Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slavery and Disease on Easter Island

Easter Island's earliest contacts with the outside world occurred before 1800; after that time, whalers began to stop at the island, looking for fresh vegetables and women. They left behind venereal diseases. In 1808, after a bloody battle, an American ship, Nancy, kidnapped 12 men and 10 women with the intent of taking them to the Juan Fernandez Islands to work as slaves in seal-hunting efforts there. Three days' sail from Rapa Nui the captain allowed the captives to come out of the hold; they promptly leaped overboard and began swimming away. Attempts to recapture them failed. The ship sailed onward, leaving the islanders to drown at sea.

Such cruel acts had their affect; many arriving ships were greeted with hostility. In return, islanders were shot, sometimes for the sport of it. Atrocities such as these changed the islanders perceptions of the strangers who appeared on their horizon. While the first few explorers were received as strange but wonderful sources of clothing and goods, subsequent raids and vicious acts perpetrated against the Rapanui made them wary of foreigners. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning.
The most traumatic set of events occurred in the 1860's when the Peruvian slave raids began. It was at this time that Peruvians were experiencing labor shortages and they came to regard the Pacific as a vast source of free labor. Slavers raided islands as far away as Micronesia. But Easter Island was much closer and became a prime target.

Easter Island Map

In December of 1862 eight Peruvian ships landed their crewmen and between bribery and outright violence they captured some 1000 Easter Islanders, including the king, his son, and the ritual priests (one of the reasons for so many gaps in our knowledge of the ancient ways).It has been estimated that a total of 2000 Easter Islanders were captured over a period of years. Those who survived to arrive in Peru were poorly treated, overworked, and exposed to diseases. Ninety percent of the Rapa Nui died within one or two years of capture.


Eventually the Bishop of Tahiti caused a public outcry and an embarrassed Peru rounded up the few survivors to return them. A shipload headed to Easter Island, but smallpox broke out en route and only 15 arrived to the island. They were put ashore. The resulting smallpox epidemic nearly wiped out the remaining population.

Missionaries came to the island and rapid conversion to Catholicism further obscured the ancient life ways. The ship captain that had brought the missionaries, Jean Baptiste Onexime Dutrou-Bornier, decided that the island had possibilities for becoming a sheep ranch. He traded for some land and eventually became a power in the island society. With fire and gun he intimidated the missionaries, who eventually gave up and fled the island. Bornier then declared himself king By 1877, only 110 disheartened Rapa Nui inhabitants remained, some employed in Bornier's sheep raising activities. Bornier, a violent man, was murdered by the abused islanders.

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