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Earliest time

Several tombs and ruins bear witness to an earlier civilisation on the islands, which has now largely disappeared. The Mariana Islands were already inhabited by the Chamorro at the earliest in 1500 BC. This people most probably came from Indonesia. The fact that they were the only people from Micronesia who grew rice is a strong indication in this direction.

The social system consisted of three classes, the matua (nobles), the achoat (half nobles), and the manachang, fishermen and farmers. The Mariana Islands were then divided into districts consisting of a few villages, mainly located along the coast. Each district was led by a "chamorri", there was no central authority. Of course, this often led to conflicts between the various districts.

Spanish rule

In 1521, the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magelhaes named the Northern Mariana Islands 'Islas de los Ladrones' or 'thieves' islands'. In 1565, the archipelago came into Spanish possession. In 1668, the name was changed to Las Marianas by the Spanish priest Luis Diego Sanvitores, after the Spanish Queen Maria Ana of Austria. Sanvitores and five other Jesuits established the first mission post in the Marianas. They were met with great hostility from the local population and fought regularly for the next two decades. This cost the lives of twelve priests and many Chamorro.

Around 1690, with the help of Spanish troops, peace was restored. In the 1690s the inhabitants of the Mariana Islands were rounded up by the Spaniards and transported to Guam. This was considered an effective method to convert the population to Christianity. Only on the island of Rota did a few hundred inhabitants manage to flee into the hills. Because of this, some Rota residents still have most of the Chamorro blood running through their veins.

Around 1820, inhabitants of the western Caroline Islands were allowed to settle on the large islands of the Mariana Islands. Among other things, they took care of the Spanish livestock. In 1885 Pope Leo XIII declared Spain's sovereignty over the Mariana Islands. Immediately afterwards, the "wasted" Chamorro were encouraged to return to the Northern Mariana Islands. They were even given farmland but had the misfortune that the best land had already been given to the inhabitants of the Caroline Islands.

After the Spanish-American War, Spain had to cede Guam to the United States (1898; Treaty of Paris). In 1899, the Germans bought the Northern Mariana Islands from Spain. The Germans were most interested in copra production. Like the Spaniards, few Germans settled in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Occupied by Germans and Japanese

After the Treaty of Versailles (1919) the German Mariana Islands came under Japanese administration as a League of Nations mandate. At that time, only about 4000 Chamorro and Carolinians lived on the islands. The Japanese had little interest in the copra, but all the more in sugar cane. Many trees and forests were cut down for this purpose. The plantations on Saipan were a success, after which plantations were also established on Tinian and Rota. Sugar and alcohol became important export products. Many of the workers on the sugar plantations came from Okinawa, Japan. The islands were literally flooded with Japanese workers. When the Second World War broke out, there were about 45,000 Japanese and other immigrants, more than ten times the number of Micronesians present.

One of the largest military operations of World War II took place around the Marianas. An American invasion force (127,000 soldiers, 600 ships and 2000 aircraft) attacked Saipan on 15 June 1944 and then Guam. Napalm bombs were dropped for the first time in history. There were about 30,000 Japanese on Saipan at the time. On the same night, Japanese planes flew to the Mariana Islands. To the west of the Mariana Islands, the two air forces 'collided' and when the gunpowder smoke cleared two days later, the Japanese had lost 402 aircraft and the Americans 50. Unfortunately, another 80 American planes crashed on the way back due to lack of fuel.

Now that the Japanese air force was eliminated, the Americans focused on Saipan. Saipan was liberated on 9 July 1944, but it cost the lives of 3,500 Americans and 30,000 Japanese; 400 Saipanese were also killed. Although the 9000 Japanese on the island of Tinian were trapped like rats, they refused to surrender. It took another nine days before Tinian was liberated at the cost of 400 Americans and 5000 Japanese. The conquest of the Marianas in 1944 heralded Japan's defeat. Bombing raids were immediately sent from Tinian in the direction of Japan. Of great importance for the course of the war were of course the two atomic bomb flights to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Rota, only the landing strips were bombed, allowing the Japanese to occupy the island until the end of the war.

American Commonwealth status

After the devastating effects of the war, no further attempts were made to restart the sugar industry. In 1947, the islands, along with the Caroline Islands and Marshall Islands, were entrusted to the United States by the United Nations as a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1948, the northern part of Saipan became off-limits to all. From then on, secret military missions were carried out from here. This lasted until 1962 when the Northern Mariana Islands were opened to visitors again. In 1961 the inhabitants of Saipan and Rota petitioned the American government to merge with Guam. This request was repeated every year until 1969 when the residents of Guam voted against it in a referendum.

In June 1975, the inhabitants of the Northern Mariana Islands voted to become part of the US Commonwealth, thus becoming the first district to withdraw from the Trust Territory. Under the Commonwealth Agreement, which began in January 1978, the Northern Mariana Islands were granted the right to internal self-government. The United States retained control over foreign affairs and defence. In November 1986 a new Commonwealth agreement was concluded and the inhabitants became official citizens of the United States. Only defence and foreign relations remained the responsibility of the United States. This agreement can only be broken by mutual consent. The current governor is Eloy S. Inos since 20 February 2013. Ralph Torres was sworn in as Governor of the Northern Mariana Islands in December 2015 following the sudden death of his predecessor Eloy Inos. He was elected president in November 2018, with the next election scheduled for 2022.

See also history of the United States.


Galbraith, K. / Micronesia
Lonely Planet

Levy, N. / Micronesia handbook

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info