Wednesday, October 05, 2005


According to the Lonely Planet, Guam is the metropolis of Micronesia. At 210 square miles and 163,000 people, Guam is the most populous of the islands and is the vacation destination for planeloads of Japanese and other tourists eager to snap up the duty-free items from the innumerable strip and mega malls that dot Tumon Bay and Tamuning. Beyond these overcapitalized areas, Guam's northern and southern regions are patchwork of sleepy villages, small coves, and picturesque beaches.

Guam's indigenous people, the Chamoros, have inhabited the Marianas Archipelago since at least 1500 BC. Believed the have migrated from Indonesia, the Chamoro were the first culture in Micronesia to cultivate rice prior to Western Contact. Their culture was stratified and based on matriarchal clans in which most farming, construction and building of canoes was done by men while women prepared food, fished along the reef, and made various baskets and pottery items.

The first western contact occurred in 1521 with the landing of Ferdinand Magellan on the Trinidad in Umatac Bay. As they dropped anchor, Magellan's ships were greeted by a flotilla of canoes. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived forty four years later, officially claiming Guam and the Marianas for Spain. For the next 250 years, Spanish galleons stopped in Guam to take on provisions during annual voyages between Manila and Acapulco. Interestingly, nearly 150 years passed between Magellan's landing and any real attempt at Western settlement.

The establishment of a small Catholic mission by Diego Luis de Sanvitores in 1668 marked the beginning of the missionary period. Initially receptive, it didn't take long for the Chamoros to realize their very culture was under attack. Ensuing rebellion and warfare lasted for nearly 20 years, by which point war, smallpox and influenza had decimated the population, leaving less than 5,000 of the original 100,000 Chamoros

It wasn't until 1822 that American whaling ships visited Guam. During the peak whaling years of the 1840s, hundreds of ships passed through Guam's waters. In April of 1898, the US declared war on Spain. Two months later, the American warship Captain Henry Glass arrived firing volleys into Apra Harbor. She was greeted warmly by the Spanish authorities who, having no idea their two nations were at war, apologized for not having enough ammunition to return the salute. The next day, Guam was surrendered to the Americans.

Japanese bombers from Siapan to the north attacked Guam on December 8, 1941 (the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor taking the date line into account). Undefended, Guam fell two days later to the 5000 strong Japanese force. The Japanese immediately began teaching the remaining Chamoros Japanese. Initially the Chamoros were left alone but, as the war turned for the Japanese Guamanians were placed in work camps to build fortifications or were forced to farm to provide food for Japanese troops. On July 12, the remaining Guamanians were forced into concentration camps on the eastern side of the island.

The US assault on Guam began July 17, 1944. Four days later, 55,000 US troops landed on the beaches at Agat and Asan and the US had secured Guam by August 10th at a cost of 17,500 Japanese and 7,000 US lives. In the following weeks the population soared to over 200,000 as US servicemen poured into the island in preparation for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Nearly one-third of Guam was confiscated by the military for bases which were heavily utilized during both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

While many of the traditional Chamoro ways have been replaced by strip and mega malls displaying the wares of Planet Hollywood, Tiffany's and the like, there are still areas of the island that retain the feel of the tropical Pacific. Our first night in Guam we were treated to a feast by the local fishermen's co-op. We were greeted with traditional baskets containing fruit and vegetables of every variety. For the 75 or so people in attendance, there were an additional two full tables of food, more than double our number could eat. Fresh fish of every variety, sashimi, sweet potatoes, bread fruit, a whole pig, and more deserts than I could count! After dinner and much talking, a troupe of native dancers treated us to a show that lasted nearly half an hour. Ranging in age from 3 to 12 they performed a number of native Chamoro dances in full regalia followed by fire dances with flaming batons and small clay pots on the ends of rope filled with flaming oil of some sort. Despite the rain, it was truly spectacular and very special.