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The Xenophile Historian

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Tuvalu Vanuatu        

A History of the South Pacific

Chapter 5: Oceania Since 1945, Part II

This chapter is divided into four parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

First, A Word on the Cargo Cults
The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and Nearby Atolls
Australia: The Menzies Era
Rabbits Gone Wild
Recolonial New Zealand

Part II

Independence Comes to the Islands
       Western New Guinea: From One Colonial Overlord to Another
       Western Samoa
       Nauru and Tonga
       Papua New Guinea
       The Solomon Islands
       Tuvalu and Kiribati
       The Free Association States
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Part III

The Australian Constitutional Crisis
Australia in Recent Years
New Zealand: Labour and National Reforms

Part IV

The Smaller Island Nations Since Independence
       The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Palau
       Fiji: Too Early to Tell
       Kiribati: Every Day and Every Year Begin Here
       Tuvalu: The First Nation to Go Under?
       Nauru: The Island That Lost its Future
       Papua New Guinea: A Troubled Young Nation
       Samoa: No Longer Western, But Looking Southwest
       The Solomon Islands: Are They A Nation Yet?
       Tonga: Itís Good to Be King
       Vanuatu: Harmony With Disunity
       New Caledonia: Unfinished Business
Conclusion for the Islands

Independence Comes to the Islands

The Americans read the signs of the times correctly; only in Vietnam did they stick around long enough to get burned. From 1945 onward, the twentieth century was an age of worldwide nationalism, meaning that the subjects of every colonial empire were tired of being ruled by anyone but themselves. In Africa and Asia, independence was sometimes achieved through peaceful agreements, sometimes with violence; either way it made lots of headlines, as dozens of new nations were created. In the Pacific, it was a longer, quieter process, much like the process that created the Caribbean nations. The issue here was the same as it was for the Caribbean -- economic viability. In most of the region, there was too little land, not enough people, and too few resources for a nation to be successful and prosperous on its own. Consequently, the Europeans let their African and Asian landholdings go first, before they could decide what to do about the Pacific. This included proposals to create Micronesian, Melanesian(11) and Polynesian federations, stretching across thousands of miles of ocean, but in the end they dealt with each island group on a case-by-case basis. Every time an island or archipelago was turned loose, strong economic and political ties were kept with the mother country. And as with the Caribbean, the smallest, poorest islands remained under outside rule; here the natives agreed that their communities would not make it without considerable assistance from abroad.

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Western New Guinea: From One Colonial Overlord to Another

The Dutch found out the hard way that World War II had changed the world. When they resumed their rule over Indonesia, they returned to find an unruly native population that did not want them back. Foreign powers like the United States supported the Dutch while Japanese soldiers needed to be disarmed and removed from the islands, but once the Japanese were gone their sympathies shifted to the Indonesians. By 1949 the Dutch realized that pacifying the Dutch East Indies was a task beyond their strength, and pulled out of most of the islands – except for western New Guinea. Here the Dutch argued that New Guinea’s Melanesian, largely Christian population did not want to be ruled by people of another race and religion (Indonesians are mostly Moslem), nor were they ready to become an independent nation. Thus, they held on all the way through the 1950s, until Indonesia applied enough military and political pressure to get the United Nations to step in, and transfer western New Guinea to Indonesian rule (1962).

The Indonesians still needed to make their annexation look legitimate, though. In 1969 they held a controversial plebiscite, called the Act of Free Choice. This was expected to be a “one man, one vote” affair, but an Indonesian general declared that most of the natives did not know enough about the modern world to vote on their status, and then he picked 1,026 tribal elders (out of a population estimated at 800,000) to do the voting. Under pressure, which included detentions and threats to kill them and their families, they voted publicly and unanimously to become Indonesian citizens. The United Nations accepted this result, and Indonesia officially incorporated western New Guinea into their state. At first the territory was renamed West Irian, and then Irian Jaya; later it was divided into two provinces, called Papua and West Papua.

Since taking over, Indonesia has ruled western New Guinea at least as brutally as Spain ruled its colonies in the Americas, and maybe as badly as King Leopold II ruled the Congo. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch had milked Java for whatever profit they could get, and today the Indonesians do the same thing with western New Guinea. For Jakarta, the main resource of the territory is metals; a huge gold and copper mine pumps almost as much money into the economy as Indonesia’s more famous oil wells. During the 1970s and 80s, 1.2 million Moslems from Java and Sumatra were resettled here, to dilute New Guinea’s Melanesian majority.

Most Papuans have rejected the result of the 1969 plebiscite, calling it the “Act of No Choice.” Shortly after Indonesia took over the territory, opposition was organized, in the form of the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM, founded in 1965). So far the main thing the movement has demanded is a new plebiscite. This time it would be a real referendum on self-determination, with every adult West Papuan allowed to vote; preferably the United Nations would oversee the whole procedure. The Indonesians have in turn stated that one election is enough, since the UN declared the first one valid, and that the Papuans should not be independent because they are an inferior, primitive race. Likewise the first two Indonesian presidents of the twenty-first century, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri, opposed independence but granted a “special autonomy” status for western New Guinea.

OPM flag.
The Morning Star flag, representing the Free Papua Movement.

The Indonesian response to West Papuan resistance has been violent, to say the least. Since 1963, a series of reports have trickled out of Western New Guinea, telling of government-approved killings, imprisonment, torture, and attacks on villages. Indonesia banned the Morning Star flag; Papuans who fly the flag can be charged with treason and imprisoned for up to twenty-five years. While there hasn’t been an all-out rebellion or war of independence, some isolated uprisings have taken place, and when the armed forces put them down, some refugees flee across the border into Papua New Guinea; occasionally the fighting has spilled across the border as well.

On three occasions (1961, 2000 and 2011) a native conference to work out the details of self-government, called the Papuan People’s Congress, has been held in the city of Jayapura. The second congress was allowed to proceed without incident (Jakarta even paid 1/3 of the costs), but afterwards there was a military buildup in western New Guinea and a crackdown on independence supporters. The armed forces did not even wait for the third congress to end before taking action; police and the army fired into a peaceful pro-independence demonstration, killing six and injuring dozens.

Arresting the Third People's Papuan Congress.
Here the police take away attendees of the Third Papuan People’s Congress.

Estimates of the total number of Papuans killed since the 1960s range from 100,000 to 800,000, with 500,000 as the most often cited figure. Almost every West Papuan has a relative who became a victim of Indonesian reprisals. In many communities it has become impossible to separate the activists from everyone else, because they all support the Free Papua Movement, in effect saying, “We are all OPM.”

West Papuan refugees report that a campaign of genocide, cultural as well as physical, is being waged against them, and that environmental damage to the countryside has resulted from large areas of rainforest being cut down, similar to the deforestation problem in the Amazon basin.(12) Over the years some West Papuans have escaped to Australia, and because it is dangerous to protest against the Indonesian government at home, most demonstrations for West Papuan independence are now held in Australian cities.

However, Australia is reluctant to accept Papuan refugees; usually they are detained on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, while the Australian government decides on a case-by-case basis who to allow in. Both major Australian political parties, the Labor and the Liberal Parties, support this cautious approach. The reason is that during the Cold War years, Australia and Indonesia were allies against communism, and today’s Australians do not want to jeopardize that relationship now. Other nations have not put much pressure on Indonesia either, partially because Indonesia doesn’t really have any enemies in today’s world, and partially because the situation in western New Guinea has not been publicized as much as the crises in other places, like Europe and the Middle East. And unlike the Europeans, the Indonesians have shown that they are not influenced much by local protests or international opinion (e.g., look at how they treated East Timor). If there is going to be any chance of the West Papuans achieving self-determination, the behavior of Jakarta and the outside world will have to change, because the indigenous population cannot achieve it on their own.

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Western Samoa


Eleven Pacific island nations have gained independence since the end of World War II (twelve if you count Tonga), and Western Samoa led the way. For both Samoas, their relationship with the ruling country changed after the war ended. American Samoa had previously been governed directly by the US Navy; in 1949 that authority was replaced with the US Department of the Interior. New Zealand at first simply concluded a new trusteeship agreement with Western Samoa, which stated that Samoa’s status as a mandated territory would continue, though the United Nations had replaced the League of Nations. However, at the end of 1946 the United Nations received a petition from the Samoans, asking that they become a protectorate under New Zealand, the way Tonga was a protectorate under Britain.

Instead of suppressing the Samoan nationalist movement, as they had tried to do in 1929, the New Zealand government agreed to give the Samoans more control over their own affairs. In fact, New Zealand was soon moving a step ahead of what the Samoans had in mind. While the Samoans did not want to make any drastic changes to their culture, New Zealand offered them full independence before they asked for it. Before the 1940s ended, a native-run council of state and legislature were set up in Western Samoa. In 1952 the governor set up a timetable for transition to independence, with 1960 as the goal date. A constitutional convention was held in 1954, and the constitution they came up with was modified regularly after that, as more Samoans gained the education and experience needed to take government jobs. By 1959, Western Samoa was fully self-governed, so it had indeed become the protectorate requested in the petition; on January 1, 1962 it was declared an independent state.

Because Samoa had four paramount chiefs, a carryover from the nineteenth-century competition for titles (see Chapter 3), they were encouraged to share power by giving important jobs to each of them: two became heads of state for life, one became prime minister, and the fourth became a member of the Council of Deputies, which runs the country when the heads of state are absent. One of the two heads of state, Tupua Tamasese Mea'ole, died just sixteen months after his elevation, so the other, Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II, in effect became king of Samoa for the rest of his life (1963-2007).(13)

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Nauru and Tonga

Nauru  Tonga

The island of Nauru became self-governing in 1966, and after a constitutional convention lasting for two years, it was declared the world’s smallest independent republic (1968). Independence could have come sooner, but the process dragged out as Australians and Nauruans discussed Nauru’s future. Because Nauru has so little land on top of its phosphate deposits, and that land would be unsuitable for farms and homes after the phosphate was mined out, Australia presented more than one proposal to move the Nauruans somewhere else. For example, the Australians offered a small island off the coast of Queensland, but they did not make it clear whether the island would be handed over with no strings attached. The Nauruans refused to consider any of these ideas, and that is the main reason why they are still on Nauru today.

Tonga still had a native monarchy, so all Britain had to do was end the protectorate it had over those islands; Britain did so on June 4, 1970, and Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations on the same day. As the Tongan government put it, Tonga had never really lost its independence, and now it “re-entered the comity of nations.”

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Fiji’s independence was the end result of a process of development, that began with an expansion of the Legislative Council in 1953. Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Fiji’s World War I hero (see Chapter 4, footnote #2), became the Legislative Council’s first non-European speaker. However, it wasn’t just a case of handing over power to the natives. Fiji had three ethnic groups – Fijians, Indians and Europeans – of which the Indians were the largest, and these groups had to learn how to work together first. To give one example, Indians wanted a government with proportional representation, while neither the Europeans nor the Fijians wanted independence if it meant an arrangement that put the Indians in charge. A general strike by the labor unions in 1959, followed by a sugar workers’ strike in 1960, also raised tensions.

Under these circumstances, it was a bit of a shock to the Europeans and Fijians when the colonial government began making modest reforms in the early 1960s, whether they wanted them or not. Chief among these was the first popular election for the Legislative Council, held in early 1963. Previously most of the members of the Legislative Council had been appointed, but now all but two were elected (the last two seats were appointed by the Fijian chiefs). What’s more, in the past only Europeans could vote, but now the right to vote was extended to all races, women as well as men. Not long after this, Fiji’s first political party was founded, the Fijian Alliance Party (FAP), with a chief named Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as its leader. Though it was seen as a political club for Fijian chiefs, membership in it was open to all races – a good sign. When the next election was held in 1966, the FAP won 27 of the 36 seats available; the other 9 went to Indian candidates, who subsequently formed the second party, the National Federation Party (NFP).

Next, the executive branch of the future Fijian government was installed, with Ratu Mara as the first prime minister. However, the two parties could not agree on what form the government would take after independence. A. D. Patel, the founder of the NFP, wanted a republic with no ties to Britain, not even membership in the Commonwealth, and a one-man, one-vote electoral system, while everybody else in Fiji wanted to stay linked with Britain and reserve some positions in the government for Fijians. This dispute meant no constitution could be written that everyone would accept, and when it dragged on until April 1970, representatives of the two parties were summoned to a conference in London, and there they worked out a compromise constitutional formula. With that hurdle cleared, independence came on October 10, 1970, ninety-six years to the day since Britain had taken charge over Fiji.(14)

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Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Between the World Wars, Australia’s administration over eastern New Guinea and the Bismarck archipelago was described as “stale, short-sighted and unimaginative.”(15) For one thing, it did not make sense to keep southeastern and northeastern New Guinea organized as two separate territories, when Australia ruled both. In 1946, a United Nations Trusteeship Agreement replaced the League of Nations mandate; this reaffirmed Australian rule over the area, but also required that Australia give the natives "a progressively increasing share in the administration and other services of the Territory." The Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949 merged the two New Guinea territories into one, and also promised the establishment of a Legislative Council, a judicial system, a civil service and local government.

To keep those promises, Australia set up the 28-member Legislative Council in 1951, and held the first elections that involved native participation in 1961. Still, the United Nations seemed to think the Australians needed reminding; a visiting UN mission in 1962 stressed that if the people weren’t demanding independence, it was Australia’s responsibility to prepare them for it anyway. Hence, Australia emphasized an educational program to create an educated social group that could run a future government.

A second election in 1964 created a House of Assembly with 64 members, replacing the Legislative Council. Also, Papuans were elected to a majority of seats, which hadn’t happened previously. Australia accelerated the reforms after that; in 1971 the territory, with the Bismarck archipelago and Bougainville Island included, was renamed Papua New Guinea. 1973 saw Indonesia and Papua New Guinea agree in February on exactly where the border ran between New Guinea’s eastern and western halves, and internal government came to Papua New Guinea in December. Full independence was proclaimed on September 16, 1975; Michael Somare, the leading native politician and chief minister of the previous internal government, was sworn in as the first prime minister.

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The Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands

Before World War II the Solomon Islanders had no concept of nationhood. No native chief in the archipelago had ever ruled anything larger than his own tribe and the land they claimed for themselves. The Europeans didn’t encourage them to think above the local level, either. Of course there were marriages, trade and sometimes wartime alliances between tribes, but this was only the first step required to turn several groups of people into a nation. For one thing, some of these informal ties spread beyond the Solomon Islands to other places inhabited by Melanesians, especially the New Hebrides and Papua New Guinea. And when efforts began to create a native-run government, some natives wondered if they really needed this, when the churches always provided many of the things they wanted; e.g., schools, clinics, charity for the needy.

World War II turned out to be a nation-building event for the Solomon Islands. Though it started out as someone else’s war, many Solomon Islanders supported the Allied effort to drive the Japanese away. Also, they got to like the Americans during the period when American troops managed liberated islands like Guadalcanal, and were less than thrilled when the war ended and their British rulers returned. A nationalist movement, called Maasina Rule or Marching Rule, was founded on the island of Malaita in 1944, and lasted until 1952; it called for local rule. The British suppressed the movement with some arrests, but then turned around and started setting up island councils in 1953, elected by universal adult suffrage.

The 1960s saw Britain establish legislative and executive councils in the new capital, Honiara (see Chapter 4, footnote #26), and held elections for most of the seats on those councils. In effect, the British looked at how decolonization was going elsewhere, saw that keeping colonies could be expensive, and responded by speeding up the process towards independence. A constitution was introduced in 1970, but there was opposition to it, so in 1974 the constitution was replaced with another one. In January 1976 the Solomon Islands became internally self-governing, and Solomon Mamaloni became the first prime minister. Full independence followed on July 7, 1978. For a decade the office of prime minister alternated between Mamaloni and another leading nationalist, Peter Kenilorea, who served from 1978 to 1981 and 1984 to 1986.(16)

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Tuvalu and Kiribati

Tuvalu  Kiribati

Britain had governed the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as one colony since 1916, and when the decolonization process started here, the plan was to merge both archipelagoes, along with the Ocean/Banaba, Phoenix and Line Islands, into one nation, with the capital at Tarawa. We mentioned the idea of putting non-viable islands together to create a federation that had a chance of success; this is the closest anyone came to doing it in the Pacific. The British thought the islands would stay together because the Ellice Islands depended on a financial subsidy, from the phosphate mining operation on Banaba (see Chapter 4, footnote #8 and footnote #22). With that in mind, an elected House of Representatives was established in 1967.

However, the 48,000 Gilbert Islanders were Micronesian, while the 8,000 Ellice Islanders were Polynesian. The Ellice Islanders saw the majority Gilbertese as culturally inferior, and the Gilbertese resented the phosphate subsidy going to the Ellice Islands. Finally, Banaba was running low on phosphate, and the Banabans were understandably upset at how mining had ruined their island.(17) As the 1970s began, rising ethnic tensions made the British plan unworkable. A referendum on the issue was held in the Ellice Islands in 1974, and the Ellice Islanders voted 92 percent to go their own way, rather than stay with the Gilbertese. Thus, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were divided into separate self-governing colonies in 1975. Full independence came to the Ellice Islands, now renamed Tuvalu, on October 1, 1978. The other thirty-three islands became the widely dispersed Republic of Kiribati on July 12, 1979.

For those wondering about the new names, Tuvalu means "Eight Standing Together." Actually Tuvalu has nine islands, but the ninth island, Niulakita, has only had inhabitants since 1949, and is usually considered too small to matter. "Kiribati" is the pidgin English version of "Gilbert." The "ti"; in the name is pronounced like an "s,"; so natives call their country "Ki-ri-bas." Likewise, an island in the archipelago that English speakers call Christmas Island is now spelled "Kiritimati." The first president of Kiribati, Ieremia Tabai, held office from 1979 to 1991; the fact that he was only twenty-eight years old when elected is a sign that like the other Pacific island nations, the residents of Kiribati had to quickly receive a modern education when independence was on their doorstep. Indeed, independence came so quickly that the people of both Kiribati and Tuvalu expressed regret that the British had to go, for they felt the mother country had treated them well.

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The New Hebrides Islands faced the most complicated path to independence, because they were ruled by two outside nations, and only one of them, Britain, wanted to let them go. The other power, France, wasn’t willing to withdraw because as we noted, the French did not have to give up their other Pacific colonies. In the end, the French had to be persuaded that moves toward independence would not encourage any nationalist movement in New Caledonia; only then did they cooperate with the British in the New Hebrides.(18)

Before World War II, missionaries and the owners of farms were the only white people that most natives had dealings with. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, that began to change during the war because the natives met American servicemen, so in this part of Melanesia, cargo cults were the first nationalist movements. The next step came when the natives realized that Europeans owned 36 percent of the land, and were using it mainly for growing coconuts. A political movement opposing this, called NaGriamel, was founded on Espiritu Santo in 1963; it called for giving the land back to the natives, and a return to traditional ways. In 1971 NaGriamel sent a petition to the United Nations, demanding that the sale of land to non-indigenous people be stopped. On the other side of the archipelago, the southern island of Tanna unsuccessfully tried to declare independence in 1974.

From here it was a small step to the founding of the first political party. Created in 1971, it was first called the New Hebrides National Party, and then renamed the Vanua’aku Pati (VP) in 1974. This organization was modelled after the first political party in Papua New Guinea, the Pangu Pati, and it was led by an Anglican priest, Father Walter Lini. The first national elections were held in November 1975, but the Representative Assembly it created had to be dissolved in 1977, after nationalists boycotted a conference held in Paris, because the French were still refusing to make any moves towards independence. Lini responded by forming a new, provisional government in 1978. At first it was a rebel government, until the British and French recognized it as representing native interests. Although Lini was always willing to negotiate, he refused to compromise on his goals; he didn’t have to, because the United Nations and the other South Pacific countries were on his side. A constitution was written in 1979, which promised full independence in the following year, and rural land owned by foreigners was seized (the former landowners were compensated by the British and French governments). New elections were held, and the VP won 62 percent of the popular vote, so Lini became the first prime minister.

Even at this late date, the French tried to hold onto part of the New Hebrides, if not all of them. On the first day of 1980, five islands, led by Tanna, declared their intention to become a separate nation. This move to secede ended when British troops arrived in May. Then in June Jimmy Stevens, the NaGriamel leader, declared Espiritu Santo would become an independent state named Vemerana. French troops on Espiritu Santo did nothing, and France refused to allow Britain to intervene a second time; consequently Prime Minister Lini asked Papua New Guinea to send troops. When the troops arrived, foreign reporters gave the name “Coconut War” to the rebellion, but it turned out to be a nearly bloodless affair. The residents of Espiritu Santo refused to fight the Papuans, because they were Melanesians, too, and besides, most of the rebels were armed with just bows and slings. The only important casualty of the Coconut War was the son of Stevens, who was fatally shot when he tried to drive through a Papuan roadblock. Afterwards, it was revealed that France had supported both of these secession attempts, the idea being that the islands in question would choose to remain under French rule had they succeeded in breaking away.(19)

Though the Espiritu Santo rebellion lasted until the end of August, independence came to the New Hebrides on schedule; on July 30, 1980, the islands were proclaimed the independent Republic of Vanuatu. Vanuatu means “Our Land Forever,” an appropriate name since the nationalist movement began with a land dispute; likewise the natives now call themselves Ni-Vanuatu, instead of New Hebrideans. Once order was restored on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu forged a defense pact with Papua New Guinea, now that the British and French forces were no longer around to defend the islands. French intransigence during the final years before independence left more bad feelings toward Europeans in Vanuatu than you will find in other parts of the South Pacific. Indeed, Vanuatu is the only South Pacific nation that had to fight for its independence in any way, and the only one that claims to have defeated a stronger opponent.(20)

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The Free Association States

Federated States of Micronesia  Marshall Islands  Palau

The United States began to loosen its control over the Trust Territory in the early 1960s. The territory was organized into six districts: Palau, the Northern Marianas, Yap, Truk (later Chuuk), Ponape (later Pohnpei), and the Marshall Islands. The Kennedy administration spent generously to improve native health, education and communications, but very little was done about economic development. A legislative body, the Congress of Micronesia, was established in 1965, and this Congress introduced an income tax in 1971, which was mainly paid by non-natives working at military bases in the region.

Trust Territory map, thumbnail
A 1962 map of the Trust Territory and Guam. Click on the above thumbnail to see it full size (1.29 MB, opens in a separate tab or window). From

Negotiations on the future status of the islands in the Trust Territory began in 1969. This time the Congress of Micronesia got the ball rolling, because the Americans didn’t seem interested in speeding up the process. Before long the Northern Marianas decided they did not want to leave the United States. Their reason was that the United States continued to administer Guam as a separate territory (see Chapter 1, footnote #20). The indigenous population of both Guam and the Northern Marianas are ethnic Chamorros, and they did not want to be split between two countries. Instead, the Northern Marianas chose to become an autonomous “commonwealth,” much like Puerto Rico. A referendum held on this proposal was approved in 1975, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas formally joined the United States in 1978.

The breakaway of the Northern Marianas was a sign that whatever the other districts did, they were not likely to all go the same way. A new district, Kosrae, was created, bringing the number of districts back to six. Since all of them wanted eventual independence, an attempt was made to create one state containing all of them, governed by the Congress of Micronesia. However, Palau and the Marshall Islands decided they would prefer to become separate republics; only the four districts of the former Caroline Islands liked the unified state. Thus, by the end of the 1970s, it became clear that three states, not one, were emerging from the Trust Territory.

At this point the issue was that left to their own devices, each state was defenseless and broke. Therefore, instead of having full independence, the status they chose can be described as dependent independence. This relationship with the United States, negotiated in 1979, is called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). Under this arrangement, each nation in the Trust Territory would have its own government, while the United States government provided the defense needs of the COFA states and promised millions of dollars of financial assistance for fifteen years.(21) In addition, citizens of the COFA states can live and work in the US (and vice-versa), and those nations can access the services of several US agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, the United States Postal Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission.

Once all parties ratified the COFA agreement, they were ready to terminate the trusteeship. On October 21, 1986, the US ended its administration of the Marshall Islands district, creating the independent Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Independence for the Chuuk, Yap, Kosrae, and Pohnpei districts of the Caroline Islands soon followed; they became the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) on November 3, 1986. Meanwhile, the US notified the UN that its obligations were fulfilled, and the Security Council of the UN dissolved the Trust Territory in 1990, except over Palau.

It took longer to work out the details of independence for the Palau district, though most Palauans wanted the same arrangement as the FSM and RMI had. The biggest issue was the same one that messed up US-NZ relations in the mid-1980s -- nuclear weapons (see here). The Palauans, seeing what nuclear testing had done to their neighbors, had written and ratified the world's first constitution banning nuclear substances and weapons from their territory (1979), and they did not want American ships in Palauan waters if they carried nuclear weapons. Palauans also feared US military land use, which would be permitted in up to a third of the country. The US stand was to oppose a free association while the nuclear-free clause was in the constitution, because US warships needed to be able to sail past Palau without any restrictions. Three months after the first constitution was ratified, the Palauan government submitted another one which did not have the nuclear-free clause in it, but the voters rejected it, so the first constitution remained in effect. Then the Palau High Court ruled that a 75% vote was needed to make any changes to the constitution. Seven plebiscites were held in the 1980s, on whether to accept COFA and drop the nuclear-free clause; each failed to win the required 3/4 majority to pass. Arguments over the future of Palau led to chaos and violence, and prominent Paluans were attacked by those who disagreed with their views. The first elected president, Haruo Remeliik, was assassinated (1985), and his successor, Lazarus Salii, committed suicide when he was accused of bribery (1988).

After the failure of the seventh plebiscite, there was a three-year chilling-out period. During this time, both sides agreed to terms under which the US military could be active on the islands. More importantly, a constitutional amendment changed the 75% vote for making changes, to a simple majority. The next time a plebiscite was held, it passed with 68% of the vote (1993). Thus, Palau abandoned its nuclear-free status, because of the need for economic survival; COFA was approved, the UN trusteeship was terminated, and the Republic of Palau finally made its appearance as a nation on October 1, 1994.

Now that we are done discussing how today’s South Pacific nations were created, which islands are still under outside rule, besides western New Guinea and the Marianas? As promised earlier, Hawaii became the 50th US state, in 1959. Tokelau was transferred from British to New Zealand rule in 1926, and remains a territory of New Zealand to this day. New Zealand granted self-rule to the Cook Islands in 1965 and to Niue in 1974; both of these island groups are said to be in “free association” with New Zealand, a relationship in which New Zealand manages most external affairs.(22) To the southeast, Britain has held onto the four islands in the Pitcairn Island group, the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific. France kept New Caledonia and all of its Polynesian islands, though unlike the other territories mentioned in this paragraph, a case can be made that the French colonies have enough people to be economically viable. In all cases that we covered in this chapter, the mother country put its own interests first, and granted independence if doing so did not interfere with those interests (e.g., the United States unloaded the Trust Territory when the Cold War was winding down).

This is the end of Part II. Click here to go to Part III.


11. An international organization for Melanesians, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), was founded in 1986. Its four primary members are Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Also included are Indonesia, because five of its thirty-four provinces contain Melanesians, and New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front. In 2015 the United Liberation Movement for West Papua was granted observer status, but not full membership, because Indonesia is already considered the official representative of western New Guinea.

12. The deforestation has happened because with today’s transportation technology, New Guinea’s interior is more accessible than it ever was in the past. Many of the species threatened with a loss of habitat were only discovered recently. In my lifetime, more new plants and animals have been discovered in Indonesia than anywhere else, prompting me to call that country “the real Lost World.”

On this page are pictures and a video about the deforestation. The pictures are exceptionally large, so you can expect them to take a while to load; grab a cup of coffee or tea while you are waiting.

13. Here’s an interesting bit of royal trivia: though Samoa is devoutly Christian today, Malietoa Tanumafili II was the first head of state anywhere to follow the Baha’i religion. The “Mother Temple of the Pacific Islands” for that syncretistic faith was built just outside of Apia, and dedicated by him in 1984. The second Baha’i head of state was probably Sir Thomas Davis of the Cook Islands (see footnote #22), who converted sometime in the late 1980s.

14. Before independence, Fiji founded one of the first institutions used to encourage cooperation between the South Pacific Island nations. This was the University of the South Pacific, in 1968. Today the University has fourteen campuses, three in Fiji (including the main campus), and the rest in the following places: the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

15. Where the Australians did a good job was in exploring inland New Guinea. Because getting around the island is so difficult (the terrain and the jungle, you know), explorers had mapped the coast but left the interior a blank area on maps. The first inland expeditions to tell us much were led by a Russian anthropologist, Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai; in the 1870s he lived among the natives for several years, and wrote about them afterwards. Then in 1929 and 1930, the Akmana Gold prospecting company made two interior expeditions that failed to find gold, but explored several river valleys; you can read the details here. And after that some areas were still unexplored. An aerial survey conducted in 1954 discovered several valleys that were home to as many as 100,000 people, and today scientists routinely report the discovery of previously unknown animals in the jungle (see also footnote #12).

16. Seventy native languages are currently in use in the Solomon Islands. To reduce the confusion this causes, pidjin English was encouraged as a lingua franca, all throughout the twentieth century. Standard English is the country’s official language, but no more than 2 percent of the population understands it.

17. Because phosphate mining had stripped most of Banaba’s surface, at the end of 1945 the British settled Banaban prisoners held by the Japanese on the Fijian island of Rabi, instead of repatriating them to Banaba. Profits from the mining were used to purchase Rabi (the Fijians on Rabi were moved to another island, Taveuni), and the rest of the Banabans were relocated there in 1977 and 1981; a few Gilbertese were also relocated to Rabi, to ease crowding on their home islands. Some Banabans have returned since the mining ended in 1979; as of this writing, there are some 5,000 Banabans on Rabi, and 300 on Banaba.

In 1971 the Banabans sued the British government for a larger share of the royalties from phosphate mining; they also wanted the mining company to restore their land. The trial ended without any resolution of the case, and in 1981 the Banabans accepted a British offer of $10 million (in Australian dollars) to settle their claim.

Because most Banabans are still in Fiji, they were granted Fijian citizenship in 2005, and in 2006 a bill was introduced to the Kiribati Parliament, proposing that Banaba secede and join Fiji; it did not pass, though.

18. There was political activity among the natives in the other French colonies during World War II. Nationalists in French Polynesia wanted self-government, eventually calling for independence, while those in New Caledonia wanted social justice and racial equality. Minor reforms on the government’s part kept a lid on these budding movements until Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. De Gaulle held referendums in all French colonies, and both French Polynesia and New Caledonia voted by large margins to retain existing ties with France. Before the election the leading Tahitian nationalist, Pouvanaa a Oopa (1895-1977), was charged with arson, spent eight years in prison, and then was exiled until de Gaulle pardoned him in 1968. After his return Pouvanna was elected to the French Senate in 1971, as the senator representing Tahiti, and he held that position for the rest of his life. At any rate, the end result was that de Gaulle and his successors succeeded in keeping the French colonies in the Pacific from declaring independence, the way the African and Asian colonies had.

19. While Espiritu Santo was in revolt, France went so far as to persuade the local tribal chiefs to recognize the French representative on that island, Philippe Alloneau, as their king.

20. France did not relinquish control over Matthew and Hunter Islands, when it pulled out of Vanuatu. These two islands are located about 155 miles southeast of Anatom, Vanuatu’s southernmost island; no one lives there because both islands have volcanoes that erupt frequently (Vanuatu is on the most geologically active part of the Pacific “ring of fire”). Vanuatu claimed these uninhabited islands in 1982, arguing that they are part of the Vanuatu archipelago; holding the islands would considerably expand Vanuatu’s exclusive economic zone in the southwest Pacific. France rejected the claim, and manages the islands as part of its New Caledonia overseas territory. We probably haven’t heard the last word on this dispute yet.

21. Giving financial aid to the states created from the Trust Territory hasn’t been much of a burden for Uncle Sam. The three states between them have a population of 176,831 (2013 figures). This is about the same population as Brownsville, Texas; 130 US cities are larger, and the state with the smallest population, Wyoming, has more than three times as many people. The federal government easily wastes more dollars on domestic spending, starting with the cost of maintaining all its agencies (see Chapter 6 of my North American history).

22. It’s just as well that the Cook Islands went with this arrangement, because in the first generation afterwards, they found democracy a challenge. The first prime minster, Albert Henry, grew increasingly autocratic during his long rule (1965-78), and he appointed members of his family to most senior positions. During the 1978 election his party, the Cook Islands Party, was accused of vote-buying, and Henry was forced to resign. He was succeeded by Sir Thomas Davis of the Democratic Party, a medical researcher who had spent most of his adult years in New Zealand and the United States before entering politics. Unfortunately Davis eventually became autocratic, too, and was dismissed in 1987 after losing a no-confidence motion.

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