Beginning c.300 A.D., migrating Polynesians settled the islands that later became French Polynesia, and from the islands subsequently settled Hawaii, New Zealand, and other parts of Polynesia. European contact began in the 16th cent., and the area was widely explored by the French during the 18th and 19th cent., when French missionaries also came to the region. The Marquesas and Society groups were annexed by France in 1842, Tahiti in 1844, and by the end of the 19th cent. the other islands had come under French administration. Uniform governance of the area began in 1903, and the islands became an overseas territory in 1946.
France began testing nuclear weapons in some parts of French Polynesia in the 1960s, meeting with widespread local opposition; a series of six tests in 1995–96 was declared by France to be the last. Many inhabitants have sought a greater measure of independence from French control, and limited autonomy was awarded in 1984. In 2004 the territory became a French overseas country. France granted the territory greater autonomy in most local affairs and regional relations but retained control of law enforcement, defense, and the money supply. The territory's government has been marked by instability in recent years, as pro-independence, pro-autonomy, and independent legislators form and re-form coalitions based on a mix of ideology and expendiency; most coalition governments have held office for less than a year.