1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Society Islands

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SOCIETY ISLANDS (French Archipel de la Société), an archipelago of the Pacific Ocean, in the eastern part of Polynesia, between 16° and 18° S., 148° and 155° W., with a total land area of 637 sq. m., belonging to France. (For map, see Pacific Ocean.) The principal island is Tahiti (q.v.). Part of the archipelago was discovered by Pedro Fernandez Quiros in 1607. In 1767 Samuel Wallis re-discovered it, and named it King George's Island. In 1768 Louis de Bougainville visited Tahiti, claimed it as French, and named it La Nouvelle Cythère. On the 12th of April 1769 the British expedition to observe the transit of Venus, under the naval command of James Cook, arrived at Tahiti. On this first voyage (he subsequently re-visited the islands twice) he named the Leeward group of islands Society in honour of the Royal Society, at the instigation of which the expedition had been sent; Tahiti and the adjacent islands he called Georgian, but the first name was subsequently adopted for the whole group. In 1772 and 1774 the islands were visited by a Spanish government expedition, and some attempt was made at colonization. In 1788 Lieutenant Bligh of the “Bounty” spent some time at Tahiti, to which island the historical interest now passes.

The archipelago is divided into two groups—the Leeward (Îles sous le Vent) and the Windward Islands (Îles du Vent)—by a clear channel of 60 m. in breadth. The Leeward Islands are Tubai or Motuiti, a small uninhabited lagoon island, the most northern of the group; Marua or Maupiti—“Double Mountain,” the most western; Bola-Bola or Bora-Bora; Huaheine; Raiatea or Ulietea (Spanish Princessa), the largest island of this cluster, and Tahaa, which approach each other very closely, and are encircled by one reef. To the west lie the small groups of coral islets—Mopiha (Lord Howe), Ura (Scilly) and Bellingshausen (discovered by Otto von Kotzebue, 1824). To the Windward Islands belong Tapamanu or Majaiti (Wallis's Sir Charles Saunders's Island and Spanish Pelada); Moorea or Eimeo (Wallis's Duke of York Island and Spanish San Domingo); Tahiti—Cook's Otaheite (probably Quiros's Sagittaria; Wallis's King George's Island, Bougainville's Nouvelle Cythère and Spanish Isla d'Amat); Tetuaroa—“The Distant Sea” (? Quiros's Fugitiva; Bougainville's Umaitia and Spanish Tres Hermanos); and Maitea (? Quiros's La Dezana, Wallis's Osnaburg Island, Bougainville's Boudoir and Pic de la Boudeuse and Spanish Cristoval), the most eastern and southern of the archipelago. Tetuaroa and Tubai, besides the three western Leeward Isles, are coral atolls. The length of the Tetuaroa reef ring is about six miles; it bears twelve palm-covered islets, of which several are inhabited, and has one narrow boat-passage leading into the lagoon. With the exception just named, the islands, which agree very closely in geological structure, are mountainous, and present, perhaps, the most wonderful example of volcanic rocks to be found on the globe. They are formed of trachyte, dolerite and basalt. There are raised coral beds high up the mountains, and lava occurs in a variety of forms, even in solid flows; but all active volcanic agency has so long ceased that the craters have been almost entirely obliterated by denudation. Hot springs are unknown, and earthquakes are slight and rare. Nevertheless, under some of these flows remains of plants and insects of species now living in the islands have been found—a proof that the formation as well as the denudation of the country is, geologically speaking, recent. In profile the islands are rugged and elevated (7349 ft. in Tahiti, Moorea 4045 ft., Raiatea 3389, Bola-Bola 2165). A mountain, usually with very steep peaks, forms the centre, if not the whole island; on all sides steep ridges descend to the sea, or, as is oftener the case, to a considerable belt of flat land. These mountains, excepting some stony crags and cliffs, are clothed with dense forest, the soil being exceptionally fertile. All voyagers agree that the varied beauty of form and colour the Society Islands are unsurpassed in the Pacific. Innumerable rills gather in lovely streams, and, after heavy rains, torrents precipitate themselves in grand cascades from the mountain cliffs—a feature so striking as to have attracted the attention of all voyagers, from Wallis downwards. Round most of the islands there is a luxuriant coral growth; but, as the reefs lie at no great distance, and follow the line of the coast, the inter-island channels are comparatively safe. Maitea, which rises from the sea as an exceedingly abrupt cone, and Tapamanu, appear to be the only islands without almost completely encircling barrier-reefs. The coasts are fairly indented, and, protected by these reefs, which often support a chain of green islets, afford many good harbours and safe anchorages. In this respect the Society Islands have the advantage of many Polynesian islands.

The populations of the chief islands are: Tahiti 10,300, Moorea 1600, Raiatea and Tahaa 2300, Huaheine 1300, Bola-Bola 800; and that of the whole archipelago is about 18,500.