Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Little Background on Our Little Island*

Before we get too far into sharing our actual Guam adventures, we should provide some background information on the island and its people.  While we have shared some details with many of you (mostly the ones about the supposedly omnipresent brown tree snakes and giant coconut crabs), there is more to Guam than just pesky wildlife.

The island is situated at the southern end of Mariana Islands.  You may know that name from the Marianas (or Mariana) Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.  That is located a short distance to the east, arcing around to the south and southwest, with the deepest point (the Challenger Deep) 200 miles to the southwest.  The islands are volcanic in origin, dating from between 5 to 30 million years old.  The other Mariana Islands are organized into a collective polity known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).  It is under U.S. jurisdiction as an unincorporated, organized territory, giving it the same status as Puerto Rico, albeit without rights to an annual parade in New York City.  If you have heard of any of the other islands, it is most likely Saipan, which contains the capital and which was the sight of a brutal battle in World War II.  Another island, Tinian, was the location from which the Enola Gay took off on its fateful mission to Hiroshima.

While the island is volcanic in origin, there are no active volcanoes on Guam, though it does experience earthquakes. (Just ask poor San Dionisio Church in Umatac). Typhoons are a constant threat. (We've been told they haven't had one in ten years and that we are due for one....eek!).  While those of you on the mainland are familiar with the North Atlantic Hurricane Season, in Guam the relevant storm designation is the Pacific Typhoon Season, encompassing storms north of the equator from the International Dateline (180th meridian) to the rest of the western Pacific.  East of the dateline, it is the Pacific Hurricane Season, whose storms on occasion trouble the southwestern coast of Mexico and Central America.

The island itself is around 200 square miles.  This is nearly the same size as Isle Royale, or three times the size of Washington, DC.  It is 30 miles at long at the maximum, and ranges from 4 to 12 miles wide.  If anyone has any suggestions as to what it is most shaped like, we would be happy to hear.  It looks something like a boot, toe pointing downwards.  It also somewhat helpful to think of it as having hourglass-like characteristics, in the sense that it narrow in the middle and is at its widest at the top and bottom.

The northern part of the island is more developed and flatter, while the southern half is more rugged, contains the mountains of the island, and is much more rural.   There are numerous (small) rivers throughout the island.  Vegetation is lush, as one might expect from a tropical island.  The island is almost entirely surrounded by a coral reef.  In many places, the island meets the water in the form of cliffs.  There are some sandy beaches, but much of the coastal terrain is rocky, or a mixture or rock and sand.

The island has just over 150,000 people.  The bulk live in the northern portion of the island.  Dedeo is the largest village, with over 40,000 people.  The island has a large navy and a large air force base.  For some time, the U.S. government has been preparing to close a Marine base in Okinawa and transfer the bulk of the troops to Guam, which, with support staff, facilities, and the attendant spike in demand for services, should see a sizable increase in the island's population.  It is estimated that a temporary spike of up to 50,000 could occur as part of the build-up.  Budget issues have delayed the move.  Due to Guam's location in the Pacific, it is considered an important strategic location, as it is closer to Asia than any other large US territory, while providing the political stability and dependability that comes with having a base on US, as opposed to foreign, soil.

Guam also has an extremely high birthrate.  The fertility rate is 2.45 children per woman, meaning that the average woman on Guam will have that many children in her lifetime.  By contrast, the total for the United States is about 1.93.  There are children EVERYWHERE.  While the growth in population is a challenge for Guam's future, there is a large and growing diaspora, both in the other Mariana Islands and on the mainland, notably in California, Washington, New York, Hawaii, Texas, and Florida.

The day-to-day weather varies little in Guam.  There are two seasons: rainy and somewhat less rainy.  The rainy season, which peaks August through October, usually brings some 15 inches of rain per month (for comparison, a reasonably moderate place like SE Michigan receives about 33 inches of rain in an entire year).  The less rainy season, peaking in the spring, brings about 3-4 inches a month.  Due to all this rain we began pondering the question, if it is always so wet here, why so many fire stations? Is fire really a legitimate fear here? So we decided to ask Rich, Nick's supervisor's husband, (and a firefighter) about the dangers of fire on Guam.  He said that during the dry season  you will see times when things start to get a bit brown and fire warnings have to be issued.

The temperature varies little, rarely getting above 90 or dipping below 70.   A typical forecast will show something like:

This constitutes a pretty variable forecast.  We've seen several where every day is identical.
If you want to know what it feels like…well, hot and humid, all the time.  That’s not entirely true: when a nice marine breeze blows, which is often, it feels better.  There are also various times when, for whatever reason, the humidity drops and it feels much better.  The sun is often blocked by the clouds, at least during the rainy season (which is all that we’ve experienced so far), which also provides a measure of relief.  One does have to get used to sweating a lot.  On the other hand, Nick has still managed to find jogging palatable, albeit only at dawn or dusk.

Guam is the largest and southernmost of Marianas islands, but is not part of the commonwealth.  It is its own distinct territory, also classified as unincorporated, but organized (Guam, CNMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all fit this classification).  It achieved this status in 1950 when Congress passed the Organic Act, providing Guam with a form of representative government.  As a territory, Guamanians do not have a voting representative in Congress, nor do they have any electoral votes for the office of President.  Since 1984, they have put the presidential race on the ballot anyway.  They have voted for the winning candidate in every election.

The history of Guam can be broken down into three phases: the arrival of the Chamorro people and the development of "pre-contact" society, Spanish colonization, and the present American rule of the island. Guam's history of colonialism is the longest among the Pacific islands.

The Chamorro are thought to have discovered Guam as early as 4,000 BC.  Most of what is known about "pre-contact" Chomorro culture comes from archaeological evidence, myths/stories/legends, Jesuit missionary accounts, and a handful of visiting scientists.  One piece of archaeological evidence that is omnipresent  on the island are the "latte stones."  

The latte stones are carved from limestone. Probably shaped out of the ground by sharp adzes and picks (possibly with the use of fire), and carried to the assembly area by an elaborate system of ropes and logs. The latte stone was used as a part of the raised foundation for a magalahi (matao chief) house.

When Europeans first arrived on Guam, Chamorro society roughly fell into three classes: matao (upper class), achaot (middle class), and mana'chang (lower class). The matao were located in the coastal villages, which meant they had the best access to fishing grounds while the mana'chang were located in the interior of the island. Only the matao were allowed to participate in salt water fishing, the other classes were forced to fish in the fresh water lakes and streams of the interior of the island.  Matao and mana'chang rarely communicated with each other, and matao often used achaot as a go-between.

As mentioned in a previous post, Magellan landed on Guam in 1521, and due to a miscommunication (differing ideas of barter and ownership), he named Guam "Island of Thieves".  Guam was officially claimed by Spain in 1565, but was not actually colonized until the 17th century.  Thus began the "Spanish colonization" phase.

In 1668 a Spanish galleon, the San Diego, landed on Guam full of Jesuit missionaries.  They introduced the Chamorro to Christianity, taught them to cultivate maize, tend cattle, and tan hides.  They also brought with them the Spanish language and culture.  Things seemed to go peacefully as first (familiar story?) with the chief, Chief Quipuha, welcoming the missionaries, allowing himself to be baptized, and even granting the land for the Dulce Nombre de Maria (Sweet Name of Mary) Cathedral Basilica, which was constructed in 1669.  

 The first Catholic Church in Guam, the Dulce Nombre
de Maria {Sweet Name of Mary} Cathedral Basilica,
was constructed in 1669.
 The original cathedral was destroyed during World War
 II and the present Cathedral, was constructed on
 the original site in 1955
Things began to go wrong in 1672, when a priest and his assistant were killed for baptizing another chief's child without his consent.  As with many things in history, this event was precipitated by a miscommunication.  Many Chamorro at the time believed baptisms killed babies - because priests would baptize infants already near death (in the belief that this was the only way to save such children's souls), baptism seemed to many Chamorro to be the cause of death.  The killing of the priest and his assistant led to a war that would bring the Chamorro people to the brink of extinction.  It is estimated that the population was reduced from approximately 12,000 to 5,000 by 1741, mostly comprised of women and children. The remnants of Spanish rule are still visible in the culture today in the food, language, people and religion of Guam.

On June 21, 1898, the United States captured Guam in a bloodless landing during the Spanish-American War. By the Treaty of Paris (well, "a" treaty of Paris, as there have been several), Spain officially ceded the island to the United States.  

Village of Piti, after being captured by the U.S.
Since that time, Guam has been an important strategic presence in the Pacific for the U.S. military.  During WWII, Guam was captured by the Japanese, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese occupation of Guam lasted from 1941-1944.  The occupation was a brutal experience for the Chamorro people, whose loyalty to the United States became a point of contention with the Japanese. All surviving American military personnel and civilians were evacuated to internment camps in Japan. Several American servicemen remained on the island, however, and were hidden by the Chamorro people. All of these servicemen were found and executed by Japanese forces in 1942, except for Navy radioman George Ray Tweed. Tweed managed to successfully evade Japanese forces with considerable assistance from the Chamorro community. He was picked up by a U.S. Navy destroyer on July 10, 1944, shortly before the Battle of Guam. 

The Battle of Guam began on July 21, 1944 with American troops landing on western side of the island after several weeks of pre-invasion bombardment by the U.S. Navy. After several weeks of heavy fighting, Japanese forces officially surrendered on August 10, 1944.  The War in the Pacific National Park, which we posted some pictures of in a previous post, is dedicated to commemorating and telling the story of the Battle of Guam.

After WWII, things on Guam began to change in regard to the government. With the passing of the Guam Organic Act of 1950, Guam was established as an unincorporated organized territory of the United States and, for the first time in Guam history, provided for a civilian government. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, "all persons born in the island of Guam on or after April 11, 1899" were granted U.S. Citizenship. On September 11, 1968, Congress passed the "Elective Governor Act", which allowed the people of Guam to elect their own governor and lieutenant governor, as opposed to the U.S. President appointing them. Nearly four years later, Congress passed the "Guam-Virgin Islands Delegate" Act that allowed for one non-voting Guam delegate in the House of Representatives. The debate still continues today as to Guam's future status with the U.S. (i.e. territory, state, commonwealth, etc).

* We hope this has been an informative and interesting bit of background information for anyone who was curious. We fully admit and acknowledge a lack of personal knowledge of Guam. Amanda's area of historical interest has thus far centered on the U.S. up until about 1900. Nick's area of historical knowledge is more grounded in Western military history. Due to these limitations, we relied heavily upon Wikipedia, Guampedia, and other sources to round out these Guam facts. We admit it and are not ashamed to say, "We don't know." (This has never been a problem for Amanda, but some historians, who shall not be named, commonly have a hard time admitting this fact). Hopefully this year will allow us to gain a modicum of knowledge about this corner of the world.


  1. Replies
    1. Wow! You've really done your research. I can't wait for trivia night when they announce the "Guam" category. We are going to sweep that category for sure!!