The Pacific Islands have a varied history, depending on location and affiliation. Traditionally, the various island nations have pursued their own economic growth and development. However, in 1971, numerous island nations established the Pacific Islands Forum, an inter-governmental organization. Today, the Forum has 16 member states and is working toward economic development and trade among the nations.
The Pacific Islands have histories that greatly vary in length and content. Most of the Pacific Islands early inhabitants are the Polynesians. Thought to originate from pre-historic Taiwan, the Polynesians were sea-migrating people, who spread through the Pacific around 2,000 BC. The first inhabited islands were modern-day Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and the Lau Islands.
Many of the islands were ‘discovered’ and ultimately colonized by European seafarers. This ‘discovery’ has played an important role in the economic development, culture, and modern-day status for many of the Pacific Islands. In fact, the British explorer Captain Cook and Portuguese seafarer Ferdinand Magellan sailed to many of the Pacific Islands, including Tahiti, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, in the 18th century. However, other Spanish and Dutch explorers came to the region as well.
Hawaii has a long history, pre-dating European contact. There is evidence of human inhabitation on Hawaii as far back as 300 AD. It is assumed that it was the Polynesians that first inhabited the Hawaiian Islands. As with many Pacific Islands, Hawaiian history is colorful and full of stories about tribes and brave chiefs. The most famous and important chief was King Kamehameha, who ruled Hawaii in the late 18th century. Today, visitors can learn all about Hawaiian history by visiting the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Fiji may have one of the oldest histories of the Pacific Islands, with the first inhabitants dated around 3,500 BC. From Fiji, it is believed that the Polynesians moved to other Pacific Islands, such as Tonga, Hawaii, and Samoa. The first European contact was with the Dutch in 1643, but, in 1874, Fiji became a British colony. Fiji remained under British rule until it became independent in 1970.
The history of French Polynesia does not differ that much from that of the other Pacific Island nations. It is estimated that the Polynesians settled some of the islands that now make up French Polynesia around 800 AD. As on other islands, tribes and chiefs ruled the lands. The first European contact came in 1521, when Portugal’s Ferdinand Magellan arrived, followed by other European explorers. In 1889, the islands now known as French Polynesia were annexed by France. Today, French Polynesia is made up of about 130 islands, with the largest being Tahiti.
Some of the Pacific Islands felt the devastating impact of contact with the Europeans. Many locals were killed, and populations were devastated, for example, by venereal diseases that European travelers brought with them. These diseases significantly reduced fertility and killed off much of the local populous. This was especially true in the Marquesas Islands, where local population continued to decline into the 20th century.
Modern history has also caused havoc in the Pacific Islands. The Pacific was a major area for naval battles and bombings during WWII. Hawaii, namely Pearl Harbor, saw the devastating effect of Japanese bombings. Palau and Guam saw bloody fights as Japan expanded its empire; even today, some sunken ships and fighter planes can be seen in the waters surrounding Palau. In 1946 and 1947, the US tested several atomic weapons in the Pacific, namely in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Even with such tumultuous history, the Pacific Islanders remain friendly and welcoming, however, making them an ever-popular vacation destination.
The Pacific Islands all have their own unique cultures. However, many have been significantly influenced by their individual histories, especially if they have a colonial past. Many of the Pacific Islands became Spanish or British colonies. These western cultures have had an impact on the culture and cuisine of the islands. However, most islanders are proud of their Polynesian roots, and this culture is fiercely protected. Visitors will find plenty of festivals that celebrate island culture, much of which revolves around dancing, food, and family.