Map of Micronesia

Quick facts

Pronunciation: Mye-cro-NEE-zhuns
Location: Western Pacific, north of the equator
Population: 555,314
Language: Indigenous languages of the islands and English
Religion: Christianity with elements of native religion

Micronesia, the “little islands,” is a geographic and cultural region that is comprised of over 2,500 islands spread across the vast north, west and central Pacific Ocean in an area equivalent in size to the continental United States. Although the term Micronesia refers to their relatively small land mass, the individual islands actually vary in size and shape—from high islands with tall mountains and rain forests, to low lying atolls. Compared to Polynesia and Melanesia, Micronesia is the least studied of the Pacific islands regions but it has a lot of historical significance as a site of European and Asian economic exploits and Christian missionization, as well as the location of some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. More importantly, Micronesia is a place rich in cultural resources and history, home to diverse and vibrant peoples, and a strategic location for international geopolitical interests.

Micronesia is divided into four distinct archipelagos and their outlying islands: the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Mariana Islands, and Kiribati. Also included are Nauru and Wake Island. The Caroline Islands are further divided into the Western Carolines, which include Palau and Yap, and the Eastern Carolines, which include Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. The Mariana Islands consist of fifteen volcanic islands that include Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam, the largest and southernmost of the Marianas. Although lumped together into a single geographic region, each of these Micronesian island groups has its own unique culture, language and traditions. In addition, each island group has their own colonial history under various powers from Spain, Germany, the US, Great Britain and Japan.

Politically, the islands of Micronesia are sovereign nations or territories of other western countries. The Republic of Palau (Belau), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Kiribati and the Republic of Nauru are all independent island nations. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the organized, unincorporated territory of Guam, and the unorganized, unincorporated territory of Wake Island, are territories of the US. The Federated States of Micronesia are comprised of four island states: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap. Furthermore, Palau, RMI and FSM are in a special relationship with the US known as a “compact of free association” (COFA). Through the compacts of free association, these islands provide the US with access to land and ocean spaces for military strategic purposes. In turn the US provides them with protection and its residents with opportunities to live, work and travel freely in the US mainland and its territories, a situation that has led to many interesting challenges for all sides of this political relationship.

Physical geology

The islands of Micronesia come in many shapes and sizes. Most of them are volcanic in origin, and some even have active volcanoes, such as Anatahan and Pagan in the Northern Marianas. Some are low-lying atolls, ring-like remnants of long eroded volcanoes, like the atolls found in the Marshall Islands or Kiribati. Some islands are limestone or coral uprises, remnants of coral reef that have unique, umbrella or mushroom-like shapes, such as the Rock Islands in Palau. Some Micronesian islands have large, relatively flat open spaces, and others have grasslands or savannas. Some have jagged, rocky coastlines, as well as pristine white or dark sand beaches.

The main island types in Micronesia are described as continental and volcanic (or high islands), and coral (low islands). Palau, Yap and the Marianas are known as continental islands. They rest on the eastern edge of the Philippine plate. The larger Pacific plate, in a process known as subduction, sinks beneath the Philippine plate where the two meet, pushing up the Philippine plate and creating islands that appear above the ocean’s surface. Towards the central and eastern Pacific, cracks in the Pacific plate provide openings that allow magma or molten lava to emerge and create large seamounts that break through the ocean’s surface. The effects of erosion over time of the seamount eventually creates islands with livable conditions including rich but thin soils. Coral reefs form around all these types of islands, starting as fringing reefs growing on the edge of the seamount, then eventually become freestanding reefs as the seamount erodes below the ocean surface. These coral growths form the distinct ring-like islands surrounding a large central lagoon and are known as atolls. While atolls may have very little arable land or fresh water, these lagoons are generally rich in marine resources.

The coral atolls, such as those of the Marshall Islands, have very low elevations, sometimes less than seven feet in some areas. Kiribati is also comprised of coral atolls. Because of this low elevation, atolls are very susceptible to the damaging effects of typhoons, tsunamis, surface waves and drought.

The total amount of land area for the over 2,500 islands of Micronesia is approximately 2,590 sq km (1,000 sq mi), spread across an ocean space about 7,510,965 sq km (2,900,000 sq mi) in area. About 123 islands are inhabited by humans. All the Micronesian islands are located in the tropics, and, except for some of the islands of Kiribati, lie above the equator between 5 and 10 degrees north latitude. At Micronesia’s westernmost edge is the island of Tobi at 130 degrees west longitude, and the easternmost island, Arorae in Kiribati, lies at 177 degrees east longitude. They all experience fairly constant warm land and surrounding ocean temperatures, as well as seasonal rainfalls.

The “rainy season” in the north Pacific runs from July to October while November through June are considered “dry season.” During the rainy season, the climate around the Eastern Carolines, particularly Pohnpei and Chuuk, is quite suitable for tropical depressions and storms to develop. These weather systems move in a general westward direction and can sometimes travel toward Palau and the Mariana Islands. Sometimes these tropical storms intensify into typhoons that can a have major destructive impact on the islands in their path. In fact, this part of the Pacific is sometimes called Typhoon Alley because of the pattern of development and westward movement of tropical storms and typhoons in this area, with an average of 20 or more typhoons forming here each year.

The Palau islands, the Marianas and Yap are also located along the western edge of the Ring of Fire, a zone demarcated around the edges of the major Pacific tectonic plate where there is a high amount of volcanic and earthquake activity. As such, these islands experience a considerable number of earthquakes every year. There are also two deep ocean trenches. One is near Yap, called the Yap Trench, and the other is near the Mariana Islands. The Marianas Trench is the deepest part of the Pacific—and in fact, is deeper than any other spot in any of the world’s oceans.

The unique geography, climates, topography and relative isolation of the islands of Micronesia have resulted in a variety of ecosystems and organisms. However, this also means the ecological balance of these islands is easily disrupted with the introduction of new or invasive species. The brown tree snake on Guam is one example of an invasive species that has had a profound impact on the ecology of the island, having wiped out a large majority of native birds. Although the islands of Micronesia never had to sustain enormous human populations, people have also impacted the ecology of islands through agriculture, construction projects and other activities that alter the landscape, as well as the introduction of food plants and animals or livestock. Weather, however, has probably been the biggest factor in limiting the population sizes in Micronesia. Nevertheless, the people who settled here adapted well to the unique conditions of the environment. They developed a network of social relationships among communities and other islands that emphasized sharing with each other and caring for limited environmental resources, and they managed to survive and thrive long before the first European ships arrived in the region.

Populating Micronesia

The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean covering at least one-third of the earth’s surface. When Europeans first began traveling through the Pacific in search of a viable trade route to Asia and continued exploring the region through the 18th and 19th centuries, they were surprised to find so many different islands. They were even more surprised to find so many people of different cultures, speaking many languages and living in complex societies. They had no idea that people had been moving in and around these islands for hundreds, even thousands of years before them, sailing in innovative ocean-going vessels and navigating by a sophisticated knowledge of the movements of stars and ocean currents.

Though not much is known about the populating of Micronesia, scientists believe it likely occurred from the movement of several distinct, loosely connected groups of people, each bringing their own cultural practices into the region. Over time, they continued to travel within their own archipelagoes and beyond, and to interact and influence each others’ cultural practices and social patterns.

The original inhabitants of western Micronesia likely came from island Southeast Asia and the ancestors of eastern Micronesia from somewhere between eastern Melanesia and West Polynesia. Archeological evidence points to the settling of the Mariana Islands as far back as 4,000 years ago, and Palau around 3,500 years ago. About 2,000 years later another wave of migration probably took place into the eastern Caroline Islands. Culturally and linguistically different from either the ancestors of the Palauans or the Chamorros of the Marianas, these individuals likely moved from East Asia, through Melanesia and through western Polynesia. Clearly, to settle the scattered, farther islands of Micronesia, people would have required a deep understanding of canoe technology and skilled navigation. These early travelers also would have brought with them familiar food plants that they transplanted onto their new settlements.

It is not clear whether the atolls or high islands were settled first, but some researchers believe that high islands were settled by people who came from or had previously lived on high islands already because of the early presence of pottery. People adapted to atoll life would not have had the materials to produce ceramics. While there is a gap of time between the settling of western and eastern Micronesia, archeologists believe it is possible that the islands in eastern Micronesia could have been settled simultaneously, within a period of a couple of hundred years, because of these migrants’ adeptness at ocean voyaging. While there is no evidence that the early inhabitants of the Palau islands or the Marianas interacted much with each other, there is evidence of prolonged contact between Palau and Yap. All three groups did have a ceramics culture, as well as fished and grew primarily taros and yams.

Archeologists have tried to piece together evidence for Micronesian origins in Southeast Asia, including clay pottery types, plant foods, and linguistics. The old lime-incised Marianas Redware (or Early Calcareous Ware) pottery from over 2,000 years ago bears some resemblance to late Neolithic era pottery styles from the Philippines or even Borneo. The practice of betel nut chewing as seen throughout much of Micronesia, for example, and the use of the loom for weaving cloth in Pohnpei and Kosrae, may reflect ancient direct connections to Asia. Archeologists have also tried to show connections between different island groups. The islands of Kiribati, for example, because of their closer proximity to Polynesia and Melanesia, show cultural influences from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

Linguistically, the peoples of Micronesia speak languages belonging the Austronesian family of languages, the largest and most widely distributed family of languages that extends from Madagascar to Easter Island. Unlike Polynesia, the languages of Micronesia are quite diverse, but not as diverse as the languages of Melanesia. Linguists believe the languages of the Chamorros of the Mariana Islands and the people of Palau, which were settled first, represent one subgroup of languages but that are older and differ substantially from each other. The other Micronesian languages are classified as “nuclear Micronesian” and share many linguistic features with each other that suggest a common origin.

However, over time as these speakers came to interact less and less with each other, their languages also diverged. Linguistic evidence suggests that the languages of Nauru and Kiribati represent an early divergence, followed by the Marshalls. The Chuuk and Pohnpei languages, which are more closely related to each other, probably diverged from one another more recently.

From wherever they came, Micronesians can trace their roots to those early travelers who settled—and thrived—in some of the most remote places on earth and developed into the diverse cultures we see among the Micronesian islands today.

Traditional Micronesian society

Because of their size, location and relative isolation, anyone who migrated and settled in the islands of Micronesia had to contend with the challenges of limited land resources, hot temperatures, varying rainfall, and the occasional typhoon. Micronesian island societies had to be well-adapted to survive the rigors of the natural environment, and yet, they exemplified the boundless potential of human innovation and power. They subsisted on ocean resources such as shell and fish to provide food and tools. They used stone to fashion tools for building, fishing and processing food. Plant materials were used as food, as well as to construct houses and canoes. Knowing how to construct vessels that could transport them across the ocean should not have been unexpected from people that relied on the ocean for their existence.

Although blandly labeled together as the “little islands” there is considerable cultural diversity throughout Micronesia, but some generalizations can be made. What follows is a general description of “traditional” Micronesian society and the unique features that distinguish them from the other culture areas of the Pacific, particularly regarding matrilineal patterns of descent, role of chiefs and linkages among island societies.

With a few exceptions, Micronesian social systems were based on rank, but for some of the islands, ranking was quite complex. In some islands, individuals could be ranked highly and have an almost kingly or chiefly status, while in other islands, people were led by groups of high-ranking individuals.

Lineages were, as they are today, the backbone of Micronesian communities. Members of a lineage held land in common, worked the land together, acted together and interacted with other lineages. Within each community there were several different clans, and clans could be dispersed among different communities on different islands. With few exceptions, inheritance of land or resources was usually matrilineal (or through the maternal or mother’s line of descent), but in other communities, patrilineal or even mixed group lines of descent prevailed. In matrilineal societies, males and females would become members of their mother’s matrilineage or clan. Siblings were ranked by birth order, and children within a lineage were also ranked by the birth order of their mothers. Groups of lineages that shared a common name or ancestor would be organized as clans. Even clans were hierarchical. Members of a clan were obligated to care for and protect each other and their shared resources. Leaders or chiefs of high-ranking clans would most likely also be the ones to occupy key leadership roles for the entire community.

For practical reasons, Micronesian communities generally recognized relatives from both parents’ sides. While there was an emphasis on matrilineage, there was also a recognition and honor of patrilineal (or paternal) ties. People felt free to call on or interact with close relatives regardless of the formal relationship. However, matrilineal ties were seen as more important because they were inherently enduring or lasting, whereas patrilineal ties to a father, his descent group and children, were not considered permanent.

In the high islands of the Marianas, Pohnpei and Kosrae, and the low-lying atolls of the Marshalls, certain clans or lineages were of high-ranking, paramount chiefly status and would make up a privileged ruling class. The upper and lower classes were separated further by layers of middle or noble classes (with titles). Pohnpei and Kosrae had single chiefly lines that dominated or ruled the entire island with centralized authority.

However, the atolls of the Carolines, such as Chuuk all the way to Ulithi, had more egalitarian social structures, with islands divided into districts and controlled by small autonomous communities. Lineage rankings were not based on birth order, but rather by who arrived or settled in the district first. The high ranking lineages controlled the land and access to other resources, and their head was also the community’s chief.

In contrast, Yap had the most complex stratified social organization. Lineages were based on maternal lines, but villages and landholdings were organized around patrilineal lines of descent. In the islands of Kiribati with their Polynesian influences, lineages were organized bilaterally, along both paternal and maternal lines of inheritance.

With these kinds of social organization, rivalry and competition between clans could be intense and warfare was common, but probably not as deadly as seen in warfare among European cultures. Warfare was endemic in Micronesia, with clans engaged continually in conflict to end or shift alliances, or to increase power of the ruling chiefs.

Another notable feature of Micronesian society was their mobility. Sailing between islands for trade, offering tribute, or deep sea fishing, was common, and the innovative outrigger canoe design with the movable sail was the trademark design that allowed Micronesian seafarers to sail quickly—and consistently—to their chosen destinations. This mobility was also important when people needed to leave their islands, either from natural disaster, drought or some other phenomenon, and travel to other islands they could call on in times of need, thus strengthening inter-island ties.

In matters of religion, people in Micronesian island societies did not worship a pantheon of deities as seen in Polynesia. Rather, they venerated their ancestral spirits, or believed in the presence of spirits in objects and natural phenomenon that could control success or failure of daily activities or warfare and an individual’s health.

As seen today, households in Micronesia traditionally were quite fluid, varying in composition, but usually comprised of related individuals. Generally, a household was multi-generational, consisting of an immediate family and certain extended relatives, including grandparents, siblings and their spouses and children. Sometimes, even non-related individuals, could have attached themselves to a household. It was also not uncommon for children to be adopted by relatives residing in other households. Sleeping arrangements were directed by strict incest taboos, which in general, prohibited sexually active—but not yet mature—young men and women of the same clan from being together. In other words, brothers and sisters, and even cousins (sons and daughters of sisters) were not to sleep near one another and could only have very limited interactions or avoid one another. Young unmarried men and young unmarried women, therefore, would need to find separate places in which to sleep away from the family household.

Men and women had different but complementary roles in Micronesian communities, and women generally were regarded and treated with respect. While men may have been responsible for the more public duties such as acting as spokesperson of the household, it was the women who were charged with the domestic tasks and making decisions regarding participation in community events. Nevertheless in general, even gender roles were fluid, for example, men and women carrying out domestic activities equally.

Regarding the arts, in Micronesia, songs and dance were the most impressive traditional art forms. They served as sources of solidarity and pride among performers as well as among clans and communities. The stick dance, in which lines of dancers execute complex movements that include the striking of long sticks, is common among Micronesian cultures, even today.

The use of flowers as a decorative item or body ornament is also quite common. Flowers would be strung together as garlands around the head or neck or around ears.

Textile weaving was seen in the Carolines, except for Palau, using threads processed from the trunks of banana plants and fibers from hibiscus bark, colored with natural dyes. Women for the most part were weavers, using looms to create wider fabrics, such as those used as women’s skirts or men’s loincloths. Decorated woven belts and sashes were “trademark” items produced from places like Kosrae and Pohnpei. Designs were usually geometric patterns or stripes. Although not all Micronesian cultures had cloth weaving, similar designs and motifs could be seen across the region in woven items like mats or in tattoo designs. In Micronesian cultures that had tattooing, both men and women traditionally were tattooed. In Pohnpei, for example, bodies of mature men may have been tattooed completely.

Wood carving is also common among different Micronesian peoples, who created a variety of carefully worked pieces, from masks to utilitarian items, and even to the most impressive ocean voyaging canoes. In Palau, the elaborately carved and decorated meeting houses, or bai, are grand and impressive.

Micronesians also worked with stone, creating tools and, in the case of the Chamorros in the Marianas, large stone pillars known as latte. The vast complex of islets and channels of Nam Mahdol in Pohnpei exemplifies the grandeur of Micronesia stone workmanship.

The islands of Micronesia have a long history of settlement and occupation, and the generalizations above about “traditional” Micronesian society does not do justice to the complexities and variations found in Micronesian communities or the social changes and cultural exchanges that may have occurred over centuries of continued social contact. But through the writings of early explorers into the region in the last 400 years, we can glimpse part of what life was like in these islands and the influences and challenges the native populations had to contend with as they transitioned into modern times. It does seem, though, that Micronesian islanders, in general, adapted well to the physical rigors of living among widely dispersed islands of various types with limited available resources. This may have been helped by the fact that having matrilineal clans that still recognized patrilineal and bilateral ties kept people socially obligated to care for each other. It also allowed for the development of social ranking and chief systems based on performance as well as birth order. Being able to sail long distances also helped ensure that island communities stayed interconnected, which was especially important during times of natural disaster.

A brief history

The written history of Micronesia often reads like a log of Western explorers traveling across the Pacific, stopping at various islands, and renaming them for themselves, their patrons or a particular day that the islands were first seen. The earliest encounters of Micronesians with Europeans occurred in 1521 with the arrival of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who famously sailed across the Pacific looking for a viable route to Asia and landed on Guam. He first named the islands Islas de las Velas Latinas (Islands of the Lateen Sails) and then changed it to Las Islas de los Ladrones, or the Islands of Thieves and set the tone for future European encounters in the rest of the Pacific.

Álvaro de Saavedra sighted the Marshall island group in 1529 during his second attempt to cross the Pacific. Sixteenth century Spanish navigators had collectively named the island groups of Palau and Yap as the Western Caroline Islands, and Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae as the Eastern Carolines, in honor of King Charles II of Spain. Wake Island, known as Enen-kio in Marshallese, was traveled to by nearby Marshall Islanders, but was not permanently settled. It was first spotted by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña in 1567, but named after British merchant Samuel Wake who “rediscovered” the island in 1796. Kiribati was formerly a British colony called the Gilbert Islands, named after British explorer Thomas Gilbert who sighted many of the islands in 1788. The British whale hunter John Fearn was the first Westerner to visit Nauru in 1798, naming it “Pleasant Island.”

The opening of the Manila Galleon Trade Route between Asia and South America/New Spain in 1565 marked the beginning of true global trade in the Pacific, but except for the yearly stop in the Ladrones/Marianas, most of Micronesia was left alone and unexplored. The Marianas had been claimed by Spain as official territories, but it was not until 1668 that Jesuit missionaries set up a Catholic mission in Guam and established the first formal Spanish colony in Micronesia. The islands were also renamed for Queen Mariana of Spain. Although met with native resistance, the Spanish managed to subdue the Chamorros and displaced the people living in the northern Marianas by moving them to Guam. The Spanish Jesuits had also tried to open missions in Palau and Ulithi but most of the priests were killed and so this mission effort was stopped.

Sustained European contact with the rest of Micronesia did not occur until around the the mid-1800s. However, as early as 1791, ships from the British East India Company passed through the Western Carolines on their way to Asia. One of the ships, the Antelope, wrecked on Palau and the crew spent several months living among the Palauan people and surveyed the islands. Around the same time, two other East India ships traveling from New South Wales to China in 1788 sighted the Marshall and Gilbert groups.

With the whaling industry in the mid-19th century growing, the need arose for new places to replenish their ships and crews, and so places like Kusaie (now Kosrae) and Ponape (now Pohnpei) became well known as ports of call. Not only were whalers visiting these ports, but also fur seal traders and even escaped convicts were making their way to these islands.

During these early years of European contact, the Micronesian islanders were introduced to different facets of European civilization, including Christianity, metals, disease and medicine, languages, food, and ideas like democracy and social justice. In these new port towns, firearms were sold, and drunkenness, gambling and prostitution were established, while the rest of Micronesia only had sporadic and infrequent contact. Some Carolinian communities, however, desirous of a continuous flow of European goods to their islands, tried to maintain access to them by making frequent canoe voyages to Guam. The rest of Micronesia, though, gained a reputation for being dangerous and the people as savages because of violent encounters that occurred there between Europeans and the native populations.

To counter the bad influences of the West on the “simple” Pacific Islanders, American missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) were sent to Micronesia to provide a more “benign influence.” Protestant European missionaries supported by native Hawaiian teachers were introduced to Kusaie and Ponape. As had happened in Polynesia, the foreign missionaries gained the confidence of the island chiefs to secure their influence and increase the number of converts. The ABCFM also sent missionaries to the Gilberts.

The Catholic and Protestant missionaries in Micronesia opened schools and introduced western medicine that competed with native houses of learning and traditional healing practices. New converts were trained to help supplement the need for more teachers, and by the 1870s, native teachers began to teach in missionary schools located throughout the Eastern Carolines, including the large island of Truk (now Chuuk).

But not everyone accepted the new religion, and some even learned to use the missionaries to achieve other political means. There were situations of local resistance by islanders, especially in Yap and Palau where the people pushed back against Christian conversion by asserting their indigenous religious belief systems such as sorcery or traditional gods. In Pohnpei, local political rivalries influenced the impact of Protestantism or Catholicism among the population. Some historians argue that in fact, Christianity was used by Micronesian peoples to help cope with the more oppressive aspects of colonial rule by allowing them to communicate with administrators and missionaries through a shared system of religious beliefs.

The missionization of the more remote Micronesian islands, though, seemed to make it easier for traders to want to come and conduct business there. However, with none of the resources found in the bigger islands of Polynesia and Melanesia, the Micronesian islanders had to have another way to engage in trade and commerce. Small independent merchants could not succeed the way they had in the other Pacific regions. It was not until large merchant companies with enough capital to invest and expertise to balance profits and losses that Micronesia would see a new industry emerge—copra.

Trade stations were set up in the Marshall Islands in the 1860s with resident agents spread throughout the Marshalls and the Eastern Carolines. Trade firms from Germany, including Godeffroy and Sohn, and New Zealand’s Henderson and MacFarlane entered the competition and set up shop. The most legendary figure in Micronesian trade was David D. O’Keefe who went from being washed ashore in Yap in 1871 to successfully building up a trade network in the Western Carolines. Another German company, the Jaluit Company, eventually monopolized all trade in the Marshall Islands.

Throughout this period, the Europeans in Micronesia had little interest in engaging in politics with local leadership. However, by the 1880s, Germany had the strongest presence in Micronesia compared to the British or the Americans. They began eyeing Spain’s possessions, the Western Carolines. In response, the Spanish tried to reclaim their island territories to keep them from falling under German control. A conflict rose up as each nation tried to claim Yap. In 1885 Pope Pius IX intervened and kept the Western Carolines under the control of Spain, but Germany would be allowed to set up trading posts and military stations. Nauru was added to the German Empire in 1886. The British maintained their influence in the Gilbert Islands, having declared them a protectorate in 1882 and a colony in 1915, and the Spanish maintained hold of the Marianas.

During this time of European encounters, the populations on each of the island groups declined significantly. Early estimates of the population of the Marianas prior to the Spanish reducción was about 50,000, but had been reduced to about 3,500 by the beginning of the 17th century. Likewise, the Marshallese population had declined from about 15,000 to about 10,000, and in Kosrae, from 3,000 to 300. Disease was the main cause for the decline in population but the loss of traditional ways of life in the face of externally forced change was just as destructive for the peoples of Micronesia.

20th century economies

In 1898, the Spanish-American War pitted Spain against the US in a fight over the US’s intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. As a territory of Spain, Guam’s governor engaged briefly with an American warship sent to the Pacific to attack Spain’s Pacific possessions—and surrendered. The Treaty of Paris that ended the war ceded Guam to the US, increasing the number of America’s Pacific territories to three—the others being American Samoa and Hawaii. The US, however, did not acquire the other Mariana Islands, which instead were purchased from Spain by Germany. Germany also paid for the rest of the Caroline Islands after the war. The US formally took possession of Wake Island in 1899, initially eyeing the island as a suitable site for a cable station between Honolulu and Guam, although Midway Island was chosen for the cable station instead.

Germany, however, continued to struggle to make significant economic profit from their Micronesian territories. Copra was replaced by phosphate as the most profitable trade item from 1906 to 1914. Phosphate could be found in Nauru, Fais, Ngeaur, Beliliou, and Tobi in the Western Carolines. Laborers from the different islands were recruited to work in the various phosphate mines, often under poor conditions.

Isolated and largely indefensible, Germany lost their Pacific territories when they lost World War I. As early as 1914, Japan, allied with Great Britain, eagerly and fiercely took over Germany’s Pacific possessions. A League of Nations mandate at the end of World War I gave Japan formal control of the islands. Japan dismantled the mission schools and set up new schools designed to provide a basic education, but not for religion or the advancement of the Micronesian islanders. The Japanese also made significant economic investments in agriculture, industry and commerce. Laborers from Japan and other Japanese territories were brought into Micronesia in large numbers to meet the demand for laborers to work in phosphate mines or on sugar plantations. By 1935, there were about 50,000 Japanese immigrants living in the islands, mostly from Okinawa. By 1942, there were over 96,000 Japanese nationals in Micronesia.

The presence and activities of the various colonial administrations in Micronesia also had an impact on land ownership. During their time in Micronesia, Spain had believed all land in their territories belonged to the Spanish Crown, but they still acknowledged indigenous land holding practices and purchased specific tracts of land for churches, government buildings and military garrisons. The Germans in the Marianas tried to instill a system of private land ownership, building from the Spanish who had issued titles to private individuals for set parcels of land. However, in Pohnpei, the Germans wanted to reform the land holding system to undermine the chiefly control of native lands. The people rebelled and it was several years before the German government was able to implement their land reforms. The Japanese initially respected land ownership rights of the Micronesians until increased labor immigration also increased the need for more land. Soon, any uninhabited lands, including areas traditionally used for farming, hunting or fishing were appropriated by the colonial government.

In 1916, the Gilbert Islands became a crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The Line Islands, including Christmas Island and Fanning Island, were added to the colony in 1919 and the Phoenix Islands in 1937.

In Guam, the US had placed its Pacific territory under the control of the US Navy. Guam essentially became a military outpost and coaling station. The local population numbered about 10,000 and subsisted on agriculture and fishing. The Chamorros under 300 years of direct Spanish rule had adapted many aspects of Spanish, Filipino and Mexican cultures with indigenous Chamorro culture to produce an interesting mix of traditions and customs. With the change in administration the Americans improved the island’s infrastructure, built roads and even a cable station, to accommodate the needs of the US military and the local population and to bring Guam into the 20th century. In an effort to Americanize the Chamorros, the Navy introduced American traditions and holidays to replace Spanish holidays and Catholic religious feasts, with limited success with the latter. However, Chamorros were given few civil rights under naval rule, and despite efforts by local leaders and even some naval governors, the Chamorros remained wards of the US Navy.

Japan added Guam to its Pacific territories in 1941 after attacking the island and the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Japan also managed to wrestle Wake Island away from the US after heavy fighting and substantial losses to the Japanese military. They also took over the small island of Nauru and the Gilbert Islands. Over 1,200 Nauruans were deported to Chuuk as laborers. As on these islands, the three-year Japanese occupation of Guam was brutal for many Chamorros, particularly in 1944. Some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II happened among the coral atolls and islands of Micronesia as the US battled the Japanese back to their homeland. Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts was the site of another bloody battle in 1943. Nauru was liberated from Japanese occupation by Australian forces. The defeat of Japan at the end of World War II saw the islands of Micronesia fall back into US hands. Guam once again became a military outpost, as did Wake Island, while the United Nations placed the islands of Palau, Kosrae, Marshall Islands, Yap, Pohnpei, Chuuk and the Northern Mariana Islands into a Trust Territory of the US (US TTPI or simply, TTPI).

Nauru became a Trust Territory of New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. It became a self-governing nation in 1966 and two years later after approving a constitution, Nauru became an independent nation.

After World War II, the Gilbert and Ellis Islands remained a British colony. By 1971 they were granted self rule, but separated in 1975. The Gilbert Islands became an independent nation in 1979 and formed the new nation of Kiribati.

Under US Trusteeship
In the aftermath of World War II, the US took control of the former Japanese colonies and became concerned about maintaining the militarily strategic advantage their Pacific territories gave them. Even though many in the US did not believe the US should even have colonies, the rise of the Soviet Union and communism in Asia seemed to make it imperative to keep others hostile to US interests out of the region. And after the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Japanese, many Micronesian islanders expressed a desire to have ties to the US. Even the US Congress did not want to release these possessions, but they had no effective policy for administering them.

The UN Trusteeship provided a compromise. In 1947 when the trusteeship was formed, the US was not given outright possession of the region, but they would administer the islands and use them as necessary for defense. In turn, the US would also be responsible for developing these islands toward self-government or independence as appropriate to the particular circumstances and the expressed wishes of the people. The US, however, made no effort to develop the islands as they had been mandated by the United Nations until they were criticized by the UN.

It was also around this time that the US began conducting nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands; the first test at Bikini atoll occurred in 1946. Testing continued at various times until 1962, with over 60 devices detonated in Bikini and Enewetak. The largest of these tests occurred in 1954, exposing hundreds of Marshallese Islanders in neighboring islands to nuclear fallout. The physical and environmental effects of nuclear testing have been devastating, resulting in illness that has lasted generations, displacement, social problems, and destruction of islands to which people can no longer return.

Initially the TTPI was treated with “benign neglect”—in other words, they were largely ignored by the US and most Americans remained ignorant of the islands, the people and their cultures. The US Navy was placed in charge of the TTPI and established a headquarters in Guam. The navy set up municipal governments among the TTPI, comprised of chiefs and councilmen, along established regional divisions. In 1951, the Department of Interior was given administrative responsibility, and placed the TTPI headquarters in Saipan. While there was no evidence that the US was trying to preserve and protect the indigenous cultures in these islands, they did regulate entry into the islands and increased their military and national security activities in the spirit of the Cold War. Travel and entry through the region was highly restricted and required security clearances. The US was particularly interested in Bikini and Enewetak as testing sites for nuclear weapons. The US was also interested in setting up a missile base on Kwajelein Atoll. In the west, the Mariana Islands were used by the Central Intelligence Agency to train Nationalist Chinese troops. The other islands, however, were largely ignored and Americans held most of the government or administrative positions.

In 1961, the UN sent a visiting mission to the Trust and put together a report that harshly criticized the US and its neglect of the islands. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy set up an investigative commission headed by Anthony Solomon to assess the situation in the TTPI. The Solomon Report that followed assumed that the islands had to remain closely tied to the US, and therefore recommended increased support, economic development and infrastructure improvements. In response to UN criticism and the Solomon Report, President Kennedy enacted budget increases and federal programs to assist the islands. However, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the US was no longer focused on the TTPI.

By 1966, a large contingent of well-meaning Peace Corps volunteers arrived to assist the islands with education and building infrastructure. The US Congress instituted welfare assistance for the territories by extending social programs intended for the American poor and disadvantaged, but the large number of welfare programs operating in the islands was uncoordinated and actually did not consider the unique situation of the TTPI residents. Arguably, the welfare was culturally and socially destructive. A huge bureaucracy was created as people from the outer islands moved to the government centers seeking education, employment and the benefits of the federal programs. The government was the largest employer and the people became dependent on government aid, creating a “welfare state.”

Another important development at this time was the desire of Micronesians for self-determination. In 1960, the United Nations General Assembly released what is now commonly known as the Declaration on Decolonization. The Declaration recognized the right to self-determination of all peoples and called for the end of colonial rule among the world’s trust and non-self governing territories. In 1964, the Congress of Micronesia was established, modeled after the bicameral structure of the US Congress and given an advisory role within the TTPI government. Two years later, a political status commission was created to explore the options of independence, free association, integration with the US or the status quo. The commission recommended free association but this was rejected by the US after political status negotiations with the TTPI in 1969.

The US, though, had assumed the islands would want a common political future, not appreciating the diversity of the TTPI and their desire for different things. The Northern Mariana Islands wanted a separate political status from the rest of the TTPI, and eventually pursued the formation of a commonwealth relationship with the US. By the early 1970s, the US Government relented and the other islands were given an option of free association as well as separate negotiations. The partitioning of the TTPI would eventually result in independence but in free association with the US with special conditions.

Political Status and the Compacts of Free Association (COFA)
Separate from the rest of the TTPI, Guam had moved in its own direction in establishing its formal relationship with the US. In 1950, the Organic Act of Guam was signed and the island became an organized, unincorporated territory. The island was removed from naval control and a civilian government, legislature and judiciary were established. The people of Guam were also granted US citizenship as determined by the US Congress. Over the years, the Organic Act has been modified, and Guam now has an elected governor and a non-voting representative in the US House of Representatives. After unsuccessfully trying to become a commonwealth in the 1980s and 1990s, Guam remains an unincorporated territory, still looking at options of self-determination and/or decolonization from the US.

The Northern Mariana Islands, like Guam, were the most westernized of the Micronesian islanders and had enjoyed the benefits of being in close association with the US. They requested separate negotiations from the rest of the TTPI, and because of the US interest in the Marianas, their request was granted. In 1975, the people voted for a covenant to become the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and a year later the covenant was formalized by the US. The Chamorros also were granted US citizenship.

Palau and the Marshall Islands were granted separate negotiations as well, while Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae had to negotiate their political status together. In 1979, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) established constitutional governments, and in 1981, the people of Palau adopted their own constitution. In addition to their acquired rights and responsibilities of self-government, they each drew up compacts of free association with the US.

The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) are long documents that list out the arrangements in which the US Government is allowed to carry out strategic prerogatives in Micronesia, in exchange for financial subsidies and federal assistance.

Although similar to each other, the different freely associated states have their own sets of subsidiary agreements. Each freely associated state is independent and their people are citizens of their respective states and not American citizens. However, they are also considered “habitual residents” of the US, meaning they are allowed to enter and work in the US and its territories without visas or work permits.

The compacts also essentially give each freely associated government control over their own internal and foreign affairs, except where US strategic or defense interests (which the US determines) are involved. The US in turn is responsible for the defense of the freely associated states, and guarantees certain federal services, including weather service, aviation agencies, international postal service and disaster relief.

RMI and FSM residents voted for their compacts in 1983. The US Congress approved them in 1985, and President Ronald Reagan signed them the following year. The compacts for RMI and FSM were in effect for 15 years. In 2003, both FSM and RMI renegotiated their compacts up to 2023; the new compacts meant a decrease in funding but also allowed for the establishment of a trust fund for the future.

In 1981, the people of Palau adopted a nuclear-free constitution and voted on a compact with the US in 1986 for independence with free association. However, the compact went against their desire to remain nuclear-free. Subsequent votes on the compact occurred until the constitution was finally changed to allow the US to maintain a nuclear presence. Palau became independent in 1994, and while the US military has control over the island nation’s foreign affairs, the government of Palau would receive federal aid for the next 50 years.

These new political statuses resulted in a number of challenges for the people of the former Trust Territory. Urbanization in the islands and a growing population has amplified the need for economic development and stability. Increased urbanization has also resulted in overcrowding especially in administrative centers with inadequate infrastructure to handle water, sewage and electrical systems. Lack of adequate housing is also an issue in some Micronesian islands. While there have also been opportunities for wage labor and education, many residents suffer from malnutrition due to an increased reliance on imported or processed foods. Transitioning to modern, urban lifestyles has led to a loss of culture and traditional authority, which is related to observed increases in alcohol abuse and suicide, especially among young people.

The effect of the Compacts of Free Association has also gone far beyond the shores of the Freely Associated States. Because the compacts allowed individuals from FAS to live and work in the US and its territories, many people began to move to places like Guam, Hawaii and the west coast of the continental US. For places like Guam and Hawaii, the movement of large numbers of FAS citizens has had an impact—dubbed “Compact Impact”—that has overwhelmed local infrastructure and resources. In response, the governments of Guam and Hawaii have continually sought more federal aid to alleviate the burden of increased migration.

For further reading

Campbell, I.C. A History of the Pacific Islands. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Hanlon, David L. Remaking Micronesia: Discourses over Development in a Pacific Territory, 1944-1982. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1998.

Hezel, Francis X. The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2001.

Howe, K.R., Robert C. Kiste, and Brij V. Lal, eds. Tides of History: The Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1994.

Petersen, Glenn. Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2009.

Micronesian delegations

POP Cultures sections