Overview of Oceania

Oceania is a geographical region that includes Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Spanning the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, Oceania is estimated to have a land area of 8,525,989 square kilometres (3,291,903 sq mi) and a population of around 44.4 million as of 2022. Oceania is the smallest in land area and the second least populated after Antarctica. The first settlers of Australia, New Guinea, and the large islands just to the east arrived more than 60,000 years ago. Oceania was first explored by Europeans from the 16th century onward. Most Oceanian countries are multi-party representative parliamentary democracies.

  • Regional Population: 44.4 million or less than 0.6% of global total
  • Independent nations: 14 independent United Nation member sovereignties plus 22 dependent territories (does not possess full sovereignty as a sovereign state, yet remains politically outside the controlling state’s integral area)
  • Geographic area: 8,525,989 Sq km or the 7th largest continental region on the globe
  • Languages spoken: A controversial and unclear set of definitions exist on languages in Oceania however what is abundantly clear is the diversity of languages in this regions reflect the culturally complex societies that it comprises. It is estimated that more than 1,000 languages are spoken in Oceania. Melanesian Pidgin, Hawaiian, Polynesian languages, Tahitian, Māori, are all languages spoken throughout island nations in the South Pacific Ocean. Some 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages exist in Australia There are two major language groups in the Pacific islands, Papuan with about 750 languages, spoken on some of the East Indonesian islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

    Languages reflects many aspects of a community and is a significant cultural indicator. The number of living languages is a pointer to the cultural diversity of a community and the dominant language a further pointer to the history of cultural dominance or dispossession. This is important information for a conflict resolution body given that the root of enduring disputes in these regions can be traced to cultural appropriuation ore dispossession

Micronesia, which lies north of the equator and west of the International Date Line, includes the Mariana Islands in the northwest, the Caroline Islands in the center, the Marshall Islands to the west and the islands of Kiribati in the southeast.

  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Guam (United states)
  • Kiribati
  • Marshall Islands
  • Nauru
  • Northern Mariana Islands (United States)
  • Palau

Melanesia, to the southwest, includes Papua New Guinea, the world’s second largest island after Greenland and by far the largest of the Pacific islands. The other main Melanesian groups from north to south are the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.

  • Fiji
  • New Caledonia (France)
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Solomon Islands
  • Vanuatu

Polynesia, stretching from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south, also encompasses Tuvalu, Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga, and to the west the Cook Islands, Society Islands and Easter Island to the east.

  • American Samoa (United States)
  • Cook Islands (New Zealand)
  • Easter Island (Chile)
  • French Polynesia (France)
  • Hawaii (United States)
  • Niue (New Zealand)
  • Pitcairn Islands (United Kingdom)
  • Samoa
  • Tokelau (New Zealand)
  • Tonga
  • Tuvalu
  • Wallis and Futuna (France)

Australasia comprises Australia, New Zealand, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean. Along with India most of Australasia lies on the Indo-Australian Plate with the latter occupying the Southern area. It is flanked by the Indian Ocean to the west and the Southern Ocean to the south.

  • Australia
  • Coral Sea Islands (Australia)
  • Norfolk Island (Australia)
  • New Zealand

American Samoa

  • total: 224 sq km
  • land: 224 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Pago Pago

Tutuila was settled by 1000 B.C. and the island served as a refuge for exiled chiefs and defeated warriors from the other Samoan islands. The Manu’a Islands developed its own traditional chiefdom that maintained its autonomy by controlling oceanic trade. In 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob ROGGEVEEN was the first European to sail through the Manu’a Islands. Whalers and missionaries arrived in American Samoa in the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, a dispute arose in Samoa over control of the Samoan archipelago, with different chiefs gaining support from Germany, the UK, and the US. In 1872, the high chief of Tutuila offered the US exclusive rights to Pago Pago in return for US protection, but the US rejected this offer. As fighting resumed, the US agreed to the chief’s request in 1878 and set up a coaling station at Pago Pago. In 1899, with continued disputes over succession, Germany and the US agreed to divide the Samoan islands, while the UK withdrew its claims in exchange for parts of the Solomon Islands. Local chiefs on Tutuila formally ceded their land to the US in 1900, followed by the chief of Manu’a in 1904. The territory was officially named “American Samoa” in 1911.

The US administered the territory through the Department of the Navy. In 1949, there was an attempt to organize the territory, granting it formal self-government, but local chiefs helped defeat the measure in the US Congress. Administration was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1951, and in 1967, American Samoa adopted a constitution that provides significant protections for traditional Samoan land tenure rules, language, and culture. In 1977, after four attempts, voters approved a measure to directly elect their governor. American Samoa officially remains an unorganized territory.

44,620 (2023 est.)

  • Pacific Islander 88.7%
    • (includes Samoan 83.2%, Tongan 2.2%, other 3.3%)
  • Asian 5.8%
    • (includes Filipino 3.4%, other 2.4%)
  • mixed 4.4%
  • other 1.1%

(2020 est.)

  • Samoan 87.9% (closely related to Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages)
  • English 3.3%
  • Tongan 2.1%
  • Other Pacific Islander 4.1%,
  • Asian languages 2.1%
  • Other 0.5%

(2010 est.)

  • ? living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages
  • tuna canneries (largely supplied by foreign fishing vessels)
  • handicrafts

unincorporated, unorganized Territory of the US with local self-government; republican form of territorial government with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches

Dependency status: unincorporated, unorganized Territory of the US; administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, US Department of the Interior

Australia

  • total: 7,741,220 sq km
  • land: 7,682,300 sq km
  • water: 58,920 sq km
  • Capital: Canberra

Aboriginal Australians arrived on the continent at least 60,000 years ago and developed complex hunter-gatherer societies and oral histories. Dutch navigators led by Abel TASMAN were the first Europeans to land in Australia in 1606, and they mapped the western and northern coasts. In 1770, English captain James COOK sailed to the east coast of Australia, named it New South Wales, and claimed it for Great Britain. In 1788 and 1825, Great Britain established New South Wales and then Tasmania as penal colonies. Great Britain and Ireland sent more than 150,000 convicts to Australia before ending the practice in 1868. As Europeans began settling areas away from the coasts, they came into more direct contact with Aboriginal Australians. Europeans also cleared land for agriculture, impacting Aboriginal Australians’ ways of life. These issues, along with disease and a policy in the 1900s that forcefully removed Aboriginal children from their parents, reduced the Aboriginal Australian population.

In the second half of the 1800s, the colonies were all gradually granted self-government, and in 1901, they federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia contributed more than 400,000 troops to Allied efforts during World War I, and played a large role in the defeat of Japanese troops in the Pacific in World War II. Australia severed most constitutional links with the UK in 1942, and in 1951 signed the Australia, New Zealand, and US (ANZUS) Treaty, cementing its military alliance with the United States. Australia’s post-war economy boomed and by the 1970s, racial policies that prevented most non-Whites from immigrating to Australia were removed, greatly increasing Asian immigration to the country. In recent decades, Australia has become an internationally competitive, advanced market economy due in large part to economic reforms adopted in the 1980s and its proximity to East and Southeast Asia. 

26,461,166 (2023 est.)

  • English 33%
  • Australian 29.9%
  • Irish 9.5%
  • Scottish 8.6%
  • Chinese 5.5%
  • Italian 4.4%
  • German 4%
  • Indian 3.1%
  • Australian Aboriginal 2.9%
  • Greek 1.7%
  • unspecified 4.7%

(2021 est.)

  • English 72%
  • Mandarin 2.7%
  • Arabic 1.4%
  • Vietnamese 1.3%
  • Cantonese 1.2%
  • other 15.7%
  • unspecified 5.7%

(2021 est.)

  • 300 living languages
  • 326 endangered or extinct languages
  • mining
  • industrial and transportation equipment
  • food processing
  • chemicals
  • steel

federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm

Cook Islands

  • total: 236 sq km
  • land: 236 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Avarua

Polynesians from Tahiti were probably the first people to settle Rarotonga around A.D. 900. Over time, Samoans and Tongans also settled in Rarotonga, and Rarotongans voyaged to the northern Cook Islands, settling Manihiki and Rakahanga. Pukapuka and Penrhyn in the northern Cook Islands were settled directly from Samoa. There was considerable travel and trade between inhabitants of the different islands and atolls but they were not united in a single political entity. Spanish navigators were the first Europeans to spot the northern Cook Islands in 1595. The Cook Islands remained free of European contact until in 1773, British explorer James COOK saw Manuae in the southern Cook Islands. The islands were named after COOK in the 1820s by Russian mapmakers. English missionary activity during the 1820s and 1830s banned singing and dancing and converted most of the population.

Fearing France would militarily occupy the islands like it did in Tahiti, Rarotongans asked the UK for protectorate status in the 1840s and 1860s, which the UK ignored. In 1888, Queen MAKEA TAKAU of Rarotonga formally petitioned for protectorate status, which the UK reluctantly agreed to. In 1901, the UK placed Rarotonga and the rest of the islands in the New Zealand Colony and in 1915, the Cook Islands Act organized the Cook Islands into one political entity. It remained a protectorate until 1965, when New Zealand granted the Cook Islands self-government status.  Economic opportunities in the Cook Islands are sparse, and more Cook Islanders live in New Zealand than in the Cook Islands.

7,939 (2023 est.)

  • Cook Island Maori (Polynesian) 81.3%
  • part Cook Island Maori 6.7%
  • other 11.9%

(2011 est.)

  • English (official) 86.4%
  • Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan) (official) 76.2%
  • other 8.3%

(2011 est.)

  • 5 living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages

Accordion Content

  • fishing
  • fruit processing
  • tourism
  • clothing
  • handicrafts

parliamentary democracy

Dependency status: self-governing in free association with New Zealand; Cook Islands is fully responsible for internal affairs; New Zealand retains responsibility for external affairs and defense in consultation with the Cook Islands

Fiji

  • total: 18,274 sq km
  • land: 18,274 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Suva

947,760 (2023 est.)

Austronesians settled Fiji around 1000 B.C., followed by successive waves of Melanesians starting around the first century A.D. Fijians traded with Polynesian groups in Samoa and Tonga, and by about 900, much of Fiji was in the Tu’i Tongan Empire’s sphere of influence. The Tongan influence declined significantly by 1200, while Melanesian seafarers continued to periodically arrive in Fiji, further mixing Melanesian and Polynesian cultural traditions. Dutch explorer Abel TASMAN was the first European to spot Fiji in 1643. Captain William BLIGH plotted the islands in 1789. In the 1800s, merchants, traders, and whalers frequented the islands and the first missionaries arrived in 1835. Rival kings and chiefs competed for power, at times aided by Europeans and their weapons, and in 1865, Seru Epenisa CAKOBAU united many groups into the Confederacy of Independent Kingdoms of Viti. The arrangement proved weak and in 1871 CAKOBAU formed the Kingdom of Fiji in an attempt to centralize power. Fearing a hostile takeover by a foreign power as the kingdom’s economy began to falter, CAKOBAU ceded Fiji to the UK in 1874.

The first British governor set up a plantation-style economy and brought in more than 60,000 Indians as indentured laborers, most of whom chose to stay in Fiji rather than return to India when their contracts expired. In the early 1900s, society was divided along ethnic lines, with iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), Europeans, and Indo-Fijians living in separate areas and maintaining their own languages and traditions. ITaukei fears of an Indo-Fijian takeover of government delayed independence through the 1960s; Fiji achieved independence in 1970 with agreements in place to allocate parliamentary seats by ethnic groups. Long-serving Prime Minister Kamisese MARA largely balanced these ethnic divisions, but concerns about growing Indo-Fijian political influence led to two coups in 1987. A new constitution in 1990 cemented iTaukei control of politics, leading thousands of Indo-Fijians to leave. A reformed constitution in 1997 was more equitable and led to the election of an Indo-Fijian prime minister in 1999, who was ousted in a coup the following year. In 2005, the new prime minister put forward a bill that would grant pardons to the coup perpetrators, leading Commodore Josaia BAINIMARAMA to launch a coup in 2006. BAINIMARAMA appointed himself prime minister in 2007 and retained the position after elections in 2014 and 2018 that international observers deemed credible. BAINIMARAMA’s party lost control of the prime minister position following elections in December 2022 and former opposition leader Sitiveni Ligamamada RABUKA assumed the office with a slim, one-seat parliamentary margin.

With well-developed infrastructure, Fiji has become a hub for the Pacific, hosting the secretariat for the Pacific Islands Forum and the main campus of the University of the South Pacific. In addition, Fiji is a center for Pacific tourism, and Nadi International Airport is by far the busiest airport in a Pacific island country.

  • iTaukei 56.8% (predominantly Melanesian with a Polynesian admixture)
  • Indo-Fijian 37.5%
  • Rotuman 1.2%
  • other 4.5% (European, part European, other Pacific Islanders, Chinese)

(2007 est.)

  • English (official)
  • iTaukei (official)
  • Fiji Hindi (official)
  • 10 living languages
  • 2 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • sugar processing
  • clothing
  • copra
  • gold
  • silver
  • lumber

parliamentary republic

French Polynesia

  • total: 4,167 sq km (118 islands and atolls; 67 are inhabited)
  • land: 3,827 sq km
  • water: 340 sq km
  • Capital: Papeete

French Polynesia consists of five archipelagos – the Austral Islands, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Society Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago. The Marquesas were first settled around 200 B.C. and the Society Islands around A.D. 300. Raiatea in the Society Islands became a center for religion and culture. Exploration of the other islands emanated from Raiatea and by 1000, there were small permanent settlements in all the island groups. Ferdinand MAGELLAN was the first European to see the islands of French Polynesia in 1520. In 1767, British explorer Samuel WALLIS was the first European to visit Tahiti. King POMARE I united Tahiti and surrounding islands into the Kingdom of Tahiti in 1788. Protestant missionaries arrived in 1797 and POMARE I’s successor converted in the 1810s, along with most Tahitians. In the 1830s, Queen POMARE IV refused to allow French Catholic missionaries to operate, leading France to declare a protectorate over Tahiti and fight the French-Tahitian War of the 1840s in an attempt to annex the islands. POMARE IV requested British assistance to fight France, and while the UK did not provide material support, it did diplomatically pressure France to simply maintain its protectorate status.

In 1880, King POMARE V ceded Tahiti and its possessions to France, changing its status into a colony. France then claimed the Gambier Islands and Tuamotu Archipelago and by 1901 had incorporated all five island groups into its establishments in Oceania. A Tahitian nationalist movement formed in 1940, leading France to grant French citizenship to the islanders in 1946 and change it to an overseas territory. In 1957, the islands’ name was changed to French Polynesia and the following year, 64% of voters chose to stay part of France when they approved a new constitution. 

France granted French Polynesia partial internal autonomy in 1977 and expanded autonomy in 1984. French Polynesia was converted into an overseas collectivity in 2003 and renamed an overseas country inside the Republic in 2004. In 2013, French Polynesia was relisted on the UN List of Non-Self Governing Territories.

301,488 (2023 est.)

  • Polynesian 78%
  • Chinese 12%
  • local French 6%
  • metropolitan French 4%
  • French (official) 73.5%
  • Tahitian 20.1%
  • Marquesan 2.6%
  • Austral languages 1.2%
  • Paumotu 1%
  • other 1.6%

(2017 est.)

  • 9 living languages
  • 7 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • pearls
  • agricultural processing
  • handicrafts
  • phosphatest

parliamentary democracy (Assembly of French Polynesia); an overseas collectivity of France.

Dependency status: overseas country of France; note – overseas territory of France from 1946-2003; overseas collectivity of France since 2003, though it is often referred to as an overseas country due to its degree of autonomy

Guam

  • total: 544 sq km
  • land: 544 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Hagatna

169,330 (2023 est.)

  • Chamorro 37.3%
  • Filipino 26.3%
  • White 7.1%
  • Chuukese 7%
  • Korean 2.2%
  • other Pacific Islander 2%
  • other Asian 2%
  • Chinese 1.6%
  • Palauan 1.6%
  • Japanese 1.5%
  • Pohnpeian 1.4%
  • mixed 9.4%
  • other 0.6%

(2010 est.)

  • English 43.6%
  • Filipino 21.2%
  • Chamorro 17.8%
  • other Pacific island languages 10%
  • Asian languages 6.3%
  • other 1.1%

(2010 est.)

  • 2 living languages
  • 2 endangered or extinct languages
  • national defense
  • tourism
  • construction
  • transshipment services
  • concrete products
  • printing and publishing
  • food processing
  • textiles

Guam was settled by Austronesian people around 1500 B.C. These people became the indigenous Chamorro and were influenced by later migrations, including the Micronesians in the first millennium A.D., and island Southeast Asians around 900. Society was stratified with higher classes living along the coast and lower classes living inland. Spanish explorer Ferdinand MAGELLAN was the first European to see Guam in 1521 and Spain claimed the island in 1565 as it served as a refueling stop for ships between Mexico and the Philippines. Spain formally colonized Guam in 1668. Spain’s brutal repression of the Chamorro, along with new diseases and intermittent warfare, reduced the indigenous population from more than 100,000 to less than 5,000 by the 1700s. 

Guam became a hub for whalers and traders in the western Pacific in the early 1800s. During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the US Navy occupied Guam and set up a military administration. The US Navy opposed local control of government despite repeated petitions by the Chamorro. Japan invaded Guam in 1941 and instituted a repressive regime. During the US recapture of Guam in 1944, the island’s two largest villages were destroyed. After World War II, political pressure from local Chamorro leaders led to Guam being established as an unincorporated organized territory in 1950 with US citizenship granted to all Chamorro. In a referendum in 1982, more than 75% of voters chose closer relations with the US over independence, although no change in status was made because of disagreements on the future right of Chamorro self-determination. The US military holds about 29% of Guam’s land and stations several thousand troops on the island. 

unincorporated organized territory of the US with local self-government; republican form of territorial government with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches

Dependency status: unincorporated organized territory of the US with policy relations between Guam and the Federal Government under the jurisdiction of the Office of Insular Affairs, US Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

Hawaii

  • total: 28,311 sq km
  • land: 16,638 sq km
  • water: 11,672 sq km
  • Capital: Honolulu

1,455,271

  • Filipino 13.6%
  • Japanese 12.6%
  • Polynesian 9.0%
  • Germans 7.4%, 
    Irish 5.2%
  • English 4.6%
  • Portuguese 4.3%
  • Chinese 4.1%
  • Korean 3.1%
  • Mexican 2.9%
  • Puerto Rican 2.8%
  • Italian 2.7%
  • African 2.4%
  • French 1.7%
  • Samoan 1.3%
  • Scottish 1.2%
  • English 73.4%,
  • an Asian language 21%
    • (Japanese 5%, Ilocano 4%, Korean 1.6%, Chinese 1.2%),
  • Tagalog 5.4%
  • Spanish 2.6%,
  • Hawaiian 1.7%,
  • other Indo-European languages 1.6%
  • Samoan 1%
  • Hawaiian Pidgin
  • ? living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages
  • Tourism
  • National Defense 
  • Agriculture: coffee, macadamia nuts, coffee, sugarcane, honey, pineapple
  • Seed Industry

Based on archaeological evidence, the earliest habitation of the Hawaiian Islands dates to around 1000–1200 CE, probably by Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas Islands. A second wave of migration from Raiatea and Bora Bora took place in the 11th century. The islands’ history is marked by a slow, steady growth in population and the size of the chiefdoms, which grew to encompass whole islands. In 1778 arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook marked the first documented contact by a European explorer with Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiian Islands attracted many European and American explorers, traders, and whalers, who found the islands to be a convenient harbor and source of supplies. These visitors introduced diseases to the once-isolated islands, causing the Hawaiian population to drop precipitously.

After a series of battles that ended in 1795, all inhabited islands were subjugated under a single ruler, who became known as King Kamehameha the Great. He established the House of Kamehameha, a dynasty that ruled the kingdom until 1872. American Protestant missionaries to Hawaiʻi converted many Hawaiians to Christianity. On January 17, 1893, a small group of sugar and pineapple-growing businessmen, aided by the American minister to Hawaii and backed by heavily armed U.S. soldiers and marines, deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani and installed a provisional government. After negotiations in June 1897, Secretary of State John Sherman agreed to a treaty of annexation with these representatives of the Republic of Hawaiʻi. In 1900, Hawaiʻi was granted self-governance and retained ʻIolani Palace as the territorial capitol building. Despite several attempts to become a state, Hawaii remained a territory for 60 years. In March 1959, Congress passed the Hawaiʻi Admissions Act, which U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law.After attaining statehood, Hawaiʻi quickly modernized through construction and a rapidly growing tourism economy. 

State of the United States of America 

Kiribati

  • total: 811 sq km
  • land: 811 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Tarawa

Kiribati is made up of three distinct island groups – the Gilbert Islands, the Line Islands, and the Phoenix Islands. The first Austronesian voyagers arrived in the Gilbert Islands as early as 3000 B.C., but these islands were not widely settled until about A.D. 200 by Micronesians. Around 1300, Samoans and Tongans invaded the southern Gilbert Islands, bringing Polynesian cultural elements with them. Later arrivals by Fijians brought Melanesian elements to the Gilbert Islands, and extensive intermarriage between the Micronesian, Polynesian, and Melanesian people led to the creation of what would become Gilbertese cultural traditions by the time Europeans spotted the islands in the 1600s. The Phoenix Islands and Line Islands were both visited by various Melanesian and Polynesian peoples, but their isolation and lack of natural resources meant that long-term settlements were not possible and both island groups were uninhabited by the time of European contact.

Kiribati experienced sustained European contact by the 1760s; all three island groups were named and charted by 1826. American whaling ships frequently passed through the islands, and the UK declared a protectorate over the Gilbert and nearby Ellice Islands in 1892 to block growing US influence. Phosphate-rich Banaba Island was annexed to the protectorate in 1900. In 1916, the protectorate became a colony, and some Line Islands were added in 1916 and 1919, with the final ones added in 1972. The Phoenix Islands were added to the colony in 1937, and the UK agreed to share jurisdiction of some of them with the US because of their strategic location for aviation. Japan occupied the northern Gilbert Islands in 1941. The UK continued to rule the colony after World War II. The Ellice Islands became its own colony in 1974. The Gilbert Islands became fully self-governing in 1977 and independent in 1979 as Kiribati, the Gilbertese spelling of Gilberts. The US relinquished all claims to the sparsely inhabited Phoenix and Line Islands in a 1979 treaty of friendship.

In 1994, Kiribati adjusted the international date line to the east of the Line Islands, bringing all islands in the country to the same day and giving Kiribati the earliest time zone in the world. In 2012, Kiribati purchased a 22 sq km (8.5 sq mi) plot of land in Fiji for potential eventual resettlement of its population because of climate change.

115,372 (2023 est.)

  • I-Kiribati 95.78%
  • I-Kiribati/mixed 3.8%
  • Tuvaluan 0.2%
  • other 1.7%

(2020 est.)

  • Gilbertese
  • English (official)
  • 2 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • fishing
  • handicrafts

presidential republic

Marshall Islands

  • total: 181 sq km
  • land: 181 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Majuro

Humans arrived in the Marshall Islands in the first millennium B.C. and gradually created permanent settlements on the various atolls. The early inhabitants were skilled navigators who frequently traveled between atolls using stick charts to map the islands. Society became organized under two paramount chiefs, one each for the Ratak (Sunrise) Chain and the Ralik (Sunset) Chain. The traditional hierarchy continued even after contact with Europeans in the early 1500s. Spain formally claimed the islands in 1592. In the 1850s, US Protestant missionaries began arriving on the islands. Germany established a supply station on Jaluit Atoll and bought the islands from Spain in 1884, although paramount chiefs continued to rule.

Japan seized the Marshall Islands in 1914 and was granted a League of Nations Mandate to administer the islands in 1920. Japan built large military bases throughout the Marshall Islands, and during World War II, the US captured the bases on Kwajalein, Enewetak, and Majuro Atolls in Operations Flintlock and Catchpole. The Marshall Islands came under US administration as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) in 1947. Between 1946 and 1958, the US resettled populations from Bikini and Enewetak Atolls and conducted 67 nuclear tests; people from Ailinginae and Rongelap Atolls were also evacuated because of nuclear fallout, and all four atolls remain largely uninhabited. In 1979, the Marshall Islands drafted a constitution separate from the rest of the TTPI and declared independence under President Amata KABUA, a paramount chief. In 2000, Kessai NOTE became the first commoner elected president. In 2016, Hilda HEINE was the first woman elected president.

In 1982, the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US, which granted the Marshall Islands financial assistance and access to many US domestic programs in exchange for exclusive US military access and defense responsibilities; the COFA entered into force in 1986 and its funding was renewed in 2003.

80,966 (2023 est.)

  • Marshallese 92.1%
  • mixed Marshallese 5.9%
  • other 2% (2006 est.)
  • Marshallese (official) 98.2%
  • other languages 1.8%

(1999 est.)

  • 2 living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages
  • copra
  • tuna processing
  • tourism
  • craft items (from seashells, wood, and pearls)

mixed presidential-parliamentary system in free association with the US

Federated States of Micronesia

  • total: 702 sq km
  • land: 702 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km (fresh water only)
  • Capital: Palikir

Each of the four states that compose the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) – Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap – has its own unique history and cultural traditions. The first humans arrived in the second millennium B.C. In the 800s A.D., construction of the artificial islets at the Nan Madol complex in Pohnpei began, with the main architecture being built around 1200. At its height, Nan Madol united the approximately 25,000 people of Pohnpei under the Saudeleur Dynasty. Around the same time, Kosrae was united in a kingdom centered in Leluh by 1250. Yap’s society became strictly hierarchical, with chiefs receiving tributes from islands up to 1,100 km (700 mi) away. Widespread human settlement in Chuuk began in the 1300s, and the different islands in the Chuuk Lagoon were frequently at war with one another.

Portuguese and Spanish explorers visited a few of the islands in the 1500s and Spain began exerting nominal, but not day-to-day, control over some of the islands – which they named the Caroline Islands – in the 1600s. Christian missionaries arrived in the 1800s, in particular to Chuuk and Kosrae. By the 1870s, nearly every Kosraean had converted to Christianity and religion continues to play an important role in daily life on the island. In 1899, Spain sold all of the FSM to Germany. Japan seized the islands in 1914 and was granted a League of Nations mandate to administer them in 1920. The Japanese navy built bases across most of the islands and headquartered their Pacific naval operations in Chuuk. The US bombed Chuuk in 1944 during World War II, destroying 250 Japanese planes and 40 ships.

The FSM came under US administration as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1947, which comprised six districts: Chuuk, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap; Kosrae was separated from Pohnpei into a separate district in 1977. In 1979, Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap ratified the FSM Constitution and declared independence while the other three districts opted to pursue separate political statuses. In 1982, the FSM signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US, which granted the FSM financial assistance and access to many US domestic programs in exchange for exclusive US military access and defense responsibilities; the COFA entered into force in 1986 and its funding was renewed in 2003. There are significant inter-island rivalries stemming from their different histories and cultures. Chuuk, the most populous but poorest state, has pushed for secession, but an independence referendum has been repeatedly postponed and may not be held.

100,319 (2023 est.)

  • Chuukese/Mortlockese 49.3%
  • Pohnpeian 29.8%
  • Kosraean 6.3%
  • Yapese 5.7%
  • Yap outer islanders 5.1%
  • Polynesian 1.6%
  • Asian 1.4%
  • other 0.8%

(2010 est.)

  • English (official and common language)
  • Chuukese
  • Kosrean
  • Pohnpeian
  • Yapese
  • Ulithian
  • Woleaian
  • Nukuoro
  • Kapingamarangi
  • 18 living languages
  • 14 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • construction
  • specialized aquaculture
  • craft items (shell and wood)

federal republic in free association with the US

Nauru

  • total: 21 sq km
  • land: 21 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: no official capital; government offices in the Yaren District

Nauru was inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian settlers by around 1000 B.C., and the island was divided into 12 clans. Nauru developed in relative isolation because ocean currents made landfall on the island difficult. As a result, the Nauruan language does not clearly resemble any other in the Pacific region. In 1798, British sea captain John FEARN became the first European to spot the island. By 1830, European whalers used Nauru as a supply stop, trading firearms for food. In 1878, a civil war erupted on the island, reducing the population by more than a third. Germany forcibly annexed Nauru in 1888 by holding the 12 chiefs under house arrest until they consented to the annexation. Germany banned alcohol, confiscated weapons, instituted strict dress codes, and brought in Christian missionaries to convert the population. Phosphate was discovered in 1900 and heavily mined, although Nauru and Nauruans earned about one tenth of one percent of the profits from the phosphate deposits.

Australian forces captured Nauru from Germany during World War I, and in 1919, it was placed under a joint Australian-British-New Zealand mandate with Australian administration. Japan occupied Nauru during World War II and used its residents as forced labor elsewhere in the Pacific while destroying much of the infrastructure on the island. After the war, Nauru became a UN trust territory under Australian administration. Recognizing the phosphate stocks would eventually be depleted, in 1962, Australian Prime Minister Robert MENZIES offered to resettle all Nauruans on Curtis Island in Queensland, but Nauruans rejected that plan and opted for independence, which was achieved in 1968. In 1970, Nauru purchased the phosphate mining assets, and income from the mines made Nauruans among the richest people in the world. However, Nauru subsequently began a series of unwise investments in buildings, musical theater, and an airline. Nauru sued Australia in 1989 for the damage caused by mining when Australia administered the island. Widespread phosphate mining officially ceased in 2006.

Nauru went nearly bankrupt by 2000 and tried to rebrand itself as an offshore banking haven, although it ended that practice in 2005. In 2001, Australia set up the Nauru Regional Processing Center (NRPC), an offshore refugee detention facility, paying Nauru per person at the center. The NRPC was closed in 2008 but reopened in 2012. The number of refugees has steadily declined since 2014, and the remaining people were moved to a hotel in Australia, in 2020, effectively shuttering the NRPC.

9,852 (2023 est.)

  • Nauruan 88.9%
  • part Nauruan 6.6%
  • I-Kiribati 2%
  • other 2.5%

(2007 est.)

  • Nauruan 93% (official, a distinct Pacific Island language)
  • English 2% (widely understood, spoken, and used for most government and commercial purposes)
  • other 5%
    • (includes Gilbertese 2% and Chinese 2%)

(2011 est.)

  • 3 living languages
  • 4 endangered or extinct languages
  • phosphate mining
  • offshore banking
  • coconut products

parliamentary republic

New Caledonia

  • total: 18,575 sq km
  • land: 18,275 sq km
  • water: 300 sq km
  • Capital: Noumea

The first humans settled in New Caledonia around 1600 B.C. The Lapita were skilled navigators and evidence of their pottery around the Pacific has served as a guide for understanding human expansion in the region. Successive waves of migrants from other islands in Melanesia intermarried with the Lapita, giving rise to the Kanak ethnic group considered indigenous to New Caledonia. British explorer James COOK was the first European to visit New Caledonia in 1774. Missionaries first landed in New Caledonia in 1840. In 1853, France annexed New Caledonia to preclude any British attempt to claim the island. France declared it a penal colony in 1864 and sent more than 20,000 prisoners to New Caledonia in the ensuing three decades.

Nickel was discovered in 1864 and French prisoners were directed to mine it. France brought in indentured servants and enslaved labor from Southeast Asia to work the mines, blocking Kanaks from accessing the most profitable part of the local economy. In 1878, High Chief ATAI led a rebellion against French rule. The Kanaks were relegated to reservations, leading to periodic smaller uprisings and culminating in a large revolt in 1917 that was brutally suppressed by colonial authorities. During World War II, New Caledonia became an important base for Allied troops, and the US moved its South Pacific headquarters to the island in 1942. Following the war, France made New Caledonia an overseas territory and granted French citizenship to all inhabitants in 1953, thereby permitting the Kanaks to move off the reservations.

The Kanak nationalist movement began in the 1950s, but most voters chose to remain a territory in an independence referendum in 1958. The European population of New Caledonia boomed in the 1970s with a renewed focus on nickel mining, reigniting Kanak nationalism. Key Kanak leaders were assassinated in the early 1980s, leading to escalating violence and dozens of fatalities. The Matignon Accords of 1988 provided for a 10-year transition period. The Noumea Accord of 1998 transferred increasing governing responsibility from France to New Caledonia over a 20-year period and provided for three independence referenda. In the first held in 2018, voters rejected independence by 57% to 43%; in the second held in 2020, voters rejected independence 53% to 47%. In the third referendum held in December 2021, voters rejected independence 96% to 4%; however, a boycott by key Kanak groups spurred challenges about the legitimacy of the vote. In February 2021, pro-independence parties gained a majority in the New Caledonian Government for the first time. France and New Caledonia officials remain in talks about the status of the country.

300,682 (2023 est.)

  • Kanak 39.1%
  • European 27.1%
  • Wallisian, Futunian 8.2%,
  • Tahitian 2.1%
  • Indonesian 1.4%
  • Ni-Vanuatu 1%
  • Vietnamese 0.9%
  • other 17.7%
  • unspecified 2.5%

(2014 est.)

  • French (official)
  • 33 Melanesian-Polynesian dialects
  • 38 living languages
  • 18 endangered or extinct languages
  • nickel mining and smelting

parliamentary democracy (Territorial Congress); an overseas collectivity of France

Dependency status: special collectivity (or a sui generis collectivity) of France since 1998; note – independence referenda took place on 4 November 2018, 4 October 2020, and 12 December 2021 with a majority voting in each case to reject independence in favor of maintaining the status quo; an 18-month transition period is now in place (ending 30 June 2023), during which a referendum on the new status of New Caledonia within France will take place 

New Zealand

  • total: 268,838 sq km
  • land: 264,537 sq km
  • water: 4,301 sq km
  • Capital: Wellington

Polynesian settlers may have arrived in New Zealand in the late 1200s, with widespread settlement in the mid-1300s. The name Aotearoa is now in widespread use as the local Maori name for the country. Competition for land and resources led to intermittent fighting between different Maori iwi (tribes) by the 1500s as large game became extinct. Dutch explorer Abel TASMAN was the first European to see the islands in 1642 but after an encounter with local Maori, he sailed away. British captain James COOK was the next European to arrive in New Zealand in 1769, followed by whalers, sealers, and traders. The UK only nominally claimed New Zealand and included it as part of New South Wales in Australia. Concerns about increasing lawlessness led the UK to appoint its first British Resident in New Zealand in 1832, although he had few legal powers. In 1835, some Maori iwi from the North Island declared independence as the United Tribes of New Zealand. Fearing an impending French settlement and takeover, they asked the British for protection. In 1840, the British negotiated their protection in the Treaty of Waitangi, which was eventually signed by more than 500 different Maori chiefs, although many chiefs did not or were not asked to sign. In the English-language version of the treaty, the British thought the Maori ceded their land to the UK, but translations of the treaty appeared to give the British less authority, and land tenure issues stemming from the treaty are still present and being actively negotiated in New Zealand.

The UK declared New Zealand a separate colony in 1841 and gave it limited self-government in 1852. Different traditions of authority and land use led to a series of wars from the 1840s to the 1870s fought between Europeans and various Maori iwi. Along with disease, these conflicts halved the Maori population. In the 1890s, New Zealand initially expressed interest in joining independence talks with Australia but ultimately opted against it and changed its status to an independent dominion in 1907. New Zealand provided more than 100,000 troops during each World War, many of whom fought as part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). New Zealand reaffirmed its independence in 1947, signed the Australia, New Zealand, and US (ANZUS) Treaty. Beginning in 1984, New Zealand began to adopt nuclear-free policies, contributing to a dispute with the US over naval ship visits that led the US to suspend its defense obligations to New Zealand in 1986.

5,109,702 (2023 est.)

  • European 64.1%
  • Maori 16.5%
  • Chinese 4.9%
  • Indian 4.7%
  • Samoan 3.9%
  • Tongan 1.8%
  • Cook Islands Maori 1.7%
  • English 1.5%
  • Filipino 1.5%
  • New Zealander 1%
  • other 13.7%

(2018 est.)

  • English (de facto official) 95.4%
  • Maori (de jure official) 4%
  • Samoan 2.2%
  • Northern Chinese 2%
  • Hindi 1.5%
  • French 1.2%
  • Yue 1.1%
  • New Zealand Sign Language (de jure official) 0.5%
  • other or not stated 17.2%

(2018 est.)

  • 4 living languages
  • 3 endangered or extinct languages
  • agriculture
  • forestry
  • fishing
  • logs and wood articles
  • manufacturing
  • mining
  • construction
  • financial services
  • real estate services
  • tourism

parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm

Niue

  • total: 260 sq km
  • land: 260 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Alofi

Voyagers from Samoa first settled on Niue around A.D. 900 and a second main group of settlers came from Tonga around 1500. With only one reliable source of fresh water, conflict was high on the island. There was continued contact with both Samoa and Tonga, and customs from those islands heavily influenced Niuean culture, including the formation of an island-wide kingship system in the early 1700s. These kings, or patu-iki, were elected by Niueans. In 1774, British explorer James COOK abandoned attempts to land on the island after several unsuccessful tries, and he named it Savage Island because of the warlike appearance of the Niueans. Missionaries arrived in 1830 but were also largely unsuccessful at staying on the island until 1846, when a Niuean trained as a Samoan missionary returned to the island and provided a space from which the missionaries could work. In addition to converting the population, the missionaries worked to stop the violent conflicts between Niueans and helped establish the first parliament in 1849.

In 1889, King FATAAIKI and other chiefs asked the UK for protectorate status, a request that was repeated in 1895. The UK finally agreed in 1900 and King TOGIA-PULU-TOAKI formally ceded Niue that year. In 1901, Niue was annexed to New Zealand and included as part of the Cook Islands. Niue’s remoteness and cultural and linguistic differences with the Cook Islands led New Zealand to separate Niue into its own administration in 1904. The island became internally self-governing in 1974; it is an independent member of international organizations but is in free association with New Zealand, which is responsible for defense and foreign affairs.

Economic opportunities in Niue are sparse. The population has trended downwards over recent decades, with substantial emigration to New Zealand. In 2004, a cyclone destroyed much of the southern part of the capital, Alofi, and left about 15% of the population homeless. Many chose not to rebuild and instead moved to New Zealand, where approximately 90% of all ethnic Niueans live.

2,000 (July 2022 est.)

  • Niuean 65.4%
  • part-Niuean 14%
  • non-Niuean 20.6%

(2017 est.)

  • Niuean (official) 46% (a Polynesian language closely related to Tongan and Samoan)
  • Niuean and English 32%,
  • English (official) 11%
  • Niuean and others 5%
  • other 6%

(2011 est.)

  • 2 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • handicrafts
  • food processing

parliamentary democracy

Dependency status: self-governing in free association with New Zealand since 1974; Niue is fully responsible for internal affairs; New Zealand retains responsibility for external affairs and defense; however, these responsibilities confer no rights of control and are only exercised at the request of the Government of Niue

Norfolk Island

  • total: 36 sq km
  • land: 36 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Kingston

Polynesians lived on Norfolk Island between 1200 and 1500 but the remote island was uninhabited by the time British explorer James COOK landed on the island in 1774. Two British attempts at establishing the island as a penal colony (1788-1814 and 1825-55) were ultimately abandoned.

In 1856, almost 200 Pitcairn Islanders – descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions – were relocated to Norfolk Island because of overcrowding on the Pitcairn Islands. Some returned to the Pitcairn Islands over the next few years but most settled permanently on Norfolk Island and recreated the land tenure and governance structures they previously had. Norfolk Island retained a great degree of local control until 1897, when it became a dependency of New South Wales. During World War II, Norfolk Island was an airbase and an important refueling stop in the South Pacific. In 1976, an Australian judge recommended Norfolk Island be incorporated fully into Australia, which Norfolk Islanders rejected. Following an appeal to the UN, Australia granted limited self-government to Norfolk Island in 1979.

With growing financial troubles during the 2000s, Australia abolished the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly in 2015, reduced Norfolk Island’s autonomy in 2016, and suspended the local council in 2020. Most services are provided by a mix of the Australian Capital Territory and the states of New South Wales and Queensland. These moves were unpopular on Norfolk Island, which has sought to have its self-government restored.

1,748 (2016 est.)

  • Australian 22.8%
  • English 22.4%
  • Pitcairn Islander 20%
  • Scottish 6%
  • Irish 5.2%

(2011 est.)

  • English (official) 44.9%
  • Norfolk (official; also known as Norfuk or Norf’k, which is a mixture of 18th century English and ancient Tahitian) 40.3%
  • Fijian 1.8%
  • other 6.8%
  • unspecified 6.2%

(2016 est.)

  • 2 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • light industry
  • ready mixed concrete

non-self-governing overseas territory of Australia

Dependency status: self-governing territory of Australia; administered from Canberra by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities & Regional Development

Northern Mariana Islands

  • total: 464 sq km
  • land: 464 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Saipan

The Northern Mariana Islands were settled by Austronesian people around 1500 B.C. These people became the indigenous Chamorro and were influenced by later migrations, including of Micronesians in the first century A.D., and island Southeast Asians around 900. Spanish explorer Ferdinand MAGELLAN sailed through the Mariana Islands in 1521 and Spain claimed them in 1565. Spain formally colonized the Mariana Islands in 1668 and administered the archipelago from Guam. Spain’s brutal repression of the Chamorro, along with new diseases and intermittent warfare, reduced the indigenous population by about 90% in the 1700s. With a similar dynamic occurring on Guam, Spain forced the Chamorro from the Northern Mariana Islands to resettle on Guam and prevented them from returning to their home islands. By the time the Northern Mariana Islands’ Chamorro returned, many other Micronesians, including Chuukese and Yapese, had already settled on their islands.

In 1898, sold the Northern Mariana Islands to Germany under the German-Spanish Treaty of 1899. Germany administered the territory from German New Guinea but took a hands-off approach to day-to-day life. Following World War I, Japan administered the islands under a League of Nations mandate. Japan focused on sugar production and brought in thousands of Japanese laborers, who quickly outnumbered the Chamorro on the islands. During World War II, Japan invaded Guam from the Northern Mariana Islands and used Marianan Chamorro as translators with Guamanian Chamorro, creating friction between the two Chamorro communities that continues to this day. The US captured the Northern Mariana Islands in 1944 after the Battle of Saipan and administered them post-World War II as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI).

On four occasions in the 1950s and 1960s, voters opted for integration with Guam, although Guam rejected it in 1969. In 1978, the Northern Mariana Islands was granted self-government separate from the rest of the TTPI and in 1986, islanders were granted US citizenship and the territory came under US sovereignty as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). In 2009, the CNMI became the final US territory to elect a nonvoting delegate to the US Congress.

51,295 (2023 est.)

  • Asian 50%
    • (includes Filipino 35.3%, Chinese 6.8%, Korean 4.2%, and other Asian 3.7%)
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander 34.9%
    • (includes Chamorro 23.9%, Carolinian 4.6%, and other Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander 6.4%)
  • other 2.5%
  • two or more ethnicities or races 12.7%

(2010 est.) 

  • Philippine languages 32.8%
  • Chamorro (official) 24.1%
  • English (official) 17%
  • other Pacific island languages 10.1% (includes Carolinian (official)
  • Chinese 6.8%,
  • other Asian languages 7.3%
  • other 1.9%

(2010 est.)

  • 4 living languages
  • 4 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • banking
  • construction
  • fishing
  • handicrafts
  • other services

a commonwealth in political union with and under the sovereignty of the US; republican form of government with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches

Dependency status: commonwealth in political union with and under the sovereignty of the US; federal funds to the Commonwealth administered by the US Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs, Washington, DC

Palau

  • total: 459 sq km
  • land: 459 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Ngerulmud

Humans arrived in the Palauan archipelago around 1000 B.C. from Southeast Asia and developed a complex, highly organized matrilineal society where high-ranking women picked the chiefs. The islands were the westernmost part of the widely scattered Pacific islands north of New Guinea that Spanish explorers named the Caroline Islands in the 17th century. There were several failed attempts by Spanish Jesuit missionaries to visit the islands in the early 1700s. Spain gained some influence in the islands and administered it from the Philippines but sold Palau to Germany in 1899 after it lost the Philippines in the Spanish-American War.

Japan seized Palau in 1914, was granted a League of Nations mandate to administer the islands in 1920, and made Koror the capital of its South Seas Mandate in 1922. By the outbreak of World War II, there were four times as many Japanese living in Koror as Palauans. In 1944, the Battle of Peleliu between US and Japanese forces resulted in more than 15,000 deaths. Following the war, Palau became part of the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

Palau voted against joining the Federated States of Micronesia in 1978 and adopted its own constitution in 1981, which stated that Palau was a nuclear-free country. In 1982, Palau signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US, which granted Palau financial assistance and access to many US domestic programs in exchange for exclusive US military access and defense responsibilities. However, many Palauans saw the COFA as incompatible with the Palauan Constitution because of the US military’s nuclear arsenal, and seven referenda failed to achieve ratification. Following a constitutional amendment and eighth referendum in 1993, the COFA was ratified and entered into force in 1994 when the islands gained their independence. Its funding was renewed in 2010. Palau has been on the frontlines of combatting climate change and protecting marine resources. 

21,779 (2023 est.)

  • Palauan (Micronesian with Malayan and Melanesian admixtures) 73%
  • Carolinian 2%
  • Asian 21.7%
  • Caucasian 1.2%
  • other 2.1%

(2015 est.)

  • Palauan (official on most islands) 65.2%
  • other Micronesian 1.9%
  • English (official) 19.1%
  • Filipino 9.9%
  • Chinese 1.2%
  • other 2.8%

(2015 est.)

  • 4 living languages
  • 2 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • fishing
  • subsistence agriculture

presidential republic in free association with the US

Papua New Guinea

  • total: 462,840 sq km
  • land: 452,860 sq km
  • water: 9,980 sq km
  • Capital: Port Moresby

Papua New Guinea (PNG) was first settled between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. PNG’s harsh geography consisting of mountains, jungles, and numerous river valleys, kept many of the arriving groups isolated, giving rise to PNG’s incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity. Agriculture was independently developed by some of these groups. Around 500 B.C., Austronesian voyagers settled along the coast. Spanish and Portuguese explorers periodically visited the island starting in the 1500s. American and British whaling ships frequented the islands off the coast of New Guinea in the mid-1800s. In 1884, Germany declared a protectorate – and eventually a colony – over the northern part of what would become PNG and named it German New Guinea; days later the UK followed suit on the southern part and nearby islands and called it Papua. Most of their focus was on the coastal regions, leaving the highlands largely unexplored.

The UK put its colony under Australian administration in 1902 and formalized the act in 1906. At the outbreak of World War I, Australia occupied German New Guinea and continued to rule it after the war as a League of Nations Mandate. The discovery of gold along the Bulolo River in the 1920s led prospectors to venture into the highlands, where they found about 1 million people living in isolated communities. Japan invaded New Guinea in 1941 and reached Papua the following year. Allied victories during the New Guinea campaign pushed out the Japanese, and after the end of the war, Australia combined the two territories into one administration. Sir Michael SOMARE won elections in 1972 on the promise of achieving independence, which was realized in 1975.

A secessionist movement in Bougainville, an island well endowed in copper and gold resources, reignited in 1988 with debates about land use, profits, and an influx of outsiders at the Panguna Copper Mine. Following elections in 1992, the PNG Government took a hardline stance against Bougainville rebels and the resulting civil war led to about 20,000 deaths. In 1997, the PNG Government hired mercenaries to support its troops in Bougainville, sparking an army mutiny and forcing the prime minister to resign. PNG and Bougainville signed a truce in 1997 and a peace agreement in 2001, which granted Bougainville autonomy. An internationally-monitored nonbinding referendum asking Bougainvilleans to chose independence or greater self-rule occurred in November 2019, with 98% of voters opting for independence. However, the PNG Government and Bougainville officials remain in negotiations about the status of the island.

9,819,350 (2023 est.)

  • Melanesian
  • Papuan
  • Negrito
  • Micronesian
  • Polynesian
  • Tok Pisin (official)
  • English (official)
  • Hiri Motu (official)
  • some 839 indigenous languages spoken (about 12% of the world’s total); many languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers
  • 850 living languages
  • 88 endangered or extinct languages
  • oil and gas
  • mining (gold, copper, and nickel)
  • palm oil processing
  • plywood and wood chip production
  • copra crushing
  • construction
  • tourism
  • fishing
  • livestock (pork, poultry, cattle)
  • dairy farming
  • spice products (turmeric, vanilla, ginger, cardamom, chili, pepper, citronella, and nutmeg)

parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm

Pitcairn Islands

  • total: 47 sq km
  • land: 47 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Adamstown

Polynesians were the first inhabitants of the Pitcairn Islands, but the islands were uninhabited by the time they were discovered by Europeans in 1606. Pitcairn Island was rediscovered by British explorer Philip CARTERET in 1767, although he incorrectly plotted the coordinates. In 1789, Fletcher CHRISTIAN led a mutiny on the HMS Bounty and after several months of searching for Pitcairn Island, he landed on it with eight other mutineers and their Tahitian companions. They lived in isolation and evaded detection by English authorities until 1808, by which point only one man, 10 women, and 23 children remained. In 1831, with the population growing too big for the island – there were 87 people – the British attempted to move all the islanders to Tahiti, but they were soon returned to Pitcairn Island. The island became an official British colony in 1838 and in 1856, the British again determined that the population of 193 was too high and relocated all of the residents to Norfolk Island. Several families returned in 1858 and 1864, bringing the island’s population to 43, and almost all of the island’s current population are descendants of these returnees. In 1887, the entire population converted to the Seventh Day Adventist faith.

The UK annexed the nearby islands of Henderson, Oeno, and Ducie in 1902 and incorporated them into the Pitcairn Islands colony in 1938, although all three are uninhabited. The population peaked at 233 in 1937 as outmigration, primarily to New Zealand, has thinned the population. Only two children were born between 1986 and 2012, and in 2005, a couple became the first new outsiders to obtain citizenship in more than a century. (The current population is below 50.) Since 2013, the Pitcairn Islands has tried to attract new migrants but has had no applicants because it requires prospective migrants to front significant sums of money and prohibits employment during a two-year trial period, at which point the local council can deny long-term resident status.

 

50 (2021 est.)

  • descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives
  • English (official)
  • Pitkern (mixture of an 18th century English dialect and a Tahitian dialect)
  • 2 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • postage stamps
  • handicrafts
  • beekeeping
  • honey

parliamentary democracy 

Dependency status: overseas territory of the UK

Samoa

  • total: 2,831 sq km
  • land: 2,821 sq km
  • water: 10 sq km
  • Capital: Apia

The first Austronesian settlers arrived in Samoa around 1000 B.C., and early Samoans traded and intermarried with Fijian and Tongan nobility. The fa’amatai system of titles and nobility developed, which dominates Samoan politics to this day; all but two seats in the legislature are reserved for matai, or heads of families. Dutch explorer Jacob ROGGEVEEN was the first European to spot the islands in 1722. Christian missionaries arrived in the 1830s, converting most of the population. In the 1850s, Apia became a center for Pacific trading and hosted an American commercial agent and British and German consuls. In 1892, American traders convinced the Samoan king to align his country’s date with the US, moving to the east of the International Date Line.

Following the death of the Samoan king in 1841, rival families competed for his titles, devolving into civil war in 1886 with factions getting support from either Germany, the UK, or the US. All three countries sent warships to Apia in 1889, presaging a larger war, but a cyclone destroyed the ships and Malietoa LAUPEPA was installed as king. Upon LAUPEPA’s death in 1898, a second civil war over succession broke out. The war ended in 1899 and the Western powers abolished the monarchy, giving the western Samoan islands to Germany and the eastern Samoan islands to the US. The UK abandoned claims in Samoa and received former German territory in the Solomon Islands.

The Mau, a non-violent popular movement to advocate for Samoan independence, formed in 1908. New Zealand annexed Samoa in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I. Opposition to New Zealand’s rule quickly grew. In 1918, a New Zealand ship introduced the Spanish flu, infecting 90% of the population and killing more than 20%. In 1929, New Zealand police shot into a crowd of peaceful protestors, killing 11, in an event known as Black Sunday. In 1962, Samoa became the first Polynesian nation to reestablish its independence as Western Samoa but dropped the “Western” from its name in 1997. The Human Rights Protection Party dominated politics from 1982 until current Prime Minister FIAME Naomi Mata’afa’s Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi or FAST party gained a majority in elections in 2021.

207,501 (2023 est.)

  • Samoan 96%
  • Samoan/New Zealander 2%
  • other 1.9%

(2011 est.)

  • Samoan (Polynesian) (official) 91.1%
  • Samoan/English 6.7%
  • English (official) 0.5%
  • other 0.2%
  • unspecified 1.6%

(2006 est.)

  • 2 living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages
  • food processing
  • building materials
  • auto parts

parliamentary republic

Solomon Islands

  • total: 28,896 sq km
  • land: 27,986 sq km
  • water: 910 sq km
  • Capital: Honiara

Settlers from Papua arrived on Solomon Islands around 30,000 years ago. About 6,000 years ago, Austronesian settlers came to Solomon Islands and the two groups mixed extensively. Despite significant inter-island trade, no attempts were made to unite the islands into a single political entity. In 1568, Spanish explorer Alvaro de MENDANA became the first European to spot the islands. After a failed Spanish attempt at creating a permanent European settlement on the islands in the late 1500s, Solomon Islands remained free of European contact until 1767 when British explorer Philip CARTERET sailed by the islands. The islands were regularly visited by European explorers and American and British whaling ships into the 1800s, followed by missionaries in the 1850s.

Germany declared a protectorate over the northern Solomon Islands in 1885, and the UK established a protectorate over the southern islands in 1893. In 1899, Germany transferred its Solomon Islands to the UK in exchange for the UK relinquishing all claims in Samoa. The UK tried to encourage plantation farming, but few Europeans were willing to go to Solomon Islands and the UK left most services – such as education and medical services – to missionaries. In 1942, Japan invaded Solomon Islands and significant battles against Allied forces during the Guadalcanal Campaign proved a turning point in the Pacific war. World War II destroyed large parts of Solomon Islands and a nationalism movement emerged near the end of the war. By 1960, the British relented to allow for some local autonomy. The islands were granted self-government in 1976 and independence two years later under Prime Minister Sir Peter KENILOREA.

In 1999, longstanding ethnic tensions between ethnic Guale in Honiara and ethnic Malaitans in Honiara’s suburbs erupted in civil war, leading thousands of Malaitans to take refuge in Honiara and Guale to flee the city. In 2000, newly-elected Prime Minister Manasseh SOGAVARE focused on peace agreements and distributing resources equally among groups, but his actions bankrupted the government in 2001 and led to SOGAVARE’s ouster. In 2003, Solomon Islands requested international assistance to reestablish law and order. The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which ended in 2017, was generally effective in improving the security situation. In 2006, riots broke out in Honiara and the city’s Chinatown burned over allegations that the prime minister took money from China. SOGAVARE was reelected prime minister for a fourth time following elections in 2019 and that same year announced Solomon Islands would switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. In late November 2021, protestors, mostly from the island of Malaita, calling for SOGAVARE’s removal and more development in Malaita, sparked rioting in Honiara. 

714,766 (2023 est.)

  • Melanesian 95.3%
  • Polynesian 3.1%
  • Micronesian 1.2%
  • other 0.3%

(2009 est.)

  • Melanesian pidgin (in much of the country is lingua franca),
  • English (official but spoken by only 1%-2% of the population),
  • 120 indigenous languages
  • 72 living languages
  • 25 endangered or extinct languages
  • fish (tuna)
  • mining
  • timber

parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm

Tokelau

  • total: 12 sq km
  • land: 12 sq km
  • water: 0 sq k
  • Capital: there is no designated, official capital for Tokelau; the location of the capital rotates among the three atolls along with the head of government or Ulu o Tokelau

Tokelau, which comprises three atolls, was first settled by Polynesians around A.D. 1000. The three atolls operated relatively independently but had contact with one another, intermarrying and occasionally fighting wars. Fakaofo Atoll eventually subjugated the other two. British explorer John BYRON was the first European to see Atafu Atoll in 1765. Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in 1845 and converted the population on the islands on which they landed. To this day, Nukunonu is predominantly Catholic while Atafu is mostly Protestant; Catholic and Protestant missionaries both worked in Fakaofo, and the population there is more mixed.

In 1863, Peruvian slave traders, masquerading as missionaries, kidnapped nearly all the men from Tokelau, and local governance moved to a system based on a Council of Elders, which still exists today. The atolls were repopulated when new Polynesian settlers and American and European migrants intermarried with local Tokelauan women. Tokelau became a British protectorate in 1889 and included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate – later a colony – in 1908. In 1925, the UK placed Tokelau under New Zealand administration. The Tokelau Islands Act of 1948 formally transferred sovereignty from the UK to New Zealand and Tokelauans were granted New Zealand citizenship. In 1979, the US relinquished its claims over Tokelau in the Treaty of Tokehega, and Tokelau relinquished its claims over Swains Island, which is part of American Samoa

Economic opportunities in Tokelau are sparse, and about 80% of Tokelauans live in New Zealand. Tokelau held two self-governance referendums in 2006 and 2007, in which more than 60% of voters chose to go into free association with New Zealand; however, the referendums failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to enact a status change. Tokelau lacks an airport and is only accessible via a day-long boat trip from Samoa, although a site for an airstrip on Nukunonu was selected in 2019. Because of its dependency on Samoa for transportation, in 2011, Tokelau followed Samoa’s lead and shifted the international date line to its east.

1,647 (2019 est.)

  • Tokelauan 64.5%
  • part Tokelauan/Samoan 9.7%
  • part Tokelauan/Tuvaluan 2.8%
  • Tuvaluan 7.5%
  • Samoan 5.8%
  • other Pacific Islander 3.4%
  • other 5.6%
  • unspecified 0.8%

(2016 est.)

  • Tokelauan 88.1% (a Polynesian language)
  • English 48.6%
  • Samoan 26.7%
  • Tuvaluan 11.2%
  • Kiribati 1.5%
  • other 2.8%
  • none 2.8%
  • unspecified 0.8%

(2016 ests.)

  • 2 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • small-scale enterprises for copra production, woodworking, plaited craft goods
  • stamps, coins
  • fishing

parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy

Dependency status: self-administering territory of New Zealand; note – Tokelau and New Zealand have agreed to a draft constitution as Tokelau moves toward free association with New Zealand; a UN-sponsored referendum on self governance in October 2007 did not meet the two-thirds majority vote necessary for changing the political status

Tonga

  • total: 747 sq km
  • land: 717 sq km
  • water: 30 sq km
  • Capital: Nuku’alofa

The first humans arrived in Tonga around 1000 B.C. The islands’ politics were probably highly centralized under the Tu’i Tonga, or Tongan king, by A.D. 950, and by 1200, the Tu’i Tonga had expanded his influence throughout Polynesia and into Melanesia and Micronesia. The Tongan Empire began to decline in the 1300s, descending into civil wars, a military defeat to Samoa, and internal political strife that saw successive leaders assassinated. By the mid-1500s, some Tu’i Tongans were ethnic Samoan and day-to-day administration of Tonga was transferred to a new position occupied by ethnic Tongans.

Dutch sailors explored the islands in the 1600s and British Captain James COOK visited Tonga three times in the 1770s, naming them the Friendly Islands for the positive reception he thought he received, even though the Tongans he encountered were plotting ways to kill him. In 1799, Tonga fell into a new round of civil wars over succession. Wesleyan missionaries arrived in 1822, quickly converting the population. In the 1830s, a low-ranking chief from Ha’apai began to consolidate control over the islands and won the support of the missionaries by declaring that he would dedicate Tonga to God. The chief soon made alliances with leaders on most of the other islands and was crowned King George TUPOU I in 1845, establishing the only still-extant Polynesian monarchy. TUPOU I declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and his successor, King George TUPOU II, agreed to enter a protectorate agreement with the UK in 1900 after rival Tongan chiefs tried to overthrow him. As a protectorate, Tonga never completely lost its indigenous governance, but it did become more isolated and the social hierarchy became more stratified between a group of nobles and a large class of commoners. Today, about one third of parliamentary seats are reserved for nobles.

Queen Salote TUPOU III negotiated the end of the protectorate in 1965, which was achieved under King TUPOU IV, who in 1970 withdrew from the protectorate and joined the Commonwealth of Nations. A prodemocracy movement gained steam in the early 2000s, led by future Prime Minister ‘Akilisi POHIVA, and in 2006, riots broke out in Nuku’alofa to protest the lack of progress on prodemocracy legislation. To appease the activists, in 2008, King George TUPOU V announced he was relinquishing most of his powers leading up to parliamentary elections in 2010; he died in 2012 and was succeeded by his brother ‘Aho’eitu TUPOU VI. Tropical Cyclone Gita, the strongest-ever recorded storm to impact Tonga, hit the islands in February 2018 causing extensive damage.

105,221 (2023 est.)

  • Tongan 97%
  • part-Tongan 0.8%
  • other 2.2%
  • unspecified <0.1%

(2016 est.)

  • Tongan and English 76.8%
  • Tongan, English, and other language 10.6%
  • Tongan only (official) 8.7%
  • English only (official) 0.7%
  • other 1.7%
  • none 2.2%

(2016 est.)

  • 3 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • tourism
  • construction
  • fishing

constitutional monarchy

Tuvalu

  • total: 26 sq km
  • land: 26 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Funafuti

The islands were first populated by voyagers from either Samoa or Tonga in the first millennium A.D., and Tuvalu provided a steppingstone for various Polynesian communities that subsequently settled in Melanesia and Micronesia. Tuvalu eventually came under Samoan and Tongan spheres of influence although proximity to Micronesia allowed some Micronesian communities to flourish in Tuvalu, in particular on Nui Atoll. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Tuvalu was visited by a series of American, British, Dutch, and Russian ships. The islands were named the Ellice Islands in 1819. The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1861, eventually converting most of the population, and around the same time, several hundred Tuvaluans were kidnapped by people purporting to be missionaries and sent to work on plantations in Peru and Hawaii.

The UK declared a protectorate over the Ellice Islands in 1892 and merged it with the Micronesian Gilbert Islands. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate became a colony in 1916. During World War II, the US set up military bases on a few islands, and in 1943, after Japan captured many of the northern Gilbert Islands, the UK transferred administration of the colony southward to Funafuti. After the war, Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands was once again made the colony’s capital and the center of power was firmly in the Gilbert Islands, including the colony’s only secondary school. Amid growing tensions with the Gilbertese, Tuvaluans voted to secede from the colony in 1974, were granted self-rule in 1975, and gained independence in 1978 as Tuvalu. In 1979, the US relinquished its claims to Tuvaluan islands in a treaty of friendship. The Tuvalu Trust Fund was established in 1987 to provide a longterm economic future for the country. In 2000, Tuvalu negotiated a contract leasing its Internet domain name “.tv” for $50 million in royalties over a 12-year period. The contract was renewed in 2011 for a ten-year period. 

11,639 (2023 est.)

  • Tuvaluan 97%
  • Tuvaluan/I-Kiribati 1.6%
  • Tuvaluan/other 0.8%
  • other 0.6%

(2017 est.)

  • Tuvaluan (official)
  • English (official)
  • Samoan
  • Kiribati (on the island of Nui)
  • 3 living languages
  • 1 endangered or extinct languages
  • fishing

parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm

Vanuatu

  • total: 12,189 sq km
  • land: 12,189 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Port-Vila 

Vanuatu was first settled around 2000 B.C. by Austronesian speakers from Solomon Islands. By around 1000, localized chieftain systems began to develop on the islands. In the mid-1400s, the Kuwae Volcano erupted, causing frequent conflict and internal strife amid declining food availability, especially on Efate Island. Around 1600, Chief ROI MATA united Efate under his rule. In 1606, Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de QUEIROS was the first European to see the Banks Islands and Espiritu Santo, setting up a short-lived settlement on the latter. The next European explorers arrived in the 1760s, and in 1774, British navigator James COOK named the islands the New Hebrides. The islands were frequented by whalers in the 1800s and interest in harvesting the islands’ sandalwood trees caused conflict between Europeans and local Ni-Vanuatu. Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1840s but faced difficulties converting the locals. In the 1860s, European planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Samoa needed labor and kidnapped almost half the adult males of the islands and forced them to work as indentured servants.

With growing and overlapping interests in the islands, France and the UK agreed that the New Hebrides would be neutral in 1878 and established a joint naval commission in 1887. In 1906, the two countries created the British-French Condominium to jointly administer the islands and they established separate laws, police forces, currencies, and education and health systems. The condominium arrangement was dysfunctional and the UK used France’s defeat to Germany in World War II to assert greater control over the islands. As Japan pushed into Melanesia, the US stationed up to 50,000 soldiers in Vanuatu to prevent further advances. In 1945, US troops withdrew and sold their equipment.

The France-UK condominium was reestablished after World War II. The UK was interested in moving the condominium toward independence in the 1960s, but France was hesitant and political parties agitating independence began to form, largely divided along linguistic lines. France eventually relented and elections were held in 1974 with independence granted in 1980 as Vanuatu under English-speaking Prime Minister Walter LINI. At independence, the Nagriamel Movement, with support from French-speaking landowners, declared Espiritu Santo independent, but the short-lived state was dissolved 12 weeks later. Linguistic divisions have lessened over time but highly fractious political parties have led to weak coalition governments that require support from both Anglophone and Francophone parties. Since 2008, prime ministers have been ousted through no-confidence motions or temporary procedural issues 10 times.

313,046 (2023 est.)

  • Melanesian 99.2%
  • non-Melanesian 0.8%

(2016 est.)

  • local languages (more than 100) 63.2%
  • Bislama (official; creole) 33.7%
  • English (official) 2%
  • French (official) 0.6%
  • other 0.5%

(2009 est.)

  • 110 living languages
  • 106 endangered or extinct languages
  • food and fish freezing
  • wood processing
  • meat canning

parliamentary republic

Wallis and Futuna

  • total: 142 sq km
  • land: 142 sq km
  • water: 0 sq km
  • Capital: Mata-Utu

The first humans settled Wallis and Futuna around 800 B.C. The islands were a natural midpoint between Fiji and Samoa. Around A.D. 1500, Tongans invaded Wallis and a chiefdom system resembling Tonga’s formal hierarchy developed on the island. Tongans attempted to settle Futuna but were repeatedly rebuffed. Samoans settled Futuna in the 1600s and a slightly less centralized chiefdom system formed. Dutch explorers were the first Europeans to see the islands in 1616. French Catholic missionaries were the first Europeans to permanently settle Wallis and Futuna in 1837. The missionaries converted most of the population of Wallis by 1842 and of Futuna by 1846. The missionaries and newly-converted King LAVELUA of Uvea on Wallis asked France for a protectorate in 1842 following a rebellion of locals. France agreed, although the protectorate status would not be ratified until 1887. In 1888, King MUSULAMU of Alo and King TAMOLE of Sigave, both on Futuna, signed a treaty establishing a French protectorate; the Wallis and Futuna protectorate was integrated into the territory of New Caledonia that same year. France renegotiated the terms of the protectorate with the territory’s three kings in 1910, expanding French authority.

Wallis and Futuna was the only French colony to side with the Vichy regime during World War II until the arrival of Free French and US troops in 1942. In 1959, inhabitants of the islands voted to separate from New Caledonia and become a French overseas territory, a status it assumed in 1961. Despite the split, a significant Wallisian and Futunan community still lives in New Caledonia. In 2003, Wallis and Futuna’s designation changed to that of an overseas collectivity. Wallis and Futuna became an associate member of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2018, two years after France’s other Pacific territories became full members of the organization.

15,929 (2023 est.)

  • Polynesian
  • Wallisian (indigenous Polynesian language) 58.9%
  • Futunian 30.1%
  • French (official) 10.8%
  • other 0.2%

(2003 est.)

  • 3 living languages
  • ? endangered or extinct languages
  • copra
  • handicrafts
  • fishing
  • lumber

parliamentary democracy (Territorial Assembly)

Dependency status: overseas collectivity of France

References

CIA. (2023, July). Australia and Oceania – The World Factbook. Www.cia.gov. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/australia-and-oceania/

Wikipedia Contributors. (2019, March 31). Hawaii. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaii

Wikipedia Contributors. (2019a, March 25). Oceania. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oceania

Wikipedia Contributors. (2021, November 27). Number of languages by country. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_languages_by_country

Endangered Languages Project. (n.d.). Endangered Languages Project – Search. Www.endangeredlanguages.com. https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/region