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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Naming of Islands

Naming of Islands

The original Polynesian discoverers usually gave a distinctive name to each island, but as each island in a group remained independent under the government of its own chiefs, the inhabitants of a group evidently saw no necessity for coining a special name for a unity that never existed in their day. An exception is the name of Samoa, which was apparently applied to the group before European contact and which was not shared by any individual island in the group. From the Polynesian point of view, an atoll was treated as a group of islands and each individual island, down to the smallest rocky islet, received an individual name. Here again, an exception occurs in the name of Tongareva, which was applied to the whole atoll and was not shared by any individual island. The group name of Tokelau was probably used as a general term by the Samoans in referring to islands to the north. It was later adopted as a convenient term to replace the earlier applied English name, the Union Group. The omission of group names was followed in principle in some atoll islands divided into districts which had never become united under one command, much in the same way as the individual islands of a volcanic group. The most important island in the Tongareva atoll was originally divided into two districts, because two different family groups settled at either end and then worked toward the middle, where they met and established a boundary. One district was named Omoka and the other Motukohiti. The two districts fought each other repeatedly, but neither conquered the other permanently to the point of absorption. Hence, visitors from other islands came to either Omoka or Motukohiti. A single name that would combine the two districts was never needed and would not have meant anything within the atoll. The government agent and traders now live in the village of Omoka in the district of Omoka, and the wharf to which the trading schooners come is Omoka. There is no village in page 8the Motukohiti district, and nothing happens there to keep its name before the public. The whole island will eventually be called Omoka, when there are no native historians left alive to lodge a protest on behalf of Motukohiti. Some other islands in Tongareva and in the Tokelaus follow this naming pattern. Of the volcanic islands, Easter Island, according to its inhabitants, had no early island name and this may be quite correct.

European voyagers gave European names to the islands when they discovered them, and additional European names were given by later explorers who were not aware that they had been found and named. Fortunately, the governing powers who annexed the various islands have given official priority to the native names and thus offered some tardy recognition to the original discoverers. Even so, it is difficult when reading of the early European voyages to find the native synonym of the foreign name and harder still to accept some alleged synonyms, such as that of the La Sagittaria of Quiros for the Tahiti of the Society Islanders.

In group names, however, no priority could be given to what did not exist. It was the foreign powers which brought individual islands into a group under one rule. Even the native kingdoms—Hawaii under Kamehameha I, Tonga under George Tubou I, and the Society Islands under Pomare I—were established after European contact and would not have been perpetuated without foreign assistance. Names for the island groups were necessary for official purposes and for geographers. Some of the names given by early explorers, such as the Marquesas and Society Islands, were accepted and retained; whereas other names, such as the Sandwich Islands and Hervey Islands, were accepted in general usage for a time but officially changed later. Some confusion, however, was created in the giving of native names to groups which did not possess native names. In the system followed, the name of a principal island in the group was officially designated as the group name. Sandwich Islands was abandoned in favor of Hawaii as a name for the group. Hence, references to Hawaii may mean the group as a whole or the island of Hawaii in particular. Similarly, the Mangareva (Gambier) Islands are also referred to as Mangareva, which is the principal island in the group. In using these names, the distinction should be clearly indicated.