Looking Back to 1985: The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior

Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship.

The original Rainbow Warrior ship. Image: Wikipedia/Hans van Dijk

2,000 editions ago in July 1985, an act of international espionage shocked the world was in the news. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was sunk by a covert operation carried out by French intelligence agents. This incident was a defining moment in the history of environmental activism, as it demonstrated the lengths to which some nations would go to protect their interests. This article will take a look at the events leading up to and following the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, its implications for the environmental movement, and the pursuit of justice for the activists involved.

The Rainbow Warrior: A Symbol of Environmental Activism

The Rainbow Warrior was a vessel operated by Greenpeace, an international environmental organisation known for its direct action campaigns to address pressing ecological issues. The ship played a crucial role in Greenpeace’s campaigns, which often involved confronting corporations and governments to draw attention to environmental concerns. The ship was a symbol of peace and sustainability, named after a Native American prophecy of a time when humanity would live in harmony with nature.

The Anti-Nuclear Campaign

In the mid-1980s, Greenpeace was actively protesting nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific, particularly in the waters near French Polynesia. France, under President François Mitterrand, was conducting nuclear tests in the region, drawing worldwide condemnation. The Rainbow Warrior was on a mission to protest and document French nuclear testing, and it was anchored in Auckland, New Zealand when the incident occurred.

The Bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

On the night of July 10, 1985, two French intelligence agents, later identified as Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart placed two bombs on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. The explosions resulted in the sinking of the ship, causing significant damage and the loss of one crew member, Fernando Pereira, a Dutch photographer. The agents were arrested but initially posed as Swiss tourists, further obscuring their true identities.

Fernando Pereira the Dutch photographer who lost his life.
Wikipedia/ David Robie

International Outcry and Fallout

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior triggered an international outcry. France faced severe criticism from around the world for its role in the attack, which violated New Zealand’s sovereignty and highlighted the risks taken by environmental activists. The incident strained diplomatic relations between New Zealand and France.

Justice and Compensation

In the aftermath of the attack, the two French agents were tried in New Zealand and ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and wilful damage. As part of a plea agreement, they were sentenced to ten years in prison but served only a short time before being transferred to France. The French government formally apologised and paid compensation to the victims.

Legacy and Impact

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior had profound implications for both environmental activism and international relations. It highlighted the importance of protecting activists working to safeguard the environment and promoted awareness of the environmental consequences of nuclear testing. Greenpeace, far from being deterred by the incident, redoubled its efforts, and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior remains a symbol of the organisation’s unwavering commitment to environmental protection.

The Rainbow Warrior II Image: Shutterstock D_Zheleva

‘You Can’t Sink a Rainbow’

The Rainbow Warrior was inspired by the North American Cree Indian prophecy, which foretells a time when people will rise up as ‘Warriors of the Rainbow’ to heal a sick and ailing world. This vessel bore a dove of peace clutching an olive branch on its bow and displaying the vibrant colours of the rainbow along its hull, which served as a powerful symbol of non-violent environmental activism. After it was tragically sunk in 1985, the original Rainbow Warrior found a new purpose as a thriving underwater reef in Matauri Bay, New Zealand. In its place, a new Rainbow Warrior, the world’s first purpose-built environmental campaigning ship, continues to carry on the legacy, working tirelessly to advocate for a greener and more peaceful future, ensuring that the spirit of the Rainbow Warrior endures.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in July 1985 stands as a significant moment in the history of environmental activism and espionage. It exposed the lengths to which governments would go to protect their interests and served as a catalyst for global environmental awareness. While the loss of the ship was a tragic event, the legacy of the Rainbow Warrior and the dedication of organisations like Greenpeace to protect the planet continue to inspire environmental activists around the world.

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Written by

Catherine McGeer

I am an Irish writer who has been living in Spain for the past twenty years. My writing centers around the Costa Cálida. As a mother I also write about family life on the coast of Spain and every now and then I try to break down the world of Spanish politics!