Lesson 6: Palau

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Palau is a small archipelago consisting of eight main islands and over two hundred islets that sit in the Western Pacific about 500 miles east of the Philippines. About 4,000 years ago people from the Philippines were likely the first to settle Palau. The islands developed a strong system of clans, with land and money passing generation to generation matrilineally (through the female line). There is debate about whether 16th century Spanish explorers who eventually claimed several Micronesian islands for the Spanish crown (calling them the Caroline Islands) saw Palau on their travels, but there is clear and fascinating historical record of the unplanned first visit of a British captain, Henry Wilson, whose Antelope shipwrecked there in 1783. Wilson and most of his men survived the wreck and became guests of King (“Ibedul”) Abba Thulle who allowed them to fell trees to build a boat that would take them to China. After some of Wilson’s men worked with Abba Thulle to help him defeat some rival tribes–British guns were quite helpful in that regard–Abba Thulle encouraged his son, Prince Lee Boo, to return with Wilson to England. En route to England Lee Boo learned European ways and endeared himself to the crew. Lee Boo arrived in London in July of 1784 and his visit was going very well indeed–he achieved much notoriety for his curiosity, intelligence and charm…until he caught smallpox and died before the end of the year. (Read more about Prince Lee Boo’s story here.)

The Spanish eventually colonized Palau and brought it into the Caroline Islands, but after they lost the Spanish-American War in 1898 they sold the Carolines to the Germans. Germans “developed” Palau by mining and harvesting its natural resources like bauxite, phosphate and copra. (What’s copra and why was it so important in the Pacific? See this very informative slide show: “When Copra was King.”) The Japanese made a secret treaty with the British that as part of their declaration of war on Germany they would be given control of Micronesia. In 1914 the Japanese colonized Palau quite aggressively, and in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles sealed the deal. The Japanese sent many immigrants to populate the islands–at one point the immigrants even outnumbered the indigenous people–and installed Japanese-friendly Palauans into the local leadership. They also confiscated and redistributed lands and supported the development of a patrilineal system of descent. After the Japanese lost World War II Palau became part of U.S.-administered territory and, after a long series of votes and much unrest it officially signed a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States. (What does that mean? Wikipedia tells us.)

Today Palau has a complicated relationship with the United States but less so with the world’s population of scuba divers, who consistently rank Palau’s reef diving as among the best in the world, and who help support Palau’s economy with their visits (though there has been some controversy–see the travel section below for details).

More information:

Wikipedia on the History of Palau | “Republic of Palau: My Home Sweet Home“–a multifaceted blog about Palau by an American who grew up there | More about the relationship between Palau and the Philippines | While about half of Palauans are Roman Catholic and 20% are Protestant, about 10% of Palauans practice Modekngei, which rose as a form non-violent opposition to the Japanese occupation and draws about Christianity, Palauan animism and other local spiritual practices


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