The South Pacific Ocean came to Europe's attention during the latter half of the 18th century with the theory that an unknown southern land -- a terra australis incognita -- lay somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. It must be there, the theory went, for otherwise the unbalanced earth would wobble off into space.

King George III of Great Britain took interest in the idea and, in 1764, sent Capt. John Byron (the poet's grandfather) to the Pacific in HMS Dolphin. Although Byron came home without discovering terra australis incognita (though he found some Tuamotu islands), King George immediately dispatched Capt. Samuel Wallis in the Dolphin.

Instead of a southern continent, Wallis discovered Tahiti. Surely he and his crew could hardly believe their eyes when they sailed into Matavai Bay in 1767 and were greeted by Tahitians in more than 500 canoes, many loaded with pigs, chickens, coconuts, fruit, and topless young women. The latter, Wallis reported, "played a great many droll and wanton tricks" on his scurvy-ridden crew.

Less than a year later, the Tahitians similarly welcomed French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Although he stayed at Hitiaa, on Tahiti's east coast, for just 10 days, Bougainville was so enchanted by the Venus-like quality of Tahiti's women that he named their island New Cythère -- after the Greek island of Cythera, associated with the goddess Aphrodite (Venus).

Bougainville took back to France a young Tahitian named Ahutoru, who became a sensation in Paris as living proof of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory that man was, at his best, a "noble savage." Indeed, Bougainville and Ahutoru contributed mightily to Tahiti's hedonistic image.

Captain Cook's Tours

After Wallis arrived back in England, the Lords of the Admiralty put a young lieutenant named James Cook in command of a converted collier and sent him to Tahiti. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Cook was a master navigator, a mathematician, an astronomer, and a practical physician who became the first captain of any ship to prevent scurvy among his crewmen by feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables. His ostensible mission was to observe the transit of Venus -- the planet, that is -- across the sun, an astronomical event that would not occur again until 1874, but which, if measured from widely separated points on the globe, would enable scientists for the first time to determine longitude on the earth's surface. Cook's second, highly secret mission was to find the elusive southern continent.

Cook set up an observation point at the end of a sandy peninsula on Tahiti's north shore, a locale he appropriately named Point Venus. His measurements of Venus were somewhat less than useful, but his observations of Tahiti, made during a stay of 6 months, were of immense importance in understanding the "noble savages" who lived there.

Using Tahiti as a base, Cook went on to discover the Society Islands northwest of Tahiti and the Australs to the south, and then fully explored the coasts of New Zealand and eastern Australia. After nearly sinking his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, he left the South Pacific through the strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which he named for his ship, the Endeavor. He returned to London in 1771.

During two subsequent voyages, Cook discovered several other islands, among them what are now known as Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, New Caledonia, and Norfolk Island. His ships were the first to sail below the Antarctic Circle. On his third voyage in 1778-79, he traveled to the Hawaiian Islands and explored the northwest coast of North America until ice in the Bering Strait turned him back. He returned to the Big Island of Hawaii, where, on February 14, 1779, he was killed during a petty skirmish with the islanders.

With the exception of the Hawaiians who smashed his skull, Captain Cook was revered throughout the Pacific. He treated the islanders fairly and respected their traditions. The Polynesian chiefs looked upon him as one of their own. Cook's Bay on Moorea bears his name. Elsewhere in the South Pacific is a Cooktown, a Cook Strait, any number of Captain Cook's Landing Places, and an entire island nation named for this giant of an explorer.

Mutiny on the Bounty

Based on reports by Cook and others about the abundance of breadfruit, a head-size, potato-like fruit that grows on trees throughout the islands, a group of West Indian planters asked King George III if he would be so kind as to transport the trees from Tahiti to Jamaica as a cheap source of food for the slaves. The king dispatched Capt. William Bligh, who had been one of Cook's navigators and was later in command of HMS Bounty in 1787. One of Bligh's officers was a former shipmate named Fletcher Christian.

Their story is one of history's great sea yarns.

The Bounty was late arriving in Tahiti, so Christian and the crew frolicked on Tahiti for 6 months, waiting for the next breadfruit season. Christian and some of the crew apparently enjoyed the island's women and easygoing lifestyle, for on the way home they staged a mutiny on April 28, 1789, off the Ha'apai islands in Tonga. Christian set Bligh and 18 of his loyal officers and crewmen adrift with a compass, a cask of water, and a few provisions. Bligh and his men miraculously rowed the Bounty's longboat some 4,830km (3,000 miles) to the Dutch East Indies, where they hitched a ride back to England.

Meanwhile, Christian sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti, where he put ashore 25 other crew members who were loyal to Bligh. Christian, eight mutineers, their Tahitian wives, and six Tahitian men then disappeared.

The Royal Navy's HMS Pandora eventually rounded up the Bounty crewmen still on Tahiti and returned them to England. Three were hanged, four were acquitted, and three were convicted but pardoned.

In 1808, the captain of an American whaling ship happened upon remote Pitcairn Island, between Tahiti and South America, and was astonished when some mixed-race teenagers rowed out and greeted him not in Tahitian but in perfect English. They were the children of the mutineers, only one of whom was still alive. A handful of the mutineers' descendants live on Pitcairn to this day.

Bligh later collected more breadfruit on Tahiti, but his whole venture went for naught when the slaves on Jamaica insisted on rice.

Guns & Whiskey

The Bounty mutineers hiding on Tahiti loaned themselves and their guns to rival chiefs, who for the first time were able to extend their control beyond their home valleys. With the mutineers' help, a chief named Pomare II came to control half of Tahiti and all of Moorea.

The U.S. ship that found the mutineers' retreat at Pitcairn was one of many whalers roaming the South Pacific in the early 1800s. Their ruffian crews made dens of iniquity of several South Pacific ports, including Papeete and Nuku Hiva in what is now French Polynesia. Many crewmen jumped ship and lived on the islands, some of them even casting their lots -- and their guns -- with rival chiefs during tribal wars. With their assistance, some chiefs were able to extend their power over entire islands or groups of islands.

Along with the whalers came traders in search of sandalwood, pearls, shells, and sea cucumbers (known as bêches-de-mer), which they traded for beads, cloth, whiskey, and guns and then sold at high prices in China. Some established stores became the catalysts for Western-style towns. The merchants brought more guns and alcohol to people who had never used them before. They also put pressure on local leaders to coin money, which introduced a cash economy where none had existed before. Guns, alcohol, and money had far-reaching effects on the easygoing, communal traditions of the Pacific Islanders.

While the traders were building towns, other arrivals were turning the bush country into coconut and cotton plantations. With the native islanders disinclined to work, Chinese indentured laborers were brought to a cotton plantation in Tahiti in the 1860s. After it failed, some of the Chinese stayed and became farmers and merchants. Their descendants now form the merchant class of French Polynesia.

The Fatal Impact

The European discoverers brought many changes to the islands, starting with iron, which the Tahitians had never seen. The Tahitians figured out right away that iron was much harder than stone and shells, and that they could swap pigs, breadfruit, bananas, and the affections of their young women for it. So many iron nails soon disappeared from the Dolphin that Wallis restricted his men to the ship out of fear it would fall apart in Matavai Bay. A rudimentary form of monetary economy was introduced to Polynesia for the first time, and the English word "money" entered the Tahitian language as moni.

Much more devastating European imports were diseases such as measles, influenza, pneumonia, and syphilis, to which the islanders had no resistance. Captain Cook estimated Tahiti's population at some 200,000 in 1769. By 1810, it had dropped to fewer than 8,000.

Bringing the Word of God

The reports of the islands by Cook and Bougainville may have brought word of noble savages living in paradise to some people in Europe; to others, they heralded heathens to be rescued from hell. So while alcohol and diseases were destroying the islanders' bodies, a stream of missionaries arrived on the scene to save their souls.

The "opening" of the South Pacific coincided with a fundamentalist religious revival in England, and it wasn't long before the London Missionary Society (LMS) was on the scene in Tahiti. Its missionaries, who arrived in 1797, were the first Protestant missionaries to leave England for a foreign country. They chose Tahiti because there "the difficulties were least."

Polynesians, already believing in a supreme being at the head of a hierarchy of lesser gods, quickly converted to Christianity in large numbers. With the exception of Roman Catholic priests serving in the Marquesas Islands, the puritanical missionaries demanded the destruction of all tikis, the stylized statues representing ancestors, which they regarded as idols. With the exception of authentic Marquesan carvings, most tikis carved for the tourist souvenir trade today resemble those of New Zealand, where the more liberal Anglican missionaries were less demanding.

The missionaries in French Polynesia also insisted that most heathen temples (known as maraes) be abandoned. Many have now been restored, however, and can be visited.

The Tricked Queen

The Protestant missionaries enjoyed a monopoly until the first Roman Catholic priests arrived from France in the 1830s. The Protestants immediately saw a threat, and in 1836 they engineered the interlopers' expulsion by Queen Pomare IV, the illegitimate daughter of Pomare II, who had succeeded her father's throne.

When word of this outrage reached Paris, France demanded a guarantee that Frenchmen would thereafter be treated as the "most favored foreigners" on Tahiti. Queen Pomare politely agreed, but as soon as the warship left Papeete, she sent a letter to Queen Victoria, asking for British protection. Britain declined to interfere, which in 1842 opened the door for a Frenchman to trick several Tahitian chiefs into signing a document that in effect made Tahiti a French protectorate.

Queen Pomare retreated to Raiatea, which was not under French control, and continued to resist. On Tahiti, her subjects launched an armed rebellion against the French. This French-Tahitian war continued until 1846, when the last native stronghold was captured and the remnants of their guerrilla bands retreated to Tahiti Iti, the island's eastern peninsula. A monument to the fallen Tahitians now stands beside the round-island road near the airport at Faaa, the village still noted for its strong pro-independence sentiment.

Giving up the struggle, the queen returned to Papeete in 1847 and ruled as a figurehead until her death 30 years later. Her son, Pomare V, remained on the throne for 3 more years until abdicating in return for a sizable French pension for himself, his family, and his mistress. In 1903, all of eastern Polynesia was consolidated into a single colony known as French Oceania. In 1957, its status was changed to the overseas territory of French Polynesia.

A Blissful Backwater

French Polynesia remained an idyllic backwater until the early 1960s, except for periodic invasions by artists and writers. French painter Paul Gauguin gave up his family and his career as a Parisian stockbroker and arrived in 1891; he spent his days reproducing Tahiti's colors and people on canvas until he died in 1903 on Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas Islands. W. Somerset Maugham, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rupert Brooke, and other writers added to Tahiti's romantic reputation during the early years of the 20th century. In 1932, two young Americans -- Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall -- published Mutiny on the Bounty, which quickly became a bestseller. Three years later, MGM released the first movie version, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in the roles of Christian and Bligh, respectively.

In 1942, some 6,000 U.S. sailors and marines quickly built the territory's first airstrip on Bora Bora and remained there throughout World War II. A number of mixed-race Tahitians claim descent from those American troops.

Movies & Bombs

The backwater years ended in 1960, when Tahiti's new international airport opened at Faaa. Marlon Brando and a movie crew arrived shortly thereafter to film a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. This new burst of fame, coupled with the ability to reach Tahiti overnight, transformed the island into a jet-set destination, and hotel construction began in earnest.

Even more changes came in 1963, when France established the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique and began exploding nuclear bombs on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, in the Tuamotus, about 1,127km (700 miles) southeast of Tahiti. A huge support base was constructed on the eastern outskirts of Papeete. Thousands of Polynesians flocked to Tahiti to take the new construction and hotel jobs, which enabled them to earn good money and to experience life in Papeete's fast lane. Between 1966 and 1992, the French exploded 210 nuclear weapons in the Tuamotu Archipelago, about 1,208km (750 miles) southeast of Tahiti, first in the air and then underground. Their health repercussions are still being debated.

Led by New Zealand, where French secret agents sank the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985, many South Pacific island nations vociferously complained about the blasts. That same year, the regional heads of government, including the prime ministers of New Zealand and Australia, adopted the Treaty of Rarotonga, calling for the South Pacific to become a nuclear-free zone. After a lull, French Pres. Jacques Chirac decided in 1995 to resume nuclear testing, a move that set off worldwide protests, a day of rioting in Papeete, and a Japanese tourist boycott of French Polynesia. After six underground explosions, the French halted further tests, closed their testing facility, and signed the Treaty of Rarotonga.

To Be -- Or Not To Be -- Independent

In 1977, the French parliament created the elected Territorial Assembly with powers over the local budget. A high commissioner sent from Paris, however, retained authority over defense, foreign affairs, immigration, the police, civil service, communications, and secondary education.

Local politics have long centered on the question of whether the islands should have even more autonomy while remaining French, or whether they should become an independent nation. Politicians have been equally divided roughly into "pro-autonomy" and "pro-independence" camps. On the other hand, neither side wants to give up all that money from Paris!

An additional grant of local control followed in 1984, and in 2004 the islands shifted from an "overseas territory" of France to an "overseas collective within the French republic." The local Assembly gained increased powers over land ownership, labor relations, civil aviation, immigration, education, and international affairs; that is, within the South Pacific region. (The legal status changed again in 2007, this time to an "overseas community," primarily so that France could enact laws specific to its territories and not have them apply equally in metropolitan France.)

The 2004 law called for fresh Assembly elections. In a surprise upset, a coalition led by Oscar Temaru, the mayor of independence-leaning Faaa, narrowly ousted longtime pro-autonomy President Gaston Flosse, who had ruled with an iron fist for more than 20 years -- during which he also made several fortunes.

Temaru, who espouses independence over a 15- to 20-year period, was in office less than 5 months before being toppled by Flosse, who ruled for only 4 months until special elections on Tahiti and Moorea returned Temaru to the presidency. Temaru hung on until ousted at the end of 2006 by Gaston Tong Sang, the mayor of Bora Bora and an ally of Gaston Flosse. The presidency again became a game of musical chairs in 2008, when Flosse and Temaru teamed up to boot Tong Sang, only to see him return less than 2 months later. Not amused by the local shenanigans, French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to turn off the money tap if Tong Sang were again removed. As I write, the mayor of Bora Bora is still the president of French Polynesia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.