Marshall Islands — History and Culture
The long-isolated people of the Marshall Islands boast a proud culture called manit, which revolves around family, co-operation and warm hospitality. Some Marshallese have American, German or Japanese ancestry in addition to their own indigenous culture. All Marshallese still belong to clans called jowi led by chiefs called iroij and clan heads known as alap.
Volcanic eruptions formed the unique landscape of the Marshall Islands about 70 million years ago. The islands took on their present shape of small circular islets surrounding sheltered lagoons approximately 3,000 years ago. Today’s Marshallese are descendants of migrants who arrived on these tiny islands from Southeast Asia about 5,000 years ago. More details about their long and proud history is on display at Majuto’s Alele Museum (Uliga D-U-D Municipality, Majuto).
Spanish explorers became the first Europeans to set eyes on the isolated islands around the time Ferdinand Magellan docked in Guam in 1521. No fewer than eight Spanish ships landed on the Marshall Islands during the 16th century, making it among the first place in the South Pacific to come in contact and trade with Europeans.
The British captain from which the Marshall Islands received their name arrived in 1788, followed by three more British ships during the next 20 years. The Russians were the next foreign visitors to arrive. Between 1816 and 1823, naturalist Adelbert von Chamisso conducted the first studies of the islands’ unique flora and fauna, while artist Ludwig Choris produced some of the first European paintings of the South Pacific.
The first Americans to the Marshall Islands were missionaries who came in 1857 and successfully converted virtually the entire population to Christianity by the end of the century. The islands received their first permanent European settlers, a German and Portuguese who established the first Marshall Islands trading post in 1859. By the time WWI rolled around, they had been German territory for nearly 30 years.
The Japanese conquered the islands during WWI and they remained under their rule until WWII, when the United States occupied the islands. The Peace Park Memorial (Laura Beach Park, Majuto) is just one of many monuments and artifacts left behind from this bloody and tumultuous time in Marshall Islands history. Ever since the end of WWII, the islands have gradually gained more autonomy from the United States, finally becoming an independent republic in 1986.
Traditional Marshall Islands culture known as manit revolves around the same family and clan structure which has existed for centuries. Chiefs called iroij supervise the alap or clan heads and workers known as rijerbal in each Marshallese clan, known as jowi. The iroij presides over land disputes and usage, the alap supervises all daily activities and maintenance, while the rijerbal do the farming, cleaning and construction work. All Marshallese land is handed down through the mother’s ancestoral line in this matrilineal society.
Children’s first birthday celebrations, known as kemem, are among the most important Marshallese family gatherings. Extended family and friends celebrate with songs and huge feasts. Religion is also an important part of Marshall Islands culture, and most residents have fairly conservative views on nudity and alcohol, especially outside of Majuto. These small islands boast a disproportionately diverse number of fishing and boat building techniques.