Coordinates: 9°N 168°E / 9°N 168°E / 9; 168

Republic of the Marshall Islands

Aolepān Aorōkin Ṃajeḷ  (Marshallese)
Motto: "Jepilpilin ke ejukaan"
"Accomplishment through joint effort"
Location of Marshall Islands
and largest city
7°7′N 171°4′E / 7.117°N 171.067°E / 7.117; 171.067
Official languages
Ethnic groups
  • 92.1% Marshallese
  • 5.9% Mixed Marshallese
  • 2% Others
GovernmentUnitary parliamentary republic
• President
David Kabua
• Speaker
Kenneth Kedi[3]
from the United States
• Self-government
October 21, 1986
• Total
181.43 km2 (70.05 sq mi) (189th)
• Water (%)
n/a (negligible)
• 2018 estimate
58,413[4][5] (211th)
• 2011 census
• Density
293.0/km2 (758.9/sq mi) (28th)
GDP (PPP)2019 estimate
• Total
$215 million
• Per capita
GDP (nominal)2019 estimate
• Total
$220 million
• Per capita
HDI (2018)Increase 0.698[8]
medium · 117th
CurrencyUnited States dollar (USD)
Time zoneUTC+12 (MHT)
Date formatMM/DD/YYYY
Driving sideright
Calling code+692
ISO 3166 codeMH
  1. 2005 estimate.

The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands (Marshallese: Aolepān Aorōkin Ṃajeḷ),[note 1] is an island country and a United States associated state near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, slightly west of the International Date Line. Geographically, the country is part of the larger island group of Micronesia. The country's population of 58,413 people (at the 2018 World Bank Census[9]) is spread out over 29 coral atolls,[2] comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets. The capital and largest city is Majuro. It has the largest portion of its territory made of water of any sovereign state, at 97.87%.

The islands share maritime boundaries with the Wake Island to the north,[note 2] Kiribati to the southeast, Nauru to the south, and Federated States of Micronesia to the west. About 52.3% of Marshall Islanders (27,797 at the 2011 Census) live on Majuro.[2] Data from the United Nations indicates an estimated population in 2018 of 58,413. In 2016, 73.3% of the population were defined as being "urban". The UN also indicates a population density of 295 per km² (765 people per mi²) and its projected 2020 population is 59,190.[10]

Micronesian colonists reached the Marshall Islands using canoes circa 2nd millennium BC, with interisland navigation made possible using traditional stick charts. They eventually settled here.[11] Islands in the archipelago were first explored by Europeans in the 1520s, starting with Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer in the service of Spain, Juan Sebastián Elcano and Miguel de Saavedra. Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar reported sighting an atoll in August 1526.[11] Other expeditions by Spanish and English ships followed. The islands derive their name from John Marshall, who visited in 1788. The islands were historically known by the inhabitants as "jolet jen Anij" (Gifts from God).[12]

Spain claimed the islands in 1592, and the European powers recognized its sovereignty over the islands in 1874. They had been part of the Spanish East Indies formally since 1528. Later, Spain sold some of the islands to the German Empire in 1885, and they became part of German New Guinea that year, run by the trading companies doing business in the islands, particularly the Jaluit Company.[11] In World War I the Empire of Japan occupied the Marshall Islands, which in 1920, the League of Nations combined with other former German territories to form the South Seas Mandate. During World War II, the United States took control of the islands in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign in 1944. Nuclear testing began on Bikini Atoll in 1946 and concluded in 1958.

The US government formed the Congress of Micronesia in 1965, a plan for increased self-governance of Pacific islands. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1979 provided independence to the Marshall Islands, whose constitution and president (Amata Kabua) were formally recognized by the US. Full sovereignty or self-government was achieved in a Compact of Free Association with the United States. Marshall Islands has been a member of the Pacific Community (SPC) since 1983 and a United Nations member state since 1991.[11] Politically, the Marshall Islands is a parliamentary republic with an executive presidency in free association with the United States, with the US providing defense, subsidies, and access to U.S.-based agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Postal Service. With few natural resources, the islands' wealth is based on a service economy, as well as some fishing and agriculture; aid from the United States represents a large percentage of the islands' gross domestic product. The country uses the United States dollar as its currency. In 2018, it also announced plans for a new cryptocurrency to be used as legal tender.[13][14]

The majority of the citizens of the Republic of Marshall Islands, formed in 1982, are of Marshallese descent, though there are small numbers of immigrants from the United States, China, Philippines, and other Pacific islands. The two official languages are Marshallese, which is one of the Malayo-Polynesian languages; and English. Almost the entire population of the islands practices some religion: three-quarters of the country follows either the United Church of Christ – Congregational in the Marshall Islands (UCCCMI) or the Assemblies of God.[15]


Marshall Islanders sailing in traditional costume, c. 1899–1900
Marshall Islanders sailing, with sails brailed (reefed), c. 1899–1900
Bikini Islanders departing from Bikini Atoll in March 1948

Evidence suggests that around 3,000 years ago successive waves of human migrants from Southeast Asia spread across the Western Pacific Ocean, populating its many small islands. The Marshall Islands were settled by Micronesians in the 2nd millennium BC. Little is known of the islands' early history. Early settlers traveled between the islands by canoe using traditional stick charts.[16]

The Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar landed there in 1526, and the archipelago came to be known as "Los Pintados" ("The Painted (Ones)", possibly referring to the indigenous people first found there), "Las Hermanas" ("The Sisters") and "Los Jardines" ("The Gardens") within the Spanish Empire. It first fell within the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and was then administered by Madrid, through the Captaincy General of the Philippines, upon the independence of Latin America and the dissolution of New Spain starting in 1821.

American whaling ships visited the islands in the 19th century. The first on record was the Awashonks in 1835 and last was the Andrews Hicks in 1905.[17]

The islands were only formally possessed by Spain for much of their colonial history, and on European maps were grouped with the Caroline Islands which today make up Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia [18], or alternatively the "Nuevas Filipinas" ("New Philippines"). The islands were mostly left to their own affairs except for short-lived religious missions (documented in 1668 and 1731) during the 16th and 17th centuries. They were largely ignored by European powers except for cartographic demarcation treaties between the Iberian Empires (Portugal and Castilian Spain) in 1529, 1750 and 1777. The archipelago corresponding to the present-day country was independently named by Krusenstern, after British explorer John Marshall, who visited them together with Thomas Gilbert in 1788, en route from Botany Bay to Canton with two ships of the First Fleet, and started to establish German and British trading posts, which were not formally contested by Spain.

The Marshall Islands were formally claimed by Spain in 1874 through its capital in the East Indies, Manila. This marked the start of several strategic moves by the German Empire during the 1870s and 80s to annex them (claiming them to be "by chance unoccupied").[19] This policy culminated in a tense naval episode in 1885, which did not degenerate into a conflict due to the poor readiness of Spain's naval forces and the unwillingness for open military action from the German side.

Following papal mediation and German compensation of $4.5 million, Spain reached an agreement with Germany in 1885: the 1885 Hispano-German Protocol of Rome. This accord established a protectorate and set up trading stations on the islands of Jaluit (Joló) and Ebon to carry out the flourishing copra (dried coconut meat) trade. Marshallese Iroij (high chiefs) continued to rule under indirect colonial German administration, rendered tacitly effective by the wording in the 1885 Protocol, which demarcated an area subject to Spanish sovereignty (0-11ºN, 133-164ºE) omitting the Eastern Carolines, that is, the Marshall and Gilbert archipelagos, where most of the German trading posts were located.[20] The disputes were rendered moot after the selling of the whole Caroline archipelago to Germany 13 years later.[21]

At the beginning of World War I, Japan assumed control of the Marshall Islands. The Japanese headquarters was established at the German center of administration, Jaluit. On January 31, 1944 American forces landed on Kwajalein atoll and U.S. Marines and Army troops later took control of the islands from the Japanese on February 3, following intense fighting on Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls. In 1947, the United States, as the occupying power, entered into an agreement with the UN Security Council to administer much of Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands, as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

From 1946 to 1958, it served as the Pacific Proving Grounds for the United States and was the site of 67 nuclear tests on various atolls.[22] The world's first hydrogen bomb, codenamed "Mike", was tested at the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands on November 1 (local date) in 1952, by the United States.

Mushroom cloud from the largest atmospheric nuclear test the United States ever conducted, Castle Bravo

Nuclear testing began in 1946 on Bikini Atoll after residents were evacuated. Over the years, 67 weapon tests were conducted, including the 15-megaton Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test, which produced significant fallout in the region. The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation.[23]

A significant radar installation was constructed on Kwajalein atoll.[24]

On May 1, 1979, in recognition of the evolving political status of the Marshall Islands, the United States recognized the constitution of the Marshall Islands and the establishment of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The constitution incorporates both American and British constitutional concepts.

There have been a number of local and national elections since the Republic of the Marshall Islands was founded. The United Democratic Party, running on a reform platform, won the 1999 parliamentary election, taking control of the presidency and cabinet.

The islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. Trusteeship was ended under United Nations Security Council Resolution 683 of December 22, 1990. Until 1999 the islanders received US$180M for continued American use of Kwajalein atoll, US$250M in compensation for nuclear testing, and US$600M in other payments under the compact.

Despite the constitution, the government was largely controlled by Iroij. It was not until 1999, following political corruption allegations, that the aristocratic government was overthrown, with Imata Kabua replaced by the commoner Kessai Note.

The Runit Dome was built on Runit Island to deposit U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium. There are ongoing concerns around deterioration of the waste site and a potential radioactive spill.[25]


Map of the Marshall Islands
Aerial view of Majuro, one of the many atolls that make up the Marshall Islands
Beach scenery at the islet of Eneko, Majuro
View of the coast of Bikini Atoll from above
View of Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands sit atop ancient submerged volcanoes rising from the ocean floor, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia,[12] north of Nauru and Kiribati, east of the Federated States of Micronesia, and south of the disputed U.S. territory of Wake Island, to which it also lays claim.[26] The atolls and islands form two groups: the Ratak (sunrise) and the Ralik (sunset). The two island chains lie approximately parallel to one another, running northwest to southeast, comprising about 750,000 square miles (1,900,000 km2) of ocean but only about 70 square miles (180 km2) of land mass.[12] Each includes 15 to 18 islands and atolls.[27] The country consists of a total of 29 atolls and five individual islands situated in about 180,000 square miles (470,000 km2) of the Pacific.[26] The largest atoll with a land area of 6 square miles (16 km2) is Kwajalein. It surrounds a 655-square-mile (1,700 km2) lagoon.[28]

Twenty-four of the atolls and islands are inhabited. The remaining atolls are uninhabited due to poor living conditions, lack of rain, or nuclear contamination. The uninhabited atolls are:

The average altitude above sea level for the entire country is 7 feet (2.1 m).[26]

Shark sanctuary

In October 2011, the government declared that an area covering nearly 2,000,000 square kilometers (772,000 sq mi) of ocean shall be reserved as a shark sanctuary. This is the world's largest shark sanctuary, extending the worldwide ocean area in which sharks are protected from 2,700,000 to 4,600,000 square kilometers (1,042,000 to 1,776,000 sq mi). In protected waters, all shark fishing is banned and all by-catch must be released. However, some have questioned the ability of the Marshall Islands to enforce this zone.[29]

Territorial claim on Wake Island

The Marshall Islands also lays claim to Wake Island.[30] While Wake has been administered by the United States since 1899, the Marshallese government refers to it by the name Enen-kio.[31]


Average monthly temperatures (red) and precipitation (blue) on Majuro

The climate has a dry season from December to April and a wet season from May to November. Many Pacific typhoons begin as tropical storms in the Marshall Islands region, and grow stronger as they move west toward the Mariana Islands and the Philippines.

Due to its very low elevation, the Marshall Islands are threatened by the potential effects of sea level rise.[32][33] According to the president of Nauru, the Marshall Islands are the most endangered nation in the world due to flooding from climate change.[34]

Population has outstripped the supply of fresh water, usually from rainfall. The northern atolls get 50 inches (1,300 mm) of rainfall annually; the southern atolls about twice that. The threat of drought is commonplace throughout the island chains.[35]


Crabs include hermit crabs, and coconut crabs.[36]


Most birds found in the Marshall Islands, with the exception of those few introduced by man, are either sea birds or a migratory species.[37] There are about 70 species of birds, including 31 seabirds. 15 of these species actually nest locally. Sea birds include the black noddy and the white tern.[38] The only land bird is the house sparrow, introduced by man.[36]


There are about 300 species of fish, 250 of which are reef fish.[38]