History of the Pacific Islands

History of the Pacific Islands

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We begin the history of the Pacific Islands in Polynesia. The Polynesian Triangle is anchored by Hawai’i in the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the southeast, and New Zealand in the southwest. Apart from Hawai’i and New Zealand, Polynesia includes major island groups such as Samoa and the Marquesas. (We address the histories of Hawai’i and New Zealand in their own courses.)

Early migrants populated Samoa more than 2,000 years ago, and subsequent migrations settled large stretches of Polynesia to the east. Following its initial contact with Europeans in the early 1700s, Samoa played unwilling host to British missionaries and merchants who arrived through the 1830s. At the turn of the 20th century, the Samoan islands split into two sections. The eastern islands, known as American Samoa, became a territory of the United States in 1904. But the western islands, known as Western Samoa, passed from German stewardship to being administered by the New Zealand. This happened first under the League of Nations and then as a United Nations trusteeship. After Western Samoa gained its independence in 1962, it became the Independent State of Samoa. It was the first Pacific island group to do so.

Polynesians who came from Tonga and Samoa settled Tahiti between 300 and 800 AD. Its abundant fish and breadfruit grown in its fertile soil provided ample food for the population. The island was first sighted by a Spanish ship in 1606, but Spain made no effort to claim the island or even to visit it. An English sea captain named Samuel Wallis sighted Tahiti in June 1767, and he became the first European to visit the island. For the French who discovered it in 1767, Tahiti was the Island of Love, on account of the general absence of clothing and the avid amours of its women.

Tonga was settled around 1000 AD, when the Polynesian people arrived. Its trade and influence flourished, and Tonga became the Tongan Empire. It wielded its strength and influence over large parts of the Pacific that included Samoa and Fiji. Moreover, it continued as an independent, unified kingdom even after the Europeans arrived in the 17th century.


A similar history transpired in Micronesia. Discovered in 1710 by Spain, Palau was sold to the Germans, annexed by Japan, and after World War II, it became a trust territory of the United States. It became independent in 1994, and has since enjoyed a compact of free association with the U.S.

Guam was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898, captured by Japan in 1941, retaken by the United States in 1944, and is today a U.S. territory. Its original inhabitants were descendants of people who migrated from the high mountains of Taiwan around 4,000 BC. Then, the ancient Chamorro arrived and developed a pre-contact society. This is divided into three periods: Pre-Latte (2000 BCE – AD 1); Transitional Pre-Latte (AD 1 – AD 1000); and Latte (AD 1000 – AD 1521). Chamorro society may have been on the verge of another transition phase (its latte stones had become bigger) by the time Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition arrived in 1521 on its circumnavigation of the globe.

Guam’s history of colonialism is the longest among the Pacific islands, and its Chamorro are the oldest mixed race in the Pacific. In 1668 the Spanish took the islands as part of the Spanish East Indies and established its colony on Guam. This served as a port to provision its west-bound Manila Galleons on their 9,000-mile journeys. Guam was ceded by Spain to the United States more than 200 years later in settlement of the Spanish–American War. As the Hawaiians have been, the Chamorro have been greatly and adversely influenced by Western colonization.


New Guinea was settled about 60,000 years ago by migrants from Australia. These hunter-gatherers managed the forest eco-system to sustainably provide food. The gardens of the highlands are ancient permacultures that existed at the same time that they developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These permacultures were highly populated, with even higher rainfall (upwards of 400 inches a year), earth tremors, and a rugged landscape of mountain valleys high enough to have frost. European navigators first sighted the island in the early 16th century, and Portuguese explorers began to arrive from the west and Spanish navigators from the east.

Fiji was settled by both Polynesians and Melanesians around 1500 BCE, and later by Europeans who arrived in the early 1800s. When Fiji became part of the British Empire in 1874, it attracted a large immigrant population from British India. They came to Fiji to work on the plantations and then as shop-keepers. Fiji became independent in 1970.

A sad result of the nuclear weapons testing that occurred in the Marshall Islands starting in 1946 was the destruction of entire atolls and a way of life. Their people abandoned their ancestral homelands, and their health worsened with their exposure to radiation. Today, these island nations struggle with the dark legacy of colonization and westernization. Disease associated with western diet and lifestyles is having a devastating effect. As a result, their societies have changed and nearly disappeared.

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Pacific Islands Index | Melanesia: FijiTongaMarshall IslandsNew CaledoniaPapua New GuineaSolomon IslandsVanuatu | Micronesia | Polynesia: Cook IslandsMarquesas IslandsSamoaTahitiTokelauTuamotuTuvalu

Pacific Islands


Melanesia: Fiji

Melanesia: Marshall Islands

Melanesia: New Caledonia

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Melanesia: Papua New Guinea

Melanesia: Solomon Islands

Melanesia: Vanuatu



Polynesia: Cook Islands

Polynesia: Marquesas Islands

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Polynesia: Samoa

Polynesia: Tahiti

Polynesia: Tokelau

Polynesia: Tonga

Polynesia: Tuamotu

Polynesia: Tuvalu

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