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The Marshall Islands: A Brief History

The Marshall Islands, the easternmost islands of Micronesia, are coral caps set on the rims of submerged volcanoes rising from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Scattered over 750,000 square miles, they consist of two parallel chains of coral atolls: the Ratak, or sunrise, to the east and the Ralik, or sunset, to the west. The chains are 125 miles apart and extend about 800 miles northwest to southeast.

In total, the Marshall Islands consists of 29 atolls each made up of many islets and five islands. In total there are approximately 1,225 islands and islets. The total land area is about 70 square miles (181 square kilometers), with the mean height of the land about seven feet (two meters) above sea level.

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.

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.

Yet the Marshall Islands remained relatively untouched by European influence, culturally speaking, until 1817, when Captain Otto von Kotzebue visited the Ratak and Ralik chains aboard the Brig Rurik. This voyage was the second Russian expedition into the Pacific Ocean for scientific exploration. Aboard were Adelbert von Chamisso as naturalist and Louis Chorie as artist who documented these contacts. Kotzebue returned during his third circumnavigation of the world in 1823. U.S. whalers visited frequently in the 1820's and American missionaries began their efforts to convert the islanders after the first missionaries to the Marshall Islands landed at Jaluit in 1857.

In 1878 Germany established a coaling station at Jaluit Atoll and signed a commercial treaty with the chiefs of Jaluit and it was at Jaluit in 1885, with the acquiescence of Great Britain, that Germany declared the Marshall Islands a protectorate, and it remained a German possession until 1914. Germany chose Jaluit as the administrative center of the Marshall Islands, and it continued as such under the Japanese.

The Marshalls were seized by the Japanese in 1914 and, in 1920, along with other islands in the region, the Marshall Islands became a League of Nations Mandate administered by Japan. Nonetheless, Japan sought to incorporate the islands into its empire and Tokyo developed the Marshall Islands and the rest of its mandate in Micronesia as though it exercised full sovereignty. Japan mounted an aggressive economic development program and promoted immigration. Japanese, Okinawan and Korean immigrants eventually came to outnumber islanders by as much as two to one. A strategic battleground in world War II, the islands were liberated after heavy fighting on Kwajalein, Enewetak, wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit and Mili Atolls from the Japanese by United States forces in 1944, and they came under the administration of the U.S. Navy. Immigrants were repatriated.

On April 2,1947, the Marshall Islands and the other Pacific Islands formerly under a League of Nations mandate to Japan became the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the United States. The Trust Territory covered roughly three million square miles of the Pacific Ocean with a land mass of only some 600 square miles. Home to about 150,000 people scattered among more than 2,100 islands and atolls it included three major archipelagoes in the western Pacific: the Marshalls, the Carolines, and Marianas, known collectively as "Micronesia, or "little islands."

The trusteeship obligated the United States to "Promote the development of the inhabitants of the trust territory toward self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of the trust territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned."

Before the United Nations confirmed the U.S. strategic trusteeship, however, the island of Bikini (known before world war II as Escholtz Atoll) became the theater for Operation Crossroads, a vast scientific-military experiment to determine the effects of atomic bombs on naval vessels. The Marshall Islands of Bikini and Enewetak ultimately were the site of sixty-six confirmed nuclear test explosions between 1946 and 1958, events which remain a vivid and tragic memory for the Marshallese people, many of whom were involuntarily relocated from their native homes to which they have since been unable to return.

From the onset, the United States government was responsible for civil administration and relied on appointed rather than elected officials. During the 1950s, criticism from the United Nations Trusteeship Council and from within the United States brought movement towards autonomy. In 1965 the peoples of the Trust Territory elected the Congress of Micronesia which had genuine legislative powers. This began the process of self-determination. The people of the Marshall Islands sought to retain strong but autonomous ties to the United States. They eventually chose to become a sovereign nation in free association with the United States.

While the term "free association" has no precise definition in international law, it is recognized by the United Nations as an appropriate alternative to independence or integration for peoples emerging from a colonial or trusteeship status. Free association implies a free choice by one sovereign nation to associate itself with an existing sovereign nation on mutually agreed terms.

In 1978, after voting to separate from the other districts of the Trust Territory, the Marshall Islands drew up a constitution. It was approved by the voters in 1979, forming a republic and bringing about internal self-government. Under the constitution, the Republic is headed by a president elected by a unicameral 33 member Nitijela (Parliament). The Council of Irooj (Chiefs) has a consultative function, concerned with traditional laws and customs. The first president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Amata Kabua, was elected to his fifth four year term of office 1995, and died in office in 1996.

Thirteen years of negotiations concluded with the formal signing of the Compact by the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands on June 25,1983. The Marshall Islands people approved the Compact by a margin of 58 percent in a plebiscite on September 7, 1983. In 1986, the Nitijela (Parliament) approved the Compact according to the constitution.

On May 28,1986, the United Nations Trusteeship Council noted that the Marshall Islands people had freely exercised their right of self-determination. Although the approval of the U. N. Security Council was technically required, the United States in 1986 unilaterally declared the end of the Trusteeship, since politically motivated efforts by the Soviet Union obstructed the decolonization process. Finally, on December 22, 1990, the United Nations Security Council confirmed the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement for the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands became a member of the United Nations on September 17,1991.

Meanwhile, the Compact had entered into force on October 21, 1986 (subsquently amended and renewed as of May 1, 2004 until 2023). Under the Compact, the Marshall Islands became a sovereign nation and with full internal self-government as well as complete capacity to engage in international relations in its own name and right. Under the Compact the United States provides for the defense and external security of the Republic as well as financial assistance: The Compact also entitles the United States to use various military bases, including the key space tracking station on Kwajalein, the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) Reagan Missile Test Site, a key installation in the U.S. missile defense network.

The basic relationship of free association originally had a fixed term of fifteen years and could be terminated at any time by mutual agreement. The Compact was amended and renewed as of May 1, 2004 and will be in force until 2023. The Republic may alter its status with the United States at any time, subject to a vote of its citizens. During the period of the Compact, the United States provides economic assistance, certain technical services, and, at no cost to the Marshall Islands, airline and airport safety services, economic regulation of commercial air service, weather prediction, public health services, legal aid services, assistance from the U.S. Farmers Home Administration and assistance in natural disasters.

Since 1986, the Marshall Islands has established its international identity. Today, the Marshall Islands has established diplomatic relations with 66 countries. The Republic has signed treaties such as the Pacific Forum Fisheries Treaty, the South Pacific Regional Environmental Protection Treaty, made various fishing agreements with Japan and other nations, and has adhered to conventions of the International Maritime Organization necessary to its formation of a Ship Registry.

It is also a member of the South Pacific Forum, South Pacific Commission, Forum Fisheries Agency, Pacific Island Development Program, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Asia-Pacific Coconut Community, Asian Development Bank, International Civil Aviation Organization, World Health Organization, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Association of Asia Pacific Parliamentarians and Interpol.

The postal history of the Marshall Islands reflects the course of its history. The Marshall Islands' own "first" stamps were issued at its then capital of Jaluit in 1897 while it was under German dominion, and consisted of contemporary Reichspost stamps of Germany overprinted "Marschall Inseln" in black. The stamps of Japan were used from World War I until the liberation of the Marshall Islands in 1944, after which postal service was provided by the United States using U.S. stamps with no special markings.

In 1984 the Marshall Islands Postal Service came into being and the first stamps of the Republic were issued. Under the Compact, the U.S. Postal Service continues to provide international postal service, but the Marshall Islands is responsible for domestic postal operations and is eligible, as a member of the United Nations, for full membership in the Universal Postal Union.

The Marshall Islands is fully integrated into the United States postal distribution system, including its Postal (Zip®) Codes and two letter "State" abbreviation MH within the overall U.S. addressing scheme, but is considered an international destination.

THE MARSHALL ISLANDS Official name: Republic of the Marshall Islands. Flag: Two rays (orange and white) representing the two parallel chains of the Marshall Islands and 24-point star representing the 24 municipalities on a dark blue field. National Motto: "Jepelpelin ke Ejukaan" which refers to the vast ocean distances separating the islands of the country (Jepelpelin), which has maintained one language, one custom, and one tradition through strong family and clan ties. The stand of coconut trees (Ejukaan) symbolizes the tall, strong, firm and friendly people traditionally linked by the islanders' ability to navigate the great ocean distances spanning more than 750,000 square miles.

PEOPLE Population: 60,422 (July 2006 est.) Ethnic Groups: Almost entirely Micronesian. Religion: Predominately Protestant. Languages: Marshallese and English. Education: Elementary and Secondary public education available through grade twelve; higher education through the College of the Marshall Islands. Employment: 46% services; 7% in construction and manufacturing; 45 % in subsistence activity.

GEOGRAPHY Location: Central Pacific between 4º and 14º N. lat. and 160º and 173º E. long. Land Area: 34 low-lying atolls, 1,152 islands and islets about 70 sq. miles land area. Cities: Capital: Majuro (largest city). Ebeye (second largest city). Climate: Tropical: Average temperature 81ºF year round; 134 inches of rain a year.

GOVERNMENT Type: Sovereign state in Free Association with the United States. Constitution: 1979 Government: Parliamentary governmental system with separation of powers and "Bill of Rights." Thirty-three national Parliament members (Nitijela) elect the President who appoints from Parliament a 10-member cabinet. The Council of Irooj (Chiefs) has a consultative function, concerned with traditional laws and customs. Political Parties: RRDP and Government parties family/clan (land holding) influence prevails. Suffrage: Universal at 18. National Holidays: January Z, New Year's Day; March 1, Memorial Day and Nuclear Victims' Remembrance Day; May 1, Constitution Day, generally regarded as Independence Day for the Republic; first Friday in July, Fisherman's Day; first Friday in September, Dri-Jerbal Day; last Friday in September, Manit Day; November 17, President's Day; first Friday in December, Gospel Day; and, December 25, Christmas Day.

ECONOMY GDP: $115 million (2001 est.). U.S. Government assistance through the Compact of Free Association, with the current Compact coming into force in 2004, is the mainstay of this tiny island economy. Agricultural production, primarily subsistence, is concentrated on small farms; the most important commercial crops are coconuts and breadfruit. Small-scale industry is limited to handicrafts, tuna processing, and copra. The tourist industry, now a small source of foreign exchange employing less than 10% of the labor force, remains the best hope for future added income. The islands have few natural resources, and imports far exceed exports. Under the terms of the Amended Compact of Free Association, the U.S. will provide millions of dollars per year to the Marshall Islands through 2023, at which time a Trust Fund made up of U.S. and Marshall Islands contributions will begin perpetual annual payouts. Government downsizing, drought, a drop in construction, the decline in tourism and foreign investment due to the Asian financial difficulties, and less income from the renewal of fishing vessel licenses have held GDP growth to an average of 1% over the past decade. Per Capita: $1,600 (2001 est.) Natural Resources: Marine fisheries, coconut, and seabed minerals. Agriculture: Copra, subsistence production of breadfruit, root crops, vegetables. Trade: Imports $54 million (f.o.b., 2000 est.) in foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, fuels, beverages and tobacco; Exports: $9 million (f.o.b., 2000 est.) in copra cake, coconut oil, fish. Circulating Currency: U.S. dollar. National Coinage: non-circulating, legal tender commemorative coins have been issued from time to time in $5, $10, $20 and $50 denominations.

POSTAL ADMINISTRATION: The Marshall Islands Postal Service is headed by the Controller of Posts, and belongs to the Ministry of Finance. Commenced Operations: May 2, 1984 Scope of Service: Four post offices, with the Head Post Office at Majuro, serves a population of more than 62,000 people in 33 municipalities within a territory comprising five islands, 29 atolls and, in total, 1,225 islands and islets. Postage Rates: Domestic: 1-ounce First Class letter is 12¢; 2-ounce First Class letter is 24¢. International: Postage rates to the United States of America are identical to the domestic rates in force from time to time in the United States; for example, the rate (January, 2006) for a 1-ounce (28g) First Class letter is 39¢ to the United States (and 24¢ for each additional ounce), but 48¢ from the United States. Postage rates to other parts of the world are identical to the international rates in force between the U. S. and the destination. The rate, for example, for a 1-ounce (28g) air mail letter to Europe is 84¢ (January, 2006).


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