French Oceania was originally a protectorate established in 1842 covering Tahiti in the Society Islands and Tahuata in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific Ocean. The status of Tahiti was later changed to that of a colony and in 1903 a protectorate formally called the French Establishments in Oceania (Etablissements des français en Océanie, or EFO) was created uniting 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretching over an expanse of more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers). Its total land area is 1,609 square miles (4,167 square kilometers). In 1946, the EFOs became an overseas territory under the constitution of the French Fourth Republic, and were renamed French Polynesia (Polynésie française) in 1957. Since March 28, 2003, French Polynesia has been an overseas collectivity of the French Republic. Tahiti, which is located within the Society Islands, is the most populous island and the seat of the capital of the collectivity, Pape’ete.
French Oceania included five groups of islands: the Society Islands archipelago composed of the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands, and the Austral Islands. Among its 118 islands and atolls, 67 were inhabited. Although not an integral part of its territory, Clipperton Island was administered from French Polynesia until 2007.
Economically, French Oceania largely depended on subsistence agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Exports included copra — derived from coconuts, vanilla, pearl oysters and pearls. The population majority was Polynesian with minorities of European and Chinese descent.
French Polynesia as we know it today was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans. Scientists believe the Great Polynesian Migration happened around 1500 BC as Austronesian people went on a journey using celestial navigation to find islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled were the Marquesas Islands in about 200 BC. The Polynesians later ventured southwest and discovered the Society Islands around AD 300.
European communication began in 1521 when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing in the service of the Spanish Crown, sighted Puka-Puka in the Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago. In 1772, Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen came across Bora Bora in the Society Islands.
British explorer Samuel Wallis visited Tahiti in 1767. The French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in 1768, while the British explorer James Cook visited in 1769. In 1772, The Spanish Viceroy of Peru Don Manuel de Amat ordered a number of expeditions to Tahiti under the command of Domingo de Bonechea who was the first European to explore all of the main islands beyond Tahiti. A short-lived Spanish settlement was created in 1774, and for a time some maps bore the name Isla de Amat after Viceroy Amat. Christian missions began with Spanish priests who stayed in Tahiti for a year. Protestants from the London Missionary Society settled permanently in Polynesia in 1797.
King Pōmare II of Tahiti was forced to flee to Mo’orea in 1803; he and his subjects were converted to Protestantism in 1812. French Catholic missionaries arrived on Tahiti in 1834; their expulsion in 1836 caused France to send a gunboat in 1838. In 1842, Tahiti and Tahuata were declared a French protectorate, to allow Catholic missionaries to work undisturbed. The capital of Papeetē was founded in 1843.
Letters can be found from Tahiti in the middle of the ninteenth century, usually carried privately to the nearest port — either in Australia or South America. The use of Tahiti postage stamps on mail first became valid on October 25, 1862, using the general stamps of the French Colonies. From 1870-1875, the local government established a regular monthly service, first by sailing vessel and later by steamer, to send the mail from Tahiti via Skin Francisco to France.
In 1880, France annexed Tahiti, changing the status from that of a protectorate to that of a colony which went by the name of “Tahiti & Dependencies”.
In 1882 a shortage of 25-centime stamps necessitated a surcharge on less-used values. Some of the surcharges also included the name TAHITI. This happened again in 1884 with 5-centime and 10-centime values. The separate Tahitian stamps were issued until 1893. Thereafter only the stamps of French Oceania were in regular use.
In the 1880s, France claimed the Tuamotu Archipelago, which formerly belonged to the Pōmare Dynasty, without formally annexing it. Having declared a protectorate over Tahuata in 1842, the French regarded the entire Marquesas Islands as French. In 1885, France appointed a governor and established a general council, thus giving it the proper administration for a colony. The islands of Rimatara and Rūrutu unsuccessfully lobbied for British protection in 1888, so in 1889 they were annexed by France. The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l’Océanie (Establishments in Oceania).
The first stamps issued with the inscription Établissements de l’Oceanie were released in 1892 —the general Navigation and Commerce issue for the French Colonies overprinted with the new designation.
In 1903, the general council was changed to an advisory council and the colony’s name was changed to Établissements Français de l’Océanie (French Establishments in Oceania). Stamps issued after this year continued to bear the inscription Établissements de l’Oceanie; it wasn’t until the 1934-39 pictorial series that Français was first added to the inscription.
There was a shortage of 10-centime stamps in the Society Islands in 1903 so three values were surcharged with TAHITI / 10 / CENTIMES. Semi-postal stamps of French Polynesia also received a red cross and TAHITI overprint in 1915. The stamp issues for Tahiti are listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue under that name, separate from those of French Oceania (which are listed under “French Polynesia”).
The first stamp issue featuring local portraits/scenes was a 34-stamp three-design bicolor definitive series produced from 1913-1930 (Scott #21-54). The designs were of a Tahitian girl, Kanakas (Pacific island workers), and a view of Fautaua Valley on Tahiti.
In 1915, a 10-centime red Navigation and Commerce stamp of French Oceania received the overprint E F O / 1915 (Scott #55) and various stamps from the 1913-1930 pictorial series were surcharged with new values between 1916 and 1926. A four-stamp set portraying Papetoai Bay on Moorea was issued on March 25, 1929 (Scott #72-75). French Oceania participated in the Colonial Exposition omnibus series with four stamps released April 13, 1931 (Scott #76-79). That was followed by a 37-stamp set bearing three designs (spear fishing, a Tahitian girl and native idols) released between 1934-1939 (Scott #80-116). Three further omnibus issues — Pacific International Exposition (Scott #117-122), Colonial Arts Exhibition souvenir sheet (Scott #123) and New York World’s Fair (Scott #124-125) — were released in 1937 and 1939.
During World War II, metropolitan France was ruled by the Vichy regime collaborating with Germany. In French Oceania, factions formed supporting both the Vichy regime and the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle. In 1940, by way of a referendum, French Oceania voted for association with the Free French Forces and many Polynesians served in World War II. Unknown at the time to the French and Polynesians, the Konoe Cabinet in Imperial Japan on September 16, 1940, included French Polynesia among the many territories which were to become Japanese possessions, as part of the “Eastern Pacific Government-General” in the post-war world. However, in the course of the war in the Pacific the Japanese were not able to launch an actual invasion of the French islands.
In early 1941, two stamps portraying the Fautaua Valley with a portrait of Marshal Petain were issued by the Vichy Government in France (inscribed Établissements de l’Oceanie) but weren’t placed on sale in French Oceania (Scott #125A-125B). Later that year, ten stamps issued between 1929 and 1939 were overprinted FRANCE LIBRE (Scott #126-135). Between 1942 and 1944, the Vichy Government in France reissued five of the 1934-1939 pictorials without the inscription RF (Scott #135A-135E). As before, these weren’t placed on sale in French Oceania. A 14-stamp set portraying an ancient double canoe and bearing the inscription FRANCE LIBRE / OCEANIA was released in 1942 (Scott #136-149).
A two-stamp stamp in the Eboue omnibus issue was released in 1945 (Scott #150-151) while the following year saw eight of the 1942 Free French stamps surcharged with new values (Scott #152-159).
In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands’ status was changed to an overseas territory.
A 19-stamp pictorial series utilizing five different designs appeared in 1948 (Scott #160-178). A single stamp in the Military Medal omnibus was issued on December 1, 1952 (Scott #179) while a girl of Bora Bora is portrayed on a single 9-franc stamp released September 26, 1955 (Scott #180). The latter engraved stamp and the FIDES omnibus portraying the dry dock at Pape’ete issued on October 22, 1956 (Scott #181) were the last to be inscribed Établissements Français de l’Océanie.
The islands’ name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia). The first stamps inscribed with the new name were a pictorial set of nine issued on November 3, 1958 (Scott #182-190). The subsequent history and stamps of French Polynesia will be dealt with in a future article (just as soon as I obtain some!).
I don’t know why I don’t have very many French Oceania/Polynesia stamps as I have an affinity for those of France and her colonies. To date, I have exactly four from French Oceania of which Scott #92 is in the best condition and the most striking design, portraying a Tahitian girl. The 40-centime stamp was released in 1934 as part of the long pictorial series, printed using photogravure in red violet, perforated 13½x13.