Europeans and Japanese in Micronesia (1500s to 1945)

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Portuguese and Spanish explorers visited a few of the islands of what is now Micronesia in the 1500s The Spanish were looking for a westward route to Asia when the Pope granted the Portuguese the eastward routes. Few of the "little islands" are the source of Micronesia’s name were unified at the time the Europeans arrived. Kosrae was the only island with a centralized government under a single paramount leader, and the smaller islands sometimes had several chiefs.

The first known Europeans to set foot in Micronesia were the members of Magellan's round-the-world expedition in 1521. Magellan stopped for water and supplies. He was a Portuguese sailing for Spain. Afterwards Spanish pirate fleets followed. The known European to arrive in what is now Yap was Portugese explorer Dioga da Rocha, who landed on Ulithi in 1526. The crew remained on the islands for four months and a member of the crew wrote the islanders were "without malice, fear or cautiousness."

The Portuguese, who were searching for the Spice Islands, were the first to set foot in what is now Micronesia but the Spanish, who reached the Carolines in the 16th century, were the ones that ultimately establishing sovereignty.

The first foreign vessel to arrive in Kosrae didn't appear until 1824. The French captain, Louis Duperrrey, estimated there were 5,000 people on the island (1,500 living on Lelu) and described the Kosraen as peace-loving people who had no weapons.

Timeline of European in Micronesia

1525 — Portuguese navigators searching for the Spice Islands (Indonesia) discover Yap and Ulithi. Spanish expeditions later explore the rest of the Caroline Islands and make the first European contact with native peoples.[Source: Musakhanova, Oygul, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2001]

1526-1899 — Sovereignty over the Caroline Islands is claimed by the Spanish Empire.

1899 — Faced with insurmountable management challenges in its Pacific empire as war with the United States loomed, Spain sold the islands to Germany. The German administration encourages the development of trade and the production of copra (dried coconuts).

1914 — German administration ends when Japanese naval squadrons take possession of the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the islands of the Marianas at the start of World War I (1914-18).

1918 — Japanese economic interest and settlement in the islands expands. The Japanese population in Micronesia exceeds 100,000, compared with an indigenous population of about 40,000. Sugar cane, other tropical crops, mining, and fishing are developed as major industries.

1939-1945 — World War II abruptly ends the relative prosperity experienced during the period of Japanese civil administration.

Magellan in Guam

Magellan sailed across almost the entire Pacific Ocean — from Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America to Guam (not that far from Japan) — without encountering any inhabited islands.

On March 6, 1521, Magellan's three ships finally reached Guam, 14,500 (9000 miles) from Patagonia, and a considerable distance to the north as well as west. In Guam the seamen were able to load up on sugarcane, rice, fish, bananas and yams. Fruit with Vitamin C to relieve the scurvy was especially heaven-sent. Because the local Chamorro people swarmed all over the ship and grabbed everything they could their hands on, Magellan named Guam and the islands around it the Ladrones (Spanish fro "thieves").

The Chamorro people who came aboard the ships took items such as rigging, knives, and a ship's boat. They were particularly fond of nails and other metal item from their boat, because they yet to learn how to smelt metal themselves. They may have thought they were participating in a trade exchange (as they had already given the fleet some supplies, but the crew interpreted their actions as theft. Magellan sent a raiding party ashore to retaliate, killing several Chamorro men, burning their houses, and recovering the stolen goods.

After three days in Guam, Magellan sailed west and reached the Philippine islands of Suluan and Samar in a week. Here sailors with scurvy were sent ashore to recuperate, and hawbells, red caps and mirrors were traded for coconuts and bananas (refered to as "figs a foot long" by Pigafetta). When a chief showed up with a bar of gold and a basket of ginger the captain thanked him very much but would not accept the present. After that, when it was late, we went with the ships near to the houses and abode of the king.”

Spain in Micronesia

In 1528, the Spaniard Alvaro de Saavedra became th first known person to sight Pohnpei. In 1565, the Spanish explorer Alonsi de Arellano sailed into Chuuk Lagoon but never set foot on the island after he was welcomed by hundred of canoes filled with armed warriors. The next known European to enter Chuuk Lagoon was Manuel Dublon, who was the captain of a ship looking for beche-de-mer.

Spain began exerting nominal, but not day-to-day, control over some of the islands of Micronesia, which they named the Caroline Islands, in the 1600s. In 1686 the Spanish captain Francisco Lezcano named Yap Island "La Carolina" after King Charles II of Spain; the name was later generalized to the islands as a whole. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations]

From 1565 to 1815, a Spanish transpacific route known as the Manila galleons regularly crossed from Mexico to the Philippines and back, exchanging Mexican silver for spices and porcelain.. Spanish power dominated the American side of the Pacific Ocean, controlling an area stretching thousands of kilometers from Mexico to Chile. The vast central Pacific was visited only by the Manila galleons and an occasional explorer. Until the time of Captain James Cook the Manila Galleons were the only large ships to regularly cross the Pacific. The route was purely commercial and there was no exploration of the areas to the north and south. In 1668, the Spanish founded a colony on Guam as a resting place for west-bound galleons. For a long time this was the only non-coastal European settlement in the Pacific.

One of the first vessels to discover islands out of the Spanish shipping lanes was the “San Lucas”, a Spanish ship commandeered by a mutinous crew who slipped several degrees to the south to avoid other ships and in turn discovered Chuuk lagoon and several atolls that are now part of the Marshall Islands in 1565.

Spain didn’t officially claim the Caroline Islands (Micronesia) and Mariana Islands until 1885 and only retained them until 1899, when Germany purchased most of the island chains in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.

Glass Beads, Nail Thefts and Massacres

Pacific islanders had no metal until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. Europeans were amazed that culture with out writing or metal could colonize 38 major island archipelagos scattered across 20 million square miles of ocean.

Captain James Cook was killed in Hawaii in 1799 after being clubbed on the head and held under water and drowned by islanders in Hawaii after he got angry with them for stealing the nails that held his ship together. Reports from expeditions to Tahiti in 1766 described women who freely had sex often in exchange for nails. Stories were told about ships being greeted by naked women in canoes and men who went ashore who were dragged into the bushes by these women to have sex. [Source: "Don't Know Much About Geography" by Kenneth Davis, William Morrow & Co.]

The glass bead brought by the Europeans were considered to be very valuable by some of the islanders, particularly the Palauans who used clay beads for money. The glass beads were no doubt traded for baskets of fish, taro, breadfruit and other necessities.

European contact over the centuries on Yap was brief and often tragic. All 13 members of Spanish Jesuit mission set up on Ulithi in 1731 were killed by islanders by the time a supply ship was sent a year after they arrived. The crews of two Spanish ships sent to the islands of Yap to gather bech-de-mer were attacked and brutally massacred.

European Uses of the Micronesian Islands

The islands of Micronesia didn't have any spices, silver, gold or gems and therefore were of little interest to early explorers, traders and colonizers. Over six centuries they were occupied by five foreign powers: the Spanish, the British, the Germans, the Japanese and finally the U.S. The islands were first used as supply stations for ships crossing the Pacific and later exploited for their limited resources.

Beginning in 1565, a Spanish galleon made an annual trip between the Philippines and Mexico, trading oriental spices, silk and treasurers for New World gold and silver. The shipping routes followed seasonal winds, used for centuries by Micronesian navigators, and passed by several groups of Micronesian islands.

The main supply port along the Philippines-Mexico route was in Guam in the Marianas. In 1668, Spanish missionaries, soldiers and government officials arrived in Marianas to set up a small colony and convert the local Chamorro to Catholicism. A few other Spanish missionaries traveled elsewhere in Micronesia but their impact was minimal.

Mapmakers, Whalers and Traders in the Northern Pacific

The outside world had little contact with the islands of Micronesia until the mid-19th Century, when American whalers and missionaries entered the region. In the early 19th century French and Russian explorers began exploring and mapping Micronesia.

The first group of Westerners to arrive in great numbers were British and American whalers who arrived during the whaling boom of the mid 1800s, when as many 500 whaling ships worked the Pacific. At the height of the whaling boom in 1854 and 1856, approximately 50 whaling ships anchored in the lagoon of Pohnpei Island.

The huge 19th century whaling tall ships were very different from the floating fish processing factories of today. Able to stay at sea for months without resupplying, these Melvillesque ships boiled the whale blubber, extracted the oil and stored in huge tanks in the ships holds. The whalers themselves were notorious for their drunkenness and womanizing and many islands had develop strategies to get rid of "degenerate whites" who jumped ship on their islands.

The entire crew of the Hawaii ship “Waverly” was massacred in 1835 by the Kosraeans in retaliation for the foreigners taking liberties with Kosraean women. The crew of the Boston trading ship, “Honduras”, met a similar fate and only a few crew member managed to escape alive.

European merchants are also purchased copra (oil-bearing coconut meat) and sea cucumbers (used in aphrodisiac called bech-de-mer) from Micronesian islanders.

Rogues and Outlaws in the Northern Pacific

One of the most notorious figures in Micronesian history is "Bulley" Hays, an American con-man who was involved in the Chinese opium trade and later came to Kosrae to make a fortune trading beche-de-mer and coconut oil. Three years after his ship wrecked in a freak storm near Kosrae, he was murdered at sea by a Dutch cook. Some people believed he was murdered while on his way back to Kosrae to claim a treasure that he rescued from his sunken ship and buried somewhere on Kosrae. Several treasure hunter have come to Kosrae looking for the treasure.

One of the interesting figures in Pohnpeian history was James O'Connell, an Australian ex-convict who was shipwrecked on the island in 1830. Fearing that he had washed up an island inhabited by cannibals, he performed a Irish jig for the islanders in an effort to save his neck. He endeared himself further to the islanders when he allowed himself to be tattooed. he later married a 14-year-old but escaped when an American sailing ship pulled into port. Today he is known as the "Tattooed Irishman."

In 1865, during the American Civil War, the Confederates sent a ship named “Shenandoah “to the Pacific to disrupt the Union whaling industry. At Madolenihmw harbor, the “Shenandoah” captured the captains of four whaling ships and then set the ships on fire. The Confederate ship sank 40 Union ships in all, some after the war over because it took a week for the news of the Confederates surrender to reach the “Shenandoah”.

Many of the people who live on Sapawuafik Atoll are descendants of the British, American, Pohnpeian and Gilbertese members of the “Lambton”, a British ship captained by Charles "Bloody" Hart who landed in Nagatik in 1837. When the local people refused to turn over some sacred turtle shell jewelry that Hart was after the captain told his crew to murder all the local men on the island. The crew then offered their service to widowed. women.

Missionaries in Micronesia

Christian missionaries arrived in numbers in the 1800s, in particular to Chuuk and Kosrae. By the 1870s, nearly every Kosraean had converted to Christianity and religion continues to play an important role in daily life on the island.

The first missionaries arrived in Kosrae in 1852. Not only did they introduce Christianity but they also introduced disease, which made their job easier because there were less souls to convert. The locals of Kosrae called white people "ohshits" after word they often muttered.

The first Spanish missionaries arrived in Guam and Marianas in 1668 to set up a small colony and convert the local Chamorro to Catholicism. A few other Spanish missionaries traveled elsewhere in Micronesia but their impact was minimal and often tragic. All 13 members of Spanish Jesuit mission set up on Ulithi in 1731 were killed by islanders by the time a supply ship was sent a year after they arrived.

All ‘n all the Micronesian islands have been fertile fields for missionary activity, with the result beiing that almost all Micronesians are Christian. They include Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. as well as a Baha'i mission. Religion is an important part of the culture, and clergymen are well respected by the inhabitants. [Source: “Cities of the World”, Department of State Post Report dated March 1996]

Destruction of the Islanders and Their Culture

A great many Micronesian islanders died from diseases such as small pox, influenza, measles and syphilis introduced by European traders and whalers. The locals succumbed easily because they had never been exposed to the diseases before and had little natural immunity.

Under the missionaries, traditional songs, dances, tattooing and myths were banned. Alcohol and sakue were forbidden and Kosrae's matrilineal traditions were replaced with Western-style patrilineal customs.

William A. Lessa wrote: When the missionary Luther Gulick arrived on the central Pacific island of Pohnpei in 1852 he found the native priests dying out, and their shrines, like the megalithic Nan Madol, were almost abandoned. Populations were decimated by whaling ships that left behind diseases to which the local people had no immunity; the Caroline island of Kosrae, one of the hardest hit, was left without a population large enough to support elaborate priestly hierarchies and religious title holders. Western governments raced to the islands to claim their shares of the new colonies in the Pacific, and so Micronesia became a patchwork of Spanish, German, British, Japanese, and American trusteeships, protectorates, and colonies. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), of Religion,]

The population of Pohnpei was greatly reduced by small pox in the mid 1800s. A single smallpox epidemic introduced by an American whale ship in 1854 killed between 2,000 and 3,000 people on Pohnpei. Between 1800 and 1900, the population of Pohnpei fell from 10,000 to 5,000. After the arrival of Europeans on Kosrae the population dropped from 6,000 to 300.

Afterwards chiefs found it difficult to get their men to work. They did not push them too hard out of fear that they would join another tribe, a great los of face to the original chief.

Many ancient traditions were lost when Christianity was introduced to the islands and old customs and religion beliefs were considered either primitive or sinful. The missionaries however gave the local languages a written form, many in efforts to translate the Bible into native languages.

Germans in Micronesia

In the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States took Guam and the Philippines. Spain sold the other islands to Germany, After the Spanish lost the Spanish-American War in 1898 they relinquished their clams on Micronesia by including Guam and Wake Island (and Cuba) in the $20 million purchase of the Philippines. The Carolines and the remainder of the Marianas was sold to the Germans for US$4.25 million.

The Germans were actibe in Micronesia earlier. Ignoring Spanish claims and operating out of New Guinea, the Germans had begun developing the copra trade in Micronesia in the mid 1800s. After 50 years in Micronesia, the Germans managed to make only small profits but they did force many islanders to move off their land and accept to Western ideas of the ownership of land.

One of tragic of the most tragic events in Micronesian history was the Sokehs Rebellion of 1910-1911 in which a group of forced Pohnpeian laborers rebelled after a workers was severely beaten by a German supervisor. The supervisor was killed by the laborers and the Germans called in reinforcements to put down the rebels who holed themselves up on Sokehs Island. The rebels were finally captured and 17 rebel leaders were executed by a firing squad and tossed into a mass grave. Afterwards the Germans moved 426 Sokeh residents to Palau and replaced them with other Micronesians.

Some historians argue that the main reason the Germans initiated health and sanitation improvements was to keep their supply of forced labor from diminishing to nothing

At the outbreak of World War I, the Germans were forced to withdraw quickly from their remote island outposts.

Japanese in Micronesia

Germany lost its possessions in what is now Micronesia to Japan in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. Japanese administration of commenced at the end of World War I and was backed by The Treaty of Versailles.

The League of Nations formally extended a mandate to Japan in 1920, thus confirming the Japanese conquest, and a new era of colonization. Intensive crop and copra production began, and the islands became exporters of many agricultural products.The Japanese navy built bases across most of the islands and headquartered their Pacific naval operations in Chuuk. Okinawan tuna fisherman were brought in as colonists.

By 1940, there were more Japanese in Micronesia than native people (70,000 compered to 50,000). On Pohnpei there were 14,000 Japanese, Okinawans and Koreans and only 5,000 Pohnpeians. They outnumbered the falling local population Yap. Forced Yapese laborers that didn't cooperate in projects to build airfields and military fortifications on Yap had pieces of stone money destroyed.

For reasons that are still unclear, the population of Yap dropped by half to 2,582 people during the Japanese occupation. After the war, the Americans sent many health officials and anthropologists to Yap to see if they could improve matters. The population was around 11.500 people in the 1990s.

Japanese Development of Micronesia

The Japanese had much more success in developing the island than the Germans. Under the Japanese, the islands of Micronesia was not only self-sufficient but it exported food. Turtle shell, trochus shells, alcohol made from Micronesian sugar, mother-of-pearl, beche-de-mer and other products were imported to Japan. An infrastructure was established and some Micronesian towns were turned into centers of Japanese cultures, complete with bath houses, kabuki theaters, Shinto shrines and geisha girls.

The Japanese developed railroads, phosphate and bauxite mines, sugar plantations, and buildings 20-inch-thick walls strong enough withstand typhoons and bombs. The Japanese built schools but those attended by local children taught students a subservient form of the Japanese language.

The U.S. and the Japanese signed a treaty which allowed the U.S. to set up a cable station on Yap for its trans-Pacific telephone cable between the U.S. and Shanghai.

The Japanese built their version of Pearl Harbor in Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon in the middle of the Pacific. Construction of the base begun shortly after the Japanese took over Dublon island in 1914. Nicknamed the "Gibralter of the Pacific" because of its was so heavily fortified, the base housed 330-foot trans-Pacific submarines, a sea plane base and a dock for the super battleship, “Musashi”. Six air fields were built for fighters, torpedo bombers and multi-engine long-range bombers. The island itself was fortified with shore cannons, pill boxes, bunkers and a network of tunnels.

World War II in Micronesia

During World War II, most Japanese in Micronesia died of starvation because no supply ships came. Sometimes supplies were brought by submarine, which couldn’t carry much and were vulnerable to attacks by American ships. Only 1,500 Japanese returned to Japan. Even today many Japanese return to Micronesia to make offerings to deceased ancestors who died in Micronesia. So much debris was left over from the war that much was sold to Japan as scarp metal, the second largest export after copra in the 1960s. Villagers caught and killed fish with explosives they found laying around.

The U.S. bombed Chuuk in 1944 during Operation Hailstone in World War II, destroying 250 Japanese planes and 40 ships. The U.S. military largely bypassed the other islands in its leapfrog campaign across the Pacific. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Pohnpei was not invaded but Kolonia and numerous Japanese fortifications were destroyed in American aerial bombing raids. The rough terrain and heavy rainfall on Pohnpei led to the decision by the United States military to bypass the island in World War II. The President of Micronesia once said, "the FSM has nothing the American military wants", added "that's not all bad either."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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