5 April 1722, on an Easter Sunday, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first European to set foot on Rapa Nui and named it Easter Island.
"No Nation will ever contend for the honour of the discovery of Easter Island as there is hardly an island in this sea offering less refreshments, and conveniences for Shiping than it does." (James Cook)
It was Claudius Ptolemy, back in Alexandria in 150 CE, who put the “Terra Australis” bug in the ear of cartographers and explorers, the postulation of a mysterious continent in the South that would balance the landmass of the northern hemisphere. For a while, it was believed that the Strait of Magellan was the passage between America and the south continent, the hypothetical place was dubbed Magallanica, until Drake proved in 1578 that the strait did not separate two continents. The 17th century saw several Dutch explorers in the waters of Oceania, most notably Abel Tasman, who at least could prove that the newly discovered landmass of the place that was later called Australia did not stretch down to the South Pole. There was still room, though, for imagining a further continent. For adventurous minds like that of the astronomer Arent Roggeveen from Middleburg at any rate, if not for the now rather sober minded Dutch investors, who did not put money into another harebrained scheme like the discovery of fabulous continents just after the tulip mania was over. Arent’s third son Jacob, however, fulfilled his father’s dream and set off in the service of the Dutch West India Company with the the Arend, the Thienhoven, and Afrikaansche Galey and 223 men in August 1721 in search of “Terra Australis“. In April of the following year, on a Easter Sunday, Captain Roggeveen sighted land in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the Polynesian Triangle’s southeasternmost point of and aptly named the place Easter Island.
Rapa Nui was, according to Roggeveen, still inhabited by 2,000 to 3,000 of its indigenous people, Polynesians who settled the island probably around the 6th century CE and had made over the following 1,000 years a perfect example of ecocide and its consequences. Since the 1300s, the island was more or less completely deforested, a condition that led to a severe soil erosion and halted offshore fishing and contact with other Polynesian islands. The resources for the construction of large ocean-going canoes were simply gone, along with most of the original native flora and fauna. Nevertheless, since the 11th until well into the 17th century, the Rapa Nui, maybe aided by a second wave of settlement around 1300, managed to sculpt and erect more than 800 of the largest of the monolithic rock figures of the Polynesian cultural circle, the famous Moai, the landmark of Rapa Nui, with the tallest of them about 33’ high and weighing 82 tons. What they were used for is still disputed, most probably they were the stylised likenesses of revered ancestors, maybe were thought of hosting spirits and some of the Moai had been used as privileged burial places with the rest of them watching over the gravesite as well as the villages of their clan. Roggeveen in 1722 reported the ceremonial sites to be still in use. When James Cook came 50 years later in 1774, most of them were either derelict or toppled and vandalised by the warring 10 Rapa Nui clans and it was obvious that the Moai had lost their significance. And while the idea of a “Terra Austalis” was finally discarded during the 1820, Peru and Chile along with several European adventurers began to exploit Rapa Nui, both the place and the people, in earnest. Chile annexed the island in 1888 and it was not until the 1970s that the sad fate of Rapa Nui slowly began to improve.
And more about Easter Island on: