Society Islands, island group (2002 pop. 214,445), South Pacific, a part of French Polynesia. The group comprises the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands (total land area c.650 sq mi/1,680 sq km), two clusters of volcanic and coral islands lying in a 450-mi (724-km) chain. Only eight of the islands are inhabited. The Windward Islands include Tahiti, Moorea, Mehetia, and Tetiaroa; the Leeward Islands include Rai'atea (largest island of the Leeward group), Huahine, Bora-Bora, Maupiti, Tahaa, Maiao, Maupihaa, Tupai, Manuae, and Motu One. The islands are mountainous, and there are breadfruit, pandanus, and coconut trees; the limited fauna includes wild pigs, rats, and small lizards. The major products are copra, sugar, rum, mother-of-pearl, and vanilla. Tourism is extremely important to the economy.
The Society Islands were visited in 1767 by the English navigator Samuel Wallis, who claimed them for Great Britain. A year later, however, the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville established a French claim. They were named the Society Islands in 1769 by Capt. James Cook. The group became a protectorate of France in 1843 and a colony in 1880. In 1946, French Polynesia, including the Society Islands, became an overseas territory of France.