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History of Bora Bora

The history of Bora Bora dates back to the starting point of South East Asia. The ancestors of Polynesians sailed the Pacific Ocean across the centuries aboard massive double-hulled sailing canoes up to 25m, long known as pahi.

Each canoe could hold up to 60 people & more importantly, could sail upwind, something the boats of Cook & Bouganville could not do almost 2,000 years later!

Bora Bora Island was first inhabited by Polynesians who crossed the Pacific Ocean in vessels from Tonga & Samoa around the 3rd century AD. Perhaps the world’s greatest navigators of all time. It’s literally staggering to consider that Polynesians could safely and with surety navigate these waters using the stars, wind, the patterns of bird flights & other aids.

This was more than 1000 years before the first Europeans were known to have mastered sailing in their own waters. Despite French Polynesia covering some 5,500,000 km2, which is around the size of Western Europe, the first European reported to have sighted any part of it was Magellan, who in 1521 sighted Pukapuka  (Tuamotu Atolls).

But he missed the other 120-odd islands and atolls. In 1595, Mendana visited Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen, in 1722, was the first European to have made reference to Bora Bora but did not stop on the island, having confused it with parts of Samoa.

English navigator Samuel Wallis in 1767 & a year later, French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville both laid claim to Tahiti. Bougainville had not realizing Wallis had been there before him.

Cook was actually the first European explorer to walk upon Bora Bora when during his third expedition in 1777, he came ashore to negotiate the purchase of an anchor lost by Bougainville, which he found on Motu Tevairoa and secured it in exchange for some clothing, axes, mirrors & other trinkets.

History of Bora Bora - the anchorage and peak
Bora Bora anchorage and peak reef old view. Created by De Berard, published on Le Tour du Monde, Paris.

The explorers were followed by a brutal group of whalers who brought with them not only alcohol and firearms but a disease that would nearly wipe out the local populations in French Polynesia.

Bora Bora arguably lost up to 40% of its population. In the Marquesas Islands, the population dropped from 80,000 to 2,000 in the century following the arrival of the whalers.

The Protestant Missionaries (English) arrived in Tahiti in 1797 and the Catholics (French) shortly thereafter. They would start to evangelize the outer islands as early as 1804 and by 1822 the first temple in Vaitape had been built by the protestants.

Sadly they made a concerted effort to erase Polynesian culture through the destruction of Marae (temples) and carvings and by banning dancing and religion.

The marae at the time was the center for religious & other ceremonies. Cpt Cook had witnessed a human sacrifice at a marae where the victim was held securely in place on a platform whilst the priest smashed his skull with a mace. 

Fortunately, many less violent Polynesian customs have prevailed and traditional dancing, music, and arts have flourished, with the Tahitian language being the predominant language spoken by locals outside of Tahiti.

Bora Bora supported Pomare in his push for supreme power over Tahiti, resisting a French protectorate (established over Tahiti in 1842) until the island was annexed in 1888 when its last queen, Teriimaevarua III, was forced to abdicate. The islanders continued to resist until the island was finally secured by France in 1895.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in WWII, the U.S. used Bora Bora as a military supply base maintaining a supply force of nine ships, 20,000 tons of equipment, and nearly 7,000 men. This is why there is a couple of cannons found throughout the island.

Unaware as to why the fleet had unexpectedly arrived, the population paddled out in their outrigger canoes with floral leis, as tradition would have it, to warmly welcome the new arrivals.

The Americans finding no effective roads and insufficient drinking water would build everything from scratch. The airstrip so constructed took only 4 months to build and was French Polynesia’s only international airport until Faa’a International Airport opened in 1961.

Today the same airstrip is serviced daily by regular Air Tahiti flights. Eight massive naval cannons were set up at strategic points around the island to protect it against potential attack. 

The island, however, saw no combat over the course of the war. The base closed in June 1946, but many Americans chose to remain and have many descendants still living on the island.

Today Polynesia is formed by a triangle extending from Hawaii down to New Zealand and across to Easter Island. It’s inhabited by people with a common ancestry and similar culture, customs & language.

Today it’s also one of the most visited islands in the world. Their charming and all-inclusive resorts make it an idyllic destination for a romantic trip or honeymoon. It’s also a family-friendly destination with plenty of activities for people of all ages to enjoy.

One of its most famous attributes that people commonly think of when talking about Bora Bora is the popular and beautiful overwater bungalows that sit right over the lagoon. You won’t find these types of accommodations in many other places in the world.

There are traces of the early history of Bora Bora that you can still find when exploring Bora Bora.