As Water Inures Its Strokes on the Stone (Part 1)

Anyone who has gone through the painful task of cleaning a deceased parent’s home knows how strongly it resurrects countless emotions.  It is as though every item in the house has been imbued with the power of some memory or other that resurrects feelings thought to have been buried years before.  And sometimes there are surprises, pearls waiting patiently to be discovered within the collected sand of a life.  

When Eve Dray spent her evenings in 1961 going through her deceased father’s effects at his home in Cyprus, she surely did not expect to uncover a cache of field notes from an expedition to what has at times been described as the most remote place on earth.  It is not quite accurate, of course, but it can certainly seem so when standing at Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on Easter Island.  From there, one has a 360° view of the Pacific Ocean, extending endlessly in every direction.  Indeed, the indigenous people of Easter traditionally called the place where they lived Te pito o’ te henua — the navel of the world.  

Katherine Routledge (1866 - 1935)

It is almost easy to imagine the curious expression Eve must have worn as she reached into the cupboard under the large bookcase and pulled out a horde of papers that had been prepared decades before by Katherine Routledge.  Anyone who has done any scientific research regarding Easter Island — and there are so very many things to study there — knows the name of Routledge.  Her expedition to the island in 1914 – 15 with her husband William Scoresby Routledge has been described as being of “historic magnitude” in developing an understanding of the archaeology and ethnography of Easter Island.  She was the first woman archaeologist to work in Polynesia and part of the mystique of her expedition is the remarkable persistence she and her husband showed in making in happen:  unable to find a ship to take them from England to Easter Island, they had one built at their own expense and hired their own crew.  

When Routledge returned to England after her expedition, she published a book for a general readership called The Mystery of Easter Island:  The Story of an Expedition, promising that she would follow it with a “more scientific” account of her explorations.  That later book was never written, even though she would live for another 15 years or so, and there has been some suggestion that part of the reason is that she may have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  Thinking her original notes had been lost, researchers relied for decades only on the accounts in her popularized book.  But they evidently followed her husband, who moved to Cyprus after she died and eventually bequeathed his house to Eve Dray’s father.  

Easter Island is a place of considerable scientific interest.  Its massive moai, whose construction occupied virtually all of the island for a period of time, have attracted the interest of archaeologists.  They have sought to understand not only their purpose but also how they were moved into place around the circumference of the island — and why the people of the island ultimately toppled every single one of them.  Its birdman competition, in which the ruler of the island was decided by a race to obtain the first tern egg of spring from one of the rocky islets off its coast, has fascinated ethnologists.  They identify it as an almost unique example in the world where political ascension was determined by an athletic competition.  Frustrated linguists have studied the rongorongo script, inscribed on wooden staffs and tablets in an unusual reverse boustrophedon format, and remain to this day unable to decipher it.  Environmentalists still point to the cautionary example of Easter Island as a lesson for us all, noting how its inhabitants overused its resources - they cut down every tree on the island for access to wood, and thereby precipitated a decimation of their population.  

The Rongorongo script

While almost a scientific playground, Easter Island has also sadly had a history of repeated exploitation by outsiders who were emboldened by the same remoteness that is paradoxically also responsible for much of the island’s unique interest.  There were the slaver raids by Peruvian blackbirders that resulted in the introduction of near-annihilating smallpox.  There was the effective conquest by Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, a French thug who swindled the preliterate population by “buying” their land with instruments they did not understand and using his rifle as motivation for those who may have been reluctant.  He would come to rule Easter Island for a time, more as a slaver than as the “governor” he fancied himself to be, being deposed only years later when he began to kidnap prepubescent girls for his personal pleasure and was consequently murdered.  His acquisition of the land in this way has affected its ownership for generations according to the application of the laws of property.  There was also the shocking incarceration – literally – of an entire people when a wall was built to enclose the Easter Island population within their small town, isolating them from their ancestral lands to prevent their interference with development of the island as a sheep ranch. 

All of this history is relevant to understand the events there of the last few months.  Its small size and remote location still to this day limit how much the rest of the world hears of Easter Island.  In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile in a political move that seems mostly motivated by Chilean desires at the time to have a place on the same stage as European nations by copying their imperialism.  Relations between Chileans and the native Rapa Nui of Easter Island have always been uneasy and tha friction came to a recent head in August 2010.  Members of the Hito clan occupied the Hanga Roa hotel, claiming an ancestral property right they claim supersedes that of the private Chilean owners.  In the six months or so since, the conflict has escalated, at times turning violent in confrontations between the squatters and the Chilean military.  

In the next part of this post, to be published in a couple of days, I want to discuss the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Chile is a signatory, to discuss the impact of the conflict on this scientifically important island.  A rally and protest are planned in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 16 before the Chilean Consulate.  Those wishing to read more about the conflict (from the perspective of the indigenous Rapa Nui) can do so here.