Tahiti (tähēˈtē) [key], island (2002 pop. 169.674), South Pacific, in the Windward group of the Society Islands, French Polynesia. The capital is Papeete. Tahiti is the largest (402 sq mi/1,041 sq km) and most important of the French Pacific islands. The peninsula of Taiarapu, which forms E Tahiti, is joined to the western part of the island by the Isthmus of Taravao. Tahiti is mountainous, with four prominent peaks, the highest of which is Mt. Orohena (7,618 ft/2,322 m). The chief products are tropical fruits, copra, vanilla, and sugarcane; there are pearl fisheries off the coast. Tourism is easily the most important industry on the island. The inhabitants of Tahiti are mostly Polynesian, but there is a large Chinese minority.
The island was settled by Polynesians in the 14th cent.; the first European to visit Tahiti was the English navigator Samuel Wallis, and later visits were made by Capt. James Cook (1769, 1773, 1777), and by the Bounty under Lt. William Bligh (1788). English missionaries arrived in the 1797, and French missionaries by the late 1830s. In 1843 the Tahitian queen Pomare IV was forced to agree to the establishment of a French protectorate. After her death (1877) and the subsequent abdication (1880) of her son Pomare V, France made Tahiti a colony. During World War II the Tahitians voted (1940) to support the Free French; in 1946 all the indigenous inhabitants became French citizens. In 1995, French nuclear testing at two atolls about 750 miles away sparked protests on Tahiti. Paul Gauguin did many of his paintings in Tahiti, and Robert Louis Stevenson spent some time there. Tahiti was formerly called Otaheite and King George III Island.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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