Archives as historical witnesses: The anti-nuclear movement in Tahiti

How did resistance to nuclear testing in French Polynesia grow into a strong political movement with international support? The Swedish student, Anton Öhman, found the answer in the Bengt Danielsson Archive at the Kon-Tiki Museum.


Protest in Papete, lead by Oscar Temaru (photo: The B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

Anton Öhman (photo: A. Öhman).

1,250 kilometers southeast of Tahiti, there is a small coral atoll that you may not have heard of. No, it’s not the Raroia reef where the Kon-Tiki raft stranded in 1947, but the Moruroa Atoll, which is located c. 700 km farther south. Both atolls are part of the Tuamotu Islands. The Kon-Tiki expedition brought the Swedish anthropologist and author Bengt E. Danielsson to the Tuamotu Islands. After a year of anthropological field-work at Raroia, Danielsson settled on Tahiti and became involved in local politics.

Swedish anthropologist and writer, Bengt Emmerik Danielsson (photo: The B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

In 1966, French authorities began testing nuclear bombs at Moruroa Atoll. Bengt Danielsson participated in a growing movement protesting these tests, both locally on Tahiti, and across the world. Along with his wife, Marie-Thérese, he wrote a book – Moruroa mon Amour – in 1974 on this powerful international movement that eventually forced the French government to ban the tests. In 1995, then French President Jacques Chirac decided to resume the atomic bomb tests and again inspired local resistance and an international protest movement.

Local protest (photo: The B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

Oscar Temaru (left), the main politician behind the protests, is speaking to the people in Papete (photo: The B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

Bengt Danielsson’s archive is now deposited at the Kon-Tiki Museum. In the summer of 2017, Anton Öhman received a grant to work on cataloging the documents. Öhman chose to return to the archive when he started a master’s degree program at the MACA (Master in Appliced Cultural Analysis) program at Lund University. The result is his MA thesis. Now the study has ended and is available as the The Witness Archives. An eco-phenomenological survey of a nuclear cultural heritage regarding the atomic bomb tests in French Polynesia.

The thesis investigates the anti-nuclear movement in Polynesia based on the movement’s own documents, which is abundantly represented in the Bengt Danielsson’s Archive. The aim of the thesis was to map the material and see how it can be used as a cultural heritage.

Bengt Danielsson was also the Swedish Consul in Tahiti. When "Moruroa mon Amour" was published the local authorities closed the consulate (from the B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

Öhman’s reseearch shows how relationships inside and outside the archive appears, through a systematic analysis of the documents. It makes it possible to chart the topics of the archive, which refers to different forms of relationships in the local and international anti-nuclear network. The main topics are: Personal stories as testimonies; Activist tactics; Local and Global Resistance; Scientific battle; and the imagery of resistance.

Memories of popular movements, exemplified by the boycott of French wines conducted in Sweden during the 80-90s, inspired by Bengt and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson’s activism against nuclear bomb tests in Polynesia, is something that can anchor the archive in its local environment. Activism had a strong popular foundation.

Anti-nuclear protest, Tahiti, in 1989 (photo: The B. Danielsson Archive, KTM).

The Witness Archive, created by the Danielssons’, constitutes a hub for this type of popular movement and, more or less, organized resistance. “The Danielssons’ eyes and ears were local, while they, at the same time, used their international network to frame the perspective and draw attention to the matter. “(Excerpt from the Witness Archives, Öhman 2018: 10).

The activist practices mentioned in the archive and described in the documents includes demonstrations, art competitions, letter campaigns, civil disobedience and direct environmental actions, such as, protest sailings, lecture tours, and seminar days on the nuclear-tests, documentaries, boycotts, prayers of peace and testimony texts. A large part of the archive consists of correspondence.