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Kiribati: Human beings have lived on the Kiribati islands for at least 700 years, and possibly longer-the exact dating of arrival is difficult due to incomplete archeological records and oral history. Probably settled by the Lapitans, Kiribati’s location near the middle of the Pacific also brought it into contact with Melanesians from Fiji and Polynesians from Samoa and Tonga.
Contact with the West occurred sometime in the 16th century, and trade with the west precipitated local tribal wars that quickly became an excuse for colonial powers to gain control of the land. The bulk of the Kiribati islands became possessions of the British.
The Japanese seized Kiribati during World War II, and proceeded to fortify the island. The Battle of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest battles between the US and the Japanese in the Pacific, as 4,500 Japanese soldiers converted that tiny atoll into a massive fortress, inflicting huge losses on the invading US Marines before being all but annihilated.
Majuro: Majuro is the largest island and the capital of the Marshall Islands. The main atoll has been occupied for at least 2 millenia. Majuro was a possession of the German Empire until it was captured by Japan in 1914. However, most colonial rulers largely left the islanders to fend for themselves.
On January 30, 1944, the United States invaded Majuro in a huge naval invasion, only to find that the Japanese had evacuated the island and withdrawn to nearby Kwajalein and Enewetak.
Nendo: Nendo, or the Santa Cruz islands in Western Polynesian island were first settled about 3,000 years ago. In 1595, the Spanish attempted and failed to establish a colony there. On October 26, 1942 the Japanese and Americans fought the fourth carrier battle of World War II near Santa Cruz, resulting in a pyrrhic victory for the Japanese.
Fiji: Fiji was first settled about 3,500 years ago by the Lapitans. Melanesians from Southeast Asia and Indonesia arrived later, sometime between 900 and 600 BC. Fiji’s location near the heart of Polynesia made it a crossroads for trade and culture, and this is borne out in the archeological finds of the islands, with stones from thousands of miles away being found on Fiji, as well as trade goods and worked tools that were rare throughout Polynesia. At the height of the Tu’I Tongan power, Fiji was well within their sphere of influence.
During the 19th century, Fiji was rife with inter-tribal civil wars and invasions from nearby Tonga. The Fijian chief Seru Epenisa Cakobau tried to consolidate himself as king, and used Christian missionaries (as he was Christian himself) to try to extend his power. Cakobau ran into trouble by provoking the US consul, selling lands to Australian cotton farmers, and racking up a number of debts. Cakobau eventually ceded his territory to the British in 1874.
The first interim British governor passed a series of uniquely enlightened rules, including a “Fiji for the Fijians” policy which resulted in natives retaining control of most of the island land. Indentured laborers from India came with British Colonial rule (until many, including Mahatma Gandhi agitated for the policy to end), adding a new dimension to the culture of the island that persists in Fiji to (sic) today.
Fiji was granted independence in 1970. It then experienced an economic boom which came to a grinding halt in 1987, followed by almost complete stagnation, as well as two military and a civilian coup.
Vanuatu: As a Western Polynesian island, Vanuatu was among the earliest settled by the Lapita, probably around 4,000 years ago, though the population of the island became largely Melanesian. The first westerner to find Vanuatu was the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros, who claimed the land for Spain and named it “Espirtu Santo”. De Bougainville visited the island in 1768, and Cook named the island the New Hebrides in 1774.
As with many Polynesian islands, contact with the west resulted in massive deaths due to new diseases, and a crush of immigrants looking to get rich off the island’s Sandalwood trade exacerbated the problems. After sandalwood, speculative plantations for cotton, coffee, cocoa, and bananas were thrown up, until some degree of economic stability was achieved in coconuts.
Colonialism had a heavy hand in Vanuatu until World War II, when the Americans arrived. The affluent, highly informal Americans made a huge impression on the Vanuatans, as did the constant stream of airplanes and ships that supplied the soldiers and sailors. Soon Vanuatans were waiting for the messiah John Frum to arrive with his magical Cargo to deliver the island to liberty and prosperty (sic).The “cargo cult” is alive and well in Vanuatu even today!
Guadalcanal: Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomon Island chain, is best known now as the site of a long, bloody, difficult campaign between the US and Japan during World War II. Although known to the West since 1568, the island was of critical importance during World War II, as the Japanese were prepared to use it as a base to threaten Allied shipping to and from Australia.
The Japanese began constructing a massive airfield on Lunga Point on Guadalcanal shortly after their defeat at Midway. Guadalcanal was to be part of an outer ring of defenses to consolidate the gains made during the earlier expansion. To counter this, the Allies launched an immense combined-arms operation to take the airfield and island, and then to hold their own gains after Japanese reinforcements began to stream into the theater.
Although the name of Guadalcanal is losing its prominence in history, there are many great stories and events of that campaign: The US Marine’s tenacious defense of Lunga Field against superior odds, the Tokyo Express pouring down the slot, future US President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated PT-109-all these are part of the story of Guadalcanal, and the interested student of history is eagerly encouraged to learn more about them!
Nauru: Also called “Pleasant Island” (an appellative that would fit a thousand other islands), Nauru is in the western Pacific, and is now the world’s smallest island nation at just over 8 square miles. It was settled by Micronesians and Polynesians, seized by the colonial powers of the world, and occupied by the Japanese during World War II, though this island fortress was bypassed by the Americans in the Pacific campaign.
Nauru’s most abundant natural resource was its immense deposits of phosphates. When Nauru regained control of their mineral rights in the 1960s, the mining operation was nationalized and for a brief, shining moment, Nauru’s citizens enjoyed the highest per-capita income in the world. But the phosphate reserves ran out, the money was invested in a series of failed ventures, and Nauru suddenly found itself out of money and with a devastated ecosystem. Since then, The Nauruese have experimented with making the island a tax haven and prison for other nations, in an effort to revive their flagging economy.
Pohnpei: The largest of the Caroline Islands and one of the four states of Micronesia was unknown to Europeans until 1828, when it was discovered by Russian sailors. Pohnpei boasts the ruined stone city of Nan Madol, capital of the Saudaleur dynasty. This remarkable city was made of small artificial islands connected by a network of canals. The Saudaleurs ruled for nearly a thousand years, until they were conquered by a chief from another island.
Pohnpei was claimed by the Spanish and ceded in turn to the German Empire. During World War II, the island was occupied and fortified by the Japanese, but no battle was fought there as the US Navy passed it on the way to invade Japan.