. The precise date of the first settlement of Easter Island — most likely by Polynesians — is unknown. Recent research puts the very latest date at around 1200 AD, which would mean the people of Rapa Nui — and their monumental moai statues — lived in isolation for at least 500 years.
The Roggeveen Expedition
On August 1, 1721, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen set out on an expedition to find Terra Australis, a hypothetical continent once thought to exist in the Southern Hemisphere. With a fleet of three ships and 223 crew, Roggeveen first sailed to the Falkland Islands before entering the Pacific and landing near Valdivia, Chile.
The expedition left Chile and headed out into the Pacific. On April 5, 1722, they sighted land. Roggeveen noted in his journal: “There was great rejoicing among the people and every one hoped that this low land might prove to be a foretoken of the coastline of the unknown Southern continent.” But they had not found Terra Australis. They had found a far smaller land that they named Easter Island, as they arrived on Easter Sunday.
The expedition waited before sending a landing party, during which time an islander came close to one of the ships. They invited him aboard, and Roggeveen recorded the scene:
“He was quite nude, without the slightest covering for that which modesty shrinks from revealing. This hapless creature seemed to be very glad to behold us, and showed the greatest wonder at the build of our ship. He took special notice of the tautness of our spars, the stoutness of our rigging and running gear, the sails, the guns — which he felt all over with minute attention — and with everything else that he saw; especially when the image of his own features was displayed before him in a mirror, seeing the which, he started suddenly back and then looked towards the back of the glass, apparently in the expectation of discovering there the cause of the apparition.”
The Landing Party
The ships received more visitors that day, and in the morning sent out a landing party “manned by 134 persons, all armed with musket, pistols, and cutlass.” The crew walked up the shore in formation, signaling to the gathered natives to move out of their way. They were fully aware of previous fatal incidents that had befallen other explorers in newly-discovered native lands.
Tragically, due to a misunderstanding in the intensity of the moment, the rear of the formation opened fire with their muskets, killing 10 to 12 islanders and wounding others. The rest scattered, but returned in a surprisingly non-aggressive posture. The islanders offered fruit, root crops and poultry. Roggeveen accepted only poultry and bananas, and paid for them with striped linen.
During his weeklong stay on Easter Island, Roggeveen examined and recorded various aspects of Rapa Nui culture and society: the islanders’ clothing; their stretched and adorned earlobes; their food; their strong physical stature and their snow-white teeth; among other things. He also made notes, unsurprisingly, of the moai statues:
“What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they set up; and, thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them.”
Easter Island After the Roggeveen Expedition
During his time on Easter Island, Roggeveen estimated a population size of 2,000 to 3,000 islanders. According to recent research, the population one hundred years before the first European contact may have been as high as 15,000. Social upheaval, possibly caused by deforestation and overhunting, had seen the population dwindle by the time Roggeveen arrived.
During the 50 years after the Roggeveen Expedition, two more expeditions arrived. First the navigator Felipe González de Ahedo, who annexed Easter Island in 1770 on behalf of King Charles III of Spain. Then, in 1774, the famous British explorer James Cook landed on Easter Island. The islanders, however, were becoming increasingly more aggressive to outsiders. Fewer ships dared land during the subsequent 100 years.
Events on Easter Island took a far darker turn in the 1860s. Peruvian slave traders began to raid the island, capturing as many as half of its inhabitants, including its ruler. Contact with the slavers, as well as whalers and missionaries, then brought smallpox and tuberculosis, further devastating the population. By 1877, just 111 inhabitants remained.
Since then, the isolated people of Rapa Nui have had an unsettled relationship with the world. They gained Chilean citizenship in 1966, but soon found themselves under martial law in the Pinochet era. An indigenous rights movement later developed, but clashed — sometimes violently — with armed police.
Now, almost 300 years after Roggeveen and the first European contact, Easter Island hosts visitors from around the world, the majority coming to see the imposing moai statues and to marvel at the mysteries of this isolated Pacific island. And the current population has risen to around 5,800 — with at least 60% being descendants of the original Rapa Nui people.