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Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia, in the southern Pacific Ocean at 17° 40' South, 149° 30' West. The capital is Papeete, on the north west coast. Tahiti has also been historically known as Otaheite.

The island consists of two roughly round portions centered on volcanic mountains, connected by a short isthmus named after the small town of Taravao, which sits there. The nortwestern part is known as Tahiti Nui, or big Tahiti, and the southeastern part, much smaller, is known as Tahiti Iti (small Tahiti) or Taiarapu. Whereas Tahiti Nui is quite heavily populated (espicially around Papeete) and benefits from rather good infrastructure, such as roads and highways, Tahiti Iti has remained quite isolated, its southeastern half (Te Pari) being accessible only by boat or hiking. Tahiti is some 28 miles (45 km) long at the widest point, covers 1042 km² (600 mile²), with the highest elevation being 7,320 feet (2.2 km) above sea level (Orohena peak).

Tahiti is the most populous island of French Polynesia, containing some 70% of its population. The island is served by Faaa International Airport.

The vegetation is lush rain forest. The wet season is November through April.


The native population is Polynesian, and is estimated to have settled on the island sometime between 300 and 800 AD, although some estimates place the date earlier.

The fertile island soil combined with fishing provided ample food for the population with ease. The relaxed and contented nature of the local culture much impressed early European visitors, and has been somewhat romantisized since.

European Contact

Although the islands were first spotted by a Spanish ship in 1606, Spain made no effort to trade with or colonize with the island.

Samuel Wallis, an English sea captain, sighted Tahiti on June 18, 1767 and is considered the discoverer of the island.

He was followed in April 1768 by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who was completing the first French circumnavigation. Bougainville made Tahiti famous in Europe when he published the account of his travel in Voyage autour du Monde. He described the island as an earthly paradise where men and women live happily in innocence, away from the corruption of civilization. His account of the island powerfully illustrated the concept of the noble savage, and influenced the utopian thoughts of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau before the advent of the French Revolution.

In 1774 Captain James Cook visited the island, and estimated the population at that time to be some 200,000. This was probably too high; another estimate from the same period was 121,500.

After this European ships landed on the island with ever greater frequency. The best-known of these ships was the HMS Bounty, whose crew mutinied shortly after leaving Tahiti in 1789. The European influence caused significiant disruption to the traditional society, by bringing Christianity, prostitution, venereal diseases, and alcohol to the island. Introduced diseases including typhus and smallpox killed so many Tahitians that by 1797, the island's population was only about 16,000. Later it was to drop as low as 6,000.

In 1842 the kingdom of Tahiti was declared a French protectorate.

In 1880, King Pomare V (1842-1891) ceded sovereignty to France.

French painter Paul Gauguin lived on Tahiti in the 1890s and painted many Tahitian subjects. Papeari has a small Gauguin museum.

Modern Tahiti

Tahitians are French citizens with full civil and political rights. The Tahitian language and the French language are both in use.

Tourism is a significant industry.

As of 1998, Tahiti had a population of 131,309 inhabitants, comprised of 83% Polynesians, 11.5% Europeans, 4.3% Asians and 8% of mixed races.


View Raiatea Mountain. The
mummies of Tahitian rulers were formerly deposited on this mountain, traditionally considered holy.

Vista with Fautaua Fall, a waterfall some 600 feet (183 m) high.

Above two photos by L. Gauthier from October 1920 National Geographic Magazine

Postage stamps

The use of postage stamps on mail first became valid on 25 October 1862, using the general stamps of the French Colonies. In 1882 a shortage of 25c stamps necessitated a surcharge on less-used values. Some of the surcharges also included the name "TAHITI". This happened again in 1884 with 5c and 10c values.

1893 overprint of 20 centime Colonies stamp, cancelled at Papeete on 23 February 1894

In 1892, the Navigation and Commerce issue for French Oceania became available, and in 1893, two kind of overprints were applied to the remaining stocks of regular and postage due French Colonies stamps; one type was a slanted overprint reading "TAHITI", the other was a horizontal "1893 / TAHITI". For some values of stamps, very few were left to be overprinted, and genuine overprints are quite rare, the rarest being the horizontal overprint on the 25c yellow at around US$20,000. (Most values will cost the collector around US$20 each.)

Thereafter only the stamps of French Polynesia were in regular use (see Stamps and postal history of French Polynesia). In 1903, there was a shortage of 10 c stamps, and three values were surcharged with "TAHITI / 10 / CENTIMES" or "... centimes". Semi-postal stamps of French Polynesia also received a red cross and "TAHITI" overprint in 1915.

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