Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva (sometimes spelled Nukahiva or Nukuhiva) is the largest of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, an overseas country of France in the Pacific Ocean. It was formerly also known as Île Marchand and Madison Island.

Nuku Hiva
Map showing the location of Nuku Hiva within the Marquesas Islands
Nuku Hiva
Location of Nuku Hiva Island in the Pacific Ocean
LocationSouth Pacific Ocean
Coordinates8°52′S 140°08′W
ArchipelagoMarquesas Islands
Area339 km2 (131 sq mi)
Highest elevation1,224 m (4016 ft)
Highest pointTekao
Overseas countryFrench Polynesia
Population3120 (2017)
Pop. density7.8/km2 (20.2/sq mi)

Herman Melville wrote his book Typee based on his experiences in the Taipivai valley in the eastern part of Nuku Hiva. Robert Louis Stevenson's first landfall on his voyage on the Casco was at Hatihe'u, on the north side of the island, in 1888.



Western Nuku Hiva is characterized by a steep but fairly regular coastline, indented occasionally by small bays, leading to deep valleys, which in turn lead into the interior. There are no villages on the western side. The coastline of the eastern part of the island has few places to land by sea and takes the brunt of the ocean swells. The northern side, in contrast, is indented by deep bays, the largest of which are Anahō and Hatihe'u. A third bay, 'A'akapa, is smaller and lies next to a village of the same name. The southern side has fewer bays. One is at Taioha'e. Three others, at Taipivai, Ho'oumi, and Hakaui, are part of the larger Baie du Contrôleur. Another two, at Hakau'i and Hakatea, are both accessed by the same narrow entrance.


The central part of the island is a high plateau called To'ovi'i, covered primarily by a tall-grass prairie, on which experiments in cattle raising are taking place for the first time.

On the western edge of To'ovi'i rises Tekao, the island's highest peak, which reaches an elevation of 1224 m (4,016 ft). The western and northern edges of To'ovi'i are a mountain ridge, which catches much of the rain that waters the island.

Pine forest plantations covering large areas all around the crater of To'ovi'i give an overall impression of the lower Alps and parts of Germany, Wales and Switzerland. In one place, Vaipō Waterfall, the collected water falls off a highland and falls 350 m (1,148 ft).

The slopes of the north western side of the island are much drier than the rest of the island, and are often described as a desert named Te Henua a Taha or "Terre Déserte" in French.


Nuku Hiva is administratively part of the commune (municipality) of Nuku-Hiva, itself in the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas Islands.

The administrative centre of the commune of Nuku-Hiva and also of the administrative subdivision of the Marquesas Islands is the settlement of Taioha'e, located on the south side of Nuku Hiva, at the head of the bay of that same name.


Demographic evolution of Nuku Hiva since 1971

The population in 2007 was 2,660. This is substantially less than that encountered at the end of the 16th century when the Spaniards first sighted the island. Contacts with Europeans may have brought New World infections such as venereal disease and influenza, causing high mortality. Historical sources are sparse, and it is unclear when various diseases commonly seen in the New World, Europe and Asia first appeared in Nuku Hiva. The population has increased to 3210 by 2017.

The population is primarily Polynesian with a small proportion of Europeans, mostly from Metropolitan France. At the 2002 census, 92.6% of Nuku Hiva's residents were born in French Polynesia while 148 people, making up 5.6% of Nuku Hiva's residents, were people born in Metropolitan France.[1]


The primary diet of people tends to be breadfruit, taro, manioc, coconut and many kinds of fruit, which grow in abundance. Goats, fish and, more rarely, pigs, are the main sources of meat but there is a growing amount of local beef available. Imported food is also freely available, including apples, grapes, celery, and even sliced bread from New Zealand. Two local bakeries produce baguettes, another cheap staple. Considerable rice is also eaten. There are a great many wild pigs on the island which are a cross between the Polynesian pig brought by the first settlers and the wild boar brought by the Europeans.

There is a prison on the island, which is notable for being the smallest in France.[2] It uses an open prison regime, and prisoners are free to use the grounds with a minimum of supervision.[3] Prisoners who do not follow the model are returned to prison in Papeete.[3]


Nuku Hiva is served by a single-runway airport in the northwest corner of the island, approximately 50 kilometres (31 mi) by road, northwest of Taioha'e. The airport was opened on December 14, 1980.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Marquesas Islands in Nuku Hiva


The majority of the island's population, as is the case in the Marquesas Islands, is Christian as a result of European colonisation and the activity of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.[4] The site (specifically Taiohae) is home to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Marquesas Islands (Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Îles Marquises),[5] seat of the Diocese of Taiohae of which 85% of the total population is Catholic according to 2018 data.[6] Other churches under the same diocese include the Church of Saint Joseph in Taipivai (Église de Saint-Joseph),[7] the Church of the Sacred Heart in Hatiheu (Église des Sacrés-Cœurs),[8] Church of Saint Therese of the Infant Jesus in Aakapa (Église de Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus)[9]


Ancient Period

A lithograph from 1846 titled "Cases de naturels à Nouka-Hiva".[10]

Nuku Hiva was, in ancient times, the site of two provinces, Te I'i covering somewhat more than the western two thirds of the island, and Tai Pī, covering the eastern third.

Latest studies indicate that the first people to arrive here came from west Polynesia around 2000 years ago, only later colonizing Tahiti, Hawai'i, The Cook Islands and New Zealand. The legend has it that 'Ono, the god of creation, promised his wife to build a house in one day, so he gathered together land and created these islands, which are all named after parts of the house, Nuku Hiva being the roof. Everything he had left over he threw to one side and created a dump which is called 'Ua Huka. From these supposed origins the population rose to an untenable size; first European estimates vary from 50,000 to 100,000.

Food became of prime importance. Breadfruit was the staple, but taro, plantain and manioc also played a big part. As for meat, fish was the main source, but even so was limited because of the quantity needed to feed so many mouths. Pigs, chickens and dogs were also cultivated, and hunted when they took to the wild.

The extent to which cannibalism was practiced in pre-historic times is debated. Some anthropologists believe that ritualistic cannibalism once existed here, although others claim it is more of a myth. The tales of cannibalism received widespread publicity in 2011 when the burnt remains of a German visitor found on Nuku Hiva led to speculation that the victim may have been partially eaten.[11] However, when the murderer was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted, the prosecution presented no evidence that cannibalism was involved.[12]

European exploration and whaling

On July 21, 1595 Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira stopped at Fatu Iva and called the islands Los Marquesas after the wife of the Viceroy of Peru. James Cook likewise visited the south in 1774, and the Solide expedition in 1791. There is little evidence that these visits led to the introduction of diseases, perhaps because slow passages inhibited the diseases aboard the ships. It seems that it was the commercial shipping, taking on sandalwood, and the whaling ships that brought the epidemics that killed nine out of ten Polynesians.

Nuku Hiva Campaign

The American fleet at Nuka Hiva in 1813.

During the wars between the Te I'i and the Tai Pī, on October 25, 1813, the American Captain David Porter arrived in the frigate USS Essex, the flagship of his fleet of ten other armed ships. A shore party was landed and they claimed the island for the United States and constructed a small village, named Madisonville. A fortification, named Fort Madison, and a dock were also built, the latter to refit the Essex. Almost immediately Porter became involved in the tribal conflict.[13]

The first expedition into the jungle was led by Lieutenant John Downes. He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred Te I'is, captured a fort held by 3,000 to 4,000 Happah warriors. The victory forced the Happah to terms and they allied themselves with both the Americans and the Te I'i. Porter himself led a second expedition in which he made an amphibious assault against the Tai Pī held coastline. Five thousand Te I'is and Happahs accompanied the fleet in at least 200 war-canoes.[13]

The landing was unopposed. Porter's force of thirty men and a cannon led the march inland where they found another, more formidable, enemy fort. The thousands of natives, armed with rocks and spears but positioned in a formidable mountain fortress, were able to fend off their attackers. The victory was short-lived however and Captain Porter followed up his landing with an expedition overland, bypassing the fort, to threaten the Tai Pī's village center in Typee Valley, as the Americans named it.[13]

A warrior of Nuku Hiva with a spear and a hand fan by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau, 1813.

The column arrived at their destination on 30 November 1813. The first shots fired occurred after the Tai Pī's attempted to ambush the column; the attack was beaten off. Porter issued a message warning that if the Tai Pī did not cease their resistance at once, he would destroy the villages. After a little while of waiting, the hostiles seemed to ignore the demands so the expedition advanced. An engagement ensued as the villages were burned.[13]

In the end, the Americans and their Te I'i and Happah allies had won at severe cost to the enemy, who sued for peace soon after. The next few months were peaceful until May 1814. The War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom was in its third year and most of the American fleet was captured British privateers. At least six British prisoners were at Nuku Hiva during the American operations against the natives, not including a number who volunteered to fight for Captain Porter.[13]

In December 1813, Porter left Nuku Hiva to continue raiding British whalers. He left behind only nineteen navy sailors and six prisoners under two midshipmen and United States Marine Corps Lieutenant John M. Gamble. On May 7, 1814, a group of the British sailors mutinied, released the six prisoners, and attacked the fort. Gamble was wounded in the foot and taken captive with his remaining men on the converted whaler Seringapatam, though the Americans were set adrift later that day.[13]

Another version, told in the book "The Washington Islands" and given by the head archeologist of French Polynesia, is that Porter and his fleet of three ships (including two captured British ships) came to Taioha'e and made a prison there. Porter sent some of his cannons overland, and took three days to get to Taipivai. He also then had his ships go into Taipivai harbor.

Porter called it a great victory even though the villagers simply left; the chief thought Porter was insane. Porter went back to Taioha'e where he had a prison set up for the British sailors. Porter's men became lax because they were more interested in the village women, enabling the British sailors to break out and make the Americans prisoners. Soon, the British in turn became lax, and the Americans broke out of the prison and made the British prisoners. The chief had had enough of this behavior and told Porter to get out. Porter left.

The Americans used an Englishman named Wilson, who lived on the island, as an interpreter; on May 9 he convinced the Te I'i that Porter would not return from his raid, which the natives were not happy about. Wilson eventually persuaded the Te I'is to cancel the alliance and attack. Six American sailors were on the beach at Madisonville at the time, four of the men were killed and one other man escaped wounded with a second survivor. Gamble was alone on Sir Andrew Hammond, one of the captured British ships. While he was still recovering from the wound to his foot, two Te I'i war-canoes attacked the ship. The ship's cannon were already loaded, so Lieutenant Gamble stumbled from one gun to another, firing them as fast as he could. Ultimately, Gamble beat off the enemy attack single-handedly. However, after the deaths of four of his men in town, there was no choice but to abandon the colony with the remaining seven men - all of whom were either wounded or ill. After that, the base was never again occupied by American forces. Captain Porter, who intended to sail back to Nuka Hiva, was captured at the Battle of Valparaíso on March 28.

Meanwhile, unknown to Porter on 28 August 1814, a Royal Navy flotilla with HMS Briton anchored off Nuku Hiva.[14] They found that Porter had built Fort Madison, Nuku Hiva and a villa on the island, which the natives destroyed after his ship left. Before his departure, Thomas Staines, with the consent of the local tribes excepting the "Typees" from the Tai Pi Valley, took possession of Nuku Hiva on behalf of the British Crown.[15]

When Porter got back to the US, he went in front of the United States Congress and proudly told Congress that he claimed the Washington Islands as American. Congress was aghast that American sailors would cohabitate with the islanders, leading Congress to decline Porter's claim. Congress didn't want the shame that American sailors would act like that. Some years later, Porter became chief of Mexico's navy.

In 1842 France took possession of the whole group and established a settlement which was abandoned in 1859.[13][16]

19th and 20th Centuries

A ship from Peru captured people from 'Ua Pou and took them back as slaves (see Blackbirding), but as the Catholic Church had converted the islands to Christianity by then, there was a protest and those captives who were still alive were sent back. However, this was a mixed blessing because they brought typhoid fever. A population in excess of 100,000 in 1820 fell to 6,000 in 1872, to 3,000 in 1911 and to a low point of 2,200 in 1927. It seemed that there was no way the Marquesans would survive, but two French doctors toured the islands giving vaccinations and medical care and halted the heavy death toll. Leprosy, however, was still a problem only 20 years ago and elephantiasis is only now almost gone.

21st Century

An aircraft carrying the then-mayor of Nuku Hiva, Lucien Kimitete, along with MP Boris Léontieff, Mayor of Arue and two other politicians, disappeared in May 2002.[17] Kimitete promoted separation of the Marquesas Islands from French Polynesia within the French Republic, and there was speculation that the disappearances were due to foul play.[18] Many locals still believe this crash was not properly investigated. Since the death of Kimitete, Marquesan political leaders have repeatedly declared themselves in favor of separating from French Polynesia and remaining within the French Republic in case French Polynesian political leaders in Tahiti would proclaim the independence of French Polynesia.[19]

Media use

Panoramic view

In 2001, Nuku Hiva was used as the filming location for Survivor: Marquesas, the fourth season of the American reality competition series Survivor, airing in the United States in 2002.

British explorer and presenter Ben Fogle filmed an episode of Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild in 2015 with a nomadic couple who reside on a boat, which was moored off Nuku Hiva at the time of his week-long visit. They sailed from the southwest to the northeast.[20]

In literature

Herman Melville’s book Typee (1846) is based on the time he spent on the island after deserting the American whaling ship Acushnet in 1842.

In his science fiction novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863, Jules Verne describes Nuku Hiva as one of the main stock exchanges of the world of 1960:

Quotations of countless stocks on the international market were automatically inscribed on dials utilized by the Exchanges of Paris, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Turin, Berlin, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, Constantinople, New York, Valparaíso, Calcutta, Sydney, Peking, and Nuku Hiva

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century[21]

Additionally, Jules Verne’s “The Floating Island” makes a stop at Nuka-Hiva (sic) where he provides an extensive profile of its occupants, flora, fauna, geography, etc., as known in the late 19th century.

See also


  1. Répartition de la population de la Polynésie française par île en 2017, Institut de la statistique de la Polynésie française (ISPF), consulté le 27 février 2019.
  2. "Nicole Belloubet confirme le maintien de la prison de Nuku Hiva" (in French). 19 July 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2022.
  3. "La prison de Taiohae, un "modèle original" pour Nicole Belloubet" (in French). Tahiti infos. 18 July 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2022.
  4. "Uncovering Pacific culture obliterated in name of religion". Stuff. 13 July 2019. Retrieved 24 January 2022.
  5. "Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Îles Marquises". GCatholic. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  6. "Diocese of Taiohae, French Polynesia". GCatholic. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  7. "Église de Saint-Joseph". GCatholic. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  8. "Église des Sacrés-Cœurs". GCatholic. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  9. "Église de Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus". GCatholic. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  10. From Jules Dumont d'Urville, Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes L'Astrolabe et La Zélée, (Gide Paris), 1846.
  11. Hollingshead, Iain (October 18, 2011). "Tales of cannibalism from the South Pacific". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved February 20, 2021.(subscription required)
  12. "Polynesian hunter Arihano Haiti jailed 28 years for murder of tourist Stefan Ramin", Retrieved February 20, 2021.
  13. War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific
  14. "War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific". September 2006. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  15. Shillibeer, p.74
  16. Boot, pg. 31-37
  17. "MISSING TAHITI LAWMAKERS REMAINS MYSTERY". Pacific Islands Report. 25 May 2005. Archived from the original on 7 December 2021.
  18. "2002 disappearance of French Polynesia politicians remembered". RNZ. 25 May 2020. Retrieved 23 January 2022.
  19. Polémique à Tahiti: les Marquises veulent se rapprocher de Paris
  20. "Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild".
  21. Jules Verne, Richard Howard. "Paris in the Twentieth Century". Ed. G.K. Hall, 1997. ISBN 9780783880334. P. 81

Further reading

  • Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas, Being an Account of Experiences and Observations in the Marquesas, Paumotur and Gilbert Islands in the Course of Two Cruises, on the Yacht Casco (1888) and the Schooner Equator (1898), a collection of letters published posthumously in 1896
  • Herman Melville's first book, Typee, first edition 1846, documents the ways and mores of the people of Taipivai.
  • In Edward Everett Hale's novella "The Man Without a Country", Nolan helps Commodore Porter in the victory at Nuka Hiva (spelled Nukahiwa). The narrator says, "We should have kept the islands, and at this moment we should have one station in the Pacific Ocean. Our French friends, too, when they wanted this little watering-place, would have found it was preoccupied. But Madison and the Virginians, of course, flung all that away."

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