Contact, Conflict, and Chileanization
Rapidly expanding commercial activities—first whaling, then the systematic planting of tropical crops such as coffee, copra, rubber, and sugar—transformed the Pacific by the mid-19th century. While Rapa Nui, with its limited agricultural potential, did not experience this transformation immediately, the population suffered a major Peruvian slave raid and subsequent forced emigration that, when it did not kill the individuals either abducted or forced into signing one-sided labor contracts, disrupted local society and separated them from their kin. The arrival of missionaries, and of European diseases to which locals had little or no natural immunity, subjected the island to a simultaneous cultural and biological assault.
Nearly 1,000 Rapanui, many of them royalty and priests, may have died as a result of the 1862 Peruvian raid, which transported them to the South American mainland to become indentured servants. By the time Catholic missionaries settled permanently, in 1866, perhaps only a few hundred Rapanui remained on the island itself.
While the Rapanui remained politically autonomous for some years more, commercial and ecological exploitation arrived by 1870, in the person of Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier, a French sailor who took advantage of the nearly depopulated island to graze sheep at Mataveri, site of the present-day airport. Dutroux-Bornier seemingly planned to declare himself sovereign of his own mini-kingdom, expelling the islanders to Tahiti; the missionaries, to their credit, opposed his plans, but they were unable to prevent a violent deportation that left only about 100 residents on the island.
Dutroux-Bornier died at the hands of the remaining Rapanui in 1877, but by 1888 naval officer Policarpo Toro had annexed the island for Chile. While Chile may have been flexing its naval muscle in the aftermath of the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), it really had no clear intentions for Rapa Nui and finally leased the island to Valparaíso merchant Enrique Merlet, who continued to graze sheep for wool. Merlet in turn sold out to the Valparaíso-based Williamson, Balfour & Company, the Chilean subsidiary of a British-held company, whose Compañía Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua (Cedip) was the de facto sovereign from 1888 to 1952.
As the population recovered from the 19th-century demographic catastrophe, it became, despite its Polynesian heritage, a polyglot mix of South Pacific, European, and Asian peoples dramatically different, at least in the strictest genetic sense, from its predecessors. The paternalistic Cedip regime continued until 1953, when the Chilean navy assumed control, marking Rapa Nui’s definitive incorporation into the modern state.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition