Contact with the Outside World

Early in the sixteenth century, the first Europeans ventured into the Pacific, beginning the waves of foreigners who reached this region carrying assorted new infectious diseases (Oliver 1962). Magellan's ships crossed the Pacific from the Americas to Southeast Asia, making the initial contact with the Marianas Islanders. Within a few decades, Guam was a regular port of call on the Spanish trade route between Mexico and the Philippines, and Spanish missionaries were proselytizing the Marianas. In the latter part of the century, Spanish explorers sailed from Peru to the Marquesas and to the islands of Melanesia before reaching the Philippines.

In the seventeenth century, Dutch traders explored the northern, western, and southern coasts of Australia, coastal New Guinea and New Ireland, and island groups in eastern and western Polynesia. British parties during this time period harried the Spanish galleons in the Pacific Basin and along the New Guinea coast, calling in at islands as fresh food and water were needed. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, British explorers first contacted most of the islands of Polynesia, including New Zealand, as well as the Marianas and the east coast of Australia. At this time, the French were charting some of the same islands in Polynesia plus groups of islands off the east coast of New Guinea.

British, French, and American missionaries; British, French, German, and American merchants; and British and American whalers began to move into the Pacific in the late eighteenth century. The British established their first permanent settlement in eastern Australia in 1788, and claimed sovereignty over Australia and New Zealand by 1840. Whaling peaked in the 1850s, but the missionaries and merchants had become a continuing feature of Pacific island life in the nineteenth century. In the latter half of that century, coconut and sugar plantations were developed on many of the islands, and "black-birding" sailing ships raided islands in Micronesia and Melanesia for indentured laborers to work on plantations in the islands, in Peru, and in northeastern Australia. By the late nineteenth century, only residents of the interior highlands of a few large Melanesian islands had escaped extensive experience with Westerners.

In addition, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino laborers were brought to the plantations of Hawaii, South Asian laborers to Fiji, Southeast Asian laborers to Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and Chinese traders were prevalent on many of the large islands. Gold mining operations in the late 1800s led to the importation of Southeast Asian workers who lived in overcrowded camps and towns in Melanesia under worse living conditions than laborers residing on plantations.

Commerce and communication were somewhat disrupted in the region by World War I, but the main effects of that war were the shuffling of colonial powers and the major influx into Micronesia and Melanesia of Japanese, Korean, and Oki-nawan businessmen, fishermen, miners, and military. Hong Kong laborers flocked to the phosphate mines of Nauru and Banaba after the war. The discovery of large deposits of gold in northeastern New Guinea, Fiji, and the Solomons in the 1920s triggered new interest in these areas and encouraged the exploration of New Guinea's central highlands by airplane. This opening up of previously impenetrable landscape by air allowed the first contact between the large populations of highlanders and Europeans. Contact among all the islands of the Pacific and between the islands and the continents bordering the Pacific was greatly facili tated by the establishment of transpacific and Australia-New Guinea air routes in the decades before World War II.

Pacific islanders suffered greatly during the Second World War. When peace finally returned, the United States replaced Japan as the colonial presence (U.N.-mandated trustee) in much of Micronesia, and joined Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand in major disease-eradication projects in the region, made possible by the advent of new drug therapies. In the subsequent years, towns and cities have grown up, opportunities for formal education and for travel abroad have increased markedly, tourism has replaced plantation produce, and even the small islands of the Pacific Basin have become integrated into the world economy and communication network. Yet the diversity in environments and cultures remains. As in any Third World situation, many indigenous people in the urban centers face overcrowding, unemployment, poverty, poor sanitation, and easy availability of all sorts of imported foods and drugs, while their relatives in the hinterlands have poor access to any services (including health care) or often even to clean water. Mortality rates and malnutrition are often higher in remote areas than near the centers, and in most cases the indigenous people in this entire region have inadequate housing, poor screening, less pure water, inadequate food storage facilities, poor diet, inadequate waste removal, inadequate health services, and high birthrates. The greatest value this region now has to major political powers is a strategic one. In addition to hosting a few military bases, some of the islands have been sites for controversial weapons storage and nuclear testing by the United States, England, and France.

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