1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marshall Islands

MARSHALL ISLANDS, an island group in the western Pacific Ocean (Micronesia) belonging to Germany. The group consists of a number of atolls ranged in two almost parallel lines, which run from N.W. to S.E. between 4° and 15° N. and 161° and 174° E. The north-east line, with fifteen islands, is called Ratak, the other, numbering eighteen, Ralik. These atolls are of coralline formation and of irregular shape. They rise but little above high-water mark. The highest elevation occurs on the island of Likieb, but is only 33 ft. The lagoon is scarcely more than 150 ft. deep and is accessible through numerous breaks in the reef. On the outward side the shore sinks rapidly to a great depth. The surface of the atolls is covered with sand, except in a few places where it has been turned into soil through the admixture of decayed vegetation. The reef in scarcely any instance exceeds 600 ft. in width.

The climate is moist and hot, the mean temperature being 80.50° F. Easterly winds prevail all the year round. There is no difference between the seasons, which, though the islands belong to the northern hemisphere, have the highest temperature in January and the lowest in July. Vegetation, on the whole, is very poor. There are many coco-nut palms, bread-fruit trees (Artocarpus incisa), various kinds of bananas, yams and taro, and pandanus, of which the natives eat the seeds. From the bark of another plant they manufacture mats. There are few animals. Cattle do not thrive, and even poultry are scarce. Pigs, cats, dogs and rats have been imported. There are a few pigeons and aquatic birds, butterflies and beetles. Crustacea and fish abound on the reefs.

The natives are Micronesians of a dark brown colour, though lighter shades occur. Their hair is not woolly but straight and long. They practise tattooing, and show Papuan influence by distending the ear-lobes by the insertion of wooden disks. They are expert navigators, and construct curious charts of thin strips of wood tied together with fibres, some giving the position of the islands and some the direction of the prevailing winds. Their canoes carry sails and are made of the trunk of the bread-fruit tree. The people are divided into four classes, of which only two are allowed to own land. The islands lie entirely within the German sphere of interest, and the boundaries were agreed upon between Great Britain and Germany on the 10th of April 1889. Their area is estimated at 160 sq. m., with 15,000 inhabitants, who are apparently increasing, though the contrary was long believed. All but about 250 are natives. The administrator of the islands is the governor of German New Guinea, but a number of officials reside on the islands. There is no military force, the natives being of peaceful disposition. The chief island and seat of government is Jaluit. The most populous island is Majeru, with 1600 inhabitants. The natives are generally pagans, but a Roman Catholic mission has been established, and the American Mission Board maintains coloured teachers on many of the islands. There is communication with Sydney by private steamer, and a steamer sails between Jaluit and Ponape to connect with the French boats for Singapore. The chief products for export are copra, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl, sharks’ fins and trepang. The natives are clever boat-builders, and find a market for their canoes on neighbouring islands. They have made such progress in their art that they have even built seaworthy little schooners of 30 to 40 tons. The only other articles they make are a few shell ornaments.

The Marshall Islands may have been visited by Alvaro de Saavedra in 1529, Captain Wallis touched at the group in 1767, and in 1788 Captains Marshall and Gilbert explored it. The Germans made a treaty with the chieftains of Jaluit in 1878 and annexed the group in 1885–1886.

See C. Hager, Die Marshall-Inseln (Leipzig, 1886); Steinbach and Grösser, Wörterbuch der Marshall-Sprache (Hamburg, 1902).