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Marshall Islands - History

Marshall Islands - History

Little is clearly understood about the prehistory of the Marshall Islands. Researchers agree that successive waves of migratory people from Southeast Asia spread across the Western Pacific about 3,000 years ago and that some of them landed on and remained on these islands. The first Micronesian navigators arrive in the Marshalls, calling the atolls Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands). Dates and origins of the settlers are still uncertain. While controversial, archeological finds on Bikini Atoll in the late 1980s were carbon dated to 2000 years BC, suggesting that people may have settled the Marshalls as long as 4,000 years ago.

The canoes of the past could reach a length of 100 feet and carry up to 40 people, with supplies for open-sea voyages that lasted well over a month since these large vessels, called walap, were not fast. The tipnol was smaller and speedier and used mainly for fishing inside the lagoons: it could still carry 10 or more and be serviceable for ocean voyaging. The korkor was a small paddling outrigger, sometimes fitted with sail, used for lagoon work. Sails were triangular and often extremely large, with a yard and boom on two sides.

From necessity, the sailors of the Marshalls were among the best in the Pacific: their islands were the smallest and they traveled the most. Their brilliant voyaging was based on their skills of observation. Meticulous observation of the only two things visible -- sky and water, the stars and the swells of the sea.

The voyages themselves were made in that fraction of the year when the Trades were not blowing and the weather was settled, and their craft grouped themselves together in large numbers -- which was not to say that all could not perish, as happened to over 100 canoes in 1830 and 35 vessels three decades later. Navigation was of course from island to island, or to sea-marks -- areas of ocean or reef that were recognized by the initiated. These objectives were reached by following the star paths above or the patterns of the sea around, or both. An apprentice would spend years memorizing hundreds of star courses between the atolls, as well as the marks, sea-ways, cloud shapes, winds, and the flight of birds. These, collated with his internal log and mental chronometer, added to the sailing masters retaining a wonderful and infallible sense of position through tacks, currents, gale - set without any sight of land, or sometimes even, clear sky.

The stick-charts were used to teach and record the swells of the sea itself. The science of swells is unknown outside the Pacific. The charts were hardly maps in a western sense: the cowrie shells did signify islands, but they could often be taken to be any island. Distances were quite arbitrary and charts were meaningless without the guidance of their maker. They were not taken to sea, all being set in the memory.

Marshall Islands History - Spanish Exploration

In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas ceded ownership [sight unseen] of all of Micronesia to Spain. The Portuguese captain, Dioga da Rocha was the earliest visitor to the Caroline Islands in 1525. The Spanish explorers of the 16th century were the first westerners to chart the waters of Micronesia. Beginning with Magellan‘s voyage in 1521, the Spaniards sought to establish a Pacific trade route to the Spice Islands, where they hoped to establish a commercial outpost.

Alonso de Salazar in 1526 and Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron in 1529 were apparently the first of the explorers to reach the Marshall Islands. Salazar's discovery amounted to only a sighting, probably the remote Taongi, while Saavedra remained at anchor for 8 days at what is probably either Enewitok or Bikini. The latter's crew landed and were hospitably treated by the natives.

In 1566 the San Jeronimo, under the guidance of its conspirator pilot, Lope Martin, passed through the Marshalls, leaving part of its crew stranded at Ujelang when disagreements arose between mutineers. This was the last of the Spanish exploration ships to pass through the Marshall Islands (though Medana and Quiros made later voyages through Micronesia).

While the Spanish voyages may be credited with putting the Marshall Islands on European maps (inaccurate and incomplete as these maps were), the net effect of their efforts came to nothing. Their visits were very brief, and there was no interest in trading or the establishment of commercial stations or settlements. It was inevitable, then, that little information of anthropological value was forthcoming from this early contact period. Spanish interests came to be focused on the highly profitable trade between Manila and Mexico, and galleons that followed the early ships of exploration stayed well to the north Of the Marshall and Caroline Islands where the best winds were to be found.

It was not until almost two centuries later that ships began visiting the Marshall Islands again. This time, however, the consequences of contact were far different. The Marshall Islands received their name from the British captain, William Marshall, in 1788. [Another story claims they were named for English explorer John Marshall, who visited them in 1799, but this seems spurious] His voyage was prompted by Britain's policy of shipping convicts and other undesirables to New South Wales. After dropping his human cargo, Marshall (along with Thomas Gilbert) en route to Canton for trade goods, sighted a number of islands in the Marshall group, but did not stop.

However, the voyage was significant in that it marks a watershed in renewed western interest in the Marshall Islands; after 1788 ships passed through the islands with increasing frequency each decade. Demand for coconut oil rapidly increased after about 1840 , and before that there was the usual interest in turtle shell, beche-de—mer, and pearl shell. Blackbirders, looking for labor to work the plantations and mines of the New World also made occasional forays into the area. This in part prompted a British and American naval presence, especially during the early 1870's.

Missionaries also began proselytizing the faith and establishing schools by the late 1850's. Rev. Hiram Bingham, Jr. of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) created a missionary outpost on Ebon in 1857.

Although a few whale ships also ventured into waters of the Marshall Islands, some for itinerant trade in coconut oil, most stayed away due to the treacherous reefs and relatively few whales found in this area. Furthermore, the Marshallese were notorious for their hostilities to ships and shore parties. It was clearly a place only for the most intrepid.

Marshall Islands History - German Protectorate

During the 1860s, Adolph Capelle built the first large-scale trading company in the Marshalls. Several German trading firms begin operations in the Marshalls soon thereafter.

Captain von Werner of the German Navy entered into a treaty with inhabitants of the Ralik chain in 1878, granting special trade privileges. A formal agreement was signed between Kabua and the lesser chiefs of the Ralik islands granting Germany exclusive use of Jaluit harbor and guaranteeing protection to German trading companies. Germany set up trading stations on the islands of Jaluit and Ebon to carry out the flourishing copra (dried coconut meat) trade. Marshallese iroij (high chiefs) continued to rule under indirect colonial German administration.

The Marshall Islands were claimed by Spain in 1874. But in 1885, under mediation of Pope Leo XIII, the German government annexed the Marshalls with compensation to Spain in the amount of $4.5 million.

Germany established a protectorate over the Marshalls in 1886, and in 1887 the Jaluit Company, a German entity, was entrusted with governance of the Marshalls. In 1898 Germany received ownership of the disputed atolls of Ujelang and Enewetak as a result of the end of the Spanish-American War.

Marshall Islands History - Japanese Mandate

At the beginning of the Great War, Japan captured the Marshall Islands. Their headquarters remained at the German center of administration, Jaluit. Copra production was considerably expanded by the Japanese, and there was also emphasis on handicraft production. With respect to Kwajalein, a public school was established.

In 1920 the League of Nations granted a mandate to Japan to administer the RMI. Japan withdrew from the League in 1934, but retained possession of the Marshalls. Fortification of the Marshall Islands began as Japan prepared for war. The islands of Mili, Jaluit, Maloelap, Wotje and Kwajalein were developed into bases, forming a north-south line of defense in the Marshalls.

Marshall Islands History - US Trust Territory

The Allied invasion of the Marshalls begins in 1943. At the time of the American invasion on January 31, 1944 there were 8,386 Japanese on Kwajalein (and 127 Korean workers). The fact that 8,122 were killed testifies to the fierceness of the fighting.

The US Marines and Army troops took control from the Japanese in early 1944, following intense fighting on Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls. In 1947, the United States, as the occupying power, entered into an agreement with the UN Security Council to administer Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands, as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

The end of World War II in 1945 saw effective control by the USA. In 1946 the US begans a nuclear testing program in the Marshalls. The RMI becomes one of six entities in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) established in 1947 by the United Nations with the US as the Trustee. US Department of the Interior assumes responsibility within US Government for the TTPI from the Department of the Navy in 1951.

Bikini atoll was evacuated for first tests under Operation Crossroads. The military governor of the Marshall Islands, Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt, approached the Bikini community—167 people—in February 1946, requesting that they leave the island so that Operation Crossroads could redirect atomic energy “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.”

In 1948 the US expanded its testing program to include Enewetak atoll. The first hydrogen device under the US testing program in the Marshalls was detonated on Enewetak in 1952. Two years later, in 1954, the US nuclear testing program detonated Bravo, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever tested by the US, on Bikini atoll. Radiation from the test forced evacuation of Marshallese and U.S. Military personnel on Rongelap, Rongerik, Utirik and Ailinginae. The last of those evacuated, the Rongelapese, were allowed to return to their island in 1957. Fearing further contamination, they left several years later.

The Congress of Micronesia was formed in 1965, with representatives from all of the TTPI islands. It is created by the U.S. administration in preparation for greater self-governance by Micronesians. The Marshall Islands Constitutional Convention adopted the nation's first constitution in 1978.

Marshall Islands History - Independence

On 01 May 1979, in recognition of the evolving political status of the Marshall Islands, the United States recognized the constitution of the Marshall Islands and the establishment of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The constitution incorporates both American and British constitutional concepts.

The Constitution of the Marshall Islands entered into force on May 1, 1979, at which time the parliament chose Amata Kabua to be the country’s first president. In 1983, the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States, which entered into force in 1986. Under the Compact, the country is fully sovereign in domestic and foreign affairs, but gives responsibility for defense to the United States.

In December 1994 a five-year study of 432 islands in the Marshall Islands showed that 15 atolls and single islands -almost half of this nation were dusted by radioactive fallout from the U.S. nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s. However, the Nationwide Radiological Survey -funded by the U.S. and conducted by the Marshall Islands government -states that with the exception of islands in Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Rongerik, "the amount of radioactivity remaining in the environment has diminished to levels that are not of concern."

Paul C. Warnke, formerly the chief nuclear arms negotiator for the US who held other high level positions for the State Department, states his support for additional compensation, observing that Marshall Islands negotiators of the Compact were unaware of the magnitude of radiation problems in the Marshall Islands when they negotiated compensation levels with the United States.

In March 2001, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, having completed years of deliberations, made awards of $563 million to the people of Bikini. The awards were spelled out in Nuclear Claims Tribunal document 23-04134, In the Matter of the People of Bikini, et al., Claimants for Compensation). That money, when appropriated by the United States, will go toward cleanup and repair of physical damage to the island, after which repatriation would be possible.

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Page last modified: 18-09-2018 18:32:55 ZULU