Marquesas Islands (märkāˈsäs) [key], volcanic group (2002 pop. 8,712), South Pacific, a part of French Polynesia. There are 12 islands in the group, which lies c.740 mi (1,190 km) NE of Tahiti. The largest island is Nuku Hiva, the seat of the capital, Taiohae; the second largest, Hiva Oa, is the site of Atuona, the former capital. The Marquesas, famous for their rugged beauty, are fertile and mountainous, rising to 3.904 ft (1,190 m) on Hiva Oa. There are breadfruit, pandanus, and coconut trees; the limited fauna includes wild cattle and hogs. The chief exports are copra, tobacco, cotton, and vanilla. Taiohae Bay, on Nuka Hiva, and the Bay of Traitors, on Hiva Oa, are the major harbors.
The islands are divided into two groups. The southern cluster (sometimes called the Mendaña Islands), including Fatu Huku, Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Mohotani, and Fatu Hiva, was visted in 1595 by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira; the northern group (sometimes called the Washington Islands), including Hatutu, Eiao, Motu Iti, Nuku Hiva, Ua Huku, Ua Pou, and Motu One, was visited in 1791 by the American navigator Captain Joseph Ingraham. In 1813, Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hiva for the United States, naming it Madison Island, but the U.S. Congress never ratified the claim.
France took possession of the islands in 1842 and established a settlement on Nuku Hiva, which was abandoned in 1859. In 1870 the French administration over the Marquesas was reinstated. Of all the Polynesian peoples, the Marquesans suffered the greatest decline from the spread of European diseases; in the 1850s they numbered some 20,000, about three times the present population. The islands are the setting for Herman Melville's novel Typee.