European Discovery of Easter Island

Explorer Jacob Roggeveen discovered a remote, inhabited island about 2,000 miles west of the South American continent. The hundreds of massive stone statues and absence of large trees have led to centuries of speculation about the island’s history, a mystery that scientists have yet to unravel.

Summary of Event

In August of 1721, Jacob Roggeveen set sail from Holland with three small ships and 222 crew members in the service of the Dutch West India Company. Dutch West India Company The sixty-two-year-old former lawyer was setting off in search of Terra Australis Incognita Terra Australis Incognita (the unknown southern land, also known as Southland), the continent that explorers mistakenly believed existed in the southern Pacific Ocean. Exploration;South Pacific
Exploration;Easter Island
[kw]European Discovery of Easter Island (Apr. 5, 1722)
[kw]Island, European Discovery of Easter (Apr. 5, 1722)
[kw]Easter Island, European Discovery of (Apr. 5, 1722)
[kw]Discovery of Easter Island, European (Apr. 5, 1722)
Easter Island
[g]Polynesia;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
[g]Pacific Islands;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
[c]Archaeology;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
[c]Anthropology;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
[c]Environment;Apr. 5, 1722: European Discovery of Easter Island[0620]
Roggeveen, Jacob

Roggeveen’s expedition was primarily a business venture, not simply a voyage of exploration. The West India Company agreed to pay Roggeveen and his heirs one-tenth of the profits for a period of ten years, if Terra Australis Incognita, or any other lands that he discovered, would generate profitable trade. There was a sense of urgency for the expedition, as other European powers were interested in finding the elusive continent as well.

Edward Davis, Davis, Edward an English buccaneer, reportedly sighted Southland in 1687. Two descriptions of Davis’s sighting were extant in 1721. Both accounts placed the broad landmass west of Chile at 27 degrees south latitude. However, the descriptions gave different longitudes. Roggeveen’s strategy was to sail along the 27th parallel until he discovered the continent. From Holland, he sailed south around South America’s Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. He then headed north, paralleling the Chilean coast, and visited the uninhabited (but previously discovered) Juan Fernandez Islands. Juan Fernandez Islands From there he struck a northwesterly course to the 27th parallel, and then turned due west until he discovered an island on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. Roggeveen named the 66-square-mile landmass Easter Island for the occasion. Twenty-first century inhabitants of Easter Island, who number about four thousand, call their island Rapa Nui Rapa Nui Island and themselves and their language Rapanui. Rapanui

Easter Island was about 9 miles distant when Roggeveen’s lead ship sighted it on the horizon at about 5:00 p.m. As the vessel approached the island from the east, the late afternoon tropical Sun no doubt etched a discernible silhouette of the island with its two small volcanoes at either end. “There was great joy among the people,” Roggeveen wrote in his journal, “as everybody hoped that this low land [island] was the precursor of the extended coast of the unknown Southland.” He dropped anchor for the night and anticipated reaching the island the next day. Unstable weather slowed his progress, however, so two days later, in the early morning of April 7, Roggeveen confirmed that the island was inhabited when a lone islander paddled a flimsy canoe to the ships. By the evening of April 8, Roggeveen had spotted smoke from a fire ring on the island, moved the ships to within a quarter mile of the shore, and sent men on two sloops to examine the island, but with orders not to go ashore. The men returned to report that the islanders had waved for them to come ashore.

On the morning of April 9, islanders either paddled leaky canoes or simply swam out to the ships and were invited on board. Communication between the Dutchmen and islanders depended on expressions and signs, and soon there were misunderstandings. Roggeveen wrote that the islanders “took the hats and caps of the sailors from their heads and jumped with their plunder overboard, for they were extremely good swimmers.” Roggeveen decided to use force to collect the stolen belongings. The next morning he armed 134 men with muskets, loaded them into three launches, and accompanied them to the island. He wrote in his logbook, “we marched forward a little” and “to our great astonishment and without any expectation . . . more than thirty muskets were let off and the Indians being completely surprised and frightened by this fled, leaving behind 10 to 12 dead, besides the wounded.” One of Roggeveen’s men explained to him later that “some of the inhabitants . . . picked up stones and with a menacing gesture of throwing at us, by which by all appearances, the shooting from my small troop had been caused. . . .”

Fearing for their lives, the islanders quickly made amends with their visitors by giving them sixty chickens and thirty bunches of bananas. In return, the visitors “paid them the value amply with striped linen, with which they appeared to be well pleased and satisfied.” The islanders then permitted Roggeveen and his men to walk about the island freely. The Dutchmen noted two prominent features about the island: a lack of large trees and hundreds of large stone sculptures resembling humans. He aptly concluded that the lack of sizable trees explained the islanders’ poorly made canoes and their interest in his ships’ wooden hulls.

Easter Island’s mysterious stone statues (or moai
Moai (stone statues) in Rapanui) impressed Roggeveen and his crew. Later visitors would count more than two hundred figures standing on massive stone platforms lining the coast. About seven hundred more were in various stages of completion and inexplicably abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast. Scholars would later determine that the average moai is 13 feet tall and weighs 14 tons. In his logbook, Roggeveen wrote,

The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment, because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images.

Aside from a paucity of wood, Roggeveen observed that the island was “outstandingly fruitful,” with an abundance of bananas, sweet potatoes, and sugarcane, and he surmised that “although devoid of large trees and livestock, apart from fowls,” the island “could be made into an earthly Paradise if it were properly cultivated and worked. . . .” He concluded that the islanders were friendly and healthy. He estimated the number of inhabitants to be in the thousands, but that the island was underpopulated given the its size and resources.

Roggeveen was the last major Dutch explorer to enter the Pacific Ocean. He sailed in the early stages of Europe’s eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a time in which scientific observation and reason became a tool for advancing the nation-state. To “enlightened” European explorers, such as Roggeveen, it was important to spread commerce and industry to the far corners of the globe. These explorers took great pains to avoid making their stopovers vicious looting operations. They tended to romanticize the Pacific islanders, viewing them as “noble savages” who lacked the baser experiences of a worldly life. Paradoxically, notwithstanding the social liberalism of the Enlightenment, European explorers’ misinterpretations, egotism, and intolerance often ignited quarrels with islanders. The interlopers seldom hesitated in brandishing or using weapons to resolve disagreements.

Roggeveen’s encounter with Easter Islanders displayed the same paradox. His journal reflects an enlightened approach to exploration, as he kept a detailed record of what he observed, and even after the unfortunate killings, he sought to reestablish good relations with the islanders. Nonetheless, the Dutchman’s idealism succumbed to personal hubris when he reacted to islanders’ petty thievery with a show of force that had lethal consequences. Sadly, quarrels and deadly encounters occurred frequently in eighteenth century Polynesia, as explorers often let arrogance and greed rather than humanistic ideals influence their decisions.


Certainly, finding tiny Easter Island was a disappointment to Jacob Roggeveen, who was seeking a continent that would generate trade and make him and his heirs wealthy. The Dutchman did not know that he had discovered the easternmost island settled by Polynesian peoples—an island whose inhabitants and mysterious stone monuments would capture the world’s imagination for centuries. The discovery of Southland would remain a goal of voyagers until the Englishman James Cook confirmed, during his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1772-1775), that no such continent existed.

Roggeveen spent only one day on Easter Island, but he took extraordinary notes for someone who had never visited such a society. His journal is an invaluable historical resource. He was unaware that Easter Island’s society had been in a downturn by the time he visited. The decline remains a mystery, although scientists favor the theory that overpopulation and deforestation were causes. If these theories are correct, they would account for the end of monument building and the declining condition of Rapa Nui.

Further Reading

  • Fischer, Steven Roger. Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. London: Reaktion Books, 2005. A comprehensive history of the island by a scholar of the peoples and languages of the Pacific. Fischer’s examination includes discussion of how the island transformed after Roggeveen’s 1722 landing, as the islanders soon faced disease and violence, but also trade relations, with the arrival of other Europeans. Illustrated.
  • Flenley, John, and Paul Bahn. The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Examines scientific evidence and concludes that the earliest inhabitants of Easter Island were Polynesians who deforested the island.
  • McCall, Grant. Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A 205-page illustrated introduction to Easter Island, with maps and bibliographical references.
  • Sharp, Andrew, ed. and trans. The Journal of Jacob Roggeveen. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. A translation of Roggeveen’s daily logbook, originally published in 1838, with expository footnotes. Entries cover the 1721-1722 expedition. Includes maps, bibliography.
  • Stevenson, Christopher M., and William S. Ayres, eds. Easter Island Archaeology: Research on Early Rapanui Culture. Los Osos, Calif.: Bearsville Press, 2000. A work on the archaeological research of the island, including discussion of land settlement patterns and archaeological excavation. Distributed by the Easter Island Foundation. Maps, plans, and bibliography.
  • Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. Easter Island Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. A thorough review of what is known about the inhabitants of Easter Island before the European discovery.

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