Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Slave raiding and nonnative diseases reduced the population of Easter Island by 50 percent. Many indigenous islanders, captured as slaves for labor in Peru, died during the journey to the mainland and while working, and much of Easter Island culture was lost after islanders fell ill with smallpox and other diseases.

Summary of Event

In 1860, the South Pacific’s Easter Island remained independent, and its traditional culture was still untouched by foreign contacts. However, Peru, on the far-off mainland, was in desperate need of labor. In November, 1862, an expedition sailed from Callao, Peru, to Isla de Pascua, the Spanish name for Easter Island. Some 142 men and boys and 12 women and girls were captured. On the auction block, the islanders were sold as laborers or servants at an average price of the equivalent of three hundred American dollars. A slave trade from Easter Island Slave trade;and Easter Island[Easter Island] to South America had begun in earnest. Slave Trade;and Easter Island[Easter Island] Easter Island Chile;Easter Island Manuragui Maurata Eyraud, Eugène [kw]Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island (Nov., 1862) [kw]Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island, Slave (Nov., 1862) [kw]Begin Ravaging Easter Island, Slave Traders (Nov., 1862) [kw]Ravaging Easter Island, Slave Traders Begin (Nov., 1862) [kw]Easter Island, Slave Traders Begin Ravaging (Nov., 1862) [kw]Island, Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter (Nov., 1862) Slave Trade;and Easter Island[Easter Island] Easter Island Chile;Easter Island Manuragui Maurata Eyraud, Eugène [g]Polynesia;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [g]Chile;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [g]South America;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [c]Trade and commerce;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [c]Health and medicine;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [c]Colonization;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov., 1862: Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island[3580] Roussel, Hippolyte

Two weeks later, eight more ships departed Peru for Easter Island. On December 22, when positive inducements to recruit more laborers proved fruitless, captains of the ships met and decided upon a combined expedition. At 7:30 a.m. on December 23, eighty of the crew were ordered to Hangaroa Beach, where they would wander about and display an assortment of knickknacks, mirrors, necklaces, and other trinkets to attract islanders. At some point, the crew’s commander fired his revolver into the air, and others then followed suit. The volleys caused much confusion, leading some sailors to shoot and kill about ten islanders. The rest of the islanders in the immediate area fled in all directions, but the sailors were able to catch and then tie up some two hundred of them. On board the ships, each captive was stamped—mostly tattooed—and thus labeled with the mark of their “owners.”

Two ships in the fleet carried the prisoners to Callao, along with some who had come abroad to trade. The remaining six ships, which sailed to other Polynesian islands, held back a few prisoners. One kept a boy to help in the galley. A second ship held a six-year-old child and a woman deemed too old to be sold at auction; she was later tossed overboard. Another ship kept a prisoner for its crew. Yet another ship returned to Easter Island and captured twenty-one more islanders before returning to Callao. On March 14, 1863, a second raid netted seventy-two men and one woman. The next few weeks saw more raids.

In all, more than fourteen hundred Easter Islanders were seized, amounting to 34 percent of the island’s population. Those who survived the journey to Peru were poorly treated, overworked, and exposed to disease. Diseases;tropical Some were hired as domestic servants or as plantation laborers, and others may have been sent to certain death as guano miners on the Chincha Islands off Peru. Food was inadequate, and discipline was harsh. Lacking proper medical care, some 90 percent of the captured islanders died within two years.

Maurata, the last ruler of Easter Island, ultimately died in Peru. His six-year-old son Manuragui had been taken to Rapa Island on one of the six ships that sailed beyond Easter Island in 1862, but that ship was seized by the islanders. The islanders in turn sailed the ship to Tahiti, Tahiti where the crew was tried and imprisoned. Catholic priests in Tahiti then cared for Manuragui.

Although about three thousand Easter Islanders remained on the island after the raids, gone were all the hereditary high chiefs, community leaders, and learned islanders. Accordingly, the economic, political, and social systems collapsed, and public order soon descended into chaos. On learning of the slave raids, the bishop of Tahiti and the French consul general in Lima, Peru, condemned the acts. Peru’s minister for the home department then suspended all licenses and prohibited from disembarking any crew members or passengers on labor ships without proof from ship leaders that the labor recruits were voluntarily contracted and that no crimes had occurred during the voyages. Nevertheless, more slave ships would arrive and disembark captives until 1864.

The Peruvian government decided to return the captured islanders to their homeland, but 470 were packed onto a barely seaworthy ship that was large enough for only 160 passengers. The unsanitary conditions on the ship turned the ship into an incubator for smallpox Smallpox;on Easter Island[Easter Island] and dysentery. Before the ship sailed, 162 islanders were already dead, and many others were ill. When the ship reached Easter Island, only 15 of the original 470 islanders were alive. In September, 1863, they were put ashore, but a resulting smallpox epidemic killed approximately one thousand more islanders. Thus, from 1862 to 1864, the population of Easter Island dropped more than 50 percent, perhaps the world’s quickest and most devastating demographic holocaust.

The tragic fate of the islanders caught the attention of Eugène Eyraud, a French business executive who settled in Valparaíso, Chile. A devout Roman Catholic who opposed slavery, he was a lay member of the Sacred Heart Congregation. A local Roman Catholic order—the Société de Picpus—was called to Christianize the eastern Pacific islands. Eyraud was interested in being the first missionary Missionaries;on Easter Island[Easter Island] on Easter Island, so he asked the father superior of the Picpus Fathers in Valparaíso for permission to do so. He also wanted to repatriate six islanders—four men, one woman, and one child. The child, Manuragui, was the heir to King Maurata. Eyraud received permission to travel to the island as a missionary for the Church, on condition that he wait in Tahiti Tahiti until a priest became available to accompany him. When no suitable priest was available during a six-month period, the Monsignor allowed him to go alone.

In 1864, after landing with equipment to set up a mission, including a bell, Eyraud discovered that residents were socially disorganized, had little awareness of their past, and practiced only rudimentary religious rituals; in short, local culture had been nearly destroyed. Soon, however, Eyraud’s possessions were confiscated, including his clothes, by locals, and he became a prisoner. Nine months later, he was rescued by a ship dispatched by the vice provincial of Valparaíso. Upon returning to Chile, he completed his novitiate, became a Church father on May 6, 1865, and gave his fortune to the Picpus order, on condition that the funds would be used to establish a mission to “civilize” the islanders and protect them from further harm.

In 1866, Eyraud and Father Hippolyte Roussel Roussel, Hippolyte , of the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Picpus, left for Easter Island to establish a church and school. In 1867, two more fathers set up a second outpost with lay assistants. For the islanders, the animals, food, plants, medicines, wheelbarrows, and other items brought by the missionaries Missionaries;on Easter Island[Easter Island] provided an incentive for religious conversions. The first Easter Islander to be baptized was King Maurata’s son, Manuragui, known to the priests as Gregario. When he died in 1868 after returning home, the high chieftainship of Easter Island died with him. Even after being visited by a physician in 1868, the islanders continued to die from nonnative diseases. Eyraud died of tuberculosis Tuberculosis on April 19, 1868, leaving his possessions to be sold for animals. By 1870, only 111 inhabitants remained on the island, and the last survivor of the Peruvian slave trade died in 1886.


The modern history of Easter Island has been one of unmitigated tragedy. For some observers, the island’s fate serves as a paradigm in an age of globalization. That is, when economic objectives are allowed to operate without reasonable regulation, cultures can be gutted, environments despoiled, and workers savagely exploited. Diseases in one part of the world can spread so quickly that another part of the world will be unprepared and devastated. Political action to rectify the situation on Easter Island came too late to avert catastrophe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyraud, Eugène, et al. Early Visitors to Easter Island 1864-1877: The Reports of Eugene Eyraud, Hippolyte Roussel, Pierre Loti, and Alphonse Pinart. Translated by Ann M. Altman. Los Osos, Calif.: Easter Island Foundation, 2004. Eyewitness accounts from the mid-nineteenth century, written in French. Eyraud and Roussel wrote for their order’s superior in Paris, Pierre Loti wrote a diary of his visit, and Alphonse Pinart documented an anthropological study of the island.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flenley, John, and Paul Bahn. The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An extensive examination of the many puzzles about the island, particularly the tall stone statues that dot the landscape.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maude, H. E. Slavers in Paradise: The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981. An authoritative account of the details of the effort to force Easter Islanders and other Polynesians to work as slaves in Peru.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCall, Grant. Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A history of the development of and the conditions faced by the Easter Islanders, with a focus on their resilience and adaptability to external forces, family structure, spiritual beliefs, material culture, emigration, attitudes toward outsiders, and living conditions.

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Categories: History