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Earliest history

In 1986, an archaeologist discovered the bones of early inhabitants of Bikini. The remains of a village were also found. Research showed that the finds dated back to about 1960 B.C. This makes Bikini the oldest area in Micronesia where people once lived. The Marshall Islands were never governed by one "chief". Yet some chiefs had so much power that they ruled the entire Ralik-chain. The chiefs held absolute power, but their power and wealth depended on the loyalty and payments of the islanders. Because there was so little land, everything was done to obtain more land, including marriage and war.

Because the islands were so scattered, the inhabitants became excellent canoeists and knew advanced navigation techniques for that time. Pandanus was important food for the northern islands, breadfruit was important for the southern islands, while coconut products and fishing were important everywhere.

Europeans discover Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands were far away from the important trade routes and were therefore hardly visited by European explorers. In 1525, Alonso de Salazar first spotted one of the Marshall Islands. After him, several Spanish expeditions landed on the Marshall Islands, but the Spaniards' interest in the islands remained limited, not to mention their colonisation.

The islands were named after the English captain John Marshall who landed on Mili in 1788. He was probably the first European in 200 years to visit the islands. The German-Estonian explorer Otto von Kotzebue explored the islands extensively in the early 19th century and made the first detailed maps of the islands. Merchants and whalers also visited the islands in the early 19th century, but soon left after hostilities from the population. From 1820 to 1850, European and American traders were even systematically attacked with brute force.

Scouting parties were killed and, around 1850, three crews of ships were completely murdered in quick succession. By the time the first Protestant missionaries arrived on Ebon Island in 1857, violence against the Europeans had subsided. The missionaries were tolerated by the chiefs and soon the first churches and schools were built and the conversions also went smoothly. When the chiefs realised that their own standards and values were being replaced by Western values and a Christian god, it was already too late. Within a few decades, churches and schools were run by the indigenous population.

German and Japanese rule

The Germans annexed the Marshall Islands in 1885, but left the administration of the islands to the Jaluit Gesellschaft, a group of powerful German trading companies, until 1906. Coconut palm plantations, copra factories and coconut oil factories had existed there since 1860. Trading posts were located on the atolls of Mili, Abon, Jaluit, Namarik, Majuro and Aur, despite the small profits that were made.

Japan took control of the Marshall Islands in 1914. They took a more thorough approach and built large bases and defences on many islands. They also took over the copra trade completely. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese sold the copra directly to the traders, rather than through the local chiefs. This of course undermined the authority of the chiefs once again. The first islands the Americans conquered from the Japanese in World War II were Kwajalein and Roi-Namo, both islands of the Kwajalein atoll. Subsequently, the undefended Majuro was liberated and within a few weeks the Enewetok atoll and another 30 Marshall Islands were liberated.

Independence, yet very dependent

In 1947, the islands, together with the Mariana Islands and the Caroline Islands, came into the United States' hands as a United Nations Trust Territory. After the war, the Marshall Islands became best known for the hydrogen bomb tests on the Bikini and Enewetok atolls. Due to the radioactivity, many people from these islands have health problems. In 1973, the Marshall Islands withdrew from the Congress of Micronesia in their quest for political independence. Autonomy and constitution date back to May 1, 1979, and sovereign status in "free association" with the United States to October 21, 1986. Since then, only defence policy has been determined by the United States, which has stationed 3000 soldiers there. In 1991, the republic joined the United Nations as a member. Imata Kabua has been president since 1996. His uncle Amata Kabua was president from 1979 until his death in 1996. Since 2000, President Kessai Note has been head of state. In March 2001, the government submitted a claim of over US$563 million to the US government for the effects of the US nuclear tests on Bikini Island between 1946 and 1958. A large part of the then forcibly evacuated population returned after the island was declared free of radioactivity in 1969, but had to be evacuated again in 1978 when it became clear that the radioactivity could still be a danger.

21th century

During a US Congressional hearing on compensation for US nuclear tests on 2 June 2005, it was revealed that more than 500 additional cases of cancer caused by radioactive radiation had been identified in the Marshall Islands. Research had shown that the number of thyroid cancer cases on some islands was sixty times higher than the world average.

In January 2008, the parliament elected Litokwa Tomeing as president. In October 2009, he received a vote of no confidence and was replaced by Jurelang Zedkaia, who was in turn succeeded by Christopher Loeak who has been president since 2012. In September 2013, the Marshall Islands hold a climate conference with all leaders of Pacific islands. In April 2014, the Marshall Islands sued all nine nuclear powers for obstruction of disarmament negotiations. No clear majority emerges in the November 2015 general election. In January 2016, the parliament elected Senator Hilde Heine as its first female president. In October 2016, the International Court of Justice says it has no jurisdiction over the Marshall Islands' complaints against nuclear testing. In 2020, David Kabua succeeds Hilde Heine as president.


Galbraith, K. / Micronesia
Lonely Planet

Levy, N.M. / Micronesia handbook Moon

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated June 2024
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