Leeward Islands (Society Islands)

The Leeward Islands (French: Îles Sous-le-vent; Tahitian: Fenua Raro Mata’i, literally "Islands Under-the-Wind") are the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France in the South Pacific. They lie south of the Line Islands (part of Kiribati), east of the Cooks and north of the Austral Islands (also part of French Polynesia). Their area is 395 km2 and their population is over 33,000.

Leeward Islands
Native name:
Îles Sous-le-vent  (French)
Fenua Raro Mata’i  (Tahitian)
Unofficial flag of the Leeward Islands (Society Islands).svg
Flag of the Leeward Islands
Leeward Islands (Society Islands) topographic map-fr.svg
LocationPacific Ocean
CoordinatesCoordinates: 17°32′S 149°50′W / 17.533°S 149.833°W / -17.533; -149.833
ArchipelagoSociety Islands
Total islands9
Major islandsRaiatea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Tahaa
Area395 km2 (153 sq mi)
Highest elevation1,017 m (3337 ft)
Highest pointTefatua
Overseas collectivityFrench Polynesia
Largest settlementUturoa (pop. 8,735 urban)
Population33,184[1] (Aug. 2007 census)
Pop. density84/km2 (218/sq mi)

The westernmost Leeward Islands comprise a three atoll group: Manuae (also known as Scilly Atoll); Motu One atoll (also known as Bellinghausen), the most northerly of the Leeward Islands; and Maupihaa atoll (also known as Mopelia) to the southeast.

The Leeward Islands that lie more to the east are a mainly high island cluster:

Maupiti (Tahitian name: Maurua);

Tupai atoll;

Bora Bora (Tahitian name: Vava'u), which is the best known of the Leeward Islands in the western world because of its World War II-era United States naval base and its tourism industry;

Raiatea (Tahitian names: Hava'i, or Ioretea), the largest island in the group, with Uturoa as the largest city and local capital of the Leeward Islands, and the peak with the highest elevation in the Leeward Islands, Mount Tefatua (just over 1,000 m.);

Taha'a (Tahitian name: Uporu), which lies just north of Uturoa; and

Huahine (Tahitian name: Mata'irea),the easternmost island of the group, which at high tide is divided into two: Huahine Nui ("big Huahine") to the north and Huahine Iti ("small Huahine") to the south.


The archipelago comprises an administrative division (French: subdivision administrative) of French Polynesia. The capital of the Leeward Islands administrative subdivision is Uturoa. The Leeward Islands (subdivision administrative des Îles Sous-le-vent) are one of French Polynesia's five administrative subdivisions. The administrative subdivision is coextensive with the electoral district of the Leeward Islands, one of French Polynesia's six electoral districts for the Assembly of French Polynesia (see also Politics of French Polynesia).


The first European to encounter the archipelago was James Cook on 12 April 1769 during a British expedition the purpose of which was to observe the transit of Venus. He later revisited the islands twice) more. It is a common misconception that he named the Leeward group of islands "Society" in honor of the Royal Society. However, Cook recorded in his journal that he named the islands “Society” because they lie close to each other.[2]

In 1840, France declared a protectorate over Tahiti. In 1847, the British and French signed the Jarnac Convention, agreeing that the kingdoms of Raiatea, Huahine, and Bora Bora would remain independent from either of the two European nations, and that they would not allow any single chief to control the entire archipelago. France eventually broke the agreement and annexed the islands. They became a colony of France in 1888 (eight years after the Windward Islands did). There were many native resistance movements and conflicts in reaction to this annexation, known as the Leewards War, which continued until 1897.[3][4]


The islands are mountainous, consisting of volcanic rock. They are formed of trachyte, dolerite and basalt. There are raised coral beds high up the mountains, and lava occurs in a variety of forms, even in solid flows. Volcanic activity ceased so long ago that the craters have been almost entirely obliterated by erosion.

View of Raiatea island from a plane.

Flora and faunaEdit

Flora includes breadfruit, pandanus, and coconut palms. The limited terrestrial fauna includes feral pigs, rats, and small lizards. There are several species of freshwater fish inhabiting the small streams on the islands, and the fringing coral reefs around the islands contain a dazzling array of fish and other salt-water-dwelling species.


Tourism is the mainstay of the economy. Agriculturally, the major products are copra, sugar, rum, mother-of-pearl, and vanilla.


Topographic map of the Leeward Islands
  • Raiatea (largest island of the group); Tahitian names: Hava'i, Ioretea
  • Huahine, which at high tide is divided into two islands: Huahine Nui ("big Huahine") to the north and Huahine Iti ("small Huahine") to the south; Tahitian name: Mata'irea
  • Tahaa; Tahitian name: Uporu
  • Bora Bora; Tahitian name: Vava'u
  • Tupai; Tahitian name: Motu Iti
  • Maupiti; Tahitian name: Maurua
  • Manuae (also known as Scilly Atoll)
  • Maupihaa (also known as Mopelia)
  • Motu One (also known as Bellinghausen)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Institut Statistique de Polynésie Française (ISPF). "Recensement de la population 2007" (PDF) (in French). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-12-03. Retrieved 2007-12-02.
  2. ^ Horwitz, Tony (2003). Into the blue : boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0747564558. OCLC 52738452.
  3. ^ Robert D. Craig (2002). Historical Dictionary of Polynesia. Vol. 39 (2 ed.). Scarecrow Press. p. 107. ISBN 0-8108-4237-8.
  4. ^ Matt K. Matsuda (2005). "Society Islands: Tahitian Archives". Empire of Love: Histories of France and the Pacific. Oxford University Press. pp. 91–112. ISBN 0-19-516294-3.

External linksEdit