I have long criticized how US History classes taught history in the United States. The main complaint is that there is a lot of focus on the American Revolution and the Civil War, which are important no doubt. We should study those events, and to be fair, I do remember studying other battles and historical happenings as well. But as I got older, I started learning more about things in our history we either skimmed past or never talked about at all. And the Marshall Islands are one.
The islands are named after John Marshall, a British explorer and captain of the Scarborough, which visited many of the islands in the South Pacific in 1788. The people who actually live there call their island Jolet Jen Anij, or Gifts From God.
The Marshall Islands are located in the South Pacific, north of Nauru and east of the Federated States of Micronesia. These islands are roughly halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and Papua New Guinea, although it’s probably a little closer to Papua New Guinea. The climate here is hot and humid with a definite rainy season and a dry season. The problem the Marshall Islands face is two-fold: for a country that is surrounded by water, they need water. Too often, the islands are faced with drought and don’t receive enough freshwater through rainfall. The other side of this is that because of climate change, rising sea levels are threatening the existence of the islands and atolls, much like what Kiribati and the Maldives are going through.
Much of the earliest records have been lost to history. Alonso de Salazar, a Spanish explorer, was the first European to spot the islands in 1526. A few years later, another Spanish explorer, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón, visited more of the islands and gave them all Spanish names. However, like what happened with Christopher Columbus, the indigenous peoples had no immunity to the nasty European diseases they brought with them. A couple hundred years later, the British arrived under the guidance of John Charles Marshall and Thomas Gilbert (the namesake of the Gilbert Islands, now part of Kiribati). It wasn’t until a Russian explorer and a French explorer came through a few decades later and named them after Marshall. The Spanish naturally fought to maintain control of the islands, and sovereignty was granted to them, but they quickly sold them off to the Germans as a protectorate. The Germans took control of many other nearby island groups during this time. During WWI, the Japanese took control of many of the islands as a means of taking over German territories. By the beginning of WWII, the Japanese had established schools and airbases, preparing for the onset of war. In 1944, the US captured and occupied the islands. From the end of the war to the late 1950s, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The US compensated the Marshallese nearly $759 million over the period of about 40 years. In 1986, the Marshall Islands finally gained its independence and were officially known as the Republic of the Marshall Islands (or RMI). Since 2008, the Marshall Islands have strongly pushed for climate change talks and have struggled with the effects of this, namely in rising sea levels and drought.
The largest city in the Marshall Islands, Majuro, serves as its capital with only a little less than 28,000 people (half of the country’s population). The Majuro Atoll consists of several smaller islands, which includes the large communities of Laura and Djarrit. The largest industry here is the service industry. There are a few K-12 schools as well as a couple of colleges/universities. There is some air service between the islands and other countries, and the Majuro Atoll acts as a major port for the area. Because it’s only 10 ft above sea level, it lacks the infrastructure necessary for any large development.
Because of their environment, it doesn’t lend well for agriculture or natural resources. However, they do have some small commercial farms for coconuts, melons, breadfruit, and tomatoes. They also depend on the service industry as well, mostly in processing fish, some handicrafts, and processing coconuts for copra (the meat) that is used partly for coconut oil. There is some research and experimentation on trying to use coconut oil for energy use, while working to make wind and solar energy readily available and more reliable. Otherwise, the country depends heavily on foreign aid because its imports are greater than its exports; it also utilizes the US dollar as its currency.
Like other countries who were once governed by European countries, the majority religion is Christianity. There are several denominations present in the islands, the largest being the United Church of Christ. However, Baha’i and Islam are also represented here as well; the first Muslim mosque was built in 2012.
The vast majority of the people here are of Micronesian descent with a little Japanese mixed in perhaps. Because of their history with the British and the US, English is often spoken and understood, although their official language is Marshallese (locally known as Ebon). There are 34 atolls in the Marshall Islands, and they’re divided into the western atolls (called Ralik) and the eastern atolls (called Ratak). Marshallese has two dialects divided on these same lines. Marshallese is written using Roman letters, although diacritical marks are used on some letters.
The atolls of the Marshall Islands average about 7 ft above sea level, and one atoll, the Kwajalein Atoll, is the largest coral atoll in the world. There are over 1100 smaller islands and islets that are uninhabited. Although some of the islands’ existence is threatened by rising sea levels, one island in particular no longer exists thanks to the US. The island of Elugelab was blown up in 1952 when US Armed Forces tested a hydrogen bomb on the island. In fact, many of those islands are still uninhabitable due to high amounts of radiation still on the islands, some 60 years later. It’s hard to believe we convinced them this was ok to blow an entire island off the map and poison their people. But, you know. The best we can do is learn about their culture to better understand the people whose islands we took over for a while.