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Micronesia Small Islands Of The Pacific Ocean History Essay

Micronesia is the name for the “small islands” of the Pacific Ocean Islands (Oceana). Numbering in the thousands, they lie south of Japan and north of Melanesia and west of Polynesia. The name Micronesia was coined by Jules Dumont d’Urville in 1831 from two Greek words: mikros (μικρός) which means “little or small”, and nesos (νῆσος), meaning “island.” The Micronesians were originally a mixture of those who arrived in the islands in relatively late times from Melanesia, Polynesia or the Philippines. The Yapese on Yap are related to the Austronesian tribes of the northern Philippines. Other people in the Micronesian Islands are Polynesian or others who found the many small islands. Today Micronesians include people of European, Japanese and other ethnic origins. They speak a number of languages including Chuukese, Carolinian, Kosraean, Palauan, Pohnpeian, and in some cases Japanese, Filipino languages and English.

There are four main groups of islands in Micronesia: Carolines, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas. The Carolines lie north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines. Within the Carolines Islands archipelago, are about five hundred coral atolls or larger island groups such as Yap, the Palau Islands, the Chuuk Islands, Pohnrae Islands and the Kosrae Islands. Many are uninhabited coral atolls, while a few have extinct volcanoes reaching over two thousand feet in height, which are covered in lush vegetation in the tropical climate.

The Carolines were first discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1527. They were ruled by Spain until 1899 as the Nuevas Filipinas (New Philippines) and were considered part of the Spanish East Indies. The Spanish governor of the Philippines ruled the islands from Manila. Spain sold its interests to Germany after its defeat in the Spanish-American War (1898). Germany ruled the Carolines until 1914 when they were seized by the Empire of Japan during World War I. The Japanese were forced out during World War II. The island of Chuuk was the site of the Battle of Truk in World War II. The word “Truk” in Chuukeese language means mountain. It was heavily fortified by the Japanese who had taken the island from the Germans in 1914.

From the end of World War II until 1991 the Carolines were administered by the United States as a part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Today the Caroline Islands are independent states, but divided politically. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnrae and Kosrae belong to the Federated States of Micronesia which is composed of five high volcanic islands. Palau is usually included in the Caroline chain, but it is an independent nation now. Its status as an United Nations trust territory ended in 1994. While its people are of Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian or Asian origins they are often included with Melanesia rather than Micronesia.

Most of the people of the Carolines live by fishing, farming and fruit exporting. The tourist potential of the islands has not been develop much because of a lack of infrastructure. Active missionary work by both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries has led to the conversion of most of the people to Christianity.

The Gilbert Islands are a chain of sixteen coral islands and atolls running roughly north to south that are grouped into the northern, central and southern Gilberts. The Northern Gilberts include the islands of Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang and Tarawa. They are separated by the Equator from the Central Gilberts which include Maiana, Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka and Nonouti. The Southern Gilberts include Tabiteuea, Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae. The Gilbert Islands were known in the Nineteenth Century as the Kingsmill Islands. The people speak Gilbertese which is called Tungaru in Gilbertese. They call the Gilberts the Kiribati in Gilbertese. Micronesians settled the Gilberts several thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. Captain Thomas Gilbert commanding the HMS Charlotte and the HMS Scarborough commanded by Captain John Marshall sailed through the Gilberts in 1788 in their First Fleet transport ships taking convicts to Australia. The islands were named for Captain Gilbert in 1820 by Admiral Adam Johann Ritter von Krusenstern (1770 –1846), leader of the first Russian circumnavigation of the world. In 1828 the USS Peacock and in 1838 the USS Flying Fish visited the Gilberts and mapped them extensively. In 1883 the British declared the Gilberts to be a protectorate and then in 1892 expanded their claim to make them a British colonial possession. Christian missionaries operating under the protection of the British Navy converted most of the native people to Christianity by the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942. The Japanese were not well received by the Gilbertese who opposed them in a number of ways. The great battles of Tarawa and Makin Island were fought in the Gilberts in 1943. In 1979 the Gilberts became an independent country with the name of Kiribati. The population is small and is supported by traditional crafts and activities.

The Marshall Islands are the third group of islands composing the Micronesian Islands. Scattered over an area the size of Mexico the Marshall Islands have a land area of about 190 square miles. The Marshall Islands consists of over two dozen atolls and five islands. These are distributed into two chains of islands: the Ratak or “sunrise” chain and the Ralik or “sunset” chain. The islands were named for the English explorer Captain John Marshall who visited the islands in 1799 long after the first European visit of the Spaniard¸ Miguel de Saavedra in 1529. Spain claimed the islands in 1592 and exercised control until ceding its rights to Germany. In 1885 Germany annexed the Marshall Islands. However, the islands were seized from Germany in 1914 after the start of World War I by the Japanese. The Japanese held the islands after the end of the Great War under a League of Nations mandate. However, despite obligations not to fortify the Marshall Islands and other Micronesian Islands it had seized from Germany it proceed to build numerous heavy fortification. During World War II the islands, despite their heavy fortifications were captured by the United States in 1944 during its Marshall Islands campaign. The Battles of Kwajalein Atoll and Enewetak Atoll were part of the island hopping strategy that left many Japanese garrisons isolated. The battles were very fierce resulting in the virtual elimination of the Japanese garrisons and costing Americans thousands of lives.

After World War II the United States took possession of the Marshalls and other Micronesian islands under the new United Nations’ charter. It used some of the Marshall Islands as sited for testing nuclear weapons. These sites included the islands of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. The natives who lived on these two atolls were relocated to other islands before both atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested. The people had been promised that they would be allowed to return, and eventually did. However, their health seemed to suffer from residual effects of the radiation resulting from the atomic testing. This seemed to have occurred despite the fact that the United States removed all of the top soil in an attempt to cleanse the islands of the effects of the nuclear weapons radiation. The Marshallese people immigrated to the islands in prehistoric times from eastern Asia. In 1979 the Marshall Islands became independent. Since then it has had problems with political stability. The population is around 60,000 people. However, many other thousands of Marshallese live in Hawaii or in the states of the United States’ west coast.

The fourth and most northern of the Micronesian Islands are the Mariana Islands. The islands are the tops of undersea mountains that range from Guam to near Japan in a 1,565 mile (2,519 km) long chain. The total land area is 389 square miles (1007 square kilometers). Near the Mariana Islands is the Mariana Trench which is the lowest place on earth. The Marianas are composed of two groups of islands. The northern ones are volcanic with several having mountains with the highest over 2,700 feet (820 km.). There are ten islands in the northern group, but only Agrihan, Anatahan, Alamagan and Pagan are inhabited. The islands have volcanic craters and show signs of volcanic activity in recent historical time. More specifically the islands are part of the Izu-Bonin Mariana Arc system which has been formed by the Pacific plate’s subduction under the Mariana plate.

The southern group islands in the Mariana are Rota, Guam, Aguijan, Tinian and Saipan. These are coral and limestone islands. Aguijan is not inhabited, but the other islands are. Aguijan is a steep sided island located across the Tinian Channel from Tinian Island. Its original native vegetation has been destroyed by the many goats that have multiplied there giving Aguijan its nickname of Goat Island.

Guam was the first island visited by Ferdinand Magellan on March 6, 1521, after crossing the Pacific on his circumnavigation of the earth. They were occasionally called the Ladrones Islands (Islas de los Ladrones) or “Islands of Thieves.” The name Marianas was given to the islands to honor the Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria in 1667. Spain ruled the Marianas as part of the Spanish East Indies until 1898. In1899 Spain sold the Marianas and other Micronesian islands to the German Empire along with the Carolines and Palau. The Philippines and Guam were taken by the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War. The Japanese Empire took the Marianas from Germany during World War I and then heavily fortified them. The island of Guam was attacked at the same time as the attack on the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. In 1944 the United States took Saipan and Tinian after fierce fighting that destroyed the Japanese Garrisons and killed many American service members. Guam was liberated shortly afterward. The islands were then used as bases for bombers flying to attack Japan. On August 6th and 9th 1945 B-29 bombers flew from Tinian to Japan with atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima (Enola Gay) and Nagasaki (Backscar) to end the war.

After World War II the Marianas were administered by the United States as a United Nations trustee territory. Politically Guam and the Northern Marianas are treated differently by the United States. The Northern Marianas are United States territory called the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. Guam, the southern most of the Marianas, is an American territory with its own government. Its people are the Chamorros who came to Guam about four thousand years ago. The Spanish brought Roman Catholicism to the people. It became an American possession after the Spanish-American War. Its people suffered terrible atrocities during the Japanese occupation. It was liberated on July 21, 1944, a date still celebrated as “Liberation Day.” The economy of Guam is heavily dependent upon tourism and American military expenditures. The indigenous people of the Marianas and Guam are currently content to be in a free association with the United States which provides military and financial, as well as easy access to the United States.

Andrew J. Waskey

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