officially Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese Majōl,
Island country, central Pacific Ocean.
It is composed of two parallel chains of low-lying coral atolls: the
Ratak, or Sunrise, to the east and the Ralik, or Sunset, to the west.
The chains lie 125 mi (200 km) apart and extend some 800 mi (1,290 km)
northwest to southeast. The islands and islets number more than 1,200.
Area: 70 sq mi (181 sq km). Population (2008 est.): 53,200. Capital:
Majuro. The indigenous people are Micronesian. Languages: Marshallese,
English. Religion: Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, other
Christians). Currency: U.S. dollar. The largest atoll is Kwajalein,
consisting of about 90 islets, with a total land area of 6 sq mi (16 sq
km). Much of Kwajalein is used as a missile-testing range by the U.S.
military, which provides a major source of revenue to the Marshall
Islands. Subsistence farming, fishing, and the raising of pigs and
poultry are the principal economic activities. The Marshall Islands is a
republic with one legislative house (the Nitijela, or Parliament); its
head of state and government is the president. The islands were sighted
in 1529 by the Spanish navigator Álvaro Saavedra (or de Saavedra).
Germany purchased the islands from Spain in 1885 and declared them a
protectorate the following year. Japan seized them in 1914 and after
1919 administered them as a League of Nations mandate. During World War
II the U.S. seized Kwajalein and Enewetak, and the Marshall Islands were
made part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under U.S.
jurisdiction in 1947. Bikini and Enewetak atolls served as testing
grounds for U.S. nuclear weapons from 1946 to 1958. The Marshall Islands
became an internally self-governing republic in 1979. It signed the
compact of free association with the U.S. in 1982 and became fully
self-governing in 1986. The compact was amended in 2004.
Official name Majol (Marshallese); Republic of the Marshall Islands)
Form of government unitary republic with one legislative house1
(Nitijela, or Parliament )
Head of state and government President
Official language Marshallese3
Official religion none
Monetary unit U.S. dollar (U.S.$)
Population estimate (2008) 53,200
Total area (sq mi) 70
Total area (sq km) 181
1In addition, the Council of Iroij (Council of Chiefs), a 12-member body
of tribal chiefs, serves in an advisory capacity.
2Local name of town is DUD (an acronym for Delap [Woja], Uliga, and
Djarrit [Rita]—three small islands now merged by landfill).
3Language of the Nitijela, or Parliament.
officially Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese Majōl,
country of the central Pacific Ocean. It consists of some of the
easternmost islands of Micronesia. The Marshalls are composed of more
than 1,200 islands and islets in two parallel chains of coral atolls—the
Ratak, or Sunrise, to the east, and the Ralik, or Sunset, to the west.
The chains lie about 125 miles (200 kilometres) apart and extend some
800 miles northwest to southeast. Dalap-Uliga-Darrit, on Majuro Atoll,
is the capital of the republic.
The Marshalls were administered by the United States as part of the
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from 1947 to 1986, when the Trust
Territory was dissolved by the U.S. government.
None of the 29 low-lying coral atolls and the five coral islands
in the Marshall group rises to more than 20 feet (six metres) above high
tide. The islands are coral caps set on the rims of submerged volcanoes
rising from the ocean floor. The island units of the Marshalls are
scattered over about 180,000 square miles of the Pacific. The largest
atoll in the group and in the world is Kwajalein, which has a land area
of only six square miles but surrounds a 655-square-mile lagoon. The
Marshall Islands’ nearest neighbours are Wake Island (north), Kiribati
and Nauru (south), and the Federated States of Micronesia (west).
The climate is tropical, with a mean annual temperature for the
entire group of 82° F (28° C). Annual rainfall varies from 20 to 30
inches (500 to 800 millimetres) in the north to 160 inches in the
southern atolls. The wettest months are October and November. Several of
the northern atolls are uninhabited owing to insufficient rainfall. Most
of the Marshall Islands are true atolls, consisting of an irregular,
oval-shaped coral reef surrounding a lagoon; the islets lie along the
coral reef. The islands and islets of the Ratak chain tend to be more
heavily wooded than those of the Ralik. Coconut and pandanus palms and
breadfruit trees are the principal vegetation. Soils are generally sandy
and low in fertility.
The native people of the Marshalls are Micronesians. The most
populous atolls are Majuro and Kwajalein, which offers employment at the
U.S. missile testing range; together they have more than two-thirds of
the country’s total population. The remaining one-third of the
population lives in traditional villages on the outer islands away from
the two urban centres. The American missionary effort began in the
Marshalls in the 1850s and was exceedingly successful. The Marshallese
today are predominantly Christian. The Marshallese and English languages
are spoken, but only a minority are fluent in the latter.
Substantial U.S. subsidies to the Republic of the Marshall Islands
under the Compact of Free Association (see below) and the leasing of
land for the U.S. missile testing range on Kwajalein are the main
sources of revenue for the nation. Employment and modern amenities at
both Majuro and Kwajalein serve as magnets that draw people to the two
On the outer islands, subsistence farming, fishing, and the raising
of pigs and poultry are the principal economic activities. Coconut,
pandanus, breadfruit, and taro are the major food crops. The production
of copra is the chief source of income for the outer islands. The
principal import is processed foods. Other major imports include
machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, and fuels,
primarily from the United States, Japan, and Australia.
Transportation among the atolls and islands is by boat or air.
Government-owned ships make scheduled trips among the islands. Several
commercial cargo lines also serve the islands. Majuro has a commercial
dock complex, and many of the atolls have good anchorage within their
lagoons. Majuro and Kwajalein have international airports, and domestic
and regional flights link some of the other atolls and islands.
Administration and social conditions
Under the constitution adopted in 1979, the government consists of a
president elected by a unicameral, 33-member parliament known as the
Nitijela. The Council of Iroji (Chiefs) has mainly a consultative
function, concerned with traditional laws and customs.
A hospital on Majuro, a small sub-hospital on Ebeye island (part of
Kwajalein Atoll), and dispensaries on other islands provide health care.
There are primary schools, both public and church-run, on the inhabited
islands and islets. Majuro and Jaluit atolls each have a public
secondary school. Majuro is also the site of a centre for continuing
education operated by the Federated States of Micronesia’s College of
The Marshall Islands were settled initially around the beginning
of the Christian Era by Micronesians who may have been influenced by
early Polynesian (Lapita) culture. Radiocarbon dates from earth-oven
charcoal samples that were excavated in Laura village on Majuro yielded
dates of about 30 bc and ad 50. The early Marshall Islanders were
skilled navigators and made long canoe voyages among the atolls.
Sighted in 1529 by the Spanish navigator Álvaro Saavedra, the
Marshalls lacked the wealth to encourage exploitation or mapping. The
British captain Samuel Wallis chanced upon Rongerik and Rongelap atolls
while sailing from Tahiti to Tinian. The British naval captains John
Marshall and Thomas Gilbert partially explored the Marshalls in 1788,
but much of the mapping was done by Russian expeditions under Adam
Johann Krusenstern (1803) and Otto von Kotzebue (1815 and 1823). U.S.
whalers frequented the islands from the 1820s, and U.S. and Hawaiian
Protestant missionaries began efforts to convert the islanders in the
1850s. Germany established a coaling station on Jaluit Atoll by treaty
with island chiefs and in 1886, by agreement with Great Britain,
established a protectorate over the Marshalls. Japan seized the islands
in 1914 and later (after 1919) administered them as a League of Nations
mandate. Occupied by the United States in World War II, following heavy
fighting at Kwajalein and Enewetak, the Marshall Islands were made part
of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under
jurisdiction of the United States in 1947. After their populations were
removed to other atolls, Bikini and Enewetak served as an official
testing ground for U.S. nuclear bombs (1946–58). The tests stopped in
1958 and cleanup efforts began in the late 1960s. During the trial
resettlement of the Bikinians, however, their atoll was found to be too
contaminated for permanent habitation, and by the late 1970s the people
had to be evacuated once again. The Enewetak people were returned to
their homeland, and a program to monitor Bikini was put in place.
After voting to separate from the other entities of the Trust
Territory of the Pacific Islands, in 1978, the Marshall Islands drew up
a constitution that voters approved in 1979. It formed the republic and
brought internal self-government. In 1982 the government signed the
Compact of Free Association with the United States. This agreement,
approved by the voters in 1983, requires that the United States remain
responsible for defense and external security and that it provide
financial assistance for the republic. The compact entitles the United
States to use the missile testing range on Kwajalein Atoll, and provides
for the republic to become fully independent and to alter its status
with the United States at any time, subject to approval of the residents
through plebiscites. In 1983 the islanders reopened negotiations on the
compact’s provision regarding compensation for the people of the four
atolls affected by the U.S. nuclear tests. The United States agreed to
set up a separate fund for the people of the four atolls and established
an open-ended fund to cover personal injury claims among the islanders;
it also agreed to set up a joint U.S.-Marshallese claims tribunal. A
further agreement set up a fund to improve living conditions on Ebeye
island, where all Micronesians working on the Kwajalein missile range
and base resided. The Trust Territory was dissolved in 1990 with the
approval of the UN Security Council, and on Sept. 17, 1991, the Marshall
Islands became a member of the UN.
Robert C. Kiste