Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tuamotu Archipelago

TUAMOTU ARCHIPELAGO,[1] a broad belt of seventy coral islands lying between 14° 5′ and 23° 22′ S. lat. and 134° 25′ and 148° 40′ W. long., and now under the protection of France. They trend in irregular lines in a north west and south-east direction, and cover 1500 miles of the Pacific, the easternmost Tuamotus being 3600 miles from Peru.[2] With the exception of a few insignificant islands the archipelago consists of atolls (see Corals and Pacific Ocean), mostly chains of low islets that crown the reefs and sometimes also obstruct the deep lagoons which they encircle. The largest island, Nairsa (Dean's Island), with a lagoon 45 miles long by 15  wide, is made up of twenty islets. Fakarava, the next in size, consists of fifteen islets, and its oblong lagoon affords the best anchorage in the group. Hao has fifty islets, and its lagoon is dangerously studded with coral. The symmetrically placed eleven islets of Anao suggested to Captain Cook the name of Chain Island. Matahiva, Niau, and Mururoa are good specimens of the horse -shoe -shaped atoll. Nengonengone, Fangataufa, and Marutea, true lagoon islands, form unbroken rings round their lake-like lagoons. In a few of the smaller atolls the lagoons have been completely silted up. To the south-east lie the Gambier Islands, a cluster of four larger and many smaller volcanic islets, enclosed in one wide reef. The wooded crags of Mangareva, the largest islet, 5 miles in length, rise to a height of 1300 feet and are covered with a rich vegetation, quite Tahitian in character; but, as in the other Tuamotus, there is a dearth of animal life. This group was discovered by Captain Wilson of the London Missionary Society in 1797. Tahitian teachers were sent thither in 1834; but Catholic missionaries followed in 1836, and converted the entire population. The natives, once very numerous, now number less than a thousand, and are still decreasing. Cannibalism was formerly prevalent. In physique, language, re ligion, and custom the Gambier Islanders closely resemble the Rarotongans. Beechey surveyed the group in 1826, and D'Urville in 1838. Pitcairn Island and a few uninhabited rocks lie still farther to the south-east. The Tuamotus are healthy and as a rule have a lower mean temperature than Tahiti. The easterly trade winds prevail. Rain and fogs occur even during the dry season. The stormy season lasts from November to March, when devastating hurricanes are not uncommon and a south westerly swell renders the western shores dangerous. Plants and animals are very meagrely represented, even more so than in the atolls of Micronesia. Cocoa-palms and the pandanus thrive on many of the islets, and the bread-fruit, banana, pine-apple, and arum have been introduced from Tahiti into the western islands. Mammals are represented by a rat; among land-birds a parakeet, a thrush, and a dove are noticeable; and of reptiles there is only one lizard. Insects are scarce. But the sea and lagoons teem with turtle, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, andzoophytes. Coral grows luxuriantly everywhere. From the abundance of pearl-oysters the archipelago gets its name of Pearl Islands; pearl-fishing indeed is the only remunerative industry. Under French control the newest appliances for obtaining shells have now mostly superseded the laborious diving of the natives. The Tuamotus are very thinly inhabited by a fine strong Polynesian race, more muscular and mostly darker-skinned than that inhabiting Tahiti. In the west considerable intermixture with other races has taken place. Of the habits of the people little is known, and many of the islands are still marked "hostile inhabitants" on the English Admiralty charts. In the eastern islands cannibalism existed. Tattooing is not universal. Clothing and ornaments are very scanty. The huts are mean square buildings, often mere shelters of leaves. Good outrigger and single and double canoes are built, the larger ingeniously stitched together of small pieces of drift wood. Fishing with net and hook is much practised. Food besides fish consists almost exclusively of cocoa-nuts and pandanus fruit. Water is scarce.

Magellan's first discovery of land after reaching the Pacific in 1520 was one of the Tuamotus. Various portions of the archipelago were in turn crossed by Queiros (1605), Lemaire and Schouten (1616), Roggeween (1722), Byron (1765), Wallis (1767), Bougainville (1768), Cook (1769), the "Duff" (1797), Krusenstern (1803), Kotzebue (1816), Fitzroy (1835), D'Urville (1838), and Belcher (1840). The first systematic survey was instituted in 1818 by Bellinghausen, and was continued in 1823 by Duperry, in 1826 by Beechey, and in 1839 by Wilkes. Thanks to these many explorers, the islands have been christened and rechristened with a chaos of Spanish, Dutch, English, French, German, and Russian names.

See the narratives of the various explorers cited above, and Meinicke, Inseln des stillen Oceans (Leipsic, 1876); for general statistics and an account of the pearl-fisheries, see Notices Coloniales, Paris, 1886.


  1. There is no collective name for the archipelago among the Tuamotuans themselves, but the Tahitians call it Paumotu (i.e., Cloud of Islands). The group is Bougainville's Dangerous Archipelago, Fleurieu's Bad Sea, Krusenstern's Low Islands, and the Pearl Islands of traders.
  2. Distinct names have been given to eight clusters of the archipelago,—Disappointment Islands, King George's Islands, Palliser Islands, Raeffsky Islands, Two Groups, Duke of Gloucester Islands, Actæon or Amphitrite group, and Gambier Islands.