Austral Islands

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Austral Islands
Map of French Polynesia with the location of the archipelago
Map of French Polynesia with the location of the archipelago
Waters Pacific Ocean
Geographical location 21 ° 48 ′  S , 154 ° 41 ′  W Coordinates: 21 ° 48 ′  S , 154 ° 41 ′  W
Map of Austral Islands
Number of islands 7 islands / atolls
Main island Tubuai
Total land area 140 km²
Residents 6820 (2012)
Map of the Austral Islands
Map of the Austral Islands

The Austral Islands , French Îles Australes are a group of islands in the southern Pacific Ocean . Politically, they belong to French Polynesia and thus to the French overseas territories ( Collectivités d'outre-mer, COM ).


The Austral Islands lie south of the Society Islands and form the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia. They are divided into two groups: The Tubuai Islands in the northwest and the Bass Islands in the southeast. Geographically from west to east, the archipelago includes:

Tubuai Islands:

Bass Islands:

Both economically and geographically, the group of seven widely spaced islands is the smallest of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia. The main island is Tubuai .


The Austral Islands form a chain of seven islands that stretch from southeast to northwest. They are the product of a hot spot under the still active Macdonald Seamount , which rises 338 kilometers east-southeast of the Bass Rocks (Marotori) to approx. 40 m below sea level. The geologically oldest, more eroded and rugged islands are in the northwest, the younger ones in the southeast of the chain. The geological age of the basaltic rocks ranges from 28.6 million years on Rimatara in the northwest to 3.3 million years on Marotiri in the southeast.

Marotiri, the youngest island, is just a group of rugged, volcanic rocks with no protective coral reef . Maria, however, the oldest, is an atoll whose volcanic central island sank a long time ago, so that only four motus remain. The remaining islands are classic atolls with a central island, a coral reef and a fringing of coral islands in the various stages of development.


The flora of the Austral Islands was fundamentally changed by the Polynesian natives. A native, largely undestroyed vegetation can be found on the uninhabited Atoll Maria . On Rapa, too, there are still small remnants of the original mountain rainforest in inaccessible steep slopes .

On the four largest islands (Rapa, Raivavae, Tubuai and Rurutu) the vegetation is dominated by secondary growth. The beach vegetation hardly differs from that of other Pacific island groups, but it is less biodiverse. In the few areas undisturbed by humans, Pisonia grandis , heliotropes of the species Heliotropium foertherianum (synonyms: Argusia argentea , Tournefortia argentea ) and Pandanus tectorius dominate with bushy and creeping plants as the growth and undergrowth.

In the lower areas, outside of the cultivated areas, there are thickets of Hibiscus tiliaceus . The guava ( Psidium guajava ), which was probably imported by the Europeans, has also spread widely and forms extensive, matted stocks up to the middle layers. Large areas, however, have been damaged by previous slash and burn operations and grazed by goats, and open grasslands with few, low-growing trees have formed. Dense stands of ferns have settled in narrow and damp crevices. The higher elevations in the lee of the mountains are arid in places.


The climate is tropical or subtropical-humid, but relatively cool compared to the Polynesian Islands further north, as the Austral Islands lie north and south of the Tropic of Capricorn and thus on the border of the tropical climate zone . The islands of Raivavae, Rapa and Marotiri are already in the subtropics .

The seasons are not very distinctive. The temperatures fluctuate only slightly and the amount of rain is relatively evenly distributed over the months. The daytime temperatures are rarely higher than 30 ° C, even on the islands further north. On the islands of the archipelago further south, night temperatures can occasionally even drop below 15 ° C.

For the island of Rapa, the southernmost inhabited island of the archipelago, the following annual averages are available:

  • Temperature 20.7 ° C,
  • Annual rainfall 2787 mm


The prehistory of the Austral Islands is largely in the dark, as only a few archaeological digs have taken place so far. The time of the first settlement is unclear because there are hardly any radiocarbon dates . Because of its peripheral location in the Polynesian Triangle , it can be assumed that the Austral Islands were settled relatively late, probably from the Society Islands , possibly also from Mangareva or the Cook Islands . Relations between the noble families of the Austral Islands and clans of the Society Islands are documented, for example Chief Tamatoa of Tubuai boasted of his descent from an Ariki from the island of Raiatea . The American archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch even goes so far as to regard the Austral Islands, the southern Cook Islands and the Society Islands as one large cultural area. The New Zealand archaeologist Atholl John Anderson assumes that the island of Rapa was settled around 1200 AD.

At Atiahara on the north coast of Tubuai, a settlement near the beach was excavated from 1995 under the direction of the American archaeologist Mark Eddowes, probably from a very early settlement phase. The leftover food from garbage pits suggests that the residents mainly ate seafood (fish, mussels, crustaceans) from the lagoon . Pigs, chickens and the Pacific rat served as other food animals . The processing of mussel shells, probably also for the exchange of goods with other settlements, was an integral part of the economy. The dating of charcoal residues resulted in the dates 1453 (± 150 years) and 1113 (± 50 years). According to the current state of research, one can therefore assume that the Austral Islands were initially settled in the early 2nd millennium AD.

After the initial settlement of coastal caves and rock overhangs, a stratified tribal society quickly developed in settlements near the beach. The structure of the settlement reflected the social order. There were strictly separated houses made of perishable materials for the aristocracy , the priests, the middle class (craftsmen, artists), warriors, adolescent boys and pubescent girls. Due to increasing tribal wars, the beach settlements were abandoned, probably in the 17th or 18th century. The inhabitants withdrew to heavily fortified hilltop settlements inland, comparable to the Pā of New Zealand . On the island of Rapa, for example, 15 such hill forts have been found. The Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the Eastern Pacific from 1956 under the direction of Thor Heyerdahl determined an age of 200 to 300 years for a fortified settlement on the Morongo Uta hill on Rapa and dated the Hatututi fortress complex on Raivavae to 1700 AD. (± 200 years) The numerous wars and probably also the overexploitation of natural resources are likely to have drastically reduced the population even before the arrival of the Europeans.

Rurutu was the first of the Austral Islands to be discovered in Europe in 1769 . James Cook reached the island, he called them Ohetiroa, during his first voyage to the Pacific on August 14, 1769. After the Endeavor had gankert the night before the island, Cook left the next day the Pinasse under the command of Lieutenant Gore deploy. The naturalist Joseph Banks was also in the boat . A great number of armed warriors ran about on the bank. Since Cook had ordered to avoid any risk, the pinasse returned to the ship without attempting to land.

The Spaniard Tomás de Gayangos was the first European to reach the island of Raivavae on February 5, 1775 with the ships Aguila and Jupiter as part of an expedition to Tahiti initiated by Manuel d'Amat i de Junyent . The following day Gayangos had a boat with Lieutenant Benarcosi and two translators brought out of Tahiti, but they were prevented from landing in Mahanatoa Bay by several war canoes.

James Cook discovered Tubuai Island in March 1777 during his third voyage, but did not set foot on the island this time either. His report was known to Fletcher Christian , the leader of the Bounty mutiners. After the mutiny on the Bounty on April 28, 1789 off Tofua , the ship first headed for Tubuai, but stayed there for only a week before sailing on to Tahiti. Provided with supplies and with several Tahitian women, the mutineers returned to Tubuai to settle there. Internal disputes and bloody confrontations with the islanders, in which 66 Tubuaians were killed, meant that the bounty was canceled three months later.

Rapa Iti was discovered in 1791 by George Vancouver , Marotiri in 1800 by George Bass , Rimatara in 1811 by the British-Tahitian sandalwood merchant Samuel Pinder Henry and the atoll Maria was finally discovered in 1824 by whaling captain George Washington Gardner from Nantucket for the western hemisphere .

After the Pomaré dynasty with British support had consolidated their influence on Tahiti and Pomaré II had been crowned king in 1819, he decided to extend his sphere of influence to the Austral Islands. The American brig Arab of Captain Lewis brought the king, his court and several missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS) to the Austral Islands in October 1819 . Lewis was rewarded with sandalwood from Raivavae. When the Arab reached Raivavae, the clans were in one of their usual tribal wars. Pomaré managed to mediate between the warring parties and to resolve the conflict diplomatically. He left one of his Tahitian chiefs as governor , who prepared the basis for the Protestant missionaries of the LMS who followed from Moorea a year later . The conversion to Christianity was peaceful as the chiefs assimilated the new religion quickly and without resistance. Christianization ended the tribal wars, but it brought about decisive changes in the stratified tribal society. The omnipotence of the tribal leaders was broken. The Austral Islands initially remained under the hegemony of Tahiti.

In 1862 a two-year raid by so-called " Blackbirders " began, who abducted more than 3,500 inhabitants of the South Pacific islands as enslaved workers to Peru and Chile. In December 1862 a fleet of five ships anchored in the Ahurei Bay of Rapa. A large group of armed men was brought ashore to use force to capture workers. But the residents withdrew to the mountain fortresses and the Blackbirders had to leave without having achieved anything. A few days later, the Chilean schooner Cora arrived on Rapa. Thirteen chiefs gathered and decided to hijack the ship and crew and hand them over to the French authorities in Tahiti. A group of warriors sneaked on board the Cora and imprisoned the captain. The team surrendered without resistance. Five sailors decided to stay on the island as guests. A later attempt by the barque Misti to capture labor was abandoned when the captain learned of the Cora's fate .

Queen Pomaré IV of Tahiti transferred parts of her sovereignty to France. As a result, France formally declared the protectorate of Tubuai in 1874 and Raivavae in 1876. With the end of the Pomaré dynasty - the last king of Tahiti was Pomaré V - the islands were annexed and French colony in 1880 . The exception was two small islands that the colonial powers France and Great Britain had apparently overlooked. Rurutu under King Teuruarii IV and Rimatara under Queen Tamaeva IV initially remained independent kingdoms. After an exchange of diplomatic notes and after Great Britain had expressed no interest in the islands, Rurutu submitted to the French protectorate on March 27, 1889 and Rimatara on March 29, 1889. The final annexation took place in 1900, Rimatara and Rurutu also became French colony.

Politics and administration

Politically, the Austral Islands now belong to the French Overseas Zealand ( Pays d'outre-mer - POM) French Polynesia and are thus affiliated to the EU. Administration is carried out by a subdivision ( Subdivision administrative des Îles Australes ) of the High Commission of French Polynesia ( Haut-commissariat de la République en Polynésie française ) in Papeete on the island of Tahiti .

The archipelago is politically divided into 5 municipalities ( Communes des Îles Australes ), which are self-governing:

location local community comment Area
Austral isl Tubuai.PNG Tubuai with the communes ( Communes associées ) Mataura, Taahueia and Mahu 45 2,170
Austral Islands map highlighting Rurutu.png Rurutu with the sub-municipalities Moerai, Hauti and Avera 29 2,322
Austral isl Raivavae.PNG Raivavae with the sub-communities Anatonu, Rairua-Mahanatoa and Vaiuru 16 940
Austral isl Rimatara.PNG Rimatara with the sub-municipalities of Mutuaura (including Îlots Maria ), Amaru and Anapoto 8.6 873
Austral isl Rapa.PNG Rapa (including Marotiri or Bass Rocks) 40 515

The official language is French. In everyday life, Austral, which is one of the Polynesian languages , is often spoken - but with a steadily decreasing tendency .

The currency is (still) the CFP franc, which is linked to the euro . The administrative budget of the Austral Islands is largely financed with funds from France and the EU. The time zone is UTC −10.

The 6,820 inhabitants (2012 census) mostly live in small villages, there are no large cities on the Austral Islands. In contrast to other regions of Polynesia, the population of the Austral Islands has been falling since the mid-1990s. The reason is the high rate of emigration of young people from the isolated archipelago to other parts of Polynesia or to France because of the better job prospects.


The inhabitants of the Austral Islands live mainly from subsistence farming . The very fertile soils and the warm and humid climate enable the cultivation of vegetables, tubers ( taro and yams ) as well as tropical and subtropical fruits. Most of the products are consumed themselves, the small surpluses are exported to Tahiti. In addition, fishing and cattle breeding (chickens and pigs) are operated for personal use. Some copra , coffee in small quantities (Raivavae and Rurutu) and vanilla (Rurutu) are grown for export .

Tourism has hardly touched the islands so far, and the tourist infrastructure is still underdeveloped. The islands can be reached by supply ship, which runs regularly from Tahiti, and by small aircraft from Tahiti-Faa'a Airport. There are airfields on Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rimatara.


  • David Stanley : South Seas Handbook. Walther, Bremen 1981. 4th edition 1994, ISBN 3-923550-40-5 .
  • Jean Guillin: L'archipel des Australes. A. Barthélemy, Le Pontet 2001, ISBN 2-87923-138-8 .
  • Robert Bollt : Peva. The Archeology of an Austral Island settlement. (= Bishop Museum bulletins in anthropology. 12). Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu 2008, ISBN 978-1-58178-066-6 .
  • Robert T. Aitken : Ethnology of Tubuai. (= Bayard Dominick Expedition. 19). (= Bulletin. Bernice P. Bishop Museum . 70). Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu 1930.
  • Topographic map: Tubuai. Polynésie française, Austral archipelago. 1: 15,000. Projection Mercator Transverse Universelle. 2011 edition. Polynésie Française, Service de L'Urbanisme, section topography, 2011. 123 × 87 cm.

Web links

Commons : Austral Islands  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. More or less voluntarily, that is a controversial issue.

Individual evidence

  1. Valérie Clouard & Alain Bonneville: Ages of seamounts, islands and plateaus on the Pacific plate. In: Foulger, GR, Natland, JH, Presnall, DC, and Anderson, DL, (eds.): Plates, plumes, and paradigms , Geological Society of America Special Paper No. 388, pp. 71-90 digitizedhttp: //vorlage_digitalisat.test/ double-sided%3D~ LT% 3D ~ PUR% 3D
  2. Dieter Mueller-Dombois , F. Raymond Fosberg: Vegetation of the Tropical Pacific Islands , Springer-Verlag, New York-Berlin 1998, ISBN 0-387-98313-9 , p. 400 ff.
  4. ^ A b Patrick Vinton Kirch: On the Road of the Winds - An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact. University of California Press, Berkeley 2000, ISBN 0-520-23461-8
  5. ^ Edmundo Edwards: Raivavae. The Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos 2005, ISBN 1-880636-22-0 , p. 15
  6. ^ Atholl John Anderson et al .: Prehistoric human impacts on Rapa, French Polynesia . In: Antiquity, Vol. 80, June 2006, pp. 340-354
  7. ^ Mark Eddowes: Initial Results from Atiahara and Tetaitapu, Two Coastal Settlement Sites, Upon the Islands of Tubuai and Tahiti. In: Pataricia Vargas Casanova (ed.): Easter Island and Polynesian Prehistory , Instituto de Estudio de Isla de Pasqua, Universidad Santiago de Chile 1999, pp. 7-30
  8. Donald Marshall: Raivavae. Doubleday & Co., New York 1961, p. 101
  9. ↑ The rise and fall of Rapa . In: Adventure Archeology, Issue 4, 2006, p. 8
  10. ^ Thor Heyerdahl & Edwin N. Ferdon: Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, Volume 2, Forum Publishing House, Stockholm 1965, pp. 115-116
  11. Captain Cook's Journal during his first voyage round the world made in HM Bark “Endeavor” 1768-71. A Literal Transcription of the Original Mss. With Notes and Introduction edited by Captain WJL Wharton, RN, FRS Hydrographer of the Admiralty. Elliot Stock, London 1893
  12. ^ Peter Henry Buck ( Te Rangi Hīroa ): Explorers of the Pacific. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication, Honolulu 1999, p. 61
  13. a b Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout : Voyages aux îles du Grand Océan. Bertrand, Paris 1837; English translation: Arthur R. Borden: Travels to the Islands of the Pacific Ocean. University Press of America, Lanham (MD) 1993
  14. Caroline Alexander: The Bounty. Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2003, pp. 26–28
  15. Max Quanchi & John Robson: Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands. The Scarecrow Press, Lanham (MD) 2005, p. XX
  16. ^ John Dunmore: Who's Who in Pacific Navigation. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu 1991
  17. ^ Henry Evans Maude : Slavers in Paradise. University of the South Pacific Press, Suva (Fiji) 1986, pp. 39-41
  18. ^ Steven Roger Fischer: A History of the Pacific Islands . Palgrave, New York 2002, p. 135
  19. Jean-Louis Tamatoa Candelot: Opera-bouffe sous les tropiques - Lorsque deux petits royaumes voulurent devenir anglais (Histoire de Rurutu et Rimatara) . In: Tahiti-Pacifique Magazine , July 1999
  20. a b Institut Statistique de Polynésie Française (ISPF): Recensement de la population 2012, Tableaux standards , French, accessed on April 3, 2015.