Easter Island Under Chilean Governance: Mixed Results for Rapa Nui after 120 Years of Foreign Control

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775–1776 by William Hodges.[24] The earliest known painting of Easter Island.

Over the years, Easter Island has experienced neglect, exploitation, and growth under the governance of Chile.

The article “Easter Island After its Discovery by Europeans” described how various natural and human forces had a devastating effect on the inhabitants of Easter Island, which they call Rapa Nui. The islanders continued to suffer greatly after their contact with foreigners in the 19th century, and even today they are not completely free and must answer to a government thousands of miles away.

Missionaries and Exploiters on Easter Island

As Dr. Grant McCall of the University of New South Wales wrote in Rapanui, missionaries started arriving on Easter Island after the 1861-1863 raids from Peru for laborers ceased. McCall indicates that the Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier, who would later style himself as “king” of Easter Island, entered into a partnership with Catholic Bishop Tepano Jaussen and businessman John Brander. Dutrou-Bornier purchased all of the island, other than an area held by the missionaries. He sent all of the Rapa Nui inhabitants to the Gambier islands except for 171 who were mostly old men. Within six years, there were only about 110 people on Easter Island, and only a third of them had produced offspring.

After a falling out with the local priest, Dutrou-Bornier left Rapa Nui in 1871. Nonetheless, McCall reports that the Frenchman continued to oversee more shipments of island workers to the plantations owned by the Catholic Church and Brander, although most of those islanders died. In 1876, Dutrou-Bornier was killed by islanders who no longer could tolerate his brutal ways.

Life after Annexation of Easter Island by Chile

Chile annexed Easter Island in September 1888 under a treaty it signed with the islanders. Until the 1960s, the surviving inhabitants of Easter Island were confined to one settlement. Chile rented the rest of the island to a company as a sheep farm until 1953. The Chilean Navy managed the island until 1966, when the people of Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship. A constitutional reform in July 2007 gave Easter Island the status of “special territory” of Chile.

Among other things, Chile put up subsidized government housing and public buildings on the island. The first Rapa Nui governor was elected in 1984.

On the other hand, for many years, the Chilean government did little to preserve the artifacts of cultural significance on Easter Island. The government also failed to provide enough park rangers to handle the tourists who would arrive on the island to see the statues, the petroglyphs, and other unique items of historic and cultural importance. At one point, the Chilean government almost allowed a hotel complex on Easter Island’s only beach, and the construction of an airport on the island reportedly destroyed some of the older sites of the rock sculptures.

Fortunately, Chile has become more aware of the need for and benefits of cultural heritage preservation. It has allowed heritage preservation scientists and other experts from around the world conduct conservation projects on Easter Island.

The situation on the island improved sufficiently that UNESCO declared the Rapa Nui National Park a World Heritage Site in 1995. Moreover, conservation efforts continue, as do ecotourism initiatives.


  1. “Easter Island: The Heritage and its Conservation,” by A. Elena Charola, (World Monument Fund, August 1994)
  2. “UNESCO and Chile Launch Ecotourism Training Project on Easter Island,” at UNESCO World Heritage Center Web site