MICRONESIA (Western Colonialism)

Micronesia is a region of the central Pacific Ocean. It forms, together with Melanesia and Polynesia, one of the three cultural areas of Oceania. Micronesia includes the islands of Guam and Nauru, and the Mariana, Caroline, Marshall, Gilbert, and Line islands. The name Micronesia derives from Greek words meaning ”tiny islands.” Most of these islands are atolls, or low coral islands fringing a partially enclosed lagoon.

Human beings have inhabited parts of Micronesia for at least five thousand years. Though Micronesia extends over a vast area, its people are excellent sailors and discovered and settled nearly every island in the region well before Europeans arrived. Traditional Micronesian society was based on a system of hereditary chiefs, with individuals divided into nobility and commoners.

The first European to visit Micronesia was the Portuguese Fernao de Magalhaes (1480-1521), better known in English as Ferdinand Magellan. Employed by the king of Spain, Magellan entered the Pacific from the southern tip of South America and reached Guam in 1521.

Though Spain laid claim to Guam in 1565, it did not establish a settlement there until the mid-1600s. As in other parts of Oceania, European colonialism really began in the nineteenth century. Though Spain was a weak colonial power at this time, it still controlled Guam, as well as the Mariana and Caroline Islands, though British and American traders and missionaries had become active on these islands. Britain claimed the Gilbert Islands and the nearby island of Banaba, while Germany claimed the Marshall Islands and Nauru.

After Spain’s 1898 loss in the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired Guam and Spain and sold the Marianas and the Carolines to Germany. Germany lost all its colonies after its defeat in World War I, with the Marianas, Carolines, and Marshalls going to Japan, and Nauru being administered by Australia. Japan settled large numbers of its citizens in Micronesia, but lost these colonies after its own defeat in World War II; its Micronesian empire was transferred to the United States.

The small size and remote location of Micronesia’s islands did not make it an especially attractive place for European colonialism. Export crops were largely limited to copra, a form of dried coconut used for its oil, and the islands of Nauru and Banaba were also important as sources of phosphate fertilizer. Micronesia was of strategic importance, given its location between the United States and Japan, the two naval powers of the Pacific, and both countries militarized islands under their control.

Today Micronesia is a mix of colonies, semicolonies, and independent states. The Gilbert Islands became independent in 1979 as the Republic of Kiribati, and Nauru is also an independent republic. Guam and the Northern Marianas are still colonies of the United States, while the Marshalls and Carolines are in ”free association” with the United States, meaning that the United States maintains certain political rights in those places. The Caroline Islands were split into Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, the latter consisting of the four states of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae.

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