Saturday, January 12, 2013

Breaking News: Easter Island Wants to Split from Chile, Join French Polynesia

Come now—France?  Things can’t be that bad, can they?

Reports emerged yesterday (January 10th) in French media that the president of the parliament of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Leviante Araki, is threatening to secede from the Republic of Chile, which administers the tiny island colony, and attach it to French Polynesia, a French possession to the far west of it in the southeastern Pacific.

Rapa Nui, which is only 63 square miles and has just over 5,000 inhabitants, is one of the most remote inhabited territories in the world.  Its nearest neighbor, more than 2,000 miles away, is the similarly minuscule and isolated Pitcairn Island, a British colony inhabited by a handful of descendants of the mutinous H.M.S. Bounty crew of 1789.  Chile, Easter Island’s parent country, is 3,500 miles to the east, with nothing but water in between.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is at the easternmost extent of the Polynesian culture area.
Chile has owned Easter Island since 1888, but it had had a brief period of French rule as well, of a sort.  A mentally deranged French mariner named Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier ran the island as a personal fief in the 1860s and ’70s, intending to turn it into a vast sheep farm.  He married a native woman, whom he crowned Queen of the island, exported native workers—who were to all practical purposes slaves—to Tahiti and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Paris to declare Easter Island a protectorate.  Dutrou-Bornier, who had a taste for prepubescent native girls, was murdered in 1876, and the island remained a no-man’s-land of sorts until Chile took over.

Easter Island’s last brush with French colonialism didn’t end so well.
France didn’t express interest in annexing Easter Island in Dutrou-Bornier’s day, and it seems unlikely that it will be very enthusiastic this time around either.  French Polynesia is mostly a nuisance for Paris, which holds onto it only for strategic reasons: its vast sea territories, for example, are used for nuclear testing.  French Polynesia has its own independence movement; the territory’s president, Oscar Temaru, is pro-independence but has failed to move that agenda forward with his precarious coalition government.  There is also a movement on the Marquesas Islands to split away from French Polynesia and its population centers on Tahiti, to form a separate colony.

Oscar Temaru with the flags of France and French Polynesia
Nor is cession to France likely to prove popular on Easter Island itself.  The population has only a bare majority of native Polynesians, due to heavy settlement by Spanish-speaking Chileans.  Traditionalist natives are more interested in seceding from Chile as an independent nation, to be called Rapa Nui.  One resident, Valentino Riroroko Tuki, has even crowned himself King of Rapa Nui, claiming to be grandson of the last king, Simeón Riro Kainga, who was assassinated—by Chilean agents, some say—in 1898.  But nearly all of the island’s Chileans and an unknown number of indigenous residents are wary of independence, fearing the loss of Chile’s heavy economic support of the isolated, resource-poor territory.

Valentino Riroroko Tuki, Rapa Nui’s self-proclaimed king
The proposal is likely to go nowhere, but it points to growing discontent on Easter Island.  In 2010, Rapa Nui sovereigntists took over a tourist “eco-village,” a rebellion put down violently by the Chilean military.  Just this month, escalating violence between Santiago and another of Chile’s subject peoples, the Mapuche, may have further emboldened Easter Islanders to run the island on their own terms—or, failing that, on France’s.

The flag of Rapa Nui, showing a double-headed reimiro,a canoe-shaped traditional Polynesian necklace ornament.
Fun fact: if Easter Island were ceded to French Polynesia, it would be the first time that France expanded its territory since the end of the First World War, when it annexed the brief-lived Republic of Alsace-Lorraine after the German Empire’s collapse and also snatched up Syria and Lebanon when the Treaty of Versailles carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

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