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Articles Blog

Agana, Guam

Karyn Planett

A Pacific Stew 

Guam is, quite simply, a mixed metaphor. 

As an unincorporated territory of the United States, it’s alive with American accents, American retail brands, American-style shopping malls, and a significant American military presence. 

But the largest segment of the population on this 30-mile-long, 210-square-mile island is related to the original Chamorro inhabitants who are working mightily to keep vestiges of their culture and language alive. In fact, not long ago the name of the island’s capital was changed from Agana to the Chamorro version, Hagåtña. 

There are remnants and reminders of the Spanish years, as well, which lasted from Magellan’s arrival in 1521 to the Spanish-American War in 1898. 

Into this stew, stir tourists. Tourism is the number one industry in Guam with more than 1 million visitors annually. Guam is an attractive holiday destination for Asians, with approximately three-fourths hailing from Japan. Just know that Guam is 1500 miles from the Philippines and from Japan, and 3300 miles west from Hawaii. 

So, now that you are here, how would you like to spend your day? Many visitors come to pay their respects and remember the events of World War II for Guam was strategically important in the Pacific Theater and saw significant military action. Others spend their time shopping for designer brands at duty-free malls. Some explore authentic Chamorro villages or visit historic Spanish forts. Many enjoy simply spending time with sailors stationed here with the U.S. Navy. Whatever your interests are, it’s all here and all available during your call to Guam. 

The Chamorro Years 

The Marianas Chain was occupied as much as 4000 years ago.
Note that archeologists’ opinions vary on the date by 500 years, give or take, as to when these people reached Guam. It is believed they were of Indo-Malaya descent and their language and culture are not unlike those of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Their customs dictated that there were separate social strata for their people complete with nobles and workers. The most powerful leaders were known as chamorri. 

The Spanish Years 

It was the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who “discovered” Guam while sailing for Charles V of Spain. He initially named the area Islas de las Velas Latinas for the unique lateen-sailed sailing proas the Chamorro people used to sail out and meet his ship Trinidad. Magellan’s admiration of these people ended abruptly when a scuffle broke out after the Chamorros took one of Magellan’s rowboats. According to local custom, taking things was expected in return for gifts offered to the Europeans. Nonetheless, Magellan’s men killed several islanders and torched their homes before sailing on. Magellan also changed the name to Islas de Los Ladrones, the Island of Thieves. 

Guam became a watering hole, so to speak, for Spanish sailing ships plying the Pacific. Even so, the island was virtually undisturbed by Europeans who were not attracted to settle here. The only ones really interested in Guam were Catholic missionaries who set about converting the islanders to Christianity and doing away with some island traditions. High on their list was convincing everyone to wear clothing. 

Clashes eventually occurred and the leading Jesuit priest, Padre Diego Luis de Sanvitores, was killed. Spanish soldiers arrived by the galleon-load to avenge this murder and succeeded in literally wiping out the entire male population of the Chamorros. The troops stayed on after the fighting ceased and intermarried with the few remaining Chamorro women, diluting forever the purity of their people. Today, their descendants represent 37% of the population. Eighty-five per cent of Guamanians are Catholic. 

The War Years 

America seized control over Guam in 1898 when resident Spanish troops failed to repel their landing, as the Spaniards were completely unaware that war had been declared between the two countries. And, it has even been reported that the Spanish were so oblivious to this news that when the American ships fired their cannons, the Spanish immediately responded by asking forgiveness for not returning the military salute as they were short of ammunition. 

World War II came to Guam with a fury. While many Japanese planes were unleashing their firepower on Pearl Harbor in December 8, 1941, others were concentrating their might on Guam. Shortly thereafter, some 5,000 Japanese soldiers landed on Guam’s beaches. For nearly three years they ruled the island. Following a fierce battle July 21, 1944, the US regained control of Guam and is responsible for the island’s defense even today. 

But that’s all ancient history to the youth of Guam who spend their days in shopping malls and air-conditioned cinemas (when not in class). For them, as well as others, these dark days are chapters in school textbooks. For others, the name Guam means sacrifice and courage and patriotism. For you, it’s your next port of call.