It is useful to consider the history of Easter Island after the 18th century. The story is a very sad one— much worse than the endogenous boom-and-bust cycle that had already occurred on Easter Island. From the time of James Cook in the late 18th century through the mid-19th century, conditions on Easter Island gradually improved and the population increased gradually. Population was reliably estimated at something exceeding 3000 in 1862. In 1862 and 1863, slave traders from the Spanish community in Peru invaded the island and took about one-third of the islanders as slaves. Most of these slaves died of smallpox and other infectious diseases within a few years. A few returned to Easter Island, inadvertently causing a smallpox epidemic that killed most of the remaining Islanders.
By 1877, the population reached its low point of
111. Some of the deaths would have been due to causes other than smallpox, but, even allowing for these other causes, these numbers imply that the death rate from smallpox exceeded 90% of the base population—probably the highest death rate ever observed from an infectious disease invading a population of significant size. Although this has nothing to do with the pattern of resource overuse and collapse, it illustrates an important force in human history: the devastating effect that a new infectious disease can have on a long-isolated population.
From 1877, the population gradually increased through natural increase, immigration from other Polynesian islands (especially Tahiti), and immigration from the South American mainland. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile, which maintains possession of the island at present. Population on the island has risen to something approaching 3000 and is devoted primarily to agriculture and to tourism. There is some mild tension between the predominantly Polynesian traditional or indigenous peoples and the South American population in Easter Island, but, on the whole, Easter Island is a peaceful and pleasant island that has become a major tourist destination of particular interest to ‘‘cultural tourists’’ who wish to see the now carefully maintained and protected moai.