Some of the islands were visited by Spanish explorers in the early 16th cent. They are named after a British captain who visited in 1788. Much mapping was done on Russian expeditions under Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1803) and Otto von Kotzebue (1815 and 1823). Germany annexed the group in 1885 and tried with little success to establish a colony. Administrative affairs continued to be managed largely by private German and Australian interests. In 1914, Japan seized the Marshalls and in 1920 received a League of Nations mandate over them.
In World War II the islands were taken by U.S. forces (1943–44); they were included in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1947. After the war both Enewetak and Bikini atolls were used as U.S. nuclear weapons test sites. In 1983, the United States gave $183.7 million to the Marshalls for damages from the tests. A nuclear claims tribunal established (1988) by the Marshalls subsequently recognized more than $2 billion in compensation claims; islanders sued (2006) in U.S. court to force the United States to pay the unfunded awards but were unsuccessful.
The Marshalls became (1979) self-governing under U.S. military protection and achieved free-association status in 1986. The first president, Amata Kabua, died in Dec., 1996. Imata Kabua was elected to succeed him in Jan., 1997. Kabua was succeeded in Jan., 2000, by Kessai H. Note, who began a second term in 2004. An amended compact of free association, extending the defense relationship with the United States and the lease on the U.S. base on Kwajalein, was signed in 2003 and took effect in 2004. The legislative lections in 2007 were marked by controversy, but an opposition coalition came to power and Litokwa Tomeing was elected president in 2008. Tomeing was ousted by a no-confidence vote in Oct., 2009; Jurelang Zedkaia, speaker of the Nitijela, was elected to succeed him. After the legislative elections in 2011, Christopher Loeak was elected (2012) president.