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The Tuamotus Islands are the largest chain of atolls in the world, consisting (if you include the Gambier Islands, which we’ll meet below) of 73 atolls, four low coral islands, one raised coral island and one large island-barrier reef, that stretch across 1,200 miles of the Pacific. As Kava.com describes the Tuamotus, “[e]ach is comprised of hundreds of little motus or islets, which are clumps of coral, sand, and limestone strung together to form circular or rectangular shapes of white enclosing blue lagoons. Fringed by white beaches and sprouting lush green coconut groves, the motu are the reality of most people’s South Seas paradise dreams.” All told the population of this expansive archipelago is only around 15,000 and the actual land mass of all the islands, if you add it all up, in only a few hundred square miles.
There is little archeological evidence available about who first settled the Tuamotus and when, though a general consensus has developed that visitors from the Society Islands first landed and developed communities on the atolls in about the 8th century. Magellan was the first European explorer to “discover” the atolls (in 1521), followed by smatterings of Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and German sailors over the next 300 years. Only when Christian missionaries arrived in the 19th century and brought Tuamotus pearls back to Europe did Western powers really take note. The Tuamtus became a “French dependency” in 1853 and, after forcing Tahiti’s King PÅmare V to abdicate in 1880, France more confidently claimed the islands. Since France never formally annexed them for over a hundred years thereafter many Tuamotuans still see themselves not as subjects of France, but of the Tahitian kingdom. The Tuamotus became part of French Polynesia in 1996.