Traces of human settlements on Saipan have been found by archaeologists ranging over 4,000 years, including ancient Latte Stones, and other artifacts pointing to cultural affinities with Melanesia and with similar stone monuments in Micronesia and Palau.
Spanish colonial period
Saipan was discovered by Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa in 1521 on board of Spanish ship Trinidad, that he commanded after the death of Ferdinand Magellan. The Spanish formally occupied the island in 1668, with the missionary expedition of Diego Luis de San Vitores who named it San José. From 1670, it became a port of call for Spanish and occasional English, Dutch and French ships as a supply station for food and water. The native population shrank dramatically due to European-introduced diseases and conflicts over land and the survivors were forcibly relocated to Guam in 1720 for better control and assimilation. Under Spanish rule, the island was developed into ranches for raising cattle and pigs, which were used to provision Spanish galleons on their way to Mexico.
Around 1815, many Carolinians from Satawal settled Saipan during a period when the Chamorros were imprisoned on Guam, which resulted in a significant loss of land and rights for the Chamorro natives.
German colonial period
After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Saipan was occupied by the United States. However, it was then sold by Spain to the German Empire in 1899. The island was administered by Germany as part of German New Guinea, but during the German period, there was no attempt to develop or settle the island, which remained under the control of its Spanish and mestizo landowners.
Japanese colonial period
In 1914, during World War I, the island was captured by the Empire of Japan, which was awarded formal control in 1918 by the League of Nations as part of the South Pacific Mandate. Militarily and economically, Saipan was one of the most important islands in the South Pacific Mandate and became the center of subsequent Japanese settlement. Immigration began in the 1920s by ethnic Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Okinawans, who developed large-scale sugar plantations. The Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha built sugar refineries, and under Japanese rule, extensive infrastructure development occurred, including the construction of port facilities, waterworks, power stations, paved roads and schools, along with entertainment facilities and Shinto shrines. By October 1943, Saipan had a civilian population of 29,348 Japanese settlers and 3,926 Chamorro and Caroline Islanders.
World War II
Japan considered Saipan as part of the last line of defenses for the Japanese homeland, and thus had strongly committed to defending it. The Imperial Japanese Army and imperial Japanese Navy garrisoned Saipan heavily from the late 1930s, building numerous coastal artillery batteries, shore defenses, underground fortifications and an airstrip. In mid-1944, nearly 30,000 troops were based on the island.
A Marine finds a woman and her four children hiding in a hillside cave. 21 June 1944
The Battle of Saipan from 15 June to 9 July 1944 was one of the major campaigns of World War II. The United States Marines and United States Army landed on the beaches of the southwestern side of the island, and spent more than three weeks in heavy fighting to secure the island from the Japanese. The battle cost the Americans 3,426 killed and 10,364 wounded, whereas of the estimated 30,000 Japanese defenders, only 921 were taken prisoner. Weapons and the tactics of close quarter fighting also resulted in high civilian casualties. Some 20,000 Japanese civilians perished during the battle, including over 1,000 who committed suicide by jumping from “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff” rather than be taken prisoner.
The local civilian population of Chamorro and Carolinian tribes largely fought on the side of the Japanese forces.
Seabees of the U.S. Navy also landed to participate in construction projects. With the capture of Saipan, the American military was now only 1,300 miles away from the Japanese home islands, which placed most Japanese cities within striking distance of United States’ B-29 Superfortress bombers. The loss of Saipan was a heavy blow to both the military and civilian administration of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō, who was forced to resign.
This history is also interpreted on Saipan at American Memorial Park and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Museum of History and Culture. After the war, nearly all of the surviving Japanese settlers were repatriated to Japan.
After the end of World War II, Saipan became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States. The island continued to be dominated by the United States military. Since 1978, the island has been a municipality of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands . The military presence began to be replaced by tourism in the 1990s, but still plays an important role in the local economy.