The Marshall Islands were inhabited by Micronesians in the second millennium BC, although there are no historical or oral documents from that time period. The Marshall Islanders learnt to navigate vast ocean distances by canoe using traditional stick charts over time.
In 1526, Spanish adventurer Alonso de Salazar, commanding the ship Santa Maria de la Victoria, the sole surviving vessel of the Loasa Expedition, was the first European to discover the islands. On August 21, he spotted an island (most likely Taongi) at 14°N and called it “San Bartolome.”
In September 21, 1529, lvaro de Saavedra Cerón led the Spanish ship Florida on its second attempt to recross the Pacific from the Maluku Islands. He stood off the coast of a series of islands from which locals threw stones at his ship. These islands, which he dubbed “Los Pintados,” were perhaps Ujelang. On October 1, he discovered another series of islands and landed for eight days, exchanging presents with the locals and taking on water. These islands, dubbed “Los Jardines,” may have been Enewetak or Bikini Atoll.
On January 9, 1530, the Spanish ship San Pedro and two other vessels in an expedition led by Miguel López de Legazpi found an island, probably Mejit, near 10°N and called it “Los Barbudos.” The Spaniards landed and conducted commerce with the locals. On January 10, the Spaniards saw another island called “Placeres,” perhaps Ailuk; ten miles distant, they spotted another island called “Pajares” (perhaps Jemo). On January 12, they discovered a new island at 10°N, which they named “Corrales” (possibly Wotho). On January 15, the Spaniards saw another low island, perhaps Ujelang, at 10°N, and characterized the inhabitants as “Barbudos.” Following that, ships like as the San Jeronimo, Los Reyes, and Todos los Santos visited the islands in various years.
The islanders lacked immunity to European illnesses, and many perished as a consequence of their interactions with the Spaniards.
Other European contact
In 1788, Captain John Charles Marshall and Thomas Gilbert explored the islands. The islands were named after Marshall on Western maps, although the locals have always called them “jolet jen Anij” (Gifts from God). Around 1820, Russian explorer Adam Johann von Krusenstern and French explorer Louis Isidore Duperrey named and mapped the islands after John Marshall. Later, the name was reproduced on British maps. The crew of the American whaler Globe mutinied in 1824, and part of the crew landed on Mulgrave Island. The American schooner Dolphin came a year later and picked up two boys, the final survivors of a slaughter by the locals in response to their harsh treatment of the women.
Several ships visiting the islands were attacked and their sailors were murdered. Captain DonSette and his men were murdered in 1834. Similarly, in 1845, the schooner Naiad punished a native for stealing so harshly that the locals assaulted the ship. Later that year, the crew of a whaler’s boat was murdered. The San Francisco-based ships Glencoe and Sea Nymph were attacked in 1852, and everyone onboard died save for one crew member. The violence was generally ascribed to locals being mistreated in reaction to petty thievery, which was a widespread practice. Two missionaries successfully arrived on Ebon in 1857 and lived among the locals until at least 1870.
In 1874, the international world acknowledged the Spanish Empire’s claim to sovereignty over the islands as part of the Spanish East Indies.
Although the Spanish Empire had a residual claim to the Marshalls in 1874, when she asserted her authority over the Carolines, she made no attempt to prevent the German Empire from establishing a presence there. Britain likewise had no objections to Germany establishing a protectorate over the Marshall Islands in return for German acknowledgment of Britain’s claims in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. On October 13, 1885, the gunboat SMS Nautilus, commanded by Captain Fritz Rötger, arrived at Jaluit with German agents. On October 15, they signed a contract with Kabua, whom the Germans had previously acknowledged as “King of the Ralik Islands.”
Following that, seven additional chiefs from seven other islands signed a treaty in German and Marshallese, and a final copy, attested by Rötger, was delivered to the German Foreign Office on November 1. At Jaluit, the Germans built a sign proclaiming a “Imperial German Protectorate.” It has been suggested that the conflict with Spain over the Carolines, which nearly led to war, was really “a ruse to conceal the purchase of the Marshall Islands,” which went barely undetected at the time, despite the islands being Micronesia’s biggest supply of copra. Through papal intervention, Spain surrendered the islands to Germany in 1884.
From 1887 until 1905, the islands were managed by the Jaluit Gesellschaft, a German trade corporation. The islanders were conscripted as workers. Following the German–Spanish Treaty of 1899, by which Germany gained the Carolines, Palau, and Marianas from Spain, Germany put all of its Micronesian islands, including the Marshalls, under the governor of German New Guinea.
Missionary of the Catholic Church From around 1904 until 1914, Father A. Erdland of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart headquartered in Hiltrup, Germany, resided on Jaluit. He was fascinated by the islands and did extensive study on Marshallese culture and language. In 1914, he released a 376-page book on the islands. Another Missionary of the Sacred Heart, Father H. Linckens, spent several weeks in the Marshall Islands between 1904 and 1911. In 1912, he wrote a short book on Catholic missionary efforts and the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands.
Under German rule, and even before that, Japanese merchants and fishers visited the Marshall Islands on occasion, but interaction with the islanders was sporadic. Following the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Japanese government pursued a strategy of transforming the Japanese Empire into a major economic and military force in East Asia.
During World War I, Japan joined the Entente and conquered many German Empire territories, notably some in Micronesia. Japanese forces seized the Enewetak Atoll on September 29, 1914, and the Jaluit Atoll, the Marshall Islands’ administrative center, on September 30, 1914. Following the war, Germany signed (under protest) the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. It gave up all of its Pacific holdings, including the Marshall Islands. On December 17, 1920, the League of Nations Council adopted the South Pacific Mandate, which authorized Japan to take over all former German possessions in the Pacific Ocean north of the Equator. The Marshall Islands archipelago’s administrative center remained Jaluit.
The German Empire’s primary interest in Micronesia was economic. The Japanese were interested in land. Despite the Marshalls’ tiny size and limited resources, Japan’s acquisition of the territory would help to ease Japan’s issue of a growing population with a limited quantity of accessible land to accommodate them. During its colonial control, Japan relocated about 1,000 Japanese to the Marshall Islands, but they never outnumbered the indigenous peoples as they did in the Marianas and Palau.
The Japanese expanded government and selected local leaders, eroding the power of traditional leaders in their communities. Japan also attempted, but failed, to shift the social structure of the islands from matrilineality to the Japanese patriarchal system. Furthermore, throughout the 1930s, the Japanese government claimed ownership of one-third of all land up to the high water mark. Prior to Japan’s prohibition on foreign merchants in the archipelago, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were permitted to operate.
Indigenous people were taught in Japanese schools, where they learned the Japanese language and culture. This policy was the government’s approach not just in the Marshall Islands, but throughout Micronesia’s designated territory. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations on March 27, 1933, but remained to administer the islands and started constructing air bases on numerous atolls in the late 1930s. The Marshall Islands were strategically significant geographically because they were the easternmost point in Japan’s defense ring at the start of World War II.
World War II
In the months leading up to the assault on Pearl Harbor, Kwajalein Atoll served as the administrative headquarters for the Japanese 6th Fleet Forces Service, whose mission was to defend the Marshall Islands.
During World War II, the United States attacked and conquered the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign in 1944, eliminating or isolating Japanese garrisons. Americans seized Kwajalein Atoll, Majuro, and Enewetak in one month in 1944, and the remainder of the Marshall Islands save Wotje, Mili, Maloelap, and Jaluit in the next two months.
The war in the Marshall Islands resulted in irreversible damage, particularly to Japanese strongholds. The inhabitants of the islands suffered from a shortage of food and numerous injuries as a result of the American bombardment. Attacks by the United States began in mid-1943, and by August 1945, half of the Japanese garrison of 5,100 civilians on the Mili Atoll had died of starvation.
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands
Following the United States’ capture and occupation of the Marshall Islands during World War II, the Marshall Islands, along with several other Micronesian island groups, were formally transferred to the United States under United Nations auspices in 1947 as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 21.
Nuclear testing during the Cold War
From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons at its Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands, including the largest atmospheric nuclear test ever conducted by the United States, codenamed Castle Bravo. “The bombs had a total yield of 108,496 kilotons, over 7,200 times more powerful than the atomic weapons used during World War II.” The island of Elugelab in the Enewetak atoll was devastated during the 1952 test of the first US hydrogen bomb, codenamed “Ivy Mike.” The United States Atomic Energy Commission declared the Marshall Islands to be “by far the most polluted location on the planet” in 1956.
Nuclear claims between the United States and the Marshall Islands are still pending, and the health consequences of these nuclear testing are still being felt. The United States undertook Project 4.1, a medical study of inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll who had been exposed to radioactive fallout. Between 1956 and August 1998, at least $759 million was given to Marshallese Islanders as compensation for their exposure to nuclear weapon testing by the United States.
The Marshall Islands Government was formally formed in 1979, and the nation became self-governing.
The Compact of Free Association with the United States came into effect in 1986, giving sovereignty to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). In return for continuing US military use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll, the Compact provides for assistance and protection of the islands. The process for achieving independence was finally completed under international law in 1990, when the UN officially terminated the Trusteeship status in accordance with Security Council Resolution 683.
Extreme waves and high tides caused extensive flooding in Majuro’s capital city and other metropolitan areas in 2008, 3 feet (0.91 m) above sea level. The government proclaimed a state of emergency on Christmas morning in 2008. Heavy waves broke Majuro’s city walls once again in 2013.
Drought struck the Marshall Islands’ northern atolls in 2013. Due to the drought, 6,000 people were forced to live on less than 1 litre (0.22 imp gal; 0.26 US gal) of water each day. As a consequence, food crops failed and illnesses such as diarrhea, pink eye, and influenza spread. As a consequence of these crises, the United States President declared an emergency in the islands. This statement triggered assistance from US government agencies under the Republic’s “free association” status with the US, which offers humanitarian and other critical assistance.
Following the 2013 catastrophes, Foreign Minister Tony deBrum was urged by the Obama administration in the United States to use the crises into a chance to advocate climate change action. DeBrum urged greater commitment and international leadership to prevent future climate catastrophes from wreaking havoc on his country and other equally vulnerable nations. The Marshall Islands hosted the 44th Pacific Islands Forum meeting in September 2013. To mobilize real action on climate change, DeBrum suggested the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership.