The European Voyages
For more than two centuries after Magellan’s global circumnavigation, Rapa Nui remained unknown to Europeans. Then, on Easter Sunday of April 1722, Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen’s expedition became the first Europeans to sight and set foot on the island. Roggeveen’s crew arrived, apparently, at a time of relative peace and prosperity; one member, Carl Behrens, published an account in which he remarked on the productive gardens, noted the moai and the religious ceremonies associated with them, and described islanders’ appearance in detail. In 1770, claiming the island for Spain, the expedition of Felipe González de Haedo made similar observations, noting abundant produce and the presence of cave dwellings and hare paenga, the boat-shaped houses whose foundations are still visible today.
The most noteworthy European voyage, though, was that of the famous Englishman, Captain James Cook, in 1774. Cook’s familiarity with Polynesia made him the first European to link the Rapanui explicitly to the rest of Oceania, and he was also the first to report damaged ahu, toppled, broken moai, and a ragged populace that bore the scars of conflict. He also remarked that the moai seemed to have lost their ritual significance, perhaps an indicator of the transition from a lineage-based tradition of ancestor worship to the Tangata Manu (birdman) cult of the creator Makemake.
While Cook’s reports contrasted with the apparent stability, harmony, and prosperity seen by the Roggeveen and González expeditions, in all likelihood neither of the earlier voyages provided a thorough assessment. Later visits, by the Frenchman Jean François de Gallup, Comte de la Perouse, in 1786, and by the Russian ship Neva under Yuri Lisiansky in the early 19th century, present contradictory visions, suggesting that the fortunes of the islanders, in peace and war, ebbed and flowed. As frictions periodically intensified, moai were toppled and broken, and only a handful remained standing. Even before the indigenous population felt the full impact of imperialism and colonialism, the population had declined rapidly from a maximum that may have reached 20,000 (though most estimates are lower).
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition