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The history of Easter Island: what’s in a name?

For such a small place, Easter Island has many names. Read on for a journey through the history books...


Its first recorded name dates back to the 16th century when a Dutch expedition led by Jacob Roggeveen sailing on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (considered the first multinational corporation in the world) discovered the island in 1722 on Easter Sunday. Roggeveen named the tiny landmass isolated in the south Pacific "Paaseiland"—Dutch for “Easter Island”—and sailed on.

San Carlos?

Nearly 50 years later, in 1772, a Spanish ship that set sail from Peru landed on the island. Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez claimed the island for Spain and gave it the name of San Carlos in honor of the King of Spain Charles III, who ruled from 1759-88. The Spanish recorded a modest population of 3,000 people living on Easter Island.

Looking out from Easter Island

Rapa Nui?

Over the next century, various European ships docked at Easter Island, bring devastating results and throwing a culture already in turmoil into a complete downward spiral. Throughout the 1860s, Peruvian slavers decimated the population, stealing thousands of people—including the island’s leaders and royalty. An international public outcry eventually led to attempted repatriation of several hundred of the kidnapped residents, but it was too late. The combination of slavery and smallpox (introduced both by foreigners and escalated by returned infected residents) dropped the population of the entire island down to only 111 in the year 1877.

The island's Polynesian name, Rapa Nui, steams from this tragic period. In order to distinguish the residents of Easter Island from those of other Polynesian islands, including the smaller island of Rapa located 400 miles away, Easter Island and its inhabitants were called “Rapa Nui,” which means Big Rapa.

Fascinating history

Te Pito O Te Henua?

Through Rapa Nui is the preferred local name today, some believe the island’s true name is “Te Pito O Te Henua,” given by the island first ruler. According to traditional stories, the first person to land on Easter Island and become its king was Hotu-Matua, an elite from the Polynesian Marquesa Islands. The name translates to “Navel of the World.”

Isla de Pascua?

In 1888 Chile annexed the flailing island and adopted the Spanish version the Dutch name: Isla de Pascua. However, the government took little interest in the island and leased most of it to a sheep ranching company until the early 1950s. During this time indigenous residents of Easter Island were not allowed to live or work outside of the tiny town of Hanga Roa (the company controlled 160 of the island’s 180 square miles) and had virtually no rights.

Moais, Easter Island

Easter Island?

Only in recent history have residents of Easter Island officially gained recognition from the Chilean government. In 1965 Easter Island became part of the Chilean province of Valparaiso (located 2,300 miles away) and residents received the right to vote. Studies into the island's tumultuous past and mysterious moai statues made tourism the island's main economic activity since the 1950s. With so many English-speaking visitors, the term “Easter Island” became the island’s common name for visiting tourists. Today, over 5,000 people live on Easter Island. About a third of these residents can trace their roots directly to the island’s original inhabitants and call themselves Rapa Nui, which is also the name of the local language.

Whatever you call it, Easter Island is a fascinating place to visit, largely because we don’t know how its story ends. Though the moai-building ancient culture is mystifying, and the scenery is lovely, the modern dynamics of Easter Island’s Rapa Nui are equally compelling. Some Rapa Nui believe that protecting their fragile culture from further degradation requires independence from Chile. Though independence is unlikely (many other Rapa Nui want strong land claims but believe severing ties with Chile would be economically difficult), in 2012 the indigenous Rapa Nui on Easter Island chose 81-year-old Valentino Riroroko Tuki to be the new Rapa Nui King (the last one died over a century ago), and have threatened to sue Chile for the island’s independence.

Beautiful beaches

One thing everyone agrees on, however, is the importance of preserving the ruins and statues that are left and supporting sustainable tourism. If you're interested in unravelling Easter Island's secrets on a private, fully-customizable Santiago to Easter Island tour, please contact one of our Destination Experts.

(Photo credits, in order of appearance, American Rugbier, Alan Britom, Greg Schechter, Thomas Griggs (2), & Nicolas de Camaret.)

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