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Home > History of Palau

History of Palau

Palau's early history is still largely veiled in mystery. Why, how or when people arrived on our beautiful islands is unknown, but studies indicate today's Palauan's are distant relatives of the Malays of Indonesia, Melanesians of New Guinea and Polynesians. As for the date of their arrivals, carbon dating of artifacts from the oldest known village sites on the Rock Islands and the spectacular terraces on Babeldoab place civilization here as early 1,000 BC. What is known, however, is that Palau once sustained a population much larger than even that of today.

The most noteworthy early foreign contact took place in 1783 when the vessel Antelope, under the command of English Captain Henry Wilson, was shipwrecked on a reef near Ulong, a Rock Island located between Koror and Peleliu. With the assistance of Koror's High Chief Ibedul, Wilson and his men stayed for three months to rebuild his ship. Upon departing, Captain Wilson took Ibedul's son, Lebuu, to England for schooling. Lebuu's untimely death from smallpox in England prompted a return voyage carrying news and gifts for Ibedul. From that time onward, many foreign explorers sailed through Palauan waters and the islands were exposed to further European contact.

Foreign governance of our islands officially began when Pope Leo XIII asserted Spain's rights over the Caroline Islands in 1885. Two churches were established and maintained by four Capuchin priests, resulting in the introduction of the alphabet and the elimination of inter-village wars. In 1899, Spain sold the Carolines to Germany which established an organized program to exploit the natural resources. Native labor was conscripted to mine phosphate in Angaur and coconuts were planted to expand copra production. At this time the German administration also began exercising its influence over Palauan custom by banning the mur, the month long traditional feast, because it was not profitable.

Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the islands passed to the Japanese under a mandate by the League of Nations. Japan also concentrated on the economic development of the islands and free public and vocational schools were established for Palauan's. The Japanese influence on the Palauan culture was immense as it shifted the economy from a level of subsistence to a market economy and property ownership from the clan to individuals. In 1922 Koror became the administrative center for all Japanese possessions in the South Pacific. The town of Koror was a stylish metropolis with factories, shops, public baths, restaurants and pharmacies. The population reached a record high of 40,000 people, of which fewer than 10 percent were Palauan's.

Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Carolines, Marianas and Marshall islands became United Nations Trust Territories under US administration with Palau being named as one of six island districts. As part of its mandate the US was to improve Palau's infrastructure and educational system in order for it to become a self sufficient nation. This finally came about on October 1, 1994, when Palau gained its independence upon the signing of the Compact of Free Association with the United States.
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