Polynesia is a group of over one thousand islands located within a triangle over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The triangle’s corners are at the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, and Easter Island. “Polynesia” comes from the Greek words meaning “many islands.”
Polynesian history can be split into four eras. The first of these is exploration and settlement, estimated to occur between 1800 B.C. and 700 B.C followed by the pre-European growth era between 700 B.C. to 1595 A.D. During this time, the first distinct culture appeared in north-west Melanesia and began to spread throughout the Pacific.
In 1595, Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira was the first European explorer to discover a Polynesian island but did little more than just pass through. Polynesia was not explored until British navigator James Cook. Following this, the Polynesian Islands gradually became colonized and by the early 1900s, almost every Polynesian island was colonized by Western powers. Unfortunately, often seen in colonization, the Western powers brought disease and suppression that forced new religion, culture, and languages onto the native people.
During World War II, many of the islands were used by the United States and the Allies as military bases after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following World War II, much of Polynesia gained independence.
Today, Polynesia has two distinct cultures: West Polynesian and East Polynesian. West Polynesian culture is categorized by high populations, strong institutions of marriage, and well-developed judicial and trade systems. West Polynesian islands include Tonga, Niue, Samoa, and the Polynesian outliers. East Polynesian culture is seen in the Cook Islands, Hawaii, Tahiti, Easter Island, and other small islands.
Most of the independent Polynesian islands, except for New Zealand, receive most of their income from foreign aid. This is typically supplemented with tourism, a large driving factor for the development of modern Polynesia. Unfortunately, tourism is often seasonal and many worry that the increase in tourists will harm the local ecosystems.
Polynesia consists of six independent nations, two political units that are parts of larger nations, two self-governing entities, and five territories. Hawaii, of the fifty US states, is one of the two political units included in Polynesia and American Samoa, one of the territories, is administered by the United States.
The six countries in Polynesia are:
New Zealand is the largest of the Polynesian countries in terms of both population and area. New Zealand is home to over 4.9 million people and spans over 103,483 square miles (268,021 square kilometers). Of the over 4 million people in New Zealand, only 260,000 identify themselves as Polynesian. New Zealand was previously a colony of the United Kingdom but was granted full autonomy in 1947 with the Statute of Westminster.