Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 45: What Future for the Islands of the Pacific? (1944)

The 18 political units into which the South Sea region is divided show almost every kind of colonial government and every degree of self-rule. But they share in common the fact of being under an outside control, as the American colonies were before the Declaration of Independence.


The American Stake

Before the present war, the United States territories in the South Seas added up to about 6,800 square miles in land area, or nearly the size of the state of New Jersey. They had a population of close to half a million.

Hawaii, easily the largest unit, dominates the northeast zone of the Pacific and is by far the most developed of any of the South Sea groups. It is an organized territory with a status very like that of a state in the Union, though with somewhat greater federal supervision by way of the Department of the Interior. There is strong sentiment among residents of this territory to have it become the forty-ninth state, and both our major political parties are on record as favoring statehood for Hawaii in the future.

Guam and American Samoa, the two small outlying territories, are controlled by the Navy, with the commandants of the local naval stations as their governors. Wake Island and several islets in the Phoenix and Line groups south of Hawaii are also under United States sovereignty. As already noted, Canton and Enderbury are under joint American-British control.

The Former Japanese Islands

The islands formerly held by Japan are small in land area, but cover a large strategic zone. The Japanese Nanyo, or South Sea mandate, comprising the Marianas (other than Guam), the Palaus, the Carolines, and the Marshalls, adds up to only 830 square miles. Before the war the mandate had a population of about 50,000 Micronesian islanders and perhaps 80,000 Japanese settlers, the, latter chiefly on Saipan and a few other principal islands. Contrary to popular ideas that there are “countless” islands in this territory, it actually has about a hundred atolls and islets, of which some seventy-five are inhabited.

Japan has also held the tiny but strategic Bonin and Volcano islands, and isolated Marcus. These have no aboriginal inhabitants, but in 1830 a few whites and Hawaiians settled in the Bonins. Almost a half century later Japan annexed the islands, and thousands of Japanese have gone there since. Some of the descendants of the earlier colonists are still distinguishable.

The British Islands

The largest political stake in the South Seas is held by Australia. It controls two great territories just to the north of the continent of Australia-Papua and the mandate of New Guinea. It also runs the affairs of the valuable little phosphate island of Nauru, which is a joint mandate of Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

New Zealand holds several island territories in the central Pacific. Largest is the mandate of Western Samoa, made up of the former German part of Samoa. The native Samoans have had the strange experience of having their islands developed along two very different lines of policy, one by American naval authorities and the other by the New Zealanders, a fact which many Samoans resent. New Zealand also controls the scattered Cook islands, the Tokelaus, and a few other islands. In New Zealand itself there are about a hundred thousand Polynesian Maoris, who elect their own representatives directly to the Dominion parliament.

Great Britain has two crown colonies in the islands, Fiji and the Gilbert and Ellice colony; the latter includes the valuable phosphate island called Ocean, and also the British Phoenix and Line islands. Britain also controls the Solomons as a protectorate and the native Kingdom of Tonga as a protected state whose Polynesian monarch is Queen Salote (Charlotte).

British sovereignty also extends to several small islands, notably Pitcairn, on which the mutineers of the Bounty finally settled and where their descendants live today. All these possessions of Great Britain are governed through the British “High Commission of the Western Pacific,” founded in 1875 to look after British interests in the South Seas. This body has its headquarters at Suva, with the governor of Fiji serving at the same time as the high commissioner. Britain and France together control the New Hebrides as a “condominium.” They have separate British and French administrations to deal with their own nationals and an over-all joint government headed by a high court, which includes personnel from neutral nations, to run general affairs. This system has a Rube Goldberg touch, and has proved cumbersome and not very effective.

Other National Stakes

French colonial holdings, other than in the New Hebrides, fall into two groups. In the west the large and rich island of New Caledonia, the Loyalty, Wallis and Horne islands (northeast of Fiji), and a few small islands are under a French high commissioner of the western Pacific. In the east are the “French Establishments in Oceania,” consisting of the scattered Society, Tuamotu, Austral, and Marquesas groups.

The Dutch hold the western or “Indonesian” half of New Guinea. This is part of the Netherlands Indies and is normally controlled from Batavia. Finally, Chile has Easter island, nearest of the South Sea islands to South America. This island is famed for its huge stone statues, once considered mysterious relics of a lost civilization. They are now known to be a local form of the Polynesian temple, which has plain or carved stones where the gods and ancestors come to sit during religious ceremonies. Today, Easter island is mainly a sheep ranch, and has a native and part-native population of about five hundred.

Next section: How Are the Islands Governed?