Early History of Palau: First People, Europeans and Japanese

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Palau (also known as Belau) is a nation comprised on a group of islands located in the western Pacific Ocean about 2,000 kilometers (1,242.8 miles) north of Australia.. Isolated from larger land masses, it consists of the Palau group of islands, in the western Caroline Islands, and four remote islands to the southwest. Papua New Guinea is 660 kilometers (410 miles) to the south; the Philippines is 885 kilometers (550 miles) to the west, and Japan is 3,042 kilometers (1,890 miles) to the north. Yap Island in the Federated States of Micronesia lies 579 kilometers (360 miles) to the northeast.

Palau is made of more than 200 islands, running roughly from northeast to southwest, with a total land area of 458 square kilometers (177 square miles). Only eight are inhabited. The islands are rocky and mountainous, with the highest point being Mount Ngerchelchauus at 242 meters (793 feet).

Babeldoab (also spelled Babelthuap) is the largest island, with an area of 397 square kilometers (153.2 square miles); Koror Island has an area of 18 square kilometers (7.1 square miles). The islands of Peleliu and Angaur are about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Koror. Sonsorol and Hatohobei, the two smallest island states, lie 560–640 kilometers (350–400 miles) southwest of Koror. Kayangel is a coral atoll 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Babelthuap. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, 2007, Encyclopedia.com]

Palau is ranked as the fourteenth smallest nation in the world. There are unmined gold deposits as well as other minerals in the seabed within the 200 nautical mile economic zone claimed by the islands. The capital Koror is on Koror Island. However, the constitution calls for the capital to be sited at Melekeok on the nearby island of Babeldoab. [Source: Michael Hodd. “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2001, Encyclopedia.com]

Names and Identity of Palau

Official Name: Republic of Palau; conventional short form: Palau; local long form: Beluu er a Belau; local short form: Belau. Name of the People and Culture: noun: Palauan(s); adjective: Palauan. Former names: Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, Palau District, Pelew (archaic English). Source of the Name: from the Palauan name for the islands, Belau, which likely derives from the Palauan word "beluu" meaning "village". [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

Some trace the name Palau to the Spanish word for mast, palao. Palau was originally named "Los Palaos" by Spanish Mariners who impressed by islanders "praus" or canoes. In the 18th century the name was shortened to Palau.

Richard J. Parmentier wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““Hearing the word beluu, "village Homeland", early British explorers of the western Pacific mistakenly referred to the Belau Islands as "Pelew"; the spelling "Palau" became standardized in nineteenth-century German Scientific writings. The form "Belau" more accurately reflects Contemporary pronunciation and has become a symbol of national unity. [Source: Richard J. Parmentier, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Palau comprises several cultures and languages. Ethnic Palauans predominate, inhabiting the main islands of the archipelago. Descendants of the Carolinean atolls, especially Ulithi, settled on Palau's southern atolls of Hatohobei, Sonsorol, Fannah, Pulo Anna, and Merir. Southwest Islanders, as these Carolineans are called, speak Nuclear Micronesian languages. Today most live on Koror and also speak Palauan and English.

Babeldoab is announced which will allow capital to be moved to Melekeok.

First People on Palau

Humans arrived in the Palauan archipelago around 1000 B.C. from Southeast Asia, perhaps migrants from what today is Indonesia or people from neighboring Pacific islands that originated in Southeast Asia.

According to carbon dating the earliest residents of Palau were people who settled on the rock islands there around 1000 B.C. On the northernmost point of the Palauan island of Babeldaob stand huge basalt monoliths whose origin is a mystery but appear to have been part of huge ceremonial structure that held thousands of people. Virtually nothing is known about the people who laid the these stones and terraced the nearby hillsides as early as 2,000 years ago. Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ the Chamarro people on Guam and the Marinas Islands quarried massive “latte” stones and used them as foundations for some of their buildings.

The Palauan language is an Austronesian Language. About 3000 B.C. speakers of the Austronesian languages, probably from Taiwan (Formosa), mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread themselves, or their languages, south to the Philippines and Melanesia and east to the islands of Micronesia. The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesian Triangle to the east.

Most of what is known about the ancient cultures of Palau and Micronesia has been ascertained from archeological excavations and information gleaned from modern islanders. Early Micronesian had no written language. Knowledge and history was passed on orally from generation to generation.

Early Inhabitants of Palau

The ancient Paluans developed a complex, highly organized matrilineal society where high-ranking women picked the chiefs. Because Palau is far away from anything, it's native people were large undisturbed by other Pacific people and European explorers and traders. Even so Palauans participated in the wide-ranging Micronesian trade system, with some interaction with Malay traders and perhaps Chinese.

Palauans traditionally practiced terrace farming, fishing and to lesser extent hunting. The island environment provided them with all the food and resources they needed and as a result they didn’t travel around the Pacific like other Micronesian peoples. Because food was so plentiful and easy to exploit, the Palauans developed a rich culture, complicated social pecking order and sophisticated literature, wood carving and art. They mastered complex building practice which involved building elaborate high-pitched thatch-roof men's houses and meeting houses without nails. They had no metal. Daggers were made from stingray stingers. Remains of ancient terraces can still be seen today.

Richard J. Parmentier wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ These early settlers occupied both low-lying islands, where fishing was the primary subsistence activity, and high volcanic and limestone islands, where extensive taro cultivation was possible. Perhaps as late as the twelfth century AD., the Islanders constructed monumental terraced earthworks and built inland villages on elaborate stone foundations. There is a strong possibility that prior to European contact Belau had interaction with the Chinese, whose ships could have been the source of the ceramic and glass beads still functioning as exchange valuables. [Source: Richard J. Parmentier, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|] According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “

Historians estimated that about 40,000 Palauans lived on the islands when Europeans arrived in the late 18th century (more than twice as many as today). The north and south islands were traditionally ruled by two separate chiefs who sometimes fought with one another. Tied to this most Palauans have individual and clan titles that date back to when the two chiefs ruled. [Source: Lonely Planet]

First Europeans in Palau

The first Europeans to lay eyes on Palau were probably the crew of a Spanish ship captained by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who named the islands Arrecifos (the reefs) in 1543.Spain claimed the islands in 1686 but according to records never even landed on the islands.

In 1525, Spanish navigator Alonso de Salasar became first European to sight the archipelago of the Caroline Islands (mostly present-day Micronesia), of which present-day Palau is a part. In 1529. Alvaaro de Saavedra landed on the Caroline Islands, and claimed them for Spain. In 1686, the Spanish explorer Francisco Lezcano named Yap Island (now in the Federated States of Micronesia) "La Carolina" after King Charles II of Spain. The name was later generalized to include all the islands. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, 2007, Encyclopedia.com]

It is believed that Sir Frances Drake and the crew of the “Golden Hinde” stopped in Palau in 1579. The journey from present day California to Palau took 68 days. It is believed that Drake stayed in Palau only three days. After a Palauan stole a dagger from a sailor’s belt the vengeful Drake ordered his men to open fire on group of islanders, killing an estimated 20 Palauans. Drake named Palau the "Island of Thieves."

The native population of Palau was hit hard by European disease such as smallpox, tuberculosis and measles. Its population dropped from around 40,000 before the arrival of Europeans to 4,000 in 1900.

British in Palau

The first Europeans to arrive in Palau were the crew of the East India Company ship Antelope which wrecked on a reef there in 1783. The British vessel, under Captain Henry Wilson shipwrecked on Ulong Island near Koror, and the crew spent three months rebuilding the ship.

The Palauans helped Wilson to rebuild his ship and chief Ibededel of Koror even sent his son, Prince Lebuu, with Wilson to England to be educated. The prince died six months after his arrival from smallpox. The tragedy received a great deal of attention and was dramatized in a play called “Prince Lee Boo.”

Wilson voyage was chronicled in a 1788 best-selling book by George Keate called “An Account of the Pelew Islands.” Today, the British Museum contains gifts, including stingray daggers, tortoise shell dishes and a bracelet made of dugong vertebra, that Wilson brought back from Palau.

British traders became prominent visitors after Wilson’s visit. The British controlled trade on the islands until 1885, when the Spanish took over. The British introduced guns to Palau, which increased the number of casualties during the periodic clashes between clans and villages.

Spaniards and Germans in Palau

After the British receded from the scene in Palau islands became subject to successive claims by colonial powers: Spain (1885-1899), Germany (1899-1914), and Japan (1914-1944).

In the late 19th century Palau was loosely part of the Spain’s Pacific posessions. Spain claimed the islands in 1686 but according to records never even landed there. The islands were the westernmost part of the widely scattered Pacific islands north of New Guinea that Spanish explorers named the Caroline Islands (mostly present-day Micronesia) in the 17th century. There were several failed attempts by Spanish Jesuit missionaries to visit the islands in the early 1700s. In 1885, Pope Leo XIII, acting as a European mediator, confirms Spanish dominion over the Caroline Islands, while also allocating Germany trading rights.

Spain gained some influence in the Caroline Islands and administered them from the Philippines The Spanish made more of an effort to introduce Christianity than the British did. They also gave the Palauan language a written form in their effort to translate the Bible to Palauan.

With the decline of Spanish influence, the islands came under German control. In 1899, after Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Palau, with the rest of the Carolines, was sold to Germany.

The Germans took control of Palau in 1899 after they purchased Palau and several other groups of Micronesian islands for $4.3 million. They began phosphate mining in Anguar, planted coconut trees and used to force labor to run their copra plantations but they took measures to reduce diseases such as influenza and dysentery which were causing widespread loss of life. on Palau by improving sanitation and providing inoculations.

Japanese Occupation of Palau

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the Japanese took control of Palau and governed the islands until the end of World War II. In 1920, after World War I ended, the Japanese were granted a League of Nations mandate to administer the islands. Japan was a member of the a League of Nations and the mandate gave them to administer the islands and the responsibility to establish schools and land property rights, and develop Koror. The Japanese made Koror the capital of its South Seas Mandate in 1922 and established administration of all of its Micronesian territories there. In the early you could still find old timers in Palau that spoke Japanese and remembered Japanese songs.

The Japanese occupation of Palau was a period of considerable development, with the creation of schools, hospitals, and a change in land tenure that allowed private land rights. By the end of their administration period, the Japanese in Palau numbered 26,000, outnumbering the local inhabitants by four to one. [Source: Michael Hodd. “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2001, Encyclopedia.com]

Before the Japanese period, most Palauans lived on Babeldaob, but they abandoned their farms under the Japanese and American occupation. The Japanese reduced the power of the local chiefs, confiscated Palauan land, taught children to speak to Japanese using only the polite form of the Japanese language, and generally disrupted their traditional way of life.

The Japanese developed Palau with sophisticated infrastructure and built paved roads, power plants, hospitals and schools that educated both Japanese and Palauan children. Koror took on the appearance of a Japanese town, complete with sushi bars and Shinto shrines. Of the town's 30,000 residents, some 80 percent were Japanese.

The Japanese organized the Palauans into progressive communities that specialized in mining, agriculture and commercial fishing. Palauan and laborers from Japan, Korea and Okinawa were brought into work in the mines, rice fields and sugar and pineapple plantations. Bauxite was mined in the hills of Ngardmau on Babeldaob, where the Japanese built a railroad system to transport the ore to the port settlement.

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 September 2023

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