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Makatea (Tuamotu and Gambier Islands, French Polynesia)

Last modified: 2016-11-23 by ivan sache
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[Makatea flag]

Flag of Makatea - Image by Ivan Sache, 6 October 2014

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Presentation of Makatea

The island of Makatea (61 inhabitants; 24 sq. km) forms an associate municipality, administratively dependent of the municipality of Rangiroa, located 50 km north of Makatea.
The local tradition says that the island was discovered by the great warrior Tu, an envoy of King of Tahiti Pomare. On his way to Tikehau, Tu noticed the rocky island, which he named Ma'a tea, "the Clear Dust". Years later, his son Tuanaroa came back to officially incorporate the island to the Kingdom of Tahiti, naming it Papa tea, "the White Rock". Other alleged meanings of the island's name are "a stone thrown into the ocean", "a white stone", "a face with eyes placed far apart" (recalling the legend claiming that the islanders have eyes placed far apart), and "Atea's face" (Atea being an old deity known as "the White God").
Makatea might be the Sagittaria island spotted on 13 February 1606 by Quiros. In 1721, Roggeven named it Distraction Island. In 1812, Makatea was used as a convict colony. Moerenhout, landing on the island in 1832 in search of wood, reported that the trees were too big to be brought back aboard. Emory, visiting the island in 1930, described the Raiaupu marae (place of worship limited by standing stones), still in good stand, while the elders could still remember older, disappeared marae.

Phosphate extraction in Makatea was once the main source of income for French Polynesia. Like Nauru and Christmas Island, Makatea is a phosphate rock island. Captain Bonnet is said to have discovered phosphate on the island around 1860; in 1898, a first attempt of extraction failed because of technical and financial shortage. In the beginning of the 20th century, phosphate appeared as a strategic resource, used to produced fertilizers required by mineral-deprived soils in Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and explosives. The Papeete-based engineer Étienne Touzé established on 2 October 1908 the Compagnie Française des Phosphates de l'Océanie (CFPO), which was granted in 1917 a monopolistic concession for phosphate extraction in Makatea (after more than 100 court cases against English, German and Tahitian competitors). The company was modelled on the Pacific Phosphate Company that exploited phosphate in Nauru.
Industrialization dramatically changed the Makatea landscape. A harbour was established in Temao, while the mining town of Vaitepua was built from scratch on the plateau, becoming the center of a small, busy administrative center living in complete autarchy. Supply in fresh water was a main concern until 1933, when the water table bed was reached, 50 m in depth. Mechanization of phosphate extraction was not possible, but an experienced miner could shovel up to 5 t of phosphate per day. Production increased from 12,000 t in 1911 to 251,000 t in 1929 and 400,000 t (peak) in 1960. During the 1908-1966 exploitation period, 11,279,436 t of phosphate were extracted. Initially, the mining company employed 25 islanders, that is, most of the active local population, while some 300 miners were required. Until the 1920s, most miners were of Japanese, Chinese and Annamite origin; they were subsequently replaced by Polynesians. The staff came from European France. The population of the island peaked to 3,000 in 1962. At the time, the Makatea operation represented nearly 30% of the salaries in the private sector in French Polynesia; taxes paid by the CFPO represented up to 25% of the territory's income. For more than 15 years, phosphate was the main export product in French Polynesia, bringing more than 75% of the amount foreign currency received by the territory.
In 1966, phosphate extraction was stopped and the CFPO withdrew from the island within a few weeks. All material was left there, Vaitepua being transformed into a ghost town. One third of the island's area had been excavated. The few islanders who remained in Makatea turned back to cultivation in the small Moumu plain, and coconut crab (Birgus latroe, locally known as kaveu) fishing. Until recently, there was no phone line and no power supply on the island, which is resupplied by sea only twice a month.

In November 2003, Mayor Julien Maï commissioned geographers from the University of French Polynesia to study the tourism potential of Makatea, while the French Polynesia Urbanism Division drafted a Development General Scheme for the island. Makatea has indeed several natural resources, such as cliffs and caves. The abandoned mining town forms today a big industrial wasteland, of great interest for industrial and heritage tourism. The symbol of Makatea is the moa stone, a 1 m-high phosphate block. The tradition reports that in the 1990s, the Super Frelon helicopter of the Naval Air Force could not lift it up, while two islanders could do it easily sometime later.


- Pierre-Marie Decoudras, Danièle Laplace & Frédéric Tesson. 2005. Makatea, atoll oublié des Tuamotu (Polynésie française) : de la friche industrielle au développement local par le tourisme, Les Cahiers d'Outre-Mer, 230, 189-214.
- Patrick O'Reilly. Obituary of Étienne Touzé (1871-1951). Journal de la Société des océanistes, ?, 277-281.
- Louis Molet. 1964. Importance sociale de Makatéa dans la Polynésie française. Journal de la Société des océanistes, 20, 65-76.

Ivan Sache, 20 May 2012

Flag of Makatea

Mayor Julien Maï of Makatea and Colin Randall (designer of the ACIO flag in 2010) describe the symbolism of their horizontal triband (photo) as follows:
-- The top stripe is light blue [bleu ciel] and represents the sky;
-- The white middle stripe represents the White Rock (papa tea in Tahitian);
-- The bottom stripe is deepest blue [bleu roi] symbolizes the sea that surrounds the island;
-- The red star singles out Makatea within the Tuamotu Archipelago, with its 16 blue-starred flag, and is a 'rocky' allusion to the symbolism of the middle stripe, uniting sky and sea and completing a red-white-blue reference to the French flag.

Peter Orenski & Pascal Vagnat, 6 October 2014

Compagnie Française des Phosphates de l'Océanie

[CFPO flag]

House flag of CFPO - Image by Ivan Sache, 10 March 2014

The Papeete-based engineer Étienne Touzé established on 2 October 1908 the Compagnie Française des Phosphates de l'Océanie (CFPO), which was granted in 1917 a monopolistic concession for phosphate extraction in Makatea (after more than 100 court cases against English, German and Tahitian competitors). The company was modelled on the Pacific Phosphate Company that exploited phosphate in Nauru.
The registration of the CFPO at the Paris Stock Exchange was cancelled in 1971.

The CFPO operated ships between Makatea island, where the company extracted phosphate, and Papeete. The ship sailed to Papeete once a week to transport the company's administrators, and, mostly, to transport all the stuff required for the industrial exploitation (iron, cement, wood, engines) and food (since no edible plant could ever be grown on the island). Before the building of a wharf in 1953, the ship had to moor in the bay; the passengers disembarked on small wooden boats build locally. The tradition says that the boats were designed after the ship of Alain Gerbaud, who had stayed for a while in Makatea.

The first fleet of the CFPO was made of the schooners Cholita (1903) and L'Océanien (1920), and of the steamer Ville de Papeete. After the Ville de Papeete had ran aground Haraiki island on 8 July 1934, the company ordered a brand new three-master at the Dubigeon shipyard, in Nantes.
The ship, the last three-master build in France, was launched on 17 June 1935 in Chantenay and named L'Oiseau des Îles (Island's Bird), a tribute to her godmother, the daughter of É. Touzé, the founder and president of the CFPO. The ship left Saint-Nazaire on 22 November 1935, crossed the Panama Canal, and reached Papeete on 25 January 1936. During the trip, L'Oiseau des Îles established a new speed record - 14 knots for 8 hours, off Cape Finisterre. The ship was also used to enrol workers in the other islands of French Polynesia, in the Cook islands, in Raratonga, the Samoa and the Fiji (and to bring back home the workers at the end of their contract).
On 15 October 1941, the ship was requisitioned, armed and registered as P 780, by the Free French Naval Forces, who established a small fleet in French Polynesia. Some sources say that the "Free French armed auxiliary schooner" sunk a Japanese submarine, which is, of course, a nice legend. The ship was rather used to transport the officials of the Free France to Bora Bora, then under American occupation. On 23 January 1942, Captain André Praud, ordered to scuttle the ship at the entrance of the Papeete harbour to prevent the attack by a German cruiser, refused to obey the governor of the island and led a mission of reconnaissance to the neighbouring islands, where no German vessel had never been seen.
Back to civil service after the war, but still operated by the French Navy, L'Oiseau des Îles made in 1943-1944 three trips to Fiji to bring back sugar to Tahiti. The ship was also used to transport the King of Wallis to Futuna for an official visit. L'Oiseau des Îles was eventually retroceded to the CFPO in 1947, resuming its usual activities.
Replaced by a modern trawler of the same name, L'Oiseau des Îles was eventually sold to Mexico in 1957. Acquired in 1968 by the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Co., from Miami, the ship was revamped, renamed Flying Cloud, and used for cruises in the Virgin Islands. L'Oiseau des Îles was eventually scrapped in 2009.
[Il faut sauver l'Oiseau des îles, by Bernard Bouygues]

The house flag of the CFPO, as shown in Merchant Marine Houseflags and Stack Insignia (US Navy Hydrographic Office, 1961), is white with the blue saltire and the red letters "C", "F", "P" and "O" in the respective quarters.

Ivan Sache & Klaus-Michael Schneider, 10 March 2014