Marquesas Isles frequently applied to the whole Mendania Archipelago, refers strictly only to the southern group of the Mendafia Archipelago, in Polynesia, the northern group bearing the name of the Washington Islands. They are situated in lat. 7° 30'-109 30' S., long. 138°-140° 20' W., have an area of 500 English square miles, and a population of 6011, and were discovered by Mendana de Neyra, a Spanish navigator, in 1596 (the Washington Isles were discovered in 1791 by Ingraham, an American). The isles were named after the viceroy of Peru, Marquesas de Mendoza. They are of volcanic origin, and are in general covered with mountains, rising in some cases to about 3500 feet above the sea-level; the soil is rich and fertile, and the climate hot, but healthy. The coasts are difficult of access, on account of the surrounding reefs and the sudden changes of the wind. Cocoa-nut, bread-fruit, and papaw trees are grown, and bananas, plantains, and sugar- cane are cultivated.
The inhabitants are of the same race as those of the Society and Sandwich islands. They are well proportioned and handsome, but degraded in their religion and in many of their customs. They exhibit some confused notion of a divine being, whom they call Etooa; but they give the same name to the spirit of a priest, of a king, or any of his relations, and generally to all Europeans, as superior beings. The principal appearance of a religious feeling is found in their reverence for anything pronounced to be "taboo" or sacred, which a priest only can extend to any general object, but which every person may effect upon his own property by merely declaring that the spirit of his father, or of some king, or of any other person, reposes in the spot or article which he wishes to preserve. They have a universal belief in charms (which they name "kaha") which kill, by imperceptible means and slow degrees, those against whom they are directed, and which the priests chiefly are understood to be able to render effectual. Some reference to a future life appears in their funeral rites. The corpse is washed, and laid upon a platform under a piece of new cloth; and, to obtain a safe passage for the deceased through the lower regions, a great feast is given, by the family to the priests and the relations. The body continues to be rubbed for several months with coconut oil, till it becomes quite hard and incorruptible; and a second feast, exactly twelve months after the first, is then given to thank the gods for having granted to the deceased a safe arrival to the other world. The corpse is then broken in pieces, packed in a box, and, deposited in the morai or burying-place, which no woman is permitted to approach upon the pain of death.
On some of the islands there are missionary stations; but, although cannibalism has been abolished, the efforts; of the missionaries have not otherwise met with much success. The Gospel was introduced in the Marquesas: Isles by the "London Missionary Society" in 1797. The first missionary was William Crook, a man of great zeal and untiring energy. Though greatly discouraged by the ignorance and rudeness of the natives, he pushed the good work, and accomplished much, notwithstanding his failure to secure converts. In 1825, when three teachers came to his aid, it was found that the natives had destroyed many of their idols, and were improving in morals. In 1828 the mission was abandoned; but in 1831 Mr. Darling, then a missionary to Tahiti, visited the isles, and gave the home society such glowing accounts of the improvements that had been wrought by their earlier efforts, that the mission was re-established in 1833 by Mr. Darling, assisted by Messrs. Rodgerson and Stallworthy, and four natives from Tahiti; but in 1841 the work was again abandoned. The Romanists gained a footing in 1838; and when in 1842 the isles were placed under French protection, the Roman Catholics secured most favorable terms for their missionaries. Their work, however, remains thus far without fruit. See Aikman, Cyclop. of Christian Missions, p. 68.