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What Should I Know About the Marshall Islands?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

The Marshall Islands are a tiny nation in Micronesia, in the Pacific Ocean. The islands comprise a total landmass of 70 square miles (181 sq. km), making them roughly the size of Washington, DC. They are located near the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Kiribati.

The Marshall Islands were first settled by Micronesians from Asia millennia ago. Little remains of this early era, however, although the culture that developed during this period was rich and diverse.

In the 19th century, Spain harvested coconuts from the Marshall Islands.
In the 19th century, Spain harvested coconuts from the Marshall Islands.

Europeans first made contact with the islands when the Spanish landed on them in the early 16th century. Although Europeans continued to sporadically visit the islands to resupply, such visits were few and far between for the next couple of centuries. At the end of the 18th century a British captain, John Marshall, landed on the islands, which would eventually be named after him.

Spain claimed the islands at the end of the 19th century, arriving at a conflict with Germany, who also laid claim to them. Spain eventually paid Germany for their concession, and set up posts on the islands to harvest coconuts. During World War I the Japanese took over control of the Marshall Islands, and held them until the United States seized the islands from the Japanese in 1944 as part of their battle for the Pacific.

Following the war, the United States administered the Marshall Islands as a Trust Territory, and for the next decade used a handful of the islands’ many atolls as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. In 1979 the Marshall Islands created a Constitution, and were granted autonomy, with the United States continuing to loosely administer and look after the islands. In 1986, the Marshall Islands were declared completely independent from the United States, with a Compact of Free Association setting out terms for the United States’ continued use of some islands for military installations, in exchange for financial assistance.

The Marshall Islands are many, with over a thousand coral islands making up the nation. This is a pristine beauty unseen many places on Earth, and a person can easily fall back and bask in paradise here. The Marshallese continue to live traditionally on many of the outlying islands, and even on the more accessible islands the pace of life is fairly laid back. Majuro Atoll is the center of the country, and is by far the most modernized of all of the islands, with most of the lodging and dining found in the Marshall Islands. But even here one can find tranquil beaches such as those at Laura, on the west side of the Atoll. Arno Atoll is where most tourists wanting to get off the main drag will first go, as its more than 100 islands are the only ones you can get a public boat to take you to, but many of the more remote atolls are well worth a visit in a private boat.

Flights arrive in Majuro relatively frequently from both Guam and Hawaii on Continental’s Air Micronesia (Air Mike). Flights are also available from Australia, and nearby Kiribati. Unlike parts of Polynesia, ships do not connect the islands to the nearby island nations, although hitching a ride on a private yacht is always a possibility.

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    • In the 19th century, Spain harvested coconuts from the Marshall Islands.
      By: Swetlana Wall
      In the 19th century, Spain harvested coconuts from the Marshall Islands.