The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands is an island country located in the northern Pacific Ocean. Geographically, the country is part of the larger island group of Micronesia, with the population of around 68,000 people spread out over 34 low-lying coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets.
All residents speak Marshallese, an Austronesian language that shares numerous affinities with other Pacific languages, particularly those of eastern Micronesia. Marshallese dialects began to disappear after missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) arrived on Ebon, in the southern Ralik Chain, in 1857 and developed a transcription system. At least three mutually intelligible dialects remain: Ratak, Rālik, and an Enewetak/Ujelang variant. Former eras of Spanish, German, Japanese, and American administration and intermarriage between Marshall Islanders and other Pacific Islanders mean that Marshall Islanders often learn multiple languages. Many residents understand and/or speak a pidgin English, which has become a lingua franca in the west-central Pacific.
Most of the 60,422 inhabitants live on two atolls: Majuro, the capital of the Republic; and on Ebeye in Kwajalein, the largest atoll in the world, with a land area of six square miles surrounding a 655 square-mile lagoon. While western Micronesia was probably settled by peoples from the Philippines or Indonesia about 1500 B.C., it is believed that eastern Micronesia including the Marshall Islands was settled by Melanesians at about the same time and possibly by peoples from western Micronesia at about the beginning of the Christian era. Relics found on Majuro have yielded carbon dates of 30 B.C. and A.D. 50. Early Micronesians were skilled navigators who made long canoe journeys among the atolls.
After voting to separate from the other entities of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, in 1978, the Marshall Islands drew up a constitution that voters approved in 1979. It formed the republic and brought internal self-government. In 1982 the government signed the Compact of Free Association with the United States. This agreement, approved by the voters in 1983, requires that the United States remain responsible for defense and external security and that it provide financial assistance for the republic. The compact entitles the United States to use the missile testing range on Kwajalein Atoll, and provides for the republic to become fully independent and to alter its status with the United States at any time, subject to approval of the residents through plebiscites.
During the 1990's the Marshall Islands sought to diversify its economic relations with the international community. This policy achieved most notable success with the People's Republic of China, prior to the Marshall Island's decision in 1998 to recognize Taiwan. The Marshall Islands have since benefited from numerous economic agreements with Taiwan, worth an estimated US $20m., which have financed numerous projects, including the construction of roads, the acquisition of boats and the development of the agricultural sector.
Since World War II the capital of the Marshall Islands has been located on Majuro, in the southern part of the Ratak chain. With a very high rate of population increase, the Marshall Islands has changed rapidly from 43,380 people in 1988 to a projected population of well over 60,000 in 1999. Residents are very mobile, and nearly 80 percent are now urban. Approximately one-half of the population resides on Majuro Atoll where government employment created a post-independence population explosion.
The seizure of the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific had long been recognized as a necessity in the war with Japan. As far back as 1921, Marine Major E.H. "Pete" Ellis had formatted a hypothetical plan to seize four Marshall's atolls to serve as staging bases for further naval operations against Japan. Ellis died under mysterious circumstances in the Japanese-controlled Palau Islands in 1923.
The first European contact with the Marshall Islands occurred between 1529 and 1568 when seven Spanish visitors touched upon the atolls. Spanish navigator Alvaro Saavedra is generally credited with the first sighting in 1529. The last one in this period, Alvaro de Mendana, passed the Marshall Islands on a return trip to Acapulco, Mexico, then a base for commerce with the Philippines. The British captain Samuel Wallis chanced upon the Rongerik and Rongelap atolls while sailing from Tahiti to Tinian in 1778. Mapping began in 1788 under the direction of British naval captains Thomas Gilbert and John Marshall, for whom the islands are named, and was continued by Russian expeditions under Adam Johann Krusenstern in 1803 and Otto von Kotzebue in 1817 and 1823.
500 BC - 2000 BC (approx.) - The first Micronesian navigators arrive in the Marshalls, calling the atolls Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands). Dates and origins of the settlers are still uncertain. While controversial, archeological finds on Bikini Atoll in the late 1980s were carbon dated to 2000 years BC, suggesting that people may have settled the Marshalls as long as 4,000 years ago.
Micronesian peoples were the first inhabitants of the archipelago. The islands were explored by the Spanish in the 16th century and were named for a British captain in 1788. Germany unsuccessfully attempted to colonize the islands in 1885. Japan claimed them in 1914, but after several battles during World War II, the U.S. seized them from the Japanese. In 1947, the UN made the island group, along with the Mariana and Caroline archipelagos, a U.S. trust territory.
The Marshall Islands, east of the Carolines, are divided into two chains: the western, or Ralik group, including the atolls Jaluit, Kwajalein, Wotho, Bikini, and Eniwetok; and the eastern, or Ratak, group, including the atolls Mili, Majuro, Maloelap, Wotje, and Likiep. The islands are of coral reef types and rise only a few feet above sea level. The Marshall Islands comprise an area slightly larger than Washington, DC.