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Map of the Marquesas Islands
The Marquesas Islands ( or Archipel des Marquises or Marquises; Marquesan: Te Henua (K)enana (North Marquesan) and Te Fenua `Enata (South Marquesan), both meaning "The Land of Men") are a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesiamarker, an overseas collectivity of Francemarker in the southern Pacific Oceanmarker. The Marquesas are located at 9° 00S, 139° 30W. The highest point is the peak of Mount Oave (French: Mont Oave) on Ua Pumarker island at 1,230 m (4,035 ft) above sea level.

The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative divisions (subdivisions administratives) of French Polynesiamarker. The capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision is the settlement of Taiohaemarker on the island of Nuku Hivamarker. The population of the Marquesas Islands was 8,632 at the August 2007 census.


The first recorded settlers of the Marquesas were Polynesians, who, from archæological evidence, are believed to have arrived before 100 AD. Ethnological and linguistic evidence suggests that they likely arrived from the region of Tongamarker and Samoamarker.

The islands were given their name by the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira who reached them on 21 July 1595. He named them after his patron, García Hurtado de Mendoza, 5th Marquis of Cañete, who was Viceroy of Peru at the time. Mendaña visited first Fatu Hivamarker and then Tahuatamarker before continuing on to the Solomon Islandsmarker.

The Americanmarker navigator Capt. Joseph Ingraham first visited the northern Marquesas while commanding the brig Hope in 1791, giving them the name Washington Islands. In 1813, Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hivamarker for the United Statesmarker, but the United States Congress never ratified that claim, and in 1842, Francemarker, following a successful military operation on behalf of a native chief (named Iotete) who claimed to be king of the whole of the island of Tahuata, took possession of the whole group, establishing a settlement (abandoned in 1859) on Nuku Hiva. French control over the group was reestablished in 1870, and later incorporated into the territory of French Polynesiamarker.

Of all the major island groups of the Pacific, the Marquesas Islands suffered the greatest population decline as a result of disease brought by Western explorers, reducing the estimated sixteenth century population of over 100,000 inhabitants , to about 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth century, and to just over 2,000 by the beginning of the 1900s. During the course of the twentieth century, the population increased to 8,712 at the November 2002 census, not including the Marquesan community residing on Tahitimarker, but it decreased slightly to 8,632 at the August 2007 census.

The sparsely populated Marquesas Islands, located 1,371 km (852 miles) from Tahitimarker, the most populous island and dominant political center of French Polynesia, often feel neglected by politicians in Tahiti, and some favor a direct link with Parismarker instead of depending on Papeetemarker. Several prominent Marquesan political leaders have repeatedly declared themselves in favor of separating from French Polynesia and remaining within the French Republic in case French Polynesian political leaders in Tahitimarker would proclaim the independence of French Polynesia. This has generated controversies in Tahiti where pro-independence Tahitian leaders have accused the French central government of encouraging the separation of the Marquesas Islands from French Polynesia.


Rainforest on Fatu-Hiva.
The Marquesas Islands group is the second most remote and farthest from any continent in the world (next to the Hawaiian Islands, which are 3000 km (or 1860 miles) from a continent), lying between 900 and 1,200 km (550 and 725 miles) south of the equator and 1,371 km (852 miles) northeast of Tahitimarker. They fall naturally into two geographical divisions: the northern group, consisting of Eïao, Hatutu (Hatutaa), Motu One, and the islands centered around the large island of Nuku Hivamarker: Motu Itimarker (Hatu Itimarker), Ua Pumarker, Motu `Oa and Ua Hukamarker, and the southern group of Fatu Ukumarker, Tahuatamarker, Moho Tanimarker (Motanemarker), Terihimarker, Fatu Hivamarker and Motu Naomarker (Thomasset Rock), clustered around the main island of Hiva `Oamarker. With a combined land area of 1,049 km² (405 sq. miles), the Marquesas are among the largest island groups of French Polynesia, Nuku Hiva being the second largest island in the entire territory, after Tahitimarker. With the exception of Motu One, all the islands of the Marquesas are of volcanic origin.

In contrast to the common perception of lush tropical vegetation that goes culturally hand-in-hand with the appellation "Polynesia", the Marquesas are remarkably dry islands. Although the islands lie within the tropics, they are the first major break in the prevailing easterly winds spawned from the extraordinarily dry (from an atmospheric perspective) Humboldt Current. Because of this, the islands are subject to frequent drought conditions, and only those which reach highest into the clouds (generally, above about 750 m/2,500 ft above sea level) have reliable precipitation. This has led to historical fluctuations in water supply, which have played a crucial rôle in the sustainability of human populations in certain sections of the various islands throughout the archipelago. This is especially evident in the low historical population of Ua Huka (maximum elevation 857 m/2,812 ft.) and the intermittent inhabitability of Eiao (maximum elevation 576 m/1,890 ft.). The Marquesas Islands are thought to have formed by a center of upwelling magma called the Marquesas hotspot.

Islands of the Marquesas

Northern Marquesas

Southern Marquesas


There are also a number of seamounts or shoals, located primarily in the area of the northern Marquesas. Among these are:


Basaltic rock
With the exception of Motu One, all of the Marquesas Islands are high islands. Motu One is a low island, comprising two small sand banks awash on a coral reef. Unlike the majority of the islands of French Polynesia, the Marquesas are not surrounded by protective fringing reefs. Except for at Motu One, and in bays and other protected areas, the only other coral in the Marquesas is found in a rather strange place: on the top of the island of Fatu Hukumarker. The South Equatorial Current lashes the islands mercilessly, which has led to sea-caves dotting the islands' shores. Except for where the valleys empty into the small bays, the islands are remarkable for their mountain ridges, which end abruptly as cliffs where they meet the sea. The islands are estimated to range in age from the youngest, Fatu Hiva (1.3my) to the oldest, Eiao (6my).


The Marquesas Islands do not have a provincial or regional assembly. Administratively, they form a deconcentrated subdivision of both the French central State and the government of French Polynesia. As a deconcentrated subdivision of the French central State, the Marquesas Islands form the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas (French: subdivision administrative des Marquises), one of French Polynesiamarker's five administrative subdivisions. The head of the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas is the administrateur d'Etat ("State administrator"), generally simply known as administrateur, also sometimes called chef de la subdivision administrative ("head of the administrative subdivision"). The administrateur is a civil servant under the authority of the High Commissioner of the French Republic in French Polynesia in Papeetemarker. The administrateur and his staff sit in Taiohaemarker, on the island of Nuku Hivamarker, which has become the administrative capital of the Marquesas Islands, having replaced Atuonamarker on the island of Hiva Oamarker which was previously the capital.

Acting as the representative of the French central State and delegate of Papeete's High Commissioner, the administrateur of the Marquesas is notably in charge of:
  • offering legal advice to the communes (municipalities) of the Marquesas and verifying the legality of decisions made by the communes
  • issuing official documents (ID cards, driving licences, etc.), applying immigration rules, organizing elections
  • managing security (coordination of gendarmerie forces, handling of major crises such as natural disasters, etc.)
  • overseeing the public services of the French central State which are present in the Marquesas Islands (such as the correctional facility on Nuku Hiva)

As a deconcentrated subdivision of the government of French Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands form the circonscription des Marquises ("district of the Marquesas"), one of French Polynesia's four circonscriptions ("districts") created in 2000 by the Assembly of French Polynesia to serve as deconcentrated subdivisions of the government of French Polynesia in the islands away from Tahitimarker and Mooreamarker. The head of the circonscription des Marquises is the tavana hau, known as administrateur territorial in French (English: "territorial administrator"), but the Tahitian title tavana hau is most often used. The tavana hau is the direct representative of the president of French Polynesia's government who appoints him. The tavana hau and his staff sit in Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, same as the State administrator.

The tavana hau is notably in charge of:
  • coordinating the work of French Polynesian administrations which are present in the Marquesas Islands (such as the French Polynesian administrations in charge of roads, fisheries, etc.)
  • ensuring the enforcement of acts passed by the Assembly of French Polynesia and decisions taken by the government of French Polynesia
  • evaluating the performance of French Polynesian civil servants and sending the evaluations to the responsible ministries in Papeete
  • acting as a liaison between the local population and the government of French Polynesia in Papeete

The Marquesas Islands also form the electoral district of the Marquesas Islands, one of French Polynesiamarker's six electoral districts for the Assembly of French Polynesia (see also Politics of French Polynesia).

The Marquesas Islands are subdivided in six communes (municipalities). In each of the six communes the local residents elect a municipal council and a mayor in charge of managing local affairs within the commune. Three communes (Nuku-Hiva, Ua-Poumarker, and Hiva-Oa) are further subdivided into associated communes due to their larger population. The communes and associated communes are the only elected councils in the Marquesas since there does not exist a provincial or regional assembly for the entire archipelago. Municipal elections are held every six years on the same day as municipal elections in the rest of France (see French municipal elections, 2008 for the last municipal elections).

Here are the six communes in the Marquesas Islands (the associated communes are not shown):

Communes of the Marquesas Islands
  1. Nuku-Hiva
  2. Ua-Hukamarker
  3. Ua-Poumarker
  4. Hiva-Oa
  5. Tahuatamarker
  6. Fatu-Hivamarker


Although French and Tahitian are the only official languages of French Polynesia, and therefore of the Marquesas Islands as well, the Marquesan languages, in their various forms, remain the primary means of communication within the archipelago.

Marquesan is a collection of East-Central Polynesian dialects, of the Marquesic group, spoken in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesiamarker. They are usually classified into two groups, North Marquesan and South Marquesan, roughly along geographic lines.

The North Marquesan dialects are spoken on the islands of Ua Pumarker and Nuku Hivamarker, and South Marquesan dialects on the islands of Hiva `Oamarker, Tahuatamarker and Fatu Hivamarker. The dialects of Ua Hukamarker are often incorrectly classified as North Marquesan; they are instead transitional. While the island is in the northern Marquesas group, the dialects show more morphological and phonological affinities with South Marquesan. The North Marquesan dialects are sometimes considered two separate languages: North Marquesan and Tai Pi Marquesan, the latter being spoken in the valleys of the eastern third of the island of Nuku Hiva, in the ancient province of Tai Pi.

The most striking feature of the Marquesan languages is their almost universal replacement of the or of other Polynesian languages by a (glottal stop).

Like other Polynesian languages, the phonology of Marquesan languages is characterized by a paucity of consonants and a comparative abundance of vowels.


Marquesans performing a dance
The population of the Marquesas Islands at the August 2007 census was 8,632, which is 80 people less than at the November 2002 census, and far lower than 16th century estimates which put the population at over 100,000. Much of the population was wiped out by smallpox between 1600 and 1900, when the population was counted at just under 2,000.

Historical population

1971 1977 1983 1988 1996 2002 2007
5,593 5,419 6,548 7,358 8,064 8,712 8,632
Official figures from past censuses.



There are four airports in the Marquesas, one each on the islands of Nuku Hiva, Ua Pu, Ua Huka, and Hiva Oa. The terrain of Tahuata is too irregular to allow for the construction of a landing strip without significant investment, and while the upland plateau of central Fatu Hiva is large enough to permit the construction of an airstrip, the island's minuscule population makes such an exercise of dubious benefit.


The Marquesas are served by telephone as well as by radio and television mainly from Tahitimarker. Recent additions include the "Vini" a mobile phone service that, in about 6 years has expanded to cover most of the populated islands. "Mana" An internet server with DSL Broadband that is expanding with Wifi stations too.


Marquesan chiefess.

The Marquesas Islands were once a major center of eastern Polynesian civilization.


The ecosystem of the Marquesas has been devastated in some areas by the activities of feral livestock. As a first step in preserving what remains, the Marquesan Nature Reserves were created in 1992.

In Western culture

  • Famous French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel spent the last years of their lives in the Marquesas, and are buried there. Brel composed a famous song, Les Marquises, about the Marquesas Islands, his last home.
  • The Marquesas provided inspiration to American novelist Herman Melville, whose experiences in the Marquesas formed the basis for his novel Typee. (Despite some sources, Omoo is based in the Society Islandsmarker, not in the Marquesas.)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson visited the Marquesas in 1888, and wrote about his experiences and impressions there in 1900, in a book called In the South Seas.
  • Frederick O'Brien wrote a 1919 book White Shadows in the South Seas based on his experiences in the Marquesas. This book was also adapted into an MGM movie of 1928.
  • Thor Heyerdahl wrote his book Fatu Hiva during a year-long stay on the island.
  • The island group is also mentioned in passing in the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, "Southern Cross".
  • The Marquesas Islands temporarily received an international spotlight in the United Statesmarker when the reality TV show Survivor: Marquesas was filmed on Nuku Hivamarker. It was the fourth installment of the TV series Survivor.
  • In the book In the Heart of the Sea, it is detailed that the Marquesas were near by where the Essexmarker had been destroyed. They feared reports of cannibalism, war and ritualized homosexuality on the island, however, and instead chose a much longer route to South America.

See also



  1. Communes des Îles Marquises
  2. Polémique à Tahiti: les Marquises veulent se rapprocher de Paris
  3. 2002 census
  4. 1971, 1977, 1983, 1988, and 1996 censuses

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