Outsiders in the Marshall Islands (1525-1945): Spaniards, Germans, Japanese, World War II

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The Marshall Islands were claimed by Spain in 1592, but were left undisturbed by the Spanish Empire for 300 years.

The Marshall Islands were off the main trade routes and consequently received little attention from early European explorers. In 1525, Alonso de Salazar of Spain became the first European to sight the islands, but Spain did nothing to colonize them. After another 200 years devoid of Europeans, the islands received a visit from English captain John Marshall (from whom they later took their name) in 1788.

Because the Marshall Islands were situated away from the major trade routes result most of the islands were not sighted by Europeans until very late.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, foreign powers ruled the islands for such advantages as trade, religious propagation, exploitation of resources, strategic considerations, and maintenance of sea routes. Spain formally claimed the islands in 1874

Michael Terlep wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The history of the Marshall Islands reads like an adventure novel: gold buried beneath beaches, ships seeking safe harbor after mutinies, brutal conflicts between locals and Europeans. Early Marshallese, a Micronesian people who settled the 29 coral atolls and five coral islands of the archipelago around 2,000 years ago, made the most of scarce resources. They farmed, fished, and created a vibrant culture visible in their traditional dances, pandanus fiber mats, and outrigger canoes. Traditional life in the central Pacific region drastically changed with the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, Europeans had laid claim to much of the Pacific. In the Marshalls, the Germans began the production of coconut oil. Large swaths of land became copra plantations, massive oceangoing vessels anchored in lagoons, and missions and trading stations rose. [Source:Michael Terlep, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]

First Europeans in the Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands has its first contact with the western world in 1525, when Spanish navigator Alonso de Salasar became the first European to sight the islands. In 1529, Spaniard Alvaaro de Saavedra landed on the islands and claimed them for Spain. He stopped briefly at two atolls, most likely Ujelang and another atoll in the northwest part of the region (Enewetak or Bikini). Magellan had sailed through the Marshalls' latitudes without sighting land in the 1521. Other Spanish expeditions landed on the islands in the 16th century, but the Spanish showed little interest in them. On behalf of Spain, voyagers on the San Lucas laid claim to some Rālik and Ratak atolls in 1565.

Spain formally claimed the islands in 1592, but few other Europeans passed by the islands in the next two centuries. In 1788, British sea captain John Marshall undertook an exploratory voyage, while traveling from Australia to China. He sighted Arno Majuro, Aur, Maloelap, Wotje and Ailuk and landed on Mili. The Marshalls, like the neighboring Gilberts, were named for British explorers traveling from New South Wales to Canton.

European visitors were infrequent from mid 17th century to the mid 19th century, when explorers again sought landings in search of water and supplies. The islands were mapped in the early 1800s by Russian explorers.

Timeline of Europeans in the Marshall Islands

2000 to 1000 B.C. — Migration to the Marshall Islands by Asians and Polynesians from other Pacific Ocean islands begins. [Source: Michael Hodd, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2000, Encyclopedia.com]

1525 — Spanish navigator Alonso de Salasar is the first European to sight what is now the Marshall Islands.

1529 — Alvaaro de Saavedra lands on the islands and claims them for Spain.

1788 — The British sea captain, John Marshall, visits the islands.

1874 — Pope Leo XIII confirms Spanish dominion over the Marshall Islands.

1885 — Germany establishes a protectorate over the islands.

1914 — With the outbreak of World War I, Japan assumes administration of the islands.

1920 — Japan receives a United Nations mandate to administer the islands.

1944 — After fierce fighting between Japanese and American forces during World War II, the United States occupies the islands.

1945 — Japanese settlers are repatriated .

Spain in the Marshall Islands

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. [Source: Michael Hodd, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2000, Encyclopedia.com]

In the 16th century, Spain claimed the islands of what is now the Marshall Islands. 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.

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.

It wasn’t until 1874 that Spain’s claim over the Marshall Islands was officially recognized, That year, Pope Leo XIII, acting as a European mediator, confirmed Spanish dominion over the islands, while also allocating trading rights to Germany.

Whalers, Traders and Writers in the Marshall Islands

The 19th century brought beachcombers, Blackbirders (like Bully Hayes), German traders, whalers from the U.S. and Britain, and missionaries from Hawaii and New England. Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of “Treasure Island?, visited Majuro in 1889 and called the atoll the "Pearl of the Pacific."

Much mapping was done on Russian expeditions under Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1803) and Otto von Kotzebue (1817 and 1824). Kotzebue was a Russian naval commander, explored and mapped the archipelago on his visits there. He was the first European to develop a serious interest in the people of Ratak and, not long after his visit, whalers began to frequent the area.

Because the Marshall Islands had few resources most European navigators and whalers either skipped the islands completely or stayed for only a short time. Traders and whalers began to visit the islands en masse in the early 1800s, until encounters with the "friendly" native Marshallese went bad. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Many of the encounters between the Marshallese and whalers and traders were violent. There were several brutal attacks in a 30 year period between the 1820s and 1850s. Many ships recorded the death of their captains and crews after landing at different atolls. In the 1850s, the entire crews of three trading ships were massacred. Many of the clashes were instigated by the rapes and theft of local women by the whalers and vendettas for earlier battles.

Missionaries and Copra in the Marshall Islands

In the 1850s, US Protestant missionaries began arriving on the islands. The first Protestant missionaries arrived on Ebon in 1857. Violence had decreased by this time and the missionaries were allowed to set up schools and churches. Many islanders converted and it wasn’t long before islanders were running the churches and traditionally values and customs were replaced by Western ones.

Not long after the first American Protestant missionaries began evangelizing on the islands Adolph Capelle and Anton DeBrum arrived to establish the beginnings of the trade in copra (dried coconut meat, the source of coconut oil).

Laurence Marshall Carucci wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which had sent missionaries to Hawai'i in 1819, expanded their attempt to save islanders' souls to Micronesia in 1852, and by 1857 a mission station was founded on Ebon in the southern Rālik chain. Subsequent mission stations were established on even the most distant atolls like Enewetak by the mid-1920s.

Likiep, which was purchased in 1877 as a copra plantation by A. DeBrum (a partner in Adolph Capelle & Co., an early trading firm), is the only atoll not heavily influenced by ABCFM descendants. For most Marshallese, the Catholic beliefs of Likiep residents were used to construct the religious "other," until a plethora of religious forms appeared on Majuro in the 1970s and 1980s. [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|] .

Germans in the Marshall Islands

Although Spain claimed the Marshall Islands in the 16th century, Germany was allowed trading rights. With decline of Spanish influence, the islands came under the control of Germany, who established trading stations on the islands of Jaluit and Ebon in 1885 to capitalize on the flourishing copra trade. Marshallese Iroij (high chiefs) continued to rule under indirect colonial German administration. Spain formally sold some of the islands to Germany in 1899 after the Spaniards were defeated in the Spanish-American War.

Germany annexed the Marshalls in 1885 but did not place government officials on the islands until 1906, leaving island affairs to a group of powerful German trading companies. The coconut plantations and coconut oil factories turned a small profit and the islands were run by German trading companies until the first government official arrived in 1906.

Germany was relatively unsuccessful in its bid to colonize the Marshall Islands. To expand its copra trade interests, Germany signed a treaty in 1878 with the most powerful chief in the Ralik group. Germany established a supply station on Jaluit Atoll and bought the islands from Spain in 1884, although paramount chiefs continued to rule. The combined pressure of the German trade firms led to full German annexation of the Marshalls in October 1885. The Jaluit Company, formed by the merger of two large trading firms, was given full administrative authority over the Marshalls until 1906. Afterward, the German government directly administered the islands from its headquarters in Rabaul. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Administrative affairs was managed largely by private German and Australian interests. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “When the market for whale oil was replaced by coconut oil in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Marshall Islanders were drawn into a European- and American-dominated marketplace. Copra demanded land, laborers, and overseers, and Marshall Islands land tenure, family form, and chieftainship reshaped themselves to accommodate these demands. German copra firms sparked the expanding colonial interests, and in 1885 Germany claimed much of the west central Pacific, including the Marshalls, as its own. For thirty years mission forces and German administrators battled with one another. [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Japanese in the Marshall Islands

At the outbreak of World War I, Japanese naval squadrons took possession of the Marshall Islands. Japan assumed control of the Marshall Islands, first under civil rule, and later, under naval administration. Their headquarters was on Jaluit.

At the outbreak of World War I, Japan occupied all former German possessions north of the equator. In 1919 the Marshall Islands were officially entrusted to Japan as a League of Nations mandate, after which a government bureaucracy was set up to rule the islands.[Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Japanese colonized the Marshall Islands extensively. They administered the islands through most of World War II and Japanese used the islands to stake their claim to the Central Pacific. Japan built large military bases throughout the Marshall Islands, Fortifications were built and bases were established on several islands. Military facilities in the Marshalls were used in the Japanese invasion of Kiribati and Nauru.

Laurence Marshall Carucci wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Japanese were the only committed colonizers of the Marshalls. Japan expanded copra production, opened Japanese-operated copra stations on most atolls, and convinced Marshall Islanders that, through diligence and obedient training, they could become Japanese citizens. In the late 1930s Japan's intentions shifted, and Marshallese were drafted as supporters while Japan prepared for war. [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991|]

World War II in the Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands were a battleground in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Japanese strategically constructed seaplane and naval bases and airfields on Kwajalein, Enewetak, Wotje, Jaluit, Mili, Maloelap, and Majuro Atolls. On February 1, 1942, the U.S. military began a campaign in the Marshall Islands with one of the first attacks on Japanese forces following Pearl Harbor. For months, U.S. forces bombarded Japanese bases, and, in early 1944, successfully invaded Majuro, Kwajalein, and Enewetak Atolls.

The Americans launched a major offensive across the Pacific towards the Philippines and Japan in November 1943. Makin and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands were taken first, followed by Kwajalein and Entiwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands. Undefended Majuro atoll was taken next.

There were fierce battles between American and Japanese forces. Lives were lost and the physical forms of islets were transformed. Vegetation was denuded and parts of the islands were literally blown away by bombing and shelling. Within two months American military forces were in firm control of the critical atolls, and the strategic value of Marshallese soil was established in their minds

On February 1, 1944 U.S. Marines attacked Kwajalein Atoll, a major Japanese naval and air base in the Marshall islands. Over the course of the nearly three weeks they captured Kwajalein. Majuro, Namur, Roi and Eniwetok atolls were captured on February 4. The other Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands were skipped over.

From the Marshall Islands the Americans began launching attacks on islands between the Marshall islands and the Philippines. The Americans used the bases at Majuro and Kwajalein to island hop across the Pacific..

According to the Dictionary of American History: After taking the neighboring Gilbert Islands in November 1943 to provide bases for bombing the Marshalls, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Central Pacific Area commander, focused on Kwajalein atoll, which was located in the center of the Marshalls and served as headquarters for Japanese defense of the islands. Heavy naval and air bombardment began on 29 January 1944. Two days later, landing craft carried the Fourth Marine Division under Major General Harry Schmidt toward the causeway-connected islands of Roi and Namur in the north of the atoll and the Seventh Infantry Division under Major General Charles H. Corlett toward Kwajalein in the south. The marines cleared Roi in one day and Namur in two. U.S. Army troops encountered more resistance on Kwajalein but cleared it on 4 February. A battalion of the army's 106th Infantry occupied nearby Majuro Island unopposed. The marines took the islands of Engebi and Parry in one day each, 18 and 22 February, respectively. Resistance again was stouter for army infantry on Eniwetok, requiring four days, until 21 February, to reduce. Total American losses in the Marshalls were 671 killed, 2,157 wounded; the Japanese dead totaled 10,000. The airfields and fleet anchorages that subsequently were established facilitated advance to the Caroline and Mariana Islands and neutralization of a strong Japanese base on Truk Island. In 1947 the Marshall Islands became part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific. [Source: Dictionary of American History, 2003 The Gale Group]

Legacy of World War II in the Marshall Islands

The United States heavily bombarded Japanese installations on Wotje Atoll and other places during WWII. Michael Terlep wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The atolls in the Marshall Islands formed part of the eastern defensive line of the Empire of Japan. Unexploded bombs and projectiles from that time — dropped, buried, or hidden, and forgotten by the outside world — known as explosive remnants of war (ERW). Time and the tropical climate have left the ERW deteriorating, toxic, and volatile. Accidental detonation and chemical leakage pose serious threats to islanders and to local historic sites. [Source: Michael Terlep, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]

Dirk Spennemann, associate professor of cultural heritage management at Charles Sturt University in Australia, reports that the United States directed a minimum of 15,000 tons of high-explosive bombs, napalm, rockets, and naval shells at targets in the Marshalls, an estimate that does not include invasion bombardment at Kwajalein and Enewetak. By December 1943, Mili Atoll had received more tonnage of U.S. explosives than any other target in the war to date — Berlin included. U.S. intelligence reports, Japanese accounts, and historical research conducted by Spennemann further suggest that as many as 50 percent of naval shells, and some other U.S. ordnance, failed to detonate on impact. In addition, countless tons of Japanese bombs and projectiles were stored on the islands as counterinvasion measures. There is currently no way of telling how many tons of these explosives remain on the former bases. By the end of the war, the once-lush tropical atolls were left hellish, with hundreds of Americans, Japanese, and Marshallese dead, vegetation burned, and thousands of pounds of explosives scattered across islets and vivid blue lagoons.

Once the soldiers had moved on, vegetation and the Marshallese moved back in. Ferns and vines now weave through the rusting and crumbling remains of coastal defense cannons, aircraft wreckage, barracks, and bunkers. In many cases, residents have resettled in old bases and repurposed military structures. Bunkers are now homes with wood frame additions, gun emplacement wells are pigpens, and machine guns hold shed doors closed. Residents have even found a use for bomb craters: as pits for the production of taro, a starchy staple of Pacific cuisine. However, while clearing vegetation, building homes, or farming, accidental detonation of deteriorating ERW remains a serious threat.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, 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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