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Rapa Nui | Pasifika Media Association

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Profile

Rapanui is a triangular shaped island located in the Southern Hemisphere, 2300 km from the coast of Chile to the east, with Tahiti some 3800 km westward. The international perception and published academic documentation of Rapanui is that it is an uninhabited island, where “mysterious” archaeological artifacts and Moai, the monumental monolithic statues, have been discovered. This view of Rapanui is problematic given that Rapanui culture, language and people are still vibrant and flourishing.

In 1888 a Chilean, Captain Toro of the Chilean Navy, claimed the island as a territory of Chile in the alleged Treaty of Cessation and Proclamation. The Chilean perspective is that Chile rescued the diminished Rapanui population from its own demise. Rapanui has been viewed as an example of an island where overuse of the natural resources led to the collapse of the civilisation and the decimation of the population. The widely accepted story is that the Rapanui people cut down all the trees on the island to use them to transport the Moai.

Chile’s annexation of Rapanui as a province extended the borders of Chile far into the Pacific Ocean and established Chile as an international player in the colonial game.

The Treaty and Proclamation are filed at the National Historic Archives of Chile. They were written in 1888 in script with a quill pen on a bifurcated page, which is in both Spanish and Rapanui.

One side of the Treaty and Proclamation was written in coherent Spanish and the other written in phonetic, transliterated, Rapanui. Taking into account the difficulty in reading and translating these documents, it appears that the intentions of the Spanish and Rapanui versions are completely different. The Spanish documents are a testimony of the intentions of the government of Chile to annex Rapanui. However, the Rapanui versions do not reflect the same intention at all.

The Spanish version is clear and unambiguous. It states that the Rapanui Chiefs “declare cessation forever and without reservation to the government of Chile, the sovereignty of the whole island.”

The words in Rapanui, which can be clearly translated, mean ‘Give care to the motherland’, ‘Together’, ‘Navel of the World’, ‘Knowledge is in our mind’, ‘Friends’, ‘Progress’, ‘Bring the protection’ and ‘Give us prosperity for our motherland.’ None of the words indicate or can be translated to mean surrender of the island. In fact, there is no word for ‘cessation’ in Rapanui, therefore it is questionable whether the Chiefs even understood the concepts of the Proclamation.

The Rapanui oral history surrounding the creation of the ‘Treaty and Proclamation’ is as follows:

Ariki Atamu Tekena was the acting king when the Chilean Navy arrived on the island (his name, written as ‘Atamu Ari’ is the first of the chiefs that is listed on the Treaty). Ariki Atamu Tekena held in his left hand a fist full of grass, looked at the eyes of Captain Toro, the Chilean naval captain, and told him that the grass was for his cows and sheep to graze on Rapanui. However, in his right hand he held a fist full of soil, and again looked into Captain Toro’s eyes and said he’d keep the soil as proof that the land and the island belong to the Rapanui people. He then pocketed the soil, signifying the inherent right of the Rapanui people to their island and land without reservation. It is said that this took place simultaneously with the signing of the Treaty. (Hotu, 1988; Atamu Pakomio, 1979; Rapu, 1990)

This oral history has been repeated by many elders without deviation and implies that the intention of the Rapanui chiefs was to retain sovereignty of Rapanui while allowing the Chileans to use the lands of Rapanui for their enterprise of grazing and breeding animals. In exchange for this use of the land, the Rapanui chiefs understood that the Chileans would take care, bring prosperity and protect the Rapanui land and its people. It did not constitute the cessation of their sovereignty or of the island.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the settlement of Rapanui began around AD 690. After the original settlers arrived from eastern Polynesia, the Rapanui civilisation was organised around interrelated kinship of approximately 12 clans, the carving and transporting of over 1000 Moai and the development of the written language, Rongorongo.

In 1722 the first European to anchor at Rapanui was a Dutch Admiral, Roggeveen.

In 1770 Spanish ships under Felipe Gonzalez took possession of the island in the name of Carlos III of Spain and renamed it San Carlos. Peruvian slave raids from around 1859 to 1864 abducted several hundred Rapanui, including the Ariki (individual of high rank) and nearly all of the high chiefs. They also brought with them the previously unknown gift of smallpox, which decimated the population of approximately 1600. By 1877 the recorded population was only 111.

In 1864 Franciscan missionaries, in partnership with a Tahitian Mercantile House, claimed Rapanui as a colony. During this period many Rapanui were removed from their ancestral lands, which were dispersed around the island and forced to live at the camp of Hangaroa, which was to become the only town.

Based on the Treaty and Proclamation, the Chilean government took formal possession in 1888. However, in 1897 French merchant Enrique Merlet purchased from the Tahitian Mercantile House and the Franciscans a lease of the entire island, with the exception of Hangaroa. During Merlet’s administration, the indigenous people were forced off their lands, their houses and crops burned, their livestock stolen and slaughtered, their women and children raped and many archaeological sites disregarded and destroyed.

Finally in 1953, after 58 years and continuous complaints, the island was placed under the guardianship of the Chilean Navy until civil administration was set up in 1966.

Despite these many abuses, the Rapanui population continued to grow and a will to survive gradually regenerated. In 1886 the population was 155, by 1900 it had reached 213, by 1934, 456. In 1995 there were 1619 islanders. Since 1877 there has been an annual increase of nearly 5%.

Although the Rapanui people have managed to survive and the population has increased, dependency on Chile is no longer a viable option. The high rate of unemployment has turned the people back to their land and sea for subsistence existence. Chile’s financial allocation for Rapanui, approximately US$11 million per annum, is in great part aimed to support their own presence on the island. Only a nominal amount is actually used for the needs of education, social welfare and public health.

Prior to the Treaty and Proclamation and the presence of Merlet’s Easter Island Exploitation Company, the log of Admiral Roggeveen reports that “all the country was under cultivation.” Even when the Rapanui were forced into Hangaroa, they continued to cultivate their crops.

However, in 1973, when Pinochet took control of Chile by a military coup, the Chilean State took Rapanui property, assets, farm vehicles, fishing boats, cattle, horses and other livestock without consent or explanation. Because of an inability to continue agricultural production, people were forced to purchase their food from Chile, which was flown in on the weekly airline fights.

Interestingly, the Chilean government controls limited access to the island by only allowing LanChile, the official airline of Chile, to land in Rapanui a few times a week. Worth noting is that Rapanui has a remarkable airport because it is home to an emergency shuttle landing strip and monitoring station for NASA. Thus this airport launched the island into the international tourist business, bringing a steady but relatively small influx of visitors to see the archaeological treasures.

Today the Rapanui rely even more heavily upon their meagre wages from a limited tourist trade to make a living, creating a spiral of dependence in which many persons are caught. Basic staples such as milk, bread, eggs and even vegetables are imported from Chile and sold at exorbitant rates in the local markets.

Economic forces therefore have created a strong movement to reclaim their ancestral lands to re-cultivate the rich volcanic soil, the agricultural traditions and self-reliance. The Chilean government has continued to resist this movement by not allowing the Rapanui to use their ancestral lands for agriculture.

These recent translations of the Treaty and Proclamation have put into question whether Rapanui was ever actually ceded to the Chileans in 1888. If it is found that there was no meeting of the minds, then the inherent land rights of the Rapanui must be restored and a new system of governance contemplated and enacted. The issues of usurped land and the rights of the Rapanui people to assert their self-reliance and self-determination need to be adjudicated by an international forum.


Excerpted from Vaai Hanga Kainga – Giving Care to the Motherland: conflicting narratives of Rapanui by Santi Hito