03 Jun 2024  |  Diego Muñoz

The treaty and the flag: Misunderstandings about the cession of sovereignty on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

While studying the oral traditions of the Chilean annexation of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), I was surprised by the role played by some material objects used by Rapanui people to transmit their own versions of the event. The oral traditions evoke the Reva Reimiro or Rapanui flag but not explicitly the treaty of annexation, written on 9 September 1888. By comparing the contents of the treaty with the history of the flag, I was able to access some of the cross-cultural misunderstandings arising from the so-called “cession of sovereignty”. Thus, both the content of the treaty and the history of the flag showed me that the issue of sovereignty has not yet been fully resolved.[1]

The treaty is a bilingual document, one part written in Spanish and the other in a mixture of ancient Rapanui and Tahitian.[2] Many people on the island and in Chilean institutions assume that one part is a translation of the other. However, after meticulous transcription and interpretation work during my recent fieldwork between September 2022 and April 2023, I found that the two texts are so different it is difficult to confirm that both versions are of the same content. One point is crucial: Where the Spanish text says that the Rapanui chiefs ceded their sovereignty to Chile while retaining their titles, the Rapanui-Tahitian text says that the chiefs retained their titles of authority (i na toroa) and that Chile is a “friend of the place” (hoa kona). To me, this means that the Rapanui chiefs continued to exercise authority over the island – at the same time, the word “sovereignty” was not translated into either Rapanui or Tahitian.[3] Even though the Tahitian word used for a comparable concept to sovereignty at the time was hau, and the Rapanui word denoting authority or power was ao. I also wonder why the concept of mana (supernatural power of the ariki or paramount chief in almost all so-called Polynesian societies) was not used. In many ways, mana is the closest concept to sovereignty. In other words, this text does not talk about sovereignty.

The Reva Reimiro, the current Rapanui flag, raised during a protest against the land grab by a hotel company in 2011. This flag is now omnipresent on the island. Photo: Diego Muñoz, 2011.

It is still remembered that, when Captain Toro disembarked to “take possession” of the island, an Indigenous flag was already flying on the spot. Today, many people on the island explain that the flag showed Captain Toro that Rapa Nui was a society governed by its king.[4] Furthermore, people told me that when Toro wanted to raise the national flag, King Atamu Tekena told him that he could put it on the same pole, but below the Rapanui flag.[5] To me, this positioning of the two flags on the same pole reflects a hierarchical positioning. In any case, for successive Chilean authorities on the island, the issue of the Rapanui flag was a major difficulty, along with the fact that the Islanders still had a king. Both issues were seen as a disrespect for Chilean sovereignty.

In 1902, after a major Indigenous rebellion, the Rapanui monarchy was abolished, four leaders were deported, and the Rapanui flag was taken to Chile on the warship “General Baquedano”.[6] None returned to the island: The four Rapanui died on continental Chile and the Indigenous flag was kept in the Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaiso (Natural History Museum of Valparaiso). In 1906, however, a fire destroyed this building and the Rapanui flag disappeared.[7] It is also said that King Tu‘u Hereveri (elected in 1902) left the island on the same warship, enrolled as a cadet.[8] Thus, with the departure of the king, the deportation of the rebels and the transfer of the flag, the Chilean authorities assumed that they had reestablished national sovereignty.[9]

However, the treaty and the flag remain controversial. Today, 136 years after the treaty was written, only the Spanish version has official status and Rapanui leaders demand that the Indigenous version should be respected. The Rapanui flag, despite its transfer to Chile and subsequent destruction, was recreated and continues to be flown today in all kinds of places – houses, streets, graves, among others – and on special occasions, such as protests or when the annexation is commemorated. In the latter case, the flag has been raised above the Chilean flag (according to oral traditions) or on an independent pole. This evokes a will to build an equal relationship with Chile. These acts are a reminder that in the Rapanui-Tahitian part of the treaty, nothing is said about a cession of sovereignty. Rather, Chile is considered to be a hoa kona, a "friend of the place". This notion continues to have political implications today, and the time might have come to make new agreements.


[1] See also my current project Hau Māori Rapanui: Decolonizing Easter Island.

[2] According to one conclusion of the Comisión de Verdad Historica y Nuevo Trato para Pueblos Indígenas [Historical Truth and New Deal Commission for Indigenous Peoples].

[3] Muñoz, Diego. 2023. Le nombril du monde. Sur les chemins de la diaspora rapanui (l’île de Pâques, Chili, Polynésie française). Chap. 2. Ed Sociéte des Océanistes.

[4] See also: Consejo de Jefes Rapanui and Alberto Hotus. 1988. Te Mau Hatu o Rapanui. Los soberanos de Isla de Pascua. Pasado, presente y futuro. Ed. Emisión.

[5] This scene is also narrated by Bienvenido De Estella in 1920. Los misterios de la Isla de Pascua. Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes.

[6] De Estella, Bienvenido. 1920. Los misterios de la Isla de Pascua. Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes and Foerster, Rolf, 2010. "Voluntary Trip or Deportation? The Case of King Riroroko and Policies of Deportation on Easter Island (1897-1916)." Rapa Nui Journal 24 (2): 36-46.

[7] For more information, visit the museum's website.

[8] De Estella, Bienvenido, 1920. Los misterios de la Isla de Pascua. Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes.

[9] See the report of Basilio Rojas, Captain of Chilean warship Baquedano, in Archivo Ministerio de Marina vol. 1281.