Overview: Tobian Culture & History
Peter W. Black, 2005


Earliest Years: Five hundred or more years ago people from Fais or perhaps Ulithi, islands east of Palau in what is now Yap State, settled on the island they came to call Hatohobei, a previously uninhabited coral island, small and isolated, about 400 miles south and west from Palau's capitol, Koror. Speakers of a Carolinian language, those people brought with them a deep knowledge of how to live on such an island and over the next several generations transformed their new home into a richly productive human environment, capable of sustaining their growing community. They converted the swampy center of the island into high yield taro pits, planted sweet potatoes, bananas, and other crops, tended coconut, breadfruit, papaya, and Micronesian apple trees, and turned other plants to medicinal and cosmetic uses. To some extent, they even remade the reef which fringed the island, building stone “fish houses” in the runoff channels to increase the available fish stocks. And of course, they gathered food from the ocean: turtles, tuna, barracuda from the open sea, and many kinds of reef fish and shell fish from the reef. They built their homes from wood and coconut thatch, carved wonderfully efficient outrigger canoes from the trunks of trees, worked the shells of giant clams for cutting tools, and the shell of the turtle and the bones of birds for fishing gear and jewelry.

Tobians lived in family groups and organized themselves into lineages and clans based on maternal identity. A chief, whose elder brother or father had been chief before him, was expected to be a role model of moral excellence, to regulate use of scarce resources in the public interest, and to act as the main intermediary between the human and spirit world. Men fished and women gardened and when times were good, the island supported a very dense population. From time to time strangers arrived and became part of the community. Most seem to have been fishermen or voyagers from lands to the south and west who had become lost at sea.

Once the island had been modified to better meet the needs of its people, and the culture which the first settlers had brought with them had been modified to meet the realities of their new home, the main challenge facing the Tobians was to maintain a balance within their society and between it and its natural setting. They were successful in meeting this dual challenge for many generations and then, about 200 years ago, the pace of change began to increase with the arrival of men on ships.

Today Tobians speak of their past as a series of historic episodes, each given the name of the foreigners who dominated it. Thus, the era when the first ships began to visit their island is called the Time of the English because the language spoken on most of those American, British, and Australian vessels was English. During this period Tobians became acquainted with metal, cloth, tobacco, and other new things. To acquire these valuable goods and out of a sense of adventure some young men began working for the foreigners on their ships. In 1832 survivors of the American whale ship Mentor which had wrecked on Ngaruangl Reef, north of Palau, drifted to Tobi in a small boat, along with several Palauan young men. Over the next three years, most of these people died on Tobi. Only a few, including one of the Palauan men named Obak (probably from Ngerechelong), lived to tell the tale.

About 70 years later came the Time of the Germans, who at the end of the 19th century imposed colonial rule in this corner of the Pacific. For the first time the Tobian community was part of larger political and economic systems. The German local administration was at first based in Yap and then was moved to Koror. For the convenience of the Germans, Tobi was included within Palau’s colonial boundaries. Tobi lay at the far extreme of the empire, and German rule rested very lightly on Tobi, at least initially.

Then in the early 20th century three events occurred which were to have very important consequences for Tobians and their descendants. Phosphate was discovered in Angaur, which is one of the islands of Palau proper, and many Tobians were taken by the Germans to work in the mine which they opened there. A typhoon swept through the islands of Sonsorol, Merir, and Pulo Ana, the other Southwest Islands of Palau, and the Germans relocated people from those islands to Palau proper. Thus was the community of Southwest Islanders in Koror begun—most of the people from those islands, including most Tobians, live in that community now. The third important event from the Time of the Germans was an epidemic which swept Tobi and carried off about four out of five of its inhabitants. The island’s population dropped from almost 1,000 people to only about 200 and continued to decline until the late 1940s.

In 1914, the Japanese replaced the Germans as colonial masters of Palau, including Tobi.

The Time of the Japanese lasted until 1945 when it was replaced in its turn by the Time of the Americans. The Time of the Japanese brought a regular ship schedule between Koror and Tobi, a Japanese copra trader who lived on the island, the division of most of the land into individual holdings, conversion of the whole community to Roman Catholicism, the beginning of schooling and modern medicine, an attempt to mine the small deposit of phosphate located on Tobi, and then, later, war, bombing, relocation to the Rock Islands of Palau, and the arrival of the US Navy.

The Time of the Americans brought population growth, enhanced health care and schooling, elections for political leadership, and an increase in the importance of the daughter community in Koror. Tobians moved to that community primarily for education, health care, and employment.  In Koror they experienced increasing involvement with people from the other Southwest Islands and with ethnic Palauans.  With the coming of self-government and then independence, the Tobians along with the other peoples of Palau, took up the responsibility for their own future as part of the Republic of Palau.

Today, Hatohobei is one of the 16 states of Palau. Included in the boundaries of Hatohobei State is Helen Reef, a largely uninhabited reef 40 miles east of Tobi Island, long a source of important Tobian resources. One of the major challenges confronting contemporary Tobians is to protect and use the resources of both the island and Helen Reef for the benefit not only of today’s community but also that of the future.  Organized around a state government under its own constitution, the Tobian community has invested much energy in meeting that challenge. The community has also sent many of its sons and daughters off to live and study in lands far from their home island. Yet wherever they live, the people of this small island continue to treasure those things which helped their ancestors survive and prosper. Family, community, and land, these are three things of great value. Sharing especially of food, cooperation especially in the tasks that make collective life possible, respect especially for elders, hard work, peacefulness, and good humor—all these are as important to today’s Tobians as they were to those who came before—indeed as they are to their fellow citizens of the republic and, come to think of it, to most other people of the world.

Updated: January 29, 2017