Rapa Nui/Easter Island: Blaming the victims -- Jared Diamond's myth of ‘ecocide’

Sculpture of the flag of independence for Rapa Nui, featuring a representation of the rongorongo script, unique to the island, in the shape of a boomerang, and headstones of Moai at either end. Photo by Coral Wynter.

By Coral Wynter

November 5, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- I have always been fascinated by the story of Easter Island, the European name for Rapa Nui, due to a complete accident in my childhood education, when at age 10, I did a school project on the strange, mysterious statues on the island, known as Moai.

[Please note: Rapa Nui refers to the island and Rapanui is used when it refers to the people or the language.]

My partner has always laughed at my obsession, referring to the Moai as those weird statues of Malcolm Fraser, adding why would you want to see that? (Fraser was the archetypal right-wing leader of Australian politics in the 1970s, who had dismissed a prominent Labour Party leader, Gough Whitlam, in shonky circumstances).

In fact, the 887 statues represent ancient and revered leaders of an ancient island society and the sculpture on top of their heads represents a hairstyle -- a red coloured topknot and not a hat. They bear little resemblance to Malcolm Fraser, wearing a hat.

Despite this lack of encouragement, I have always wanted to visit Rapa Nui, as the Indigenous people call their island. I have criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean many times on my way to Latin America and Venezuela but had never been able to break my journey.

In 2010, I was determined to do so, and made a special journey from Santiago de Chile to Rapa Nui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2000 kilometres from the closest habitation, Pitcairn Island. Rapa Nui is the most isolated inhabited island in the world, lying 3800 kilometres directly west from Santiago de Chile. There are only two places from which there are flights to Rapa Nui, either Santiago or Papeete, capital of the French colony of Tahiti.

When I arrived, I was absolutely stunned by the natural beauty of Rapa Nui.

Several years before I had read, like many others concerned with the environmental destruction staring us in the face, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond had toured Australia, given interviews on national radio and his book had won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1998.

The image that has stuck in everyone’s mind after reading that book is of a few remaining miserable, starving natives, standing on the shores of Rapa Nui, staring glumly out to sea, the sad remnants of a people who had cut down all the forests and trees on the island to carry the huge statues of Moai to the shoreline in a competition between 12 clans. This had meant, in turn, there was no wood to build boats and consequently they could not go fishing to feed themselves and their bizarre society degenerated into chaos and cannibalism.

How could they be so stupid, and what were they thinking?

Diamond states:

That leaves us with just two main sets of factors behind Easter’s collapse: human environmental impacts, especially deforestation and destruction of bird populations; and the political, social and religious factors behind the impacts, such as the impossibility of emigration as an escape valve because of Easter’s isolation, a focus on statue construction for reasons already discussed and competition between clans and chiefs driving the erection of bigger statues, requiring more wood, rope and food.[1]

It is important to examine this question of societal and environmental collapse, as it has implications for dealing with today’s massive climate change. In the case of Rapa Nui, Diamond’s assertions are a million miles from the truth. Rapanui people have been seriously misrepresented and maligned; another case of blame the victim. Diamond’s research is seriously flawed and slipshod. Diamond did not train as an anthropologist, nor a historian, nor an archaeologist, but as a biophysicist. He is currently professor of geography at UCLA. He has underplayed one of the worst atrocities that was ever committed by white colonists in the South Pacific. It was this horrendous catastrophe in the 19th century that wiped out Rapa Nui’s civilisation and resulted in the physical extermination of its people.

Diamond adjusted the story of Rapa Nui and selected certain facts to support his theory of “ecocide”. One cannot remove environmental and cultural change from the historical and social context of the epoch: the most important of these is imperialism. There was no “ecocide”, just colonial barbarism and Western diseases. The “germ” in the title in Diamond’s book is correct in this instance. Rather than ridicule their alleged stupidity, we should honour the Rapanui people for their tenacity, resilience and ingenuity. The tragedy of Rapa Nui is genocide caused by European ferocity and utter greed.

The settlement of Rapa Nui

Let’s go back to the beginning. Rapa Nui is a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, consisting of three extinct volcanos, together with some 70 lesser volcanic cones. They formed in the last 3 million to 750,000 years, with the most recent eruption occurring 100,000 years ago. The island is the high point of an enormous underwater mountain range caused by a hotspot under the Nazca tectonic plate. This causes the island to move 15 centimetres closer to the South American continent each year. The triangular-shaped island is dominated by volcanic basalt flows, rich in iron, from which the Moai statues were carved.

Rapa Nui is now thought to have been settled much later than previous studies suggest. Most archaeologists had once believed that Rapa Nui had been settled early, perhaps 400 CE or as late as 800 CE. This tentative date has changed due to 12 radiocarbon dating readings from bones and charcoal obtained from sand dunes at Anakena Beach. Archaeologists Hunt and Lipo put the time of the first arrival of Polynesians at 1200 CE[2]. The Polynesians may have navigated in canoes from the Marquesas Islands, 3200 km away, or Mangareva, 2600 km away in the Austral group of French Polynesia. The Polynesians speak of the arrival of the founder of the population as Hotu Matu’a in their legends. The earlier dates of island settlement have been shown to be unreliable and better techniques have brought forward the dates, not only for Rapa Nui but also for Hawai’i, the Marquesas and Cook Islands, as well as New Zealand.

The extraordinary architecture and statuary and carving of the Moai began soon after the initial settlement. So these intrepid Polynesians travelled more than 3000 kms in a hand-made boat, bringing everything with them to start a new society -- people, plants and animals.

There is absolutely no evidence for Thor Heyerdahl’s well publicised theory that links Rapa Nui to South America. The linguistic, archaeological and genetic data of Rapa Nui give ample evidence that the culture is derived from another island in Polynesia. They certainly have nothing to do with Chilean culture, present or past. The political necessity for Chile to link Rap Nui with South America may have been the reason for Heyerdahl’s extraordinarily successful publicity stunt, taking a balsa raft from Peru to French Polynesia in 1947.


The environmental record for Rapa Nui reveals ancient vegetation, once dominated by millions of Jubaea palm trees. The palm tree forests had been established on the island for tens of thousands of years, going back at least 37,000 years ago. However, because of the isolated island geography, evolution could only produce a very simple community of plants and animals. The Jubaea adapted to environmental climate changes, including drought but, more importantly, the palms had no predators on the island. However, together with the cargo of animals such as chickens, plants, food supplies and seeds for the small group of pioneers, in the canoes came another hidden species -- rats. They were almost certainly introduced accidently to Rapa Nui. Consequently, rats reached an island with no native predators and an unlimited food supply in the form of the nuts of the Jubaea palms. It is estimated there were millions of palm trees, with each tree producing 100 kilograms of nuts every year, an unbelievable bonanza for hungry little rats[3].

Under these ideal conditions, the rats reproduced at a truly staggering rate, capable of doubling their numbers every 50 days. Laboratory figures indicate that a single mating pair of rats, with unlimited food, could become 17 million in just three years. Kure atoll, in the northwest Hawaiian islands, has an average density of 45 rats per acre. At this density, Rapa Nui would have had a rat population of more than 2 million and could have reached more than 3 million rats within a very short time of the arrival of the canoes in 1200 CE.

The Pacific rat Rattus exulans is an agile climber, virtually living in the trees, running on palm fronds and passing from tree to tree. Ecologists have reported thousands of rats living in the tops of coconut trees in Pacific atolls. Unlike birds, rats can eat through the hard seed cases and destroy all of the seed, with no possibility of it reproducing a palm tree. As the rats devoured the seeds, forest regeneration stopped in its tracks. In fact, hundreds of seed cases of the Jubaea palm found in cave sites around Rapa Nui show signs of rat gnawing and seed destruction. There is absolutely no evidence of massive felling of trees to transport the Moai to the shores.

Evidence for this scenario of millions of rats taking over an island has been found in Hawai’i itself, where before the arrival of Polynesians, O’ahu island had been covered in native palm trees of the Pritchardia species. Then, around 1000 CE, with the arrival of humans, the palm forest began to disappear, but without any evidence of local fires. So it could not have been due to new settlers burning the forests to clear land for agriculture. Within 100-200 years the forests had totally collapsed[4]. At the same time, native birds suffered a massive decline, with many becoming extinct. As proof of this, islands where rats have never been introduced still have their native forests, such as Nihoa in northwest Hawai’i. Dense forests of the native palm Pritchardia remota are present despite intensive occupation by Hawaiian people, some use of fire in clearing land and the growing of sweet potatoes.

Thus it was rats that destroyed the native forests on Rapa Nui, not the people. Archaeological evidence indicates that the forests took 400 years to disappear, from about 1250 to 1650 CE. By the late 18th century, when the number of visits by Europeans had increased, certainly the forest of 16 million palm trees and 20 other woody plants had disappeared. In addition, six species of land birds and an unknown number of sea birds had become extinct. A native woody shrub, Sophora toromiro, has survived to this day on the island, but that is because rats cannot damage the seed casings enough to stop seeds germinating.

Colonial stupidities

An example of colonial stupidity are the groves of the alien Australian species of eucalyptus, across the centre of the island, introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. The eucalypts were to provide the wood for a furnace to provide electricity for the island, but it was never built. The eucalypts are absolutely thriving in the sub-tropical climate[5]. Eucalypts are a pest in foreign soils as they soak up all the water, and the resins and oils in the roots prevent the growth of native trees. Although a fast-growing tree, eucalyptus trees shed bark, creating an acidic dry litter beneath the trees, and the roots draw the moisture of the soil away from less hardy native plants. Nothing will grow under them.

In addition, in an attempt to make so-called improvements on the land, colonial sheep managers caused the final demise of the native woodland. Various birds were introduced, such as a Chilean partridge and hawks. The latter were brought in to kill off rats and sparrows, another introduced pest. However, the variety of hawk that was imported lacked interest in sparrows and seldom came across the nocturnal rats. Without natural enemies, pests and predators all flourished. Jared Diamond never mentions the eucalypts, the hawks nor the sparrows and only has a brief mention of sheep.

On a more positive note, there has been a successful re-introduction of the toromiro tree, as in 1956 Heyerdahl took seeds of the last tree growing on Rapa Nui back to the botanical gardens of Berlin, London and Stockholm. The toromiro, highly prized for carving wood, is now growing in the small botanical garden near the airport [6]. Thus the last person on Rapa Nui did not cut down the last tree for reasons of clan warfare, cultural domination and senseless competition to build the biggest Moai. Instead, the last tree may have simply died as rats ate the last seeds. As Hunt and Lipo so aptly put it, “what were the rats thinking?”

The dread of rats even occurs in the Rapanui rituals surrounding childbirth, as described by the Swiss ethnologist Alfred Metraux[7]. During the third or fifth month of pregnancy, the father-in-law would offer his daughter-in-law an elaborate meal. It was the contents of an underground oven in which tasty titbits were given, especially to the pregnant daughter. However, it was believed that if a rat came and gnawed the food scraps left behind, the future baby’s life was endangered. This seems to imply that rats were regarded with some fear and trepidation and seen as an evil portent by the Rapanui.

It is calculated that the maximum population of Rapa Nui was about 3000-5000 people by about 1370 CE, growing from an initial number of 50 who arrived in canoes. It is thought the population remained in balance, depending on the food resources and despite occasional droughts and salt-laden winds. There are no permanent streams on Rapa Nui, only three craters with fresh water. The soil was not particularly fertile and devastation of the forests would have increased soil erosion. This may account for the thousands of basalt rock walls around the fields and mulching for the cultivation of crops, but another explanation could be due to the sheep.

During this time, up to 1600 CE, the population grew, even though the forest was declining at the same time. There is no evidence that the island ever supported a population of 15,000-30,000 as declared by Diamond[8]. This figure of 15,000 is baseless, often quoted to dramatise the supposed “ecocide”. Diamond’s only argument is the “statues’ sheer number and size suggest a population much larger than the estimated one of just a few thousand people encountered by European visitors in the 18th and early 19th centuries: What had happened to the former large population?’’[9] To summarise, in reality, the islanders used their natural resources and supplies of chicken, vegetables and fish in plenty, to allow their people to survive and live happily, as would any group of people living within a confined, small space.

The Moai of Rapa Nui. Photo by Coral Wynter.


The appearance of stone statues on Rapa Nui is neither mysterious nor unexpected. Stone statues are found in the Marquesas, Austral Islands and Tahiti. And, although each island’s people’s work displays some variation in form and style, they are clearly related and spring from common belief systems and religious practices. The production of the Moai was part of an elaborate, ancestor worship. The Moai represented chiefs or leaders, some fat, some tall, some with long ears, whose spirit would protect them and for this reason they all faced toward the village.

Nowhere else did the carving of statues reach such an extent as on Rapa Nui. The statues have a considerable size range, from 2 metres tall to more than 9 metres. One giant Moai, still attached to the matrix of rock in the quarry, is more than 20 metres long, and has an estimated weight of 270 tonnes. Perhaps it remained unfinished when the carvers realised that it would have been impossible to move it.

Once completed, the statues were ready to be transported to the platforms, or ahu, for which they had been carved. Scholars are still debating how this major effort was accomplished. Some researchers claim the Moai were laid on wood sleds and moved along by means of log rollers. Others believe they were moved while standing up on a sled. It is probable that the means of transport varied from time to time, depending upon the size and form of the statue involved. The islanders always say they walked to the shore, which may mean they had a system of pulleys and rope, using a Y-shaped sled with cross pieces, pulled by 200 people using ropes made from tough bark.

There is evidence that the islanders suddenly walked off the job of carving large Moai, as many have been left in a half-finished state. It is possible to see how they were carved, first with their backs still attached to the cliff, then the head, nose and ears, followed by arms and hands, and then the back was cut away from the rock face. It is thought that as resources diminished due to the rat infestation, warriors of the 12 clans gained more power and the construction of Moai ended about 1540[10]. If this is verified, then the Rapanui stopped carving about 100 years before the forests totally disappeared.

The concept of power or “mana”, which previously had been invested in hereditary leaders, was modified to a Bird Man cult. It was believed the ancestors represented by the Moai still provided for the descendants, but the Bird Man cult slowly gained more prominence. The new cult maintained that the medium through which the living could contact the dead was through human beings, chosen through a competition.

A wonderful film called simply Rapa Nui, by Kevin Costner, describes this competition, in which the winner was the first warrior to retrieve an egg deposited by the sooty tern sea bird off a tiny rock pinnacle, Motu Nui, in the shark-infested ocean, and then swim back and climb the cliff face with the egg intact. The victor was bestowed with special privileges and honours for the year.

There are 480 Bird Man petroglyphs carved into the ceremonial village at Orongo. The 1993 film was instrumental in bringing thousands of tourists to the island in recent times. Petroglyphs representing the Bird Men are exactly the same as some on Hawai’i, but the competition aspect was unique to Rapa Nui. A fabulous festival called Tapati takes place in February, with some of these cultural aspects included; plus rolling down the hill on the trunks of two banana trees tied together. The Bird Man cult ended a few years after the arrival of Catholic missionaries in 1864.

Diamond states that cannibalism was evidence of widespread hunger. He writes:

In place of the former sources of wild meat, islanders turned to the largest hitherto unused sources available to them: human, whose bones became common not only in proper burials but also (cracked to extract the marrow) in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was “the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth”.[11]

Cannibalism occurred on all Polynesian islands in times of both plenty and famine. It was partly a ritualistic activity in which women and children were not allowed to be present or partake. Its presence on Rapa Nui is not definitive evidence for the collapse of civilisation nor recourse to cannibalism as a means of male survival.

European contact, not ‘ecocide’

The first sign of population decline came after 1750 to 1800 with the advent of Europeans. The arrival of a Dutch ship captained by Jacob Roggeveen took place on Easter Sunday in 1722; hence the English name for the island. Roggeveen fired on the natives because they surrounded his boats, killing more than a dozen and wounding several others. Captain James Cook visited in 1774, the Frenchman La Perouse in 1786, Russian explorer Otto Kotzebue in 1815 and the English Captain Frederick Beechey in 1825. Beechey describes groves of banana trees, well-cultivated fields of yams, potatoes and sugar cane, as well as fishing nets. All of these explorers estimated the population as between 1500 to 3000, although they went ashore for only a few days, if that. Whalers also came in the early 1800s, looking for whales, water and women. Islanders eventually became infected with various diseases, including tuberculosis, for which they had no immunity.

An American ship, the Nancy, arrived in 1805. The captain was looking for labourers for a seal-hunting colony in the Juan Fernández group, sparsely inhabited islands 600 km off the coast of Chile. They kidnapped 22 men and women, intending them as labourers to work on the island of Alejandro Selkirk, the small island 170 km from Robinson Crusoe island -- the inspiration for the classic book by Daniel Defoe. After several days of sailing, the islanders were allowed on deck. The men immediately jumped overboard. Unable to recapture them, the crew shot at them. It is said that one man managed to swim back to the island; the others drowned. What happened to the women is unknown.

Later on, other whaling ships kidnapped islanders when they needed to replace crew members, or desired women. Although the islanders were very curious, the behaviour of these European ships was unpredictable and sometimes deadly. Over-excited islanders hanging onto the small boats were assumed dangerous and some were shot for little or no reason. Such occurrences caused the Rapanui to violently reject later-arriving European ships, particularly if a previous one had caused trouble.

Disaster arrived in December 1862 when Peruvian slavers came looking for captives to sell. Rapa Nui was not the only island to suffer, but it was the hardest hit because it was closest to the South American coast. Eight ships arrived in December 1862. About 80 seafarers assembled on the beach, while goods such as necklaces, mirrors and other items were spread out to entice the population. At a signal, guns were fired and islanders were caught, tied up and carried off to the ships. In the confusion, at least 10 Rapanui were killed. A second and third landing was attempted in the following days, but defensive measures forced a retreat to the ships.

Some 2000 Rapanui islanders were finally kidnapped. That was more than half the population, and among the men were the chief or king of the island and his successor, as well as all of those who were well versed in the culture and knew how to write the rongorongo script. This script was the only Polynesian script to have been found so far and to date no one has been able to decipher it.

Some of the kidnapped were sold in Peru as domestic servants; others for manual labour on the plantations and others for the guano mines. Food was inadequate and discipline harsh; medical care was virtually non-existent. Islanders sickened and died as the working conditions were grim.

As word of the activities of the slavers spread, public opinion in Peru became hostile to this trade in human beings[12]. Newspapers wrote angry editorials and the French government and missionary groups protested. Giving in to the general condemnation, the Peruvian government announced that it would henceforth “prohibit the introduction of Polynesian settlers”. A similar practice, called “blackbirding”, had occurred in Australia, with the kidnapping of Pacific islanders to work in the sugarcane fields of Queensland, virtually as slave labour.

The Peruvian government decided to send the captured islanders back. A barely seaworthy ship was selected to return them. Although large enough for 160 passengers, 470 islanders were packed on board. The captain of the ship knowingly embarked carriers of smallpox and settled them on each of the islands. The ship became an unsanitary pest-ridden hellhole, filled with smallpox and dysentery victims. By the time the ship sailed, 162 islanders had already died and many others were ill. The ship headed to Rapa Nui to drop off 100 Rapanui islanders, but when they reached the island, only 15 were still alive. They were put ashore, along with the infected men carrying smallpox. The ship sailed on to the west with its miserable cargo, heading to other islands that had been hard hit by the slaving trade[13].

This was the third smallpox epidemic on the island, the first being documented in 1836. This inhumane evil deed created devastating epidemics, from Rapa Nui to the Marquesas Islands, nearly wiping out all of the islands’ Indigenous populations.

This was the cause of the death of the Rapa Nui culture, as it had been practised up till then— the removal and death of the entire leadership of the island and the rapaciousness of white European slavers and certainly not “ecocide” by the Rapanui people.

The Catholic missionary Eugene Eyraud, who in 1867 also died from TB contracted on the island, got the message back to his superiors that the population was in dire straits and was on the brink of extinction. With 97% of the population dead or gone in less than a decade, much of the island’s cultural knowledge had been lost. Worse was to come.


During this period, a company based in Tahiti, called Maison Brander, half owned by a Tahitian, Alexander Salmon Jr, had been buying up all the land that had been previously owed by the Rapanui who had perished in the slave trade, with the aim of creating a large sheep ranch for exporting wool. The ranch was to be managed by the megalomaniacal convicted murderer, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, who had acquired additional land. Dutrou-Bornier, already with a reputation for fraud, gambling debts, gun-running, and having abandoned a wife and child in France, had arrived on the island in April 1868. He quickly saw the opportunities of a largely unpopulated island without European jurisdiction.

Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island, apart from the missionaries’ area around the township of Hanga Roa, in exchange for trivial gifts. He built a fancy wooden house, proclaimed himself lord of the island and took a Rapanui wife. Two daughters were born and their descendants still live on the island today. Dutrou-Bornier aimed to cleanse the island of most of the Rapanui. With this purpose, Dutrou-Bornier moved a few hundred Rapanui to Tahiti, as indentured labour on coconut and oil plantations on the islands of Cook, Tahiti and Marquesas, also owned by Maison Brander. He wanted to ship islanders to Tahitian plantations, but the missionaries had their own plans to ship the Rapanui to missions in southern Chile or Mangareva Island.

For three years the Church and Dutrou-Bornier fought over the fate of the islanders. Then Dutrou-Bornier led a group of his supporters against the missionaries. With guns, cannon and burning down the islanders’ huts, he ran the island for several years as self-appointed “governor” having evicted the missionaries.

Later, the island was further depopulated, as many Rapanui were induced to leave for other islands: nearly 200 went to Tahiti to work on plantations and another 150 were moved to the Gambier Islands. Only about 175 islanders, mostly older men, remained under Dutrou-Bornier’s control, and the island was turned into one vast sheep ranch.

In 1877, Dutrou-Bornier’s despotic reign ended when he was murdered by islanders, after nine years of a living hell. On the death of his manager, Alexander Salmon Jr returned to Rapa Nui and bought up any remaining land. As owner of nearly all the island and sole source of employment, Salmon then became de facto ruler. As he was not a religious man, and a Jew to boot, the Catholic priests were rather upset. Bishop Jaussen in Tahiti appointed a Rapanui, Atamu te Kena, “king” to protect church interests from Maison Brander, but Salmon ignored him. However, Salmon was said to be an honest man and to be interested in the welfare of the people, and so the population started to recover. This was the era of the strong Tahitian influence on the Rapanui language and culture.

In 1868, J. Linton Palmer arrived on the HMS Topaze; Admiral Lapelin on the La Flore in 1872; Lieutenant-Capt. Geiseler arrived on the Hyane in 1882; and the USS Mohican came to the island in 1886. All of these visitors collected artefacts for various museums, including some statues that were laboriously removed from the island. Due to the enormous loss of the population, the deaths and the kidnapping of the island’s leadership, an island census in 1877 revealed that there were only 111 islanders left and only 36 had any offspring. All of the Rapanui people today claim descent from those 36 people.

Annexation by Chile

Chile claimed it had the most warships in the Pacific, and its government desired to acquire other symbols of power, which meant capturing the only unclaimed, inhabited island in the South Pacific. In 1888 a Chilean captain, Policarpo Toro Hurtado, took formal possession of the island in the name of the Republic of Chile. The Chilean government signed an agreement with the remaining few landowners. It was called the “Treaty of Annexation of the Island”, written both in Spanish and the Rapanui language. The Rapanui translation stated that Chile was offering “protection” and “friendship”, but certainly not “annexation”, which was included in the Spanish version; the Rapanui didn’t understand Spanish at the time[14].

After the Chilean government fraudulently annexed Rapa Nui in 1888, it was leased to Enrique Merlet, a businessperson from Chile, who took control of the island. The whole island was a sheep ranch, and all the Rapanui islanders were confined to Hanga Roa village. A wall was constructed around the village and islanders were forbidden from venturing into the rest of the island without permission. To secure the wall, it was supplemented by guards, gates and fences. If islanders protested against forced labour, Merlet burnt their crops.

Merlot sold his control to the Williamson-Balfour Company. Known as CEDIP (Compania Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua), it became the next effective sovereign of Rapa Nui, and continued running the island as a sheep farm from 1903 for the next 50 years. Williamson-Balfour Company was a Scottish-owned Chilean company. It began in Valparaiso in 1863 as a subsidiary of the Liverpool shipping company Balfour Williamson, founded by two Scots, Alexander Balfour and Stephen Williamson. The company was involved in the export of nitrates and wool to England. The company kept the Merlet’s boundary wall around Hanga Roa. The company had 70,000 sheep on the island, which caused enormous erosion and loss of vegetation as well as destruction of unique cultural remains. Stone walls for the sheep were erected all over the island, with stones taken from Moai ceremonial platforms. During CEDIP’s rule and for several years after, the Rapanui were confined to the township of Hanga Roa, literally fenced in for fear they would steal the sheep. They were not allowed to leave without permission, virtual prisoners in their own homes. The company put a barbed wire fence across the entire island, although enterprising islanders managed to “disappear” 3000 sheep in one year.


Neither the general public in Latin America nor the government of Chile paid much attention to Rapa Nui over the years. It was, simply, a Chilean colony. But life for the islanders was so grim that they revolted in 1914. By that time, living conditions on the island were appalling; islanders were deprived of their land and access to nearly all drinking water. People were without clothing and often food. If despairing islanders stole sheep to feed their hungry children, they were deported to Chile. Leprosy was endemic.

In desperation, the Rapanui petitioned the Chilean government to allow them to immigrate en masse to Tahiti. Chilean Bishop Rafael Edwards heard of the plight of the islanders, and came to see things for himself in 1916. He found the conditions desperate and shocking; he placed responsibility directly on the sheep company, the Williamson-Balfour Company, which had given all the good water to stock, deprived the islanders of land, confined them to the village and extracted forced labour from them. Edwards exposed these problems and his efforts resulted in the termination of totalitarian company rule.

There were several uprisings against the company, but its lease was again renewed in 1936 by the Chilean government, although the Rapanui could now have limited access to a little bit of their land.

In 1953, the Chilean government did not renew the Williamson-Balfour Company’s lease and transferred the island to the control of the Chilean navy and sheep farming operations finally ceased.

(When I was there in 2010, I noticed there was not a single sheep left on the island. Perhaps sheep are a reminder of so much deprivation and horror. Williamson Balfour Motors S.A. is owned by the British company Inchcape Inc, and is now the importer and distributor of BMW and Honda cars in Chile.)

By the late 1950s, a few Rapanui people had been educated in Chile and complained bitterly about arbitrary navy rule, travel restrictions, suppression of their language, unpaid labour and the inability to vote. One islander, Alfonso Rapu, became a leader of this discontent.

It was not until 1966 that the Rapanui were allowed to freely move around their own island, when they gained Chilean citizenship. On July 20, 2007, a constitutional reform in Chile gave Rapa Nui and the Juan Fernandez Islands (also known as Robinson Crusoe Islands) the status of “special territories” of Chile. Rapa Nui continues to be governed as a province of the region of Valparaiso, the coastal city near Santiago that is the headquarters of the Chilean navy.


Another great theft from the Rapanui occurred last century, a robbery few would be aware of or acknowledge. Two and a half million years ago, a volcanic eruption created the beautiful crater of Rano Kau, about 1 kilometre in diameter, on the south west corner of the island. The lake’s surface is covered with fresh water reeds, floating on top of 10 metres of water. The steep walls of the crater offer protection from the salt winds and grazing animals. This is where the last toromino tree was found growing and saved from extinction.

In soil samples taken from the far side of Rano Kau in 1965, the drug rapamycin was found in the bacteria Streptomyces hygroscopicus and given the name relating to its origin of discovery. It is a very important immunosuppressant, used to suppress the normal immune response in human transplants, especially kidney transplants.

Rapamycin also inhibits a key protein complex involved in signalling pathways in cancer progression, named mTOR. International pharmaceutical companies use this drug for clinical trials and extensive cellular research. I would bet a million dollars, no royalties have ever been paid to the Rapanui for this discovery. The only acknowledgement is a small plaque on the far side of the Rano Kau crater.

Rapamycin is marketed under the name rapamune and licensed by the pharmaceutical company Wyeth. At present prices, a chemically synthesied rapamycin costs $600 for 1 mg.

In the garden around the mayor's office, occupying protesters erected this sign. It says, "This is our flag of struggle. For once and for all, we want that our voluntary accord of 1888 is respected. The accord says that it will respect our status and finally we demand that from that date, the fullfilment for its part by the Chilean government. Signed the Parliament of Rapa Nui." Photo by Coral Wynter.

Struggle continues

As I was wandering around the township during my 2010 visit, I came across an occupation outside the mayor’s office, with tents, a make-shift kitchen and a large number of Rapanui flags. I was curious about the protest and its demands. I recorded an interview with a member of the Rapa Nui council:

We want to get back our land. We have a treaty of 1888 and we are demanding that Chile fulfil this agreement. It’s a big problem as Chile won’t talk to us. We began to occupy five years ago. We are putting pressure on the international tribunals to mediate this situation. We are the rightful owners of all of the island of Rapa Nui. We want to take back control of immigration; there is a lot of contraband; the environment is being destroyed and there is too much rubbish. The mayor [Luz Zasso Paoa, who is Rapanui] is also working on this and helps us with the occupation.

This was confirmed by other sources[12]. Along with huge increases in tourist numbers, the population on Rapa Nui continues to grow with the immigration of Chileans from the mainland. The total daily population of tourists and locals combined is expected to reach 10,000 this year. The island’s waste-management and water-sanitation systems are not designed for these numbers of people and there is no infrastructure to support the increase in visitors and residents. Sometimes the visitors arrive on exclusive touring boats, giving nothing back to the economy; too often they visit for only one day and return to their ship to sleep, sometimes 1000 tourists at a time.

Occupation by Rapanui fighting for independence from Chile. Photo by Coral Wynter.

Unchecked development to accommodate the increased numbers of tourists is unsustainable. The isolation of Rapa Nui and its dependence on imported items limits Rapa Nui’s options for dealing with the increased pressure on its already over-taxed resources.

International Help Fund Australia is actively working to alleviate some of these pressures by promoting recycling and composting programs, water-sanitation projects and installing composting toilets at the most heavily visited tourist sites.

Another occupier at the protest camp gave me a short history of Rapa Nui and the terrible atrocities that have been inflicted on the people:

In the year 1888, we made a treaty between our king and the state of Chile. Essentially, Chile became a friend of Rapa Nui, whereby Chile has to respect the investiture of our king, and his authority. There is still a king here who represents the people of Rapa Nui. Moreover, this piece of paper said the Rapa Nui people will administer their territory. The flag of Rapa Nui will fly at the top and the Chilean flag will fly at the bottom; that was one of the points. This treaty did not deliver the territory to Chile. The territory should be given up to the king and our council. Chile was to pay for education and protect all of Rapa Nui. It was not that Chile planted its flag and is the owner of the territory. No, that wasn’t it. It was supposed to be a friendly collaboration.

After the treaty was signed, in 1895, the island was handed over to the Chilean treasury and leased to a company for 1800 Chilean pesos. The company [Maison Brander], with the Chilean police, administered the island. At the point of a gun we were removed from our land; the people were rounded up and placed into the centre of the island; the children, the elderly, men, women, about 200 people, without food or water, nothing. They were kept in the church for 7-8 years, actually a ghetto, in 1895-6. The women were also tortured. Then there was a change in the administration; the armed Chilean navy took over the administration. They ran Rapa Nui like a ship. It was really a period of slavery; the people were still locked up on their own land. In 1933, the Chilean Treasury signed Rapa Nui into its own name. They didn’t allow us to return to our land, but left us locked up in our homes and people were tortured again.

The Easter Island Foundation (www.islandheritage.org) confirms this account. Military control was arbitrary and any hint of “mutiny” was quickly dealt with. Islanders were still restricted to the village and the navy had the necessary personnel and firepower to enforce the rules. The Rapanui were frustrated and angry. Overbearing and often arrogant naval commanders had little regard for their Polynesian subjects, flogging wrong-doers and publicly shaving the heads of men and women who displeased them.

We are [occupying here] because of this situation. We demand of the Chilean Treasury that it removes its title and returns it to us, the owners. Rapa Nui has fulfilled her side of the agreement; when is Chile going to fulfil theirs? If Chile does not withdraw its title, Rapa Nui will move towards independence. It is not up to the free will of Chile. I give them one to two years. The rest of the people here who don’t have links with Rapa Nui should leave. If they are married to a Rapa Nui they can stay, but the rest should leave. The mayor is in agreement with some things, but she can’t make any decisions.

It has been a fight for many years, not just now; we have had four occupations. We want to control the economy as well, the administration, the social and political policies.

Chile earns millions from the tourist industry, as each visitor pays $60 to enter the park, and very little of this money is returned to the Rapanui.

Rapa Nui is very rich; not only the land but the future of the island is in the ocean. We have minerals as well as oil. We, the original inhabitants have to live with what we have, the cultural aspects, the archaeology and the natural resources, to resolve our social problems. It is a big fight. If Chile continues ignoring the treaty, we are going to die. They are bringing over 100 aeroplanes a year here, but we must control this aspect. The profits must return to the original people. Chile is a big country, much bigger than us. Chile has its own natural resources, why does it have to take ours? We have our Parliament of Polynesia, where we all met two years ago. We were there also because we have a convention with the triangle of Polynesian islands, where we all want independence from the colonial powers. We do not want to continue being under their control.

Jared Diamond makes a slight mention of the rats, the Peruvian slave trade, the sheep and the smallpox epidemics, but no mention of Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, Enrique Merlet, nor the Maison Brander Company. He selects a few facts and so distorts the history of Rapa Nui to fit his thesis. This is very dishonest, completely removed from any historical context, and without any consideration of the activities of brutal colonial rule up to 1966. Without examining these factors, no real understanding of the devastation that took place can be discussed rationally.

An unlikely and incredible civilisation thrived on Rapa Nui for at least 500 years. Despite limited resources, a few thousand islanders carved and transported more than 8000 tons of massive stone sculptures across a hilly landscape and have left us an incredible, historical legacy. The victims of cultural and physical extermination by imperialism and its megalomaniacs have been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise, according to Diamond.

We can learn a lot from the Rapanui; powerful, innovative geniuses, who have survived the most ghastly atrocities. We must change the perception of the general public of the people of Rapa Nui from that of self-destruction to one of courage, tenaciousness, creativity and intelligence.

The BBC reported that the occupation camp for independence from Chile was broken up on December 3, 2010. At least 25 people were injured when Chilean police used pellet guns to evict the camp after three months. The occupiers declared the land the buildings were on had been illegally taken from their ancestors.

[I owe a debt to the recently published book, Questioning Collapse; Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee, for bringing my attention to this injustice. Coral Wynter is a member of Socialist Alliance in Australia and an activist with the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.]


[1] Diamond, J 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Collapse, Penguin Books, p. 118.

[2] Hunt, TL and Lipo, CP 2007. “Chronology, Deforestation and ‘Collapse’ Evidence vs Faith in Rapa Nui Prehistory.” Rapa Nui Journal 21, 85-97.

[3] Hunt, TL and Lipo, CP 2010. “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of ‘Ecocide’ on Rapa Nui (Easter Island),” 32-36, cited in Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, eds McAnany, PA and Yoffee, N. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Athens, JS 2009. “Rattus exulans and the Catastrophic Disappearance of Hawai’i’s Native Lowland Forest.” Biological Invasions 11, 1489-1501.

[5] Peterkin, JG 2010. A Companion to Easter Island A Concise Guide to the History, Culture, and Individual Archaeological Sites at Rapa Nui, p. 36, Impreso en Grafica LOM.

[6] Peterkin, JG 2010. ibid 117.

[7] Metraux, A. 1957. Easter Island: A Stone Age Civilisation of the Pacific. Translated by Michael Bullock. New York, Oxford University Press.

[8] Diamond, J. 2005. ibid p. 91.

[9] Diamond, J. 2005. ibid p. 81

[10] Haun, B. 2008. Inventing Easter Island. University of Toronto Press, p8.

[11] Diamond, J. 2005. ibid p. 109.

[12] Easter Island Foundation (non-profit organisation), www.islandheritage.org.

[13] www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island.

[14] Peterkin, JG 2010. ibid p. 22.


Just a quick fact check, Kure Atoll in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands currently (since mid '90's) has no rats. The statement in this article is misleading in the amount of rats on Kure Atoll is zero

Yes you are probably right. I have never been to Kure Atoll. I misread the reference in the article by Hunt and Lipo (p34 in ''Questioning Collapse''). The reference stated that Kure Atoll is located at the same latitude as Rapa Nui. But even with less food available, Kure Atoll could support a rat density of 45 rats per acre with maximum recorded densities reaching 75 rats per acre. So at some time in the past, rat population must have been measured at this density on Kure Atoll. I am very happy that since the 1990s, rats have been exterminated on Kure Atoll. However this density of rats would translate into 2-3 million rats on Rapa Nui, a horrifying experience.


I just wanted to say that I read the book by the commenter above ,the one named "Oceania" I have to say it's very insightful and very interesting.I'd recommend it to anyone who liked this post!Max