July 12 – Independence for Islanders!

Posted on July 12, 2014

Sao Tome
Many islands in the world have slowly risen up out of the ocean – because they are the tips of giant underwater volcanoes. (A new Hawaiian island is growing that way right now... Actually, Lo'ihi is still a “seamount” rather than an island, because the top of the mountain is still about three thousand feet below sea level. But maybe someday...)

Some other islands in the world have been formed slowly by creatures called corals.

People of Kiribati
It takes time for islands to be discovered and settled by plant seeds, by land creatures, and even by people. It takes time for explorers from far away to discover islands and establish trade with the inhabitants—or, far to often, to take over the land and rule over its people. And of course it often takes a whole lot of time for the islanders to get rid of colonial overlords as well!

Today is the national day of two different island nations:

  • Sao Tome and Principe won its independence from Portugal on this date in 1975.
  • And Kiribati became independent from the United Kingdom on this date in 1979.

Close to shore...

I was surprised to learn that the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, which lie quite close to Africa, were never settled by people until Portuguese explorers discovered them in the 1400s. I imagine that a variety of African peoples knew about the islands but found no reason to leave their homes to live there; the Portuguese, on the other hand, saw the islands as a good base from which to trade with a variety of African empires and groups.

Sao Tome and Principe were both formed from extinct volcanoes; the volcanic soils of the islands had a lot of minerals, and so they were good for agriculture. First sugar and later cotton and cocoa were grown there, and the islands remained important for trading ships as well.

When the inhabitants of other, larger nations in Africa began to push for independence, so too did the people of Sao Tome and Principe.

Pico Cao Grande is a volcanic plug that was
created when magma cooled while still
inside the volcano. The rest of the volcano has
eroded away, leaving this hard plug that
roughly shows the shape of the original
magma chamber.

...Or far from anything...

Kiribati is quite different than Sao Tome and Principe. First, there is only one true island, which is a “raised-coral island.” An atoll (a ring shaped reef) is formed by coral, and then tectonic forces (the forces that cause the continents to slowly move about the surface of the Earth, and that cause earthquakes and volcanoes) raise up the atoll so that true soil can develop. The rest of Kiribati is
made up of far-flung coral atolls.

Because these small islands are so far from any continent and even from one another, I thought that they might not have been discovered by ancient peoples. Boy, was I wrong! Micronesians settled the area between 3,000 BCE and 1,000 CE. Once settled, the islanders continued to trade and intermarry and learn from one another... and occasionally they were conquered by people from larger islands such as Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji.

The European navigators also discovered the islands more quickly than I had suspected they would, in the early 1500s. The Spanish came first; by the 1800s whalers, slave traders, and merchants arrived in large numbers. In 1837 the first British settlers arrived, and it wasn't long before some of the islands of Kiribati became a British protectorate.

Eventually, of course, the islanders gained self-rule from Great Britain.
During World War II, three of the atolls of Kiribati were
taken over by the Imperial Japanese. In November of
1943, Allied forces started a campaign to take over
the Japanese-held atolls. It was some of the bloodiest
battles of the war.
Today you can still see tanks and guns left behind.

Apparently Kiribati is trying to buy land in mountainous Fiji before global climate change causes the entire nation to disappear beneath the waves! Because the atolls were made by sea creatures, the land is very low—just a bit above sea level. And as sea levels rise...well, the 100 thousand people of the nation are planning ahead and will migrate if necessary.

Also on this date:

Plan ahead:

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