ATUONA, Hiva Oa, French Polynesia — Nowadays, colonial possessions tend to be islands, the great land masses in Africa and Asia having been given, or having wrested, independence from their rulers in the years following World War II.
In terms of length and breadth, French Polynesia may be the largest colonial possession left on the face of the earth; 2 million square miles spread out over the eastern Pacific, roughly the size of Europe. But in terms of landmass, the 130 islands amount to less than Rhode Island, with a population of less than 300,000.
Elections are coming soon to this self-governing colony; the first round at the end of April and the second round in early May. President Oscar Temaru, if re-elected, will be pushing for independence from France. Earlier, he annoyed Paris by going to the United Nations without French permission to discuss de-colonialization.
As it is, French Polynesia elects its own assembly and its own president, and controls all its affairs except education, justice, defense and foreign affairs. Polynesians also send two members to the French national assembly, one a senator, and can vote for the French president, as well. Although French Polynesians have their own flag, it is the tri-color of France that takes prominence over public buildings.
French Polynesia has sailed against the prevailing French winds before. In World War II this colony opted to back Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and oppose the Vichy government that, following the defeat in 1940, decided to side with the Germans.
After Pearl Harbor, the Americans quickly took advantage of this schism and constructed a military base on Bora Bora, which helped resupply ships and planes headed for Australia and Guadalcanal to the south. Five thousand Americans came to an island with a population of 1000. Four years later they departed, leaving behind 60 children whose descendants live there today.
Not all French Polynesians want independence, however. France provides heavy subsidies, making its Pacific dependencies, French Polynesia and New Caledonia, better off economically than all the Pacific island groups except Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.
The once tourist-rich islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, however, are in economic difficulty, and only just now recovering from a dramatic dip in tourism during the Great Recession years.
I saw one of the famous cottages-over-water hotels in the lagoon of Bora Bora abandoned with holes in the thatched roofs opening to the rain. A 2013 guidebook lists the hotels that have been closed since its last edition. Unemployment in all the islands is distressingly high.
Here in the remote Marquesas, people might rather stick with France than opt for independence because they depend so much on French subsidies. Yet the wealth that France once brought to this colony is receding. The considerable French military presence has been greatly reduced, and I am told that today there is only one French warship to patrol this huge expanse of ocean.
Some are hoping that Chinese investment may be the answer to dwindling French largesse. The Chinese consulate in Tahiti is the largest, and the only consulate to have professional diplomats from the home country. All the others are honorary consuls. But some fear that when Chinese investment steps in the Chinese will send in their own workers to construction sites rather than hiring locals.
Whereas Britain long ago granted independence to its Pacific islands, France decided to keep French Polynesia, perhaps because it needed a place for its nuclear testing after Algeria got its independence in 1962.
Nuclear testing caused violent protests in Tahiti, and although the official version is that the testing never harmed anyone, there are enough cases of thyroid cancer to cast doubts among Tahitians. Nuclear tests ended for good in the 1990s, and with them ended much income for local businesses.
America is France’s only colonial rival in terms of Pacific possessions. The US owns many small islands dotted around the world’s largest ocean, including Wake and Midway of World War II fame.
The most important American possessions are Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas. The US gained Guam in the Spanish American War and the Northern Marianas from Japan after World War II. America nearly came to blows with Imperial Germany over Samoa in the late 19th century. An American naval squadron was about to confront the Kaiser’s war ships when a typhoon damaged them both, so an armistice was declared, and eastern Samoa became American peacefully.
The Northern Marianas today enjoy Commonwealth status, along with Puerto Rico. Guam, which is being built up as a major American military base, likes to say it is where “America’s day begins.” Being just on the other side of the International Date Line, Guam can challenge Maine as America’s eastern-most point of land.
The word “paradise” has been associated with French Polynesia ever since the great explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, arrived in Tahiti in 1797, saying “I thought I was walking in the garden of Eden.” Herman Melville wrote of the Polynesians that “their physical beauty and amiable disposition harmonized completely with the softness of their clime.”
Paul Gauguin, who is buried on a hillside here overlooking the harbor, came in his last years seeking the primitive that he immortalized in colors unfamiliar in the salons of Paris.
I suspect, however, that it was the unconventionality of Polynesian sexual mores that intrigued the early European explorers who had been at sea for months and made these islands a destination for the romantically inclined. It certainly contributed to the most famous mutiny in history when the “Bounty” crew put Capt. Bligh overboard in a small boat and headed back to Tahiti to revisit their Tahitian girlfriends.
Missionaries soon put a stop to Polynesia’s free and easy ways before France took possession of these islands in 1842. Today’s sex tourists need look elsewhere.
If Oscar Temaru wins re-election, there will certainly be more talk of complete independence and a new Pacific nation; but, like Alex Salmond in Scotland, Temaru may be a nationalist leader with a constituency not yet ready to take such a big step.
H.D.S. Greenway leads the Opinion and Analysis section for GlobalPost, where the preceding commentary was first published. He has been a journalist for 50 years and recently retired from the Boston Globe after a distinguished career, most recently as its editorial page editor. He continues to write a column that appears regularly in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.