Society Islands, a group in the S. Pacific ocean, extending between lat. 16° and 18° S., and Ion. 148° and 155° W.; area, 666 sq. m.; pop. about 18,000. The group is formed of two clusters of islands, one of which lies about 70 m. N. W. of the other. They were formerly, and by some geographers still are, distinguished by the separate designations of the Society islands (proper) and the Tahiti or Georgian islands. The latter arc under the French protectorate; area, 453 sq. m.; pop. 13,800, of whom about 970 are emigrants, 400 soldiers, and 600 foreign residents. The former are independent; area, 213 sq. m.; pop. about 4,000. Mariners usually speak of one cluster as the windward and the other as the leeward, applying the term Society islands to both combined. The Society islands, thus defined, exclusive of several islets, are Tahiti or Otaheite, Eimeo, Maiaoiti, Maitia, Tetuaroa, Huahine, Raiatea, Otaha or Tahaa, Borabora, Marua or Maupiti, and Tubai, the first five belonging to the Tahiti group, and the remainder to the Society islands proper. The islands are mountainous in the interior, the highest peak, on the island of Tahiti, reaching an elevation of 7,339 ft., and have a border from 1 to 5 m. wide of rich level ground extending from the base of the high lands to the sea.
In general appearance they are alike, and lava, basalts, and pumice stone, which are found in several places, indicate that their origin was volcanic. They are surrounded by belts of coral rock, of various width, situated from a few yards to 5 m. from the shore, with openings which permit the passage of canoes, while some of them admit ships to smooth water and good anchorage. There are small lakes and lagoons in some of the islands, and all are watered by numerous streams, upon the banks of which, or along the shores, the inhabitants reside. - There is considerable variety of soil, the sides of the mountains being frequently covered with a thin layer of light earth; the summits of many of the hills have a thick stratum of red ochre or yellow marl, while the soil of the level tracts along the shores is a rich alluvial deposit, mixed with vegetable mould, and is exceedingly fertile. The climate is healthful and very mild, the range of the thermometer throughout the year being inconsiderable. Besides the breadfruit, these islands produce almost every tropical vegtable and fruit, including some peculiar to the group. A few fruits and vegetables have been introduced from the temperate regions.
The guava shrub, brought from Norfolk island, is now common, and bears a profusion of fruit, upon which pigs and cattle feed with avidity. Garden produce is little cultivated, and agriculture is very backward. A botanic garden, established by the French, offers seeds to colonists and natives; but there is little demand for them, and prizes offered to stimulate production were withdrawn in 1865 as useless. The spontaneous production of fruits seems sufficient for the natives. An Anglo-Portuguese agricultural company, established in 1861 for the cultivation of cotton and coffee by Chinese coolies, has effected but little. The introduction of limes and oranges has been very successful. Pigs, dogs, and rats were the only quadrupeds found upon the islands at the time of their discovery; but all our domestic animals have been introduced, and with the exception of the sheep and rabbit have thriven remarkably well. Horned cattle are abundant. There are numbers of aquatic fowl; the albatross, tropic birds, and petrel are found on all the islands; herons and wild ducks frequent the lakes and lagoons; and there are several kinds of birds of prey, woodpeckers, and small paroquets.
Domestic fowl are abundant, and were upon the group at the time it was discovered. - The natives belong evidently to the Malay race, and are generally above the middle stature. Their countenances are open and prepossessing, though their features are bold and sometimes prominent. Their complexion is olive or reddish brown, but there are great varieties of shades. The appearance of the men is vigorous and graceful, and their behavior affable and courteous. Tattooing is not now practised. The native costume has been altogether abandoned for dresses resembling those worn by civilized nations. The native manufactures have been entirely superseded by imported goods. The chief intercourse is carried on with Valparaiso, Sydney, and San Francisco, and the domestic exports of the group consist principally of cocoanut oil, arrowroot, sugar, and pearl shells. The annual exports amount to about $1,000,000, and the imports to about $650,000. The principal port, Papiete in Tahiti (pop. about 800), is the residence of several foreign merchants.
It is a free port except for arms and spirits, has a dock for repairing vessels, government buildings, and a hospital; and two newspapers, one in the native language and one in French, are published. - The Spaniards lay claim to the discovery of Tahiti in 1606, by Quiros, who called the island Sagittaria. Capt. Wallis, in a British ship sent to make discoveries in the South sea, reached Tahiti in 1767, and named it King George's island. Bougainville touched at it in 1768, naming it Nouvelle Cythere. Capt. Cook reached it in 1769, discovered most of the islands in the N. W. cluster, gave to the whole group the name of Society islands, in honor of the royal society of London, and restored the native name to Tahiti. The Spaniards attempted to colonize Tahiti in 1772-'4; and about that date Cooke visited the group a second time, and again on his last voyage in 1777, when he found a house and cross which the Spaniards had erected carefully preserved by the natives. After this 11 years passed without any communication between the Society islands and the rest of the world, when the Bounty arrived to transport plants of the breadfruit tree to the British West India islands.
The interest excited by these voyages resulted in the formation of the London missionary society, which fitted out a ship to carry missionaries into the islands of the Pacific. This vessel arrived at Tahiti early in 1797. For a long time the labors of the missionaries were fruitless, till Pomare II. embraced Christianity about 1815. Pomare died in 1821, and during the minority of his son the missionaries acquired great influence; but the son having died before he attained manhood, he was succeeded by Queen Aimata or Pomare, the latter being the surname of the reigning family. From the conversion of Pomare II. the power of the missionaries continued increasing, till it became paramount in Tahiti. The success of the French Catholic missions on the islands to the east induced two priests to go to Tahiti. The English missionaries opposed this, and the priests were forcibly deported. The French government then sent a frigate to demand liberty for all French subjects, and $2,000 as the expenses of the voyage to France of the expelled missionaries.
In 1843 a strong force landed on Tahiti and hoisted the French flag, taking possession in the name of Louis Philippe. (See Du Petit-Thouaes.) The queen made her escape to a neighboring island, and several skirmishes took place between the natives and the invaders. There was also a protracted diplomatic dispute with England, which ended in the payment of an indemnity by the French government for the expulsion of the British consul Pritchard and the seizure of some of his property. In 1846 the French power was completely established in Tahiti. Pomare was recalled, and a treaty was entered into, by which she was restored to authority, and the whole of her dominions placed under the protection of France. Capt. Cook, from the crowds which collected on the coast, supposed the population of Tahiti to be 80,000; but the first missionaries estimated it, along with that of the neighboring island of Eimeo, at 10,000. A census by the French in 1864 made the population of Tahiti, Marua, Tetuaroa, and Maiaoiti, 13,847. The reduction from former years is due to infanticide, venereal disease, smallpox, and rum. Attempts have been made to increase the population by immigration.
A few hundred Chinese coolies have been introduced, and the French deported convicts from New Caledonia, but were obliged to withdraw them in 1864, on account of their demoralizing influence upon the natives. By the labors of the missionaries the moral and social condition of the latter has been much improved, and education is extending. In 1865 school districts were established, with two schools, one Protestant and one Roman Catholic, in each district.