European contact with the island began with the visit of the Dutch admiral, Jacob Roggeven, on Easter Sunday 1722. The population of the island remained stable at 4000 until the 1850s, when Peruvian slavers, smallpox and emigration to Tahiti (encouraged by plantation owners) reduced the numbers. Between 1859 and 1862, over 1000 islanders were transported as slaves to work in the Peruvian guano trade. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and from 1895 to 1952 most of it was leased to a private company, which bred sheep on its grasslands.
Nowadays, about half the island is used for grazing and agriculture, while the other half constitutes a national park. Of the current population, about 1000 are from the mainland. Tourism has grown rapidly since the air service began in 1967 and the islanders have profited greatly from the visits of North Americans: a Canadian medical expedition left a mobile hospital on the island in 1966 and, when a US missile-tracking station was abandoned in 1971, vehicles, mobile housing and an electricity generator were left behind.