Colonialism is a term that people think about everywhere because for hundreds of years it was the go-to method for encountering new places. Especially in recent years, people have started to study the consequences of colonialism all over the globe — ranging from Apartheid in South Africa to the backlash of extremist ideologies in the Middle East.
Most countries that experienced this dealt with it for hundreds of years, so it’s hard to see the immediate consequences. One country where those consequences are not only visible but accelerated and epitomized is the Marshall Islands.
While the Marshall Islands were technically briefly colonized by several countries before WW2, it wasn’t until the U.S. took them from the Japanese, that the obvious exploitation began. We have previously looked at Puerto Rico, which can also be seen as a U.S. colony, though they, fortunately, didn’t have to endure the fate the Marshall Island did. The most famous example would be the testing of nuclear weapons in the Bikini Atoll. The U.S. government essentially forced the local islanders to let them use their atoll for nuclear testing. The government claimed that it was a mutual agreement, but footage of the local officials and civilians shows this to be at least doubtful, and likely an outright lie.
The most famous tests performed in the Bikini Atoll were Operation Crossroads (especially the Baker Shot, which became one of the most famous images in the history of nuclear weapons) and Castle Bravo, the worlds first real thermonuclear test. Castle Bravo in particular, due to an intentionally dangerous decision made by the US official in charge of the strike, led to massive amounts of nuclear contamination on the islands. Years of nuclear tests have resulted in several islands in the area remaining uninhabitable to this day. While monitoring was spotty, high levels of cancer affected those hit by radioactive material.
Because of radiation and the installation of military bases, islanders were moved from their original homes. Some were brought to the U.S. mainland exhibiting radiation poisoning. While the government did eventually treat them, many islanders were originally brought in for scientific testing (compared by observers to lab rats) while not receiving critical medical treatment until it was almost too late. Many of these islanders and their families remain in the U.S. today, due to their inability to return to their homes because of radiation. A misunderstanding during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency led to some islanders being sent home only to realize that the testing had been wrong and that the soil and plants were still far too radioactive to be around.
Colonialization Created Slums in Marshall Islands
On the island of Kwajalein, the presence of the US military base has led to a different symptom of colonialism — slums. Islanders are not allowed to live on Kwajalein overnight, so every day many islanders take a boat back and forth to the island of Ebeye. Ebeye has become known as the “slum of the Pacific”, and the name is well earned. Because the military base pays a high salary for a few local jobs, many families are forced to live on Ebeye, despite the oppressive conditions.
The island is not even a mile long, and only 600 feet wide, with a total area of .14 square miles. This is about the size of a few city blocks. Within this space, 15,000 people are crammed into crumbling shacks, some with 40 people living in them. Disease runs rampant through Ebeye, including outbreaks of measles, cholera, dengue fever, tuberculosis, and polio. The water is polluted by human waste, which leads to regularly visible sores on people.
Junk food, introduced by the US during relocation, makes up almost all of the available diet on the island, which has led to high rates of obesity and alcoholism. Suicide is also rampant – around ten times greater than the US. The capital city of Majuro is not much better, with an average wage of $2 an hour and half of the population being under 24 years old due to out-migration and low life expectancy. Trash is everywhere, and more from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch sometimes washes up on the islands. Recently, old US plutonium has started leaking into the water.
The US Reigns On
The US has maintained its presence on the islands after granting them the freedom to become their own country through deals with the local governments and has leased land from Marshallese officials for much less than the land is worth. The money from these leases has a habit of never trickling down to the people on the affected islands, and much of the lease money ends up going to several prominent land-owning families who live abroad.
Another important deal between the US and Marshall Islands allows Marshallese to live in the US and receive an education without a visa. This has led to massive out-migration from the islands. Approximately a third of the 60,000 Marshallese population now lives in the U.S. Even in the U.S., however, conditions for Marshallese aren’t great, with Pacific Islanders in general disproportionately being targets for mistreatment, unfair housing, labor exploitation, and sex slavery.
In addition to these direct effects of colonial influence, there is also a massive and looming indirect effect: climate change. The Marshall Islands are very low lying, one of the lowest countries in the world, and rising sea levels already have a significant effect there. For every 3 cm of sea level rise, tides reach approximately 30 feet further inland. High tides currently reach very far, and regularly flood populated islands in the country. This flooding has led to the contamination of much of the drinkable water in the country (which was already low due to drought), leaving the USGS to conclude that the islands will likely have to be abandoned within decades rather than centuries as was thought before.
The Future of Marshall Islands
As climate change and economic disparity get worse, citizens will likely leave at higher rates to uncertain and dangerous futures abroad. After they are gone, it will only be a matter of time before the islands themselves are devoured by the rising ocean.
Colonialism may have more recognizable faces in other parts of the world, but the Marshall Islands may be the first country to be destroyed by it.