From Trust Territory to Independent Country

Republic of the Marshall Islands Seal
Illustration - Paul Kingsbury
Illustration – Paul Kingsbury

In 1947 Micronesia was established as a strategic Trust under the U.N. Security Council, the only Trusteeship set up in this manner after WWII. It became known as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and was administered by the U.S. under the auspices of the United Nations. On July 1, 1951, the administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior, and was administered by this department until 1986.

The political situation in the Marshall Islands and the Trust Territory of the Pacific islands (TTIP) during the 1960’s to the mid 1980’s was a very confusing and uncertain time as to the political outcome of the area. When Micronesia was established as the TTIP in 1947, it was designated as a “strategic trust” and was the only area of the world ever designated as such! The strategic trust meant that special consideration by the Security Council of the United Nations would be necessary in order to change the political status of the TTIP. Since the Security Council’s five permanent members have veto power, the complexity of changing the status in the TTIP was very different than the majority vote by the General Assembly which was necessary to change the status, or grant independence to the other Trusteeships set up after WWII.

In 1965 a Congress of Micronesia was established which was the first TTIP representative government organization. TTIP at this time was divided into six administrative districts which were the Marianas, Yap, Palau, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and the Marshalls. The congress was a bicameral elected legislature that originally only had an advisory function to the executive offices of the High Commissioner, who was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and had veto power over the Congress of Micronesia’s decisions.

Since the Trusteeship Agreement was to expire in 1981, various types of negotiations and votes occurred throughout the TTIP, and in individual districts during the late 1970’s. The Marianas voted in 1975 to accept Commonwealth status with the U.S., much like the political status of Puerto Rico. Kosrae (formerly Kusaie) was established as a separate district in 1977, so the number of six districts was maintained.

In July 1978 a referendum was held by all the districts except the Marianas to accept or reject the Constitution of the Federated States of Micronesia. The constitution was written in Saipan from July to October 1975 by constitutional convention delegates from all districts which included traditional leaders. Each district in the TTIP had differences of culture, language, history, circumstances, wealth, and historically were never united as one. As a result, the idea of a united Micronesia was quickly dissolving. The vote in July 1978 was accepted by the districts of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae, but rejected by Palau and the Marshalls Islands.

One of the more heated disputes within the Marshall Islands concerned the money generated by the Kwajalein Missile Range. Most Marshallese felt that this money and the taxes paid by the U.S. people living there should be shared with the Marshall Islands.

During the later years of the 1970’s and early 1980’s the political atmosphere in Majuro (District Center of the Marshalls) was very heated and controversial. But the understanding and significance of all this to the people on the outer islands was somewhat minimal. Eventually with extensive negotiations with the United States the Compact of Free Association was established and the RMI became an independent country after the Trust Territory was dissolved by the U.N. Security Council in 1986.

Republic of the Marshall Islands Seal

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is fully sovereign in domestic and foreign affairs, but gives responsibility for defense to the United States. RMI became a member of the United Nations in 1991.

Foreign influence and World War II

Canon Vestiges from WWII - Maloelap Atoll
Vestiges from WWII - Maloelap
Vestiges from WWII – Maloelap – Photographer: Cody Avilla

Micronesia has had extensive contact with four different countries and their governments since the 1800s — Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Although Spanish influence was very strong in the eastern part of Micronesia, especially in the Marianas, there was little contact in the Marshall Islands. Germany was the first country to establish extensive contact with the Marshallese, when copra (dried coconut) trade was developed by the Godeffroy Company of Hamburg. Some atolls and islands such as Likiep, and parts of Jaluit and Maloelap, were bought by individuals and companies to establish copra plantations. These purchases were arranged by the iroojs and company heads and often the resulting situations were a serf-like system of servitude and work. Because of disputes with Britain and Spain, the German government on October 15, 1885, held a formal ceremony and a Declaration of Protection was signed by German officials and Marshallese iroojs, to emphasize that the Marshall Islands were under the protection of the German Empire. The major commercial and government center was Jabor, Jaluit, where regular shipping services carried the copra to Asian ports. Considerable scientific research was carried on in the Marshalls and the rest of Micronesia by German scientists and anthropologists during this time, and these reports were later printed in German as the Hamburg-South Sea Expedition. One of the obvious influences from German contact is the Marshallese word for money which is “mark” although today with English language influence this older term is being superseded by the word “money” into the Marshallese language.

In October 1914 Japanese naval squadrons took military possession of the Caroline and Marshall Islands and the German administration abruptly ended. For many years Japan had been interested in the islands of Micronesia, especially the large, high ones such as Saipan, Yap, Chuuk, and others, for colonizing and obtaining raw materials. Thus the number of Japanese in Micronesia increased rapidly and resulted in a strong and lasting influence. Cities were built and sugar cane plantations were established. As many as 45,000 Japanese were living on Saipan by 1940.

As for the Marshalls only 680 Japanese were in Jaluit by 1940, but still they made a tremendous impact on the culture and people. Schools were established and people learned Japanese. Today only a few of the oldest people still speak Japanese fluently. Although Japanese control began with the military, in 1922 it was mandated and civilian control established under the League of Nations. Until 1935, when they withdrew from the League of Nations, Japan governed Micronesia under the mandated agreement. During this time, in the Marshalls, copra production greatly increased through intensive programs and subsidies given to the people to plant more coconut trees. The Japanese organized the transportation of copra, and the supply of goods was fairly regular and profitable for all. Also the production of hand-crafts was greatly encouraged and made profitable. Often the older Marshallese will say this was the good time for all, because there were regular field trip ships, a fair amount of money, and supplies to buy. One of the biggest influences made by the Japanese was the introduction of rice to the diet, to the point where it is the preferred food by most Marshallese today!

Canon Vestiges from WWII - Maloelap Atoll
Canon Vestiges from WWII – Maloelap – Photographer: Cody Avilla

After 1935, the Japanese began to fortify the islands of Micronesia and this eventually lead to the U.S. invasion of the Marshall Islands on Kwajalein Atoll on the last few days of January 1944. From Kwajalein the U.S. forces moved to Enewetak which was captured February 17-19, 1944. From there the U.S. forces moved throughout the Marshalls and Micronesia capturing the islands from the Japanese. Since this time, the U.S. government has been the dominant foreign power in Micronesia which includes the Mariana Islands, Caroline Islands (Palau, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae) and the Marshall Islands. Military government was established on January 31, 1944 with the responsibility placed in the hands of the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas and Admiral Chester Nimitz was designated as Military Governor of the Marshalls. From this point on numerous organizations and agencies were called on to assist with reconstruction in the islands. Environmental, economic, and anthropological surveys and studies were made to determine the situation on particular islands and Micronesia in general. In 1947 Micronesia was established as a strategic Trust under the U.N. Security Council, the only Trusteeship set up in this manner after WWII. It became known as the Trust of the Pacific Islands and was administered by the U.S. under the auspices of the United Nations.

Expeditions and Missionaries

The first sightings of the Marshall Islanders by foreigners were made by the Spanish ships sailing in the 16th century. Since the navigational instruments during this time were very crude the locations of individual atolls and islands were often inaccurate. During this time the islands of Micronesia were generally ignored or avoided by the sailing ships. In the 1700s, several British ships were sailing the Pacific and reported sightings of islands in the area of the Marshall Islands. In 1788 the ships Charlotte captained by Thomas Gilbert and the Scarborough captained by John Marshall sailed from New South Wales, Australia, to Canton, China, for the East India Company. During this trip they sailed together through much of what today is known as the Gilbert (Kiribati) and Marshall Islands. In this voyage the ships most often anchored and had direct contact with the people, whereas most of the voyages in the 1500s had merely sightings of the islands.

Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue of the Imperial Russian Navy sailed the Rurick on several trips through the Marshall Islands in 1816 and 1817. While at Wotje he made friends with two iroojs (chiefs) and from them learned the locations of several other atolls. The Irooj Langedju drew a map in the sand and named all the atolls in the Ratak Chain from Bikar to Milli, and 12 atolls of the Rālik Chain. Kotzebue copied the sketch and it was reproduced in the official account of the voyage, and later was found to have a remarkable resemblance to a modern map including the names given for the islands. He also sailed again through the Marshalls in 1825-26 on the ship Predpriatie. Many other expeditions visited the Marshalls during the 19th century but few gathered as much information, for Kotzebue was able to make friends with the people and recorded what he learned. He also was supported by a scientific staff which gathered information on the flora and fauna of the islands, and an artist who made many drawings of the people and their lives.

Between the two expeditions of Kotzebue, more extensive contact between foreigners and the Marshall Islanders was occurring. Although Kotzebue had a very favorable reception from the people, many of his contemporaries and those who came later clashed with the people, possibly caused by their lack of restraint, personal arrogance, and cruel demands. As a result, trading was largely unsuccessful until after the middle 1800s when the German companies took control of the Marshalls from several rival iroojs, and developed the production of copra. Few whalers ventured into the Marshalls because of the lack of whales, hostilities with the people, and the numerous dangerous reefs which made navigation most difficult.

The missionaries who came to the Marshalls, including the present various types of missionaries mostly found in Majuro and Ebeye, have made a huge impact on the life and customs of the people. The first mission was Protestant (in cooperation with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with headquarters in Boston, which had sent missionaries to Hawaii) and was started on Ebon Atoll in 1857. Many missionaries came to Ebon during this time and used it as a staging base for other atolls to the east and north. By 1909 almost all islands and atolls of the Marshalls had an established Protestant mission station.

In 1891 the first Catholics were baptized in the Marshall Islands. As instructed by Rome in 1898, a mission was begun on Jaluit in 1899. During the early 1900s several Catholic missions spread to other atolls such as Likiep, and Arno. Today there are Catholic churches on Jaluit, Majuro, Likiep, Ebeye, and mission churches on some of the other islands. There are Catholic schools on Majuro, Likiep, and Ebeye.

Since Marshallese contact with various missionaries has been long and intense, almost all the people are Christian with the largest percentage being Protestant. Today even the oldest people no longer believe in the traditional ekjabs and anijs (idols and gods), although many people have grown up with stories about them and will display feelings of deep respect and wonder in the old stories. Most people still believe in jitobs (spirits), both good and bad, and are always taking precautions against the bad ones. The form of Protestantism today is strongly influenced by the dictates of the 19th century when smoking and alcoholic beverages were totally forbidden. Also dancing is believed by most people to be sinful and as a result many of the old Marshallese dances have died out. Only recently has some of the strict teachings of the 1800s started to change.

Some of the more recent Christian denominations to be found in the islands are the Assembly of God, Jehovah Witnesses, 7th Day Adventists, Baptists, Mormons, and many locally developed Christian sects. Also two other independent religions are now established in the islands – Islam and Baha’i. Marshallese are basically very religious people and the several types of missionaries seem to be quite successful in finding converts. Although many aspects of the missionary work have been good, especially in the last part of the 19th century when it helped curb the warring between the various iroojs (chiefs), the missionary work among the different Christian denominations at times appears to be dividing people into different factions and may be causing some dissension where none existed before.

The first settlers

Although anthropologists are uncertain about where and when the first people came to the Marshall Islands, most feel that it was either from the area of Indonesia, or from the area of Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji). It is believed that people have been in the Marshall Islands for several hundred years possibly for as long as 2,000 years or more. All Micronesian languages including Marshallese belong to the Austronesian (MICRONESIA)] (Malayo-Polynesian) language family. In general, it is agreed that the forebears of the Micronesians were of Asian origin as were the cultivated plants they brought with them. The settlement of this area was not a simple one-way movement of a large population but involved many small groups of individuals who landed on different islands either through chance or planned migration and then decided to stay.

Where are we?

Map of the Marshall Islands - Atolls and Islands
Marshall Islands on the globe
click to enlarge

The Marshall Islands are located in the Central Pacific, north of the equator about 2400 miles southwest of Hawaii. Physically this part of the Pacific is called Micronesia, meaning the little islands. At present the Republic of the Marshall Islands is an independent country, under the Compact of Free Association with the United States.

The Marshall Islands consist of 29 atolls (very flat, small islets or islands which enclose a lagoon), and 5 single islands (very small, flat islets of land), which are arranged in two chains — Ratak Chain (sunrise), in the east, and Rālik Chain (sunset) in the west. Most atolls consist of several islets or small islands which surround a lagoon and make up one atoll. The five single islands are very small and flat and have no lagoon. The total land area of the Marshalls is only 69 square miles, with a population of about 60,000 people.Map of the Marshall Islands - Atolls and Islands