Gambier Islands: More than 1,600 km
southeast of Tahiti, the Gambier group consists of 14 small mountainous
islands, the largest and most populated of which is Mangareva.
The cradle of Polynesian Catholicism in the
nineteenth century, these islands hold more than one hundred stone
buildings built from that time, including churches, presbyteries,
convents, schools, weaving workshops, bakers' ovens and watch towers.
French Polynesia's first Catholic mission was
established here in 1834 and the entire population was quickly
Father Honoré Laval, the
leader of the mission, quickly ensconced established himself as a despotic
ruler of the region. Almost single-handedly he brought about the complete
destruction of the native culture and customs - his memoirs speak of the
delight he felt destroying heathen temples and icons. When he arrived the
population was estimated at around 5000 or 6000.
A census conducted 16 years after his eventual
exile to Tahiti established that a mere 463 people survived the cruelties,
diseases and cultural annihilation of his time. The enormous and highly
decorated Cathedral of St Michael on Mangareva stands as a testament to
Laval's obsession - it can accommodate 2000 of the faithful, four times
the population of the island!
Travelling to the Gambier Islands
Not many travellers make
it out to the remote Gambier islands, in the southeastern pocket of French
Polynesia, and tourism has made virtually no impact here.
Not much happens out here and chances are you'll
have to stay a week or two since Air Tahiti only services Mangareva three
times a month. This is truly a forgotten part of the world - don't bother
bringing your credit card.
The lagoons of Mangareva were formerly worked for
their Pearl Oysters. This work continues today since the biggest and most
famous pearl farms are here, being the main resource of these islands. Its
lagoons are reputed to be the best source of fine quality pearls.
The main village, Rikitea, has the imposing St Michael's cathedral dating
from 1848 whose masterpiece is the altar richly decorated in pearls and
mother of pearl.
more general information
on French Polynesia, go to: