Modern History of the Ulithi Atoll, Part I

In response to requests from our volunteers and donors Habele will be writing a series of blog entires dealing with the modern history of the Ulithi Atoll. Particular attention will be paid to how contact with outsiders has influenced social, political, and economic changes on the Atoll.

Westerners first visited the Ulithians in 1525. From this point until the formal Spanish annexation of Yap and it’s surrounding areas in 1885, the Ulithians received infrequent outside visitors, as well as having occasional contact with the Spanish and Chamorro on Guam through canoe voyages (initially by accident, later by design). The latter post-contact period of Ulithian history is most easily categorized by the foreign occupying powers that formally controlled Micronesia. The Spanish (1885-1899), the Germans (1899 - 1914), the Japanese (1914 – 1944), and finally United States (Navy 1945-1951, Trust Territory 1952-1986).

Map of the Atoll of Ulithi, Copyright Habele.

To a great degree the changes and developments on Yap Proper influenced the Ulithians, though it was not until the American period that the Ulithians hosted a significant, and deeply influential, outsider’s presence on their Atoll.

Dioga da Rocha, a Portuguese Captain was blown off course (he was headed for the Philippines) and came upon Ulithi on the first of October in 1525. He termed the Atoll “Islas de Sequeira” and remained until the twentieth of January 1526, in order to make repairs and refurbish supplies. Limited trading occurred and the two sides seemed fascinated with one another, the Portuguese taking special note of the complex local canoes skillfully created without the use of metal.

The next recorded Ulithian contact with outsiders did not go as smoothly. In 1712 Bernard de Egui, a Spaniard, was heading west from Guam in the hope of relocating Palau. Knowing that there was once a Spanish priest on Sonsorol, an outer island of Palau, Eugi came to Ulithi with the intention of taking captive a Ulithian to serve as a translator. Things got “confused” and as they were to depart from Ulithi, the Spanish fired a canon, killing three natives. The Ulithians in turn killed a Spaniard aboard one of their canoes, after which the Egui quickly set off, with a Ulithian trapped aboard his vessel to serve as the intended translator.

Two centuries prior Magellan had passed through the Central Pacific on his way to the Philippines (where he was killed) during his 1519 – 1521 voyage. In 1668 the Spanish created a small outpost in the Marianas, located on Guam. It was initially considered a branch of their Manila presence, which was overextended. The primary function of a Spanish presence in the Central Pacific was to ensure a safe route for the Spanish Galleons, carrying their loot from the Philippine Islands to Spanish Settlements in South America. The Spanish Jesuits on Guam were cognizant of the islands to the south of Guam, as a number of canoes from the Outer Islands of Yap had strayed off course, depositing their crews on Guam. Other canoes from the Outer Islands had reached as far as the Philippines in much the same manner. In the late 1720s the fathers began a campaign to secure funding and material from the Spanish Throne in order to set out on a mission of discovery and conversion.

A traditional sailing canoe seen from the shore of Falalop, Ulithi. Copyright Habele.

Part II will cover the period from 1731 (when Fathers Contova and Walter landed on Ulithi) through to the end of the Spanish period in 1899.

The Habele Outer Island Education Fund is a US-based non profit organization dedicated to promoting educational opportunities and accomplishments in Micronesia's remote Outer Islands.