Europeans first became aware of the atolls of the Marshalls' area in 1529 when Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron stopped briefly at two atolls, most likely Ujelang and another atoll in the northwest part of the region (Enewetak or Bikini), though Magellan had sailed through the Marshalls' latitudes without sighting land in the previous century. On behalf of Spain, voyagers on the San Lucas laid claim to some Rālik and Ratak atolls in 1565 and, while European visitors were infrequent for the next two centuries, explorers again sought landings in search of water and supplies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Marshalls, like the neighboring Gilberts, were named for British explorers traveling from New South Wales to Canton in 1788. The nineteenth-century Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue was the first to develop a serious interest in the people of Ratak and, not long after his visit, whalers began to frequent the area. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which had sent missionaries to Hawai'i in 1819, expanded their attempt to save islanders' souls to Micronesia in 1852, and by 1857 a mission station was founded on Ebon in the southern Rālik chain. Subsequent mission stations were established on even the most distant atolls like Enewetak by the mid-1920s. Likiep, which was purchased in 1877 as a copra plantation by A. DeBrum (a partner in Adolph Capelle & Co., an early trading firm), is the only atoll not heavily influenced by ABCFM descendants. For most Marshallese, the Catholic beliefs of Likiep residents were used to construct the religious "other," until a plethora of religious forms appeared on Majuro in the 1970s and 1980s. When the market for whale oil was replaced by coconut oil in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Marshall Islanders were drawn into a European- and American-dominated marketplace. Copra demanded land, laborers, and overseers, and Marshall Islands land tenure, family form, and chieftainship reshaped themselves to accommodate these demands. German copra firms sparked the expanding colonial interests, and in 1885 Germany claimed much of the west central Pacific, including the Marshalls, as its own. For thirty years mission forces and German administrators battled with one another, but as imperial Germany focused its efforts on war, Japan rapidly laid claim to Micronesia. Ironically, their own thirty-year reign would be terminated by another world war but, in the interim, the Japanese became the only committed colonizers of the Marshalls. Japan expanded copra production, opened Japanese-operated copra stations on most atolls, and convinced Marshall Islanders that, through diligence and obedient training, they could become Japanese citizens. In the late 1930s Japan's intentions shifted, and Marshallese were drafted as supporters while Japan prepared for war. Early in 1944 the Marshalls were involved in a holocaust involving battles between American and Japanese forces. Lives were lost and the physical forms of islets were transformed. They were denuded of vegetation and literally blown away by bombing and shelling.
Within two months American military forces were in firm control of the critical atolls, and the strategic value of Marshallese soil was established in their minds. While America's hands-off colonial policies slowed the developmental programs begun by the Japanese, the strategic importance of the islands eventually resulted in more radical changes in the Marshallese life-style. Monetary compensations for nuclear damages on out-of-the-way Enewetak and Bikini atolls, for concomitant radiation-related suffering on Ronglab and Uterik, and for missile-tracking experiments and facilities on Kwajalein and Enewetak have created radical disparities of wealth among atoll dwellers. These changes, along with the bureaucratic expansion accompanying the creation of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, account for the significant demographic shifts witnessed today.