Palau — History and Culture
For a small nation, Palau has experienced a fascinating history. It was strictly controlled by the German Empire, flourished under the Japanese through economic expansion, and floundered for some time while debating between American administration and independence. Regardless of historic events, Palau’s interesting culture has not been compromised.
Palau has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that European contact was first made with the archipelago. Its relatively small landmass and remoteness meant that Palau remained ‘hidden’ from colonial powers until well into the 18th century. The first European influence came from Captain Henry Wilson, who shipwrecked off Ulong Island in 1783. Palau’s king asked the East Indian Company captain to take the prince of Palau to England in 1784. Henry Wilson gave the archipelago the name ‘Pelew Islands’ after his departure.
In the 1800s, Britain, Spain, and Germany laid claim to the Palau islands. However, it was Spain who eventually gained control of Palau, with Britain and Germany sharing economic concessions. In 1898, Spain sold Palau to Germany following its defeat in the Spanish-American War. Unlike Spain, Germany began to overrule traditional laws, which saw the deterioration of traditional Palau culture.
Japanese rule in Palau began following the 1914 declaration of war on the German Empire. Imperial Japanese armies invaded Palau, overthrowing the German administration. Between 1914 and 1922, the Japanese military controlled the islands. But in 1922, a civilian government was established, and aggressive economic development began. The capital city at the time, Koror, became an industrial hub and was nicknamed ‘Little Tokyo’ due to its vast economic growth.
Palau experienced fierce battles during WWII, especially on the islands of Peleliu and Babeldaob. Today, tours of Babeldaob are common, showing visitors rusting remains of wartime equipment. At the end of the war, the country was administered by the US as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Between 1979 and 1994, Palau experienced violent civil unrest. The US refused to sign the Palau Compact until Palau fully endorsed all of its conditions. The country spiraled into anarchy, with rioting, assassinations, and bombings common issues. Finally, in 1994, the country voted to remain an independent nation but to reside under the care of the US through the Compact of Free Association. Modern-day Palau’s economy is still developing, as infrastructure issues and isolation still plague the country to this day. Visit the Belau National Museum (Koror, Palau) for more details about Palau’s interesting history.
Traditional aspects of Palau are still prominent in the everyday life of its people and society. A traditional government operates in conjunction with federal government. Unfortunately, political issues have consistently occurred between these two forms of government over the last 50 or so years, most notably over land rights. The Palauan language is another unique aspect of traditional culture. Traditional matrilineal practices are still prevalent within modern Palau.
Of course, Japanese and American cultural influences have been major contributors to the modern-day mold of Palau. Much Asian and American cuisine is found throughout the islands. Baseball, which was introduced by the Japanese in the 1920s, is the national sport. Most locals are Christian, with this religion introduced by the Spanish in the 19th century and continued by the Germans and Japanese.