Palau was one of the first, if not the first South Pacific islands settled by people, although there is little known about the earliest settlers. The early settlers lived off the land as hunting, gathering, and fishing provided food.
A traditonal Palauan hut
The early Palauans had few contacts prior to the arrival of the Europeans, although there was limited contact with the people that live in the Caroline Islands (today part of the Federated States of Micronesia) and some evidence suggests they may have had relations with people from islands that today make up Indonesia. The first Europeans didn’t step foot on the shores until the 1700s and in 1783 Henry Wilson was shipwrecked off the island of Ulong, at which time he met Palau’s king and relations between the Palauans and Europeans began. It was the late 1800s when the Europeans arrived in force with the Spanish designating the islands as a part of the greater Spanish power in the region, stretching from the Philippines in the west to the Marshall Islands in the east.
Palau was never settled by the Spanish and colonization was never really an objective and when in 1898 Spain lost the Spanish-American War, Palau was sold to Germany. The Germans discovered phosphate and bauxite as well as the value in growing coconuts. The next real change came in 1914 when the Japanese declared war against the Germans and took control of Palau. The Japanese continued to alter or destroy the local culture as they continued the mining operations and encouraged immigration to work these mines. The Japanese and other people under their control immigrated to the islands in huge numbers, soon outnumbering the local Palauan population. They also turned the small town of Koror into a thriving economic hub trading the mined goods, while also setting up new industries.
During and after WWII Palau’s economy and industry was heavily damaged: the mines destroyed much of the land and little land was left for farming or other forms of production. This resulted in the ethnic Japanese returning to Japan and the ethnic Palauans returned to farming and fishing. At the end of WWII the Americans took control over Palau and in1979 Palau was given the opportunity to join the Federated States of Micronesia, but turned down the offer since the countries have very different cultures and languages. Palau, for the time, remained under the protection of the United States.
From 1979 to 1994 the Palauan people argued the future of their country and in 1994 the people of Palau finally voted to declare independence from the United States, although they remain in a free association with the U.S which continues to handle most of Palau’s defense and some of their foreign affairs.