On this day in 1722—which was Easter Sunday—the little-known Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first European to visit Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. He had, of course, been beaten to the discovery of the island by the Polynesians, surely the most impressive open ocean explorers in history. Although no one is sure of exactly when the Polynesians arrived in their double-hulled canoes (estimates fall either side of 1000, but vary by centuries), it’s thought that Easter Island was the last place on Earth to be permanently settled. Indeed, sitting so far out in the South-Eastern Pacific Ocean, 3,500 kilometres (2,180 miles) from continental Chile, it is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.
Roggeveen’s mathematician father Arend was obsessed with Terra Australis—an imaginary continent thought to exist in the Indian Ocean—and even obtained a patent for an exploratory expedition. However, it was Jacob who eventually joined the Dutch West India Company and set off across the oceans in search of Terra Australis on 1 August 1721, sailing with three ships: the Afrikaansche Galey, the Arend, and the Thienhoven. And although he never arrived at his mythical continent, he did “discover” Easter Island on Easter Sunday of the following year. It was not the happiest of meetings, as a misunderstanding led Roggeveen’s men to open fire upon the natives, killing over a dozen. Shortly afterward, he sailed onwards to Batavia (now Jakarta) and then eventually home to the Netherlands.
On Easter Island, the explorer encountered the now famous moai statues. Almost a thousand of these sculptural monoliths stood along the coastline, and Roggeveen would have arrived to a vision of towering moai turned away from him, their stern stone faces watching over the island in silence. They were carved out of volcanic tuff, and those used for ceremonial purposes had their otherwise cavernous eye sockets filled with coral whites and black obsidian pupils. Although sizes vary, one unfinished example, found in a quarry on the island, would have stood over 70 feet tall. They were almost certainly made as stone houses for ancestral spirits, who could visit as they pleased, turning away from the underwater spirit world and watching over their descendants.
Around a century prior to Jacob Roggeveen’s voyage the monolith-making stopped, as the island’s ecosystem teetered on the edge of collapse—its trees had been felled, its land birds had been hunted to extinction, and its once-abundant sea birds had retreated to inaccessible outcrops. Thus, today, Easter Island is associated not only with its amazing statues, but also with the environmental perils of over-exploiting our natural resources.
Credit: © Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy
Caption: Moai Quarry, Easter Island, Chile