Terra Australis – Davis Island – Rapa Nui

Terra Australis – Davis Island – Rapa Nui

Terra Australis – Isla de Davis Island – Rapa Nui

by Cristián Moreno Pakarati – Historiador / Historian

The remote geography of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific seas, at 3,700 km (2,300 miles) from the South American continent and 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Tahiti, has kept it under an imaginary aura of mystery and legend.

In spite of outstanding developments in navigation, crews with vast experience, the use of sophisticated instruments and excellent cartography, all of which were lacking among other seafaring peoples, the Europeans with their caravels and galleons needed hundreds of years of exploration in the Pacific Ocean to finally make contact with Rapa Nui. The first recorded sighting was in 1722 by three ships of the Dutch West Indian Company under the command of Jacob Roggeveen. That was followed by several failed attempts to find it again. It was nearly a half century later that the next European expedition arrived under the Spaniard González de Aedo, who set sail from Peru in 1770. All these ships made a rather unsettling discovery – almost all of the islands or groups of islands in the Pacific were inhabited, but by people who had no knowledge of metal nor of nautical instruments. They only had simple canoes.

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The most important stimulus for all these voyages of exploration was, of course, economic. The different European powers, especially Spain, Portugal, England and France, began a frantic competition in search of new territories which could be exploited, creating great empires in the process. In this period, at the end of 1520, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, at the head of an expedition financed by the Spanish crown, crossed through the strait that today bears his name on the southern tip of South America and sailed the first European ship into the waters that the Polynesians called Moana Nui a Kiva, giving it the European name of the “Pacific Ocean”.
The Spanish dominated the exploration of this new ocean during the entire 16th Century with voyages under the command of García Jofré de Loaisa in 1525, Álvaro de Saavedra in 1527, Ruy López de Villalobos in 1542 and Miguel López de Legazpi in 1564. Soon, however, explorers under the patronage of other empires began to rival the Spaniards. The English privateer Francis Drake in 1578 and his compatriot Thomas Cavendish in 1586 covered enormous extensions of the Pacific. The Dutch became part of this race at the turn of the century, as a result of their war for independence from Spain, sending out navigators such as Simón de Cordes and Olivier Van Noort between 1598 and 1601, followed by Jacob Le Maire and Willelm Schouten in 1615 and 1616. None of them, of course, stumbled upon this island with the giant statues, although they did see dozens of statues on other islands in various archipelagos, especially in Micronesia, giving those islands new names and making them colonies within their new empires.

Terra Australis: Terra Australis:


The concept of Terra Australis Incognita, a hypothetical continent which “should” exist in the southern hemisphere to balance the amount of land in the northern hemisphere, was always on the mind of most of these European travelers and their financiers. Two hundred and fifty years later, following the epic voyages of James Cook between 1768 and 1779, the illusion of the Great Southern Land, or Terra Australis, finally disappeared, but in its place were hundreds of islands which could be exploited as colonies by many imperial nations.

In the following century (19th Century) an odd revisionist battle began in European literature and history. Economic rivalries led the European discoveries to attempt to justify themselves through histories produced by each country. Thus both the Spanish and the English claimed the “true discovery” of “Easter Island”. The Spaniards who appear in literature as the “discoverers” are Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira in 1567, Captain Juan Fernández in 1576 and Pedro Fernández de Quirós in 1605. Better known and more published in many documents of the time is the attribution of the sighting by the English buccaneer, Edward Davis. Although the solid evidence is weak, it was considered plausible by the navigators who finally arrived in the 18th Century.

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La Tierra de Davis:La Tierra de Davis:


Notes from several expeditions in the past speak of the sighting of an island – “Land of Davis”- in 1686 by the British buccaneer Edward Davis, the captain of the ship “Bachelor’s Delight”, while en route from the Galapagos Islands to the Caribbean. This sighting by Davis didn’t go unnoticed and the idea of a “Davis Island” became embedded in the consciousness of the Pacific navigators. For almost a century, Dutch, English, Spanish and French ships searched for the famous island without ever reaching a unanimous conclusion as to which it might be. It is enough to mention that Davis never claimed to have disembarked on “his” island nor did he ever mention gigantic monuments or statues; he also didn’t offer a physical description of the hypothetical inhabitants. Nonetheless, “Davis Island” appeared on European maps long before the visit to Easter Island by Roggeveen in 1722, but even so, this name and that of “Easter Island” were later considered synonymous for several decades.

With the detailed reports of the travelers who actually landed on Rapa Nui in the late 18th Century, it became impossible to connect the Easter Island that was found by Roggeveen with the description of the elusive Davis Island. Some writers attempted to resolve the enigma by speculating that both islands had once formed part of a great archipelago which by the 18th Century had mostly sunk under the sea with the exception of Rapa Nui itself, but that possibility remains in the world of fantasy.

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