In Polynesia and Micronesia there are two kinds of islands: high islands and low islands or atolls. The high islands are formed from volcanic activity. After the volcano has gone dormant, the high cone begins to erode. In addition, a coral reef forms around the base of the island. Over a very long time, the volcanic cone erodes to below sea level and the high island has now become a low island. The low island or atoll is now an island made out of coral which forms a ring around a shallow central body of water.
Human beings—Homo sapiens—began to occupy Oceania fairly early in the human diaspora. By as early as 60,000 years ago humans were living on the big island of New Guinea and the continent of Australia, continuing to develop and improve their sea craft and spread out onto the smaller islands of Polynesia and Micronesia. By 2,000 years ago they had settled the group of islands which would later be known as the Marshall Islands.
The islands were first “discovered” by Europeans in 1526 when the Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar, commanding the Santa María de la Victoria, sighted an island (probably Taongi) which he named San Bartolome. Three years later, another Spaniard, Álvara de Saavedra Cerón, encountered an island which he named Los Pintados. The islands were occupied and the Spanish were greeted by natives who came out to the ship and hurled stones at it. The Spanish sailed off to another island—perhaps Eniwetok or Bikini—where the Spanish went ashore and traded with the natives and took on water. Ignoring the possibility that the natives might have their own name for the island, the Spanish simply renamed it Los Jardines. In the years that followed the islands were visited by a number of Spanish vessels whose captains insisted on giving the islands new names.
Under the rather interesting and ethnocentric legal fiction of the Discovery Doctrine, since the Spanish had first sighted the islands, they were given sovereignty over them. Under the Discovery Doctrine, Christian nations were granted the right to rule over all non-Christian nations. While the European community viewed Spain as the owner of the islands, on the European maps they were designated as the Marshall Islands after Captain John Charles Marshall who visited them in 1788.
In 1884, without consulting the island’s natives and with the use of the Pope as a mediator, Spain sold the islands to Germany. A German trading company settled on the islands in 1885.
After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan had adopted a policy of becoming a great economic and military power. Under German Imperial control, Japanese traders and fishermen visited the islands on an occasional basis.
During World War I, Japan captured German colonies in China and Micronesia. In 1914, Japanese troops occupied the atoll of Enewetak. Following the war in 1919, Germany renounced all of its Pacific possessions, including the Marshall Islands. The following year, the Council of the League of Nations approved the mandate for Japan to take over all of the former German colonies in the Pacific.
While the German Empire had primarily an economic interest in the Marshall Islands, the Japanese were different. For the Japanese, the Marshall Islands were seen as a way of alleviating Japan’s problem of an increasing population. Under Japanese colonial rule, more than 1,000 Japanese moved to the Marshall Islands.
The Japanese appointed local leaders and, like imperial powers elsewhere (such as the United States), did so with no recognition of the traditional leadership structures. This tended to weaken the traditional government and the authority of the local traditional leaders.
The native people on the Marshall Islands were matrilineal, meaning that they traced their descent and inheritance through the female line. This put them at odds with the Japanese who attempted, unsuccessfully, to change descent and inheritance to a patrilineal system. Native people were educated in Japanese schools where they studied Japanese language and culture.
For the Japanese military empire, the Marshall Islands were in a critical geographic position as the easternmost point in Japan’s defensive ring. The Japanese started constructing air bases on several of the atolls. In the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kwajalein Atoll served as the administrative center of the Japanese Sixth Fleet Forces Service.
During World War II, the United States invaded and occupied the Marshall Islands. Irreparable damage was caused by the fighting, particularly on the Japanese bases. During the American bombing attacks, the native population suffered from lack of food as well as from battle injuries.
The U.S. invasion of the Marshall Islands is shown above.
The U.S. military in Kwajalein during WWII is shown above.
Following World War II, the United States added the Marshall Islands to the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. As a part of the American Empire, the Marshall Islands were selected for testing nuclear weapons. From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. By 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as the most contaminated place on the planet. While the health risks from the nuclear testing still linger, the United States has paid the residents of the Marshall Islands at least $759 million in compensation.
The Government of the Marshall Islands was officially established in 1979 which gave the islands self-government. In 1986, the United States granted the Republic of the Marshall Islands its sovereignty.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has a total land mass of about 70 square miles and is composed of 34 islands. In terms of land, this means that the country is about the size of Washington, D.C. It has a population of 64,480.
With regard to the economy, assistance from the United States is a major factor: the Marshall Islands received more than $1 billion in aid between 1986 and 2002. At the present time, the combination of a drop in construction, a downturn in tourism, government downsizing, and less income from fishing is holding down economic growth. In 2006 (the most recent year for which there is reported data) it had an unemployment rate of 36%.