Historical Background: Colonization of Pacific Islands


Micronesia includes the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau (Belau), the U. S. Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Historically, Micronesians descended from seafarers who populated the island atolls between 2000 BC and 500 BC. Since the first contact with Westerners, starting with the Portuguese and Spanish explorers, the islands have been colonized by various European and Asian countries. For example, Pohnpei, an island state of the Federated States of Micronesia, was first “discovered” in 1526 when the Spaniards named it the “New Phillippines”. Spain later “claimed sovereignty” over most of Micronesia. Germany was the official colonizer for one year before Spain formally occupied Pohnpei in 1866. Germany “bought” the island from Spain in 1899 after the conclusion of the Spanish American War. Japan annexed the island in 1914 and Pohnpei became a US territory after the defeat of the Japanese empire during World War II.

In 1979, Pohnpei joined three other island states to become the Federated States of Micronesia. The country has had a compact of free association with the US since 1982 (Ashby, 1993). A similar political history occurred for the Republic of Palau. Palau was “discovered” in 1710 by Spain. It too was sold to the Germans, annexed by Japan and later became part of the US-managed Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands after World War II. Independence came to Palau in 1994 and it has had a compact of free association with the US since 1994 (Barbour, 1995).

The island of Guam, also a part of Micronesia, was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898. Captured by the Japanese in 1941, it was retaken by the US three years later and today remains, along with Saipan and other neighboring islands, an unincorporated US territory. In the 2000 Census, 37% of the Guam population is native Chamorro (Central Intelligence Agency, Accessed September 2, 2007).

A sad legacy of World War II is the nuclear weapons testing that occurred in the Marshall Islands starting in 1946. Whole atolls were destroyed or made uninhabitable, populations moved away from their ancestral homelands, and ways of life were changed as the people were involuntarily exposed to radiation. Residual effects initially included radiation sickness, but later increased rates thyroid cancer as well as lung cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia and lymphoma (Anderson et al., 2006). Today, these island nations struggle with the legacy of the colonization and westernization of their island homelands. Social structures and ways of life are changing and diseases associated with western lifestyles such as obesity, coronary artery disease and substance abuse are having devastating effects (Kermode & Tellei, 2005).


The Polynesia triangular region stretches from Fiji and Tonga to the west, Easter Island to the east, Hawaii to the North and New Zealand to the south. Samoans are the largest population of Polynesians in the US after Native Hawaiians. The Samoan islands were populated more than 2,000 years ago and subsequent migrations settled the rest of Polynesia further to the east. Contact with Europeans began in the early 1700s but did not intensify until the arrival of English missionaries and traders in the 1830s. At the turn of the 20th century, the Samoan islands were split into two sections. The eastern islands became territories of the United States in 1904 and today are known as American Samoa. The western islands became known as Western Samoa (now the Independent State of Samoa), passing from Germany to New Zealand in 1914. The New Zealand government administered Western Samoa under the auspices of the League of Nations and then as a UN trusteeship until independence in 1962. Western Samoa was the first Pacific Island country to gain its independence (US Department of State, Accessed September 2, 2007).


Tonga was settled about 500 BC. The Dutch explorers visited in 1643 after the islands were sighted in 1616. By 1845, all of the Tongan islands had been united by ancestors of the current dynasty. Under British protection by 1900, Tonga retained its independence and autonomy and became fully independent in 1970 (US Department of State, Accessed September 2, 2007).

Fiji was settled by both Polynesian and Melanesian people around 1500 BC. Europeans arrived in the early 1800s and Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874. Fiji became an independent nation in 1970 and today continues to struggle with the large immigrant population from India who came to Fiji as servants.