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Melekeok Church

Emaus Church in Koror. Photograph from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Archives.


"The Spaniards came and claimed the area for Spain, and started Catholicism," Kathy tells us. "But they didn’t actually do anything here. There were missionaries from Guam—one that comes to mind is Father Valencia—who were part of the some of the expeditions from Guam to here, spreading the word, missionizing, bringing Christianity to the islands. And that’s when the people began to start to learn about Christianity.



Portion of a Spanish graphic, ca. 1710, showing Spaniards interacting with Palauans. Most early Spanish contact was focused on Sungesol in the far south. From Etpison (1997).


"When the Spanish claimed these islands, then we began to have the Capuchin-order Fathers staying here and actually doing missionary work here. But that didn’t happen until 1898.

"Before that, the impact of the missionaries was small and it was sporadic. It was just ships coming through. No more Spanish priests were here until the Spanish administration. The most extensive contact—early, early contact—would be the whalers and the traders, not the missionaries."

"The Spaniards were never really in Palau," Johnson says. "Just the church: Father Antonio Valencia and Father Luis de Granada, Brother Joaquin de Masamagrell and Brother Oton de Ochovi. And they were dropped off here in 1891. But Palau was really never colonized by them."


"During the Spanish era of the Pacific, when they were in the Philippines and Guam, Palau was untouched by them. The ships which most frequented Palau, until the Germans came, were the British ships out of Hong Kong which came to Palau to trade.

"Captain O’Keefe from Yap was going to Hong Kong and back, and between Palau and Yap, and Captain Cheyne, who was trading trepang (bêche-de-mer).

"So we had more contacts with the British, and Captain O’Keefe, than with the Spaniards. The Spaniards were basically here through the presence of the two or three priests who were dropped here.”



Metal adze blade excavated from the Yapese stone money quarry at Metukerabisech. Photograph by Scott Fitzpatrick.


“The impact of these various visitors here was that it opened up our eyes, our knowledge, a little bit to the world outside," Kathy explains, "so we knew that there was something beyond this horizon. There were other people, there were other places.

"Certainly there was a lot of exchange of gifts. Knives, guns, not so much currency. Currency in a sense that they began to introduce glass beads to the islands to be part of the purchase of labor and trepang and coconuts.

"And Captain O’Keefe, in terms of economy, really kind of made it big. He was trading with Yap, and part of the payment was the stone money they got from the Rock Islands. But stone money was quarried here before Captain O’Keefe. He just made it a little bit easier, because he had the tools and he had the ships."



“The first thing that the missionaries imposed was clothing. My grandfather was a houseboy for the Catholic priests here during the German period. And when I talked to him, he said, ‘well the first thing they do is cut your hair short and give you clothes to wear,’—no more grass skirts, no more loinclothes that men wear. That’s how clothing really is an influence of the missionaries, and that’s pretty late. My grandmother was wearing grass skirts at the turn of the century, so clothing was really new here.

"It's true, though, that when Captain Wilson came, among the items that they traded with the chief were their shirts, their coats, their hats, and the Palauans really kept them. You see some of the old pictures where the men would don a jacket going to a formal meeting but after, it’s held or kept for another occasion where they put it on."



Practices concerning women visiting the bai were also quickly banned. Kathy explains, "The bai are men’s club houses. And there were these carvings of women on the end gables, that were supposed to signify that it’s a men’s club house.

"That carving was the first thing that went when the missionaries came, because they thought that it was uncouth. You don’t have women’s parts displayed in the public. So what they did was paint over them, or find somebody to paint over or actually remove the gable that’s carved like that.

"It caused a lot of commotion in the community, and it just didn’t sit very well with folks. Some of the missionaries started in Ngerechelong, the northern tip of Palau, they started their work and then because of the bai, because they wanted that woman painted over and so forth, they were chased out of Ngerechelong, and settled in Melekeok, and after they settled in Melekeok they came to Koror."


Photograph from Kramer (1919) showing the dilukai carving on the end of a bai.


Women sitting in front of a Palauan ancestral spirit house (ulengang), photographed by Kramer (1919).


“They were well received in Koror. Koror was more familiar with foreigners, and by that time people were getting more used to foreigners. But this new kind of religion that they were bringing in, people were really very skeptical about it, though they were being polite.

"These were foreigners and so you’re curious and you want something from them because they were bringing in a lot of goods—knives and clothes and all that.

"The Palauans also were getting baptized a lot, but not really subscribing to the Christianity that was being preached, because we have their own religion and we have our own way of explaining our supernatural occurrences."



“When the Spanish missionaries were here, they taught the people to change," Walter remarks. "Local people in Palau, they have their own gods and totems: they have their own family gods, individual gods, village gods. And missionaries tried to changed that: they taught Christianity. Then a little later, new priests came in with a different mission: I guess they were playing the key part of trying to convert people so they could be controlled here.



This engraving of the Ibedul, his wife and his son Leeboo shows Leeboo in Western clothing. Note also the tattooing on the Ibedul. Photograph courtesy of the Belau National Museum.


“Tattooing was one of the biggest arts of the culture, and they told Palauans it was not good. I think they thought it was probably associated with witchcraft and rites for the other religions. By the time the Japanese came, already the culture of the people had changed a lot from those outside contacts coming in.

“I feel like Westerners came over here, they tried to tell the people that most of their of their traditional ways, their culture, these were no good. And they wanted them to adapt so it would be easier to control the local people here and their way of life. I guess they sort of thought about their own way of life as some better culture."



With the Spanish-American war in 1898, Spain made a quick and fruitless move to claim Palau, which was now heavily involved with German traders. The Germans would soon bring in their own Capuchin missionaries, but their main aims were economic. The Japanese would follow them in transforming Palau into a colony.



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