Colonial History

The Marshall Islands possess a unique colonial history characterized by early contact with Westerners and a number of colonial regimes. The significant effects of this colonial history have contributed much to the shaping of the modern-day Marshall Islands.

Contact with the Western world occurred relatively early in these islands. The Spanish were the first Europeans to sail into and explore the Pacific (with Magellan landing on Guam in 1521) and during that century at least eight Spanish ships sailed through the Marshall Islands. During these brief early visits, the Marshallese became some of the first Pacific Islanders to establish contact and initiate trade with Westerners.

Foreign visits subsided over the next two centuries but quickly resumed in 1788 when British Captains Marshall and Gilbert sailed into the islands. These islands would later be named after Captain Marshall. Other British ships followed, including the Brittania in 1797, the Rolla in 1803 and the Elizabeth in 1809.

Following the British came the Russians, who visited the Marshalls aboard the Rurik, captained by Otto Von Kotzebue, throughout the years 1816 through 1823. The Rurik’s crew, which included artist Ludwig Choris and naturalist Adelbert von Chamisso, conducted the first ever hydrographical, botanical, and ethnological studies on the Marshall Islands.  Choris’ artistic interpretations of the islands the Rurik visited are some of the earliest throughout the Pacific.

Whalers also visited the Marshalls during the early half of the 1800s but had ceased their whaling activities by 1850 mainly due to the introduction of kerosene which made oil whale obsolete.

In 1857, the first missionaries, from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFDM), arrived from Honolulu with missionaries from both New England and Hawaii. Initially starting their work on the atoll of Ebon, the missionaries gradually branched out and by the end of the century they had established churches on almost every inhabited atoll. Today, Christianity and other forms of Western religion are an important part of Marshallese society.

Germans also entered the Marshalls during the 1850s, with Adolph Capelle, a German trader, arriving on Ebon from Samoa in 1859. Capelle was joined by Jose deBrum, a Portuguese, and together they built the first trading post in the Marshalls and also became the first Europeans to start families and live permanently here. Following Capelle and deBrum, several German firms began establishing themselves in the Marshalls. In 1885, two individual German trading firms merged to form the Jaluit Company which took on the dual role as trading company and colonial administrator. With the development of the Jaluit Company the Marshalls were finally declared a German protectorate with headquarters on Jabor, Jaluit.

When the First World War broke out 29 years into official German rule, Japan, which had joined the allies quickly after the beginning of war, sent naval squadrons into the Marshalls and took military possession of the islands in October of 1914. Japan began to increase its presence in the Marshalls with its population centered on Jaluit and Majuro. From these two atolls, the Japanese continued the work of the Jaluit Company, replacing it with the Nanyo Boeki Kaisha Company (NBK). In 1922, Japan was awarded Micronesia (including the Marshall Islands) as a Class “C” mandate by the League of Nations. When Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 it began military fortification of several atolls in the late 1930s.

After heavy fighting in the Pacific and especially in the Marshall Islands, the Japanese were defeated in the Second World War and the United States was the next major power to occupy the Marshalls. After the U.S. takeover in 1945, the U.S. Navy governed the Marshalls (in addition to the Northern Marianas, Palau, Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei) and in 1947, the Marshalls were given by the United Nations to the U.S. as a Strategic Trust. In 1951, the administration of the Marshalls switched from the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior.

In the mid to late 1970s, while still under the U.S. Trust status, a growing sense of identity and desire for greater independence led the Marshall Islands to embark on an endeavor towards self-determination. This was ultimately manifested in 1986 through the Compact of Free Association, which transformed the country from a U.S. Trust to a freely associated nation, the Republic of the Marshall Islands.