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The Mariana Islands (also the Marianas; up to the early 20th century sometimes called Ladrones Islands, from Spanish Islas de los Ladrones meaning "Islands of Thieves") are an arc-shaped archipelago made up by the summits of 15 volcanic mountains in the north-western Pacific Oceanmarker between the 12th and 21st parallels north and along the 145th meridian east. They are south of Japanmarker and north of New Guineamarker, and immediately to the east of the Philippine Seamarker. The south end of the Marianas chain is the island of Guammarker. The islands were named after Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria in the 17th century, when Spain started the colonization of the archipielago.

The islands are part of a geologic structure known as the Izu-Bonin-Mariana Arc system, and range in age from 5 million years old in the north to 30 million years old in the south (Guam). The island chain arises as a result of the western edge of the Pacific Plate plunging beneath the Mariana plate, a region which is the most volcanically active convergent plate boundary on Earth. This region, just west of the island chain, forms the noted Mariana Trenchmarker, the deepest part of the Earth's oceans and lowest part of Earth's crust. Here, water trapped in the extensive faulting of the Pacific Plate as Serpentinite is heated by the higher temperatures of depth during its subduction, and the pressure results in the hydrothermal activity in the area, and probably the volcanic activity which has formed the Mariana Islands.

The Marianas islands are the northern part of the Micronesia island group, although their government is under a different jurisdiction from much of the rest of geographical Micronesia. Today, the Marianas Islands are composed of two U.S. jurisdictions: the territory of Guammarker and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islandsmarker.


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The Mariana Islands are the southern part of a submerged mountain range that extends 1,565 miles (2,519 km) from Guammarker to near Japanmarker. Geographically, the Marianas are the northernmost islands of a larger island group called Micronesia, situated between 13° and 21° N. latitude and 144° and 146° E. longitude.

The Mariana Islands have a total land area of 389 square miles (1007 km²).They are composed of two administrative units:

It consists of two groups, a northern group of ten volcanic main islands, of which only four (Agrihanmarker, Anatahanmarker, Alamaganmarker and Paganmarker) are inhabited; and a southern group of five coralline limestone islands (Rota, Guam, Aguijanmarker, Tinian and Saipanmarker), all inhabited except Aguijan. In the northern volcanic group a maximum elevation of about is reached; there are craters showing signs of activity, and earthquakes are not uncommon. Coral reefs fringe the coasts of the southern isles, which are of slight elevation.

Near the islands can be found the lowest point in the Earth's crust, the Mariana Trenchmarker.

All the islands except Farallon de Medinillamarker and Uracasmarker or Farallon de Pajarosmarker (in the northern group) are more or less densely wooded, and the vegetation is dense, much resembling that of the Carolinesmarker, and also of the Philippines, from where species of plants have been introduced. Owing to the moistness of the soil cryptogams are numerous, as are also most kinds of grasses. Coconut and areca palms, yams, sweet potatoes, manioc, coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton, tobacco and mother-of-pearl are the chief products, and copra is the principal export. Agriculture is neglected, in spite of the exceptional advantages offered by the climate and soil. On most of the islands there is a plentiful supply of water.

The fauna of the Marianas, though inferior in number and variety, is similar in character to that of the Carolines, and certain species are indigenous to both colonies. Swine and oxen run wild, and are hunted when required: the former were known to the earliest inhabitants, the latter, along with most other domestic animals, were introduced by the Spaniards. The climate though damp is healthy, while the heat, being tempered by the trade winds, is milder than that of the Philippines; the variations of temperature are not great.


The first European to see the island group was Ferdinand Magellan who on 6 March 1521 observed the two southernmost islands and sailed between them during a Spanish expedition of world circumnavigation. Upon first landing at Umatac, Guammarker, Magellan's ships received fresh supplies from the native Chamorros. The common account is that the Chamorros, assuming that they were engaged in a trade, then took one of the Spanish landing boats. The Spanish crew, however, considered this theft and in retaliation attacked the Chamorros and dubbed the islands Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of the Thieves). However, according to Antonio Pigafetta's diary, there was no evidence that the natives thought that the Spaniards were engaging in trade and that they therefore had the implicit right to take the things from Magellan's ships. Pigafetta writes,

And the captain-general wished to approach the largest of these three islands to replenish his provisions. But it was not possible, for the people of those islands entered the ships and robbed us so that we could not protect ourselves from them. And when we wished to strike and take in the sails so as to land, they stole very quickly the small boat called a skiff which was fastened to the poop of the captain's ship. At which he, being very angry, went ashore with forty armed men. And burning some forty or fifty houses with several boats and killing seven men of the said island, they recovered their skiff.

The islands are still occasionally called the Ladrones. Magellan himself styled them Islas de las Velas Latinas (Islands of the Lateen Sail ). San Lazarus archipelago, Jardines and Prazeres are among the names applied to them by later navigators.

In 1667 Spainmarker formally claimed them, established a regular colony there, and gave the islands the official title of Las Marianas in honor of Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria, widow of Philip IV of Spain. They then had a population of 100,000 inhabitants, but many Chamorros died from the diseases brought by the Spanish.

The native population known to the early Spanish colonists as Hachamori[Needs citation or source] has died out as a distinct people, though their descendants intermarried. At the Spanish occupation in 1668, the Chamorros were estimated at 100,000, but a century later only 1,800 natives remained, as the majority of the population was of mixed Spanish-Chamorro blood or mestizo. They were characteristic Micronesians, with a considerable civilization. In the island of Tinianmarker are some remarkable remains attributed to them, consisting of two rows of massive square stone columns, about broad and high, with heavy-round capital called latte stones. According to early Spanish accounts cinerary urns were found embedded in the capitals. [Contrary to all recorded burial practices]

Research in the archipelago was carried out by Commodore Anson, who in August 1742 landed upon the island of Tinian. The Ladrones were visited by Byron in 1765, Wallis in 1767 and Crozetmarker in 1772.

The Marianas and specifically the island of Guammarker were a stopover for Spanish galleons en route from Acapulco, Mexico to Manila, Philippines in a convoy known as the Galeon de Manila. The Marianas remained a Spanish colony under the general government of the Philippines until 1898, when, as a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Guam to the United States.

By Treaty of 12 February 1899, the remaining islands of the archipelago (except Guammarker, but with the Carolinesmarker and Pelew Islandsmarker) was sold by Spain to Germanymarker for 837,500 German gold mark (about $4,100,000 at the time) and were incorporated as the German Protectorate of New Guinea; their total population around 1900 was only 2,646 inhabitants, the ten most northerly islands being actively volcanic and almost uninhabited.

Japanmarker, a member of the Triple Entente, began to occupy the islands in 1914. After Germany and the rest of the Central Powers lost World War I, the former German islands were entrusted by the League of Nations to Japanese control as a mandate territory (not unlike a UN Trust territory).

The island chain saw fighting between the US and Japanese forces in 1944 during World War II. The United States wanted to capture the islands for use as a bombing base to raid the Japanese mainland.

Once captured, the islands of Saipanmarker and Tinianmarker were used extensively by the United States military as they finally put mainland Japanmarker within round-trip range of American bombers. In fact, both the Enola Gay and the Bockscar (which dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively) flew their missions from Tinian’s “North Field”.

Ecclesiastical history

The Prefecture Apostolic of the Marianas was erected on 17 September 1902, by the Constitution "Quae mari sinico" of Pope Leo XIII. The islands had previously formed part of the Philippine Diocese of Cebumarker. By Decree of 18 June, 1907 they were entrusted to the Capuchin Fathers of the Westphalian Province, to which order the first Prefect Apostolic, Very Rev. Paul von Kirchhausen (appointed August, 1907; residence in Saipan, Carolina Islands), belonged. There were two public schools, but accommodation was so inadequate that the boys attended in the morning and the girls in the evening. The instruction was given in English, and in addition to the usual elementary subjects, carpentry and other trades were taught. Two priests were stationed at Agana on Guam; one in each of the smaller settlements, Agatmarker and Merizomarker. In addition to the churches at these places, there is a church at Samay and several little chapels in the mountains. A priest from Agana visited each month the colony where the lepers are segregated, to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments. Catholicism was the sole—and remains the primary—religion.

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