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Tenth Easter Island conference focuses on reconciliation

The tenth International Conference on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Pacific will be a special edition with a focus on reconciliation. The fatal shooting in 1722 will be remembered, when the Dutch shot and killed ten Easter Islanders. The conference will be held in Leiden from 19 to 24 June.

Easter Island was visited in 1722 by Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who gave the already inhabited island its name because, as he wrote, ‘it was discovered and found by us on Easter Day.’ The explorer went ashore with 134 crew members to explore. Despite a friendly welcome from the people of Easter Island, things went terribly wrong. ‘Roggeveen suddenly heard gunshots,’ says Professor of Fundamentals of Environmental Sciences Jan Boersema, one of the organisers of the conference. ‘When the gun smoke had cleared, around ten Easter Islanders lay dead on the ground. According to the gunmen, the inhabitants had touched their rifles.’

This incident will be remembered at the opening session of the conference and a facsimile has been made of the page from Roggeveen’s log naming the island. ‘Roggeveen strongly condemned this shooting, but it happened nonetheless. We want to remember this together,’ says Boersema.

A letter from 2005 from the then Dutch ambassador to Chile, Hinkinus Nijenhuis, will also figure in the opening. ‘Nijenhuis visited Easter Island and spoke about the shooting. On his return to Santiago, he wrote a letter explaining how the incident was described in the logs and how Roggeveen had condemned it. He also apologised, so an apology was made by an official representative of the Dutch government.’

The page from Roggeveen’s log naming the island.

At the conference, the facsimile of the log page and an English translation of the letter will be presented to the former governor of Easter Island, Taria Rapu Alarcón. Boersema: ‘It is a moment of reconciliation. We will mark the moment, do justice to history, emphasise the apology and move forward together.’

Clash of cultures

The shooting resulted from a ‘clash of two cultures’ Boersema concludes from the historical descriptions. ‘The lively and inquisitive Easter Islanders had the Dutch rattled. They felt threatened despite the indigenous inhabitants’ having no weapons.’ Roggeveen was furious at the officer in charge Cornelis Mens and called him a coward.

We can learn about intercultural communication from the story of Easter Island, says Boersema. ‘We’ve got better at it since then, but it’s still a problem. The strangeness of another culture and how to respond still isn’t easy. The fear of the foreign, of the other, is what’s behind it.’

After the conference opening, papers will be presented on archaeology, tourism and biodiversity on Easter Island. There will also be roundtable discussions. ‘Easter Island is actually the earth in miniature,’ says Boersema. ‘Many problems that occur worldwide, such as pollution of the oceans, also occur on Easter Island. Take neo-colonialism, for example. In a sense Chile colonised Easter Island but is now engaged in an interesting constitutional reform. The indigenous inhabitants will be granted new rights. This will also be addressed at the conference opening.’

Collapse theory

Various speakers will also shed light on collapse theory. This theory has it that Easter Island was once home to an advanced civilisation with some 15,000 inhabitants, which collapsed because of the overexploitation of natural resources. There is supposed to have been hunger, internecine conflict and even cannibalism.

Several popular books present this story as a parable for modern humans, who are also threatened with extinction as a result of their own actions. But Boersema believes there wasn’t a collapse but a gradual transition instead. ‘The environment changed and the population was able to adapt.’ According to Boersema the island’s statue culture also changed into a ‘bird culture’. Researchers are therefore much less likely to subscribe to collapse theory nowadays.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo above:
Jan Boersema with the page from Roggeveen’s log naming Easter Island.

The International Conference on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Pacific is a multidisciplinary conference with delegates from all around the world. This edition has been organised by Stichting Paaseiland the Netherlands. Since 1984 multidisciplinary conferences on Easter Island have been held at different locations, including Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, Chile and the United States. The aim is to promote knowledge about Easter Island and the region, in cooperation with the population of Easter Island.

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