FROM being a sleepy island with only a giant military base and American flags to distinguish it from plenty similar-sized Pacific islands, Guam has suddenly become the centre of world attention, thanks to two men with giant egos and bad haircuts.

Kim Jong-un’s threat to fire four missiles towards Guam — the nearest American territory to North Korea — and Donald Trump’s belligerence towards the Pyongyang regime have brought the possibility of war, and nuclear war at that, closer than most sensible people would like.

Guam is an island of 210 sq m (554 sq km) in area with a population of 163,000, slightly more than the population of Dundee. Its capital is Hagåtña and its largest city is Dededo.

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Guam’s blessing, and its problem, is that it occupies a striking strategic location in the Pacific as the southernmost island of the Marianas between the Philippine Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. It is 2000 miles from North Korea’s missile bases, around 4000 miles from Pearl Harbor on Hawaii, and about 1600 miles south of Japan. It is the largest island of Micronesia, the group of islands that lie between the Philippines, Japan, New Guinea, and Hawaii.

Draw a line between North Korea and Guam and it will cross over Hiroshima, the Japanese city that was turned into a fireball by the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.

READ a history book and it will say Ferdinand Magellan during his epic almost-round-the-world tour in 1521. Magellan, a Portuguese captain in the service of Spain, was the first European to find Guam, doing so just a few weeks before he was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.

The Chamorro people beat Magellan to Guam by around 3500 years. They are believed to have migrated from South-East Asia around 2000 BCE, and occupied Guam and the North Mariana islands — their distinct Chamorro language is still spoken in these two locations, though the number of speakers has plummeted.

After Magellan arrived on Guam, the inhabitants showed what they thought of the incomers by raiding their ships, and that’s possibly why the island was not officially claimed by Spain until 1565, after which the island became an important staging post on the trans-Pacific route between Manila in the Philippines and Mexico.

IT took another century for Spain to really colonise the island. Forts were built and the local people were converted to Christianity, mostly by Jesuit missionaries. The conversions did not always stick — two missionaries were killed by rebellious locals, and the war between the occupiers and the natives went on for 25 years. Diseases which the Spanish brought with them killed many more natives — the indigenous population is estimated to have fallen by 60 per cent or more.

From the late 17th century onwards, Guam was governed as part of the Spanish East Indies with the Philippines being the centre of Spanish power in the region.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the island suffered natural and man-made disasters such as a smallpox epidemic which killed 3700 people in 1856. More people were needed and immigrants from the Caroline Islands and Japan were allowed to settle on Guam, but the Spanish-Mexican domination of the island continued until very near the end of the 19th century.

THE island is officially an unincorporated territory of the USA and all Guamanians, as the inhabitants are called, are American citizens by birth — perhaps ironically, given the current president’s role in the island’s present problems, they cannot vote in a presidential election.

In 1898, the Spanish-American war the US forces captured Guam which was ceded to the Americans by the Treat of Paris, along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Most of the war centred on the Caribbean, and when the US forces arrived in Guam, the Spanish Governor surrendered immediately and the invaders found precisely one US citizen on Guam.

America invested heavily in the island, and it was one of the first targets for the Japanese Empire when they occupied the Marianas during World War II.

The Americans retook Guam after a fierce battle in 1944, and strengthened its military installations such as Apra Harbor with Guam playing a vital role in the Vietnam War.

English and Chamorro are the official languages, and the Chamorro people are still the largest ethnic group on Guam, which has been agitating for greater autonomy for many years. The economy, however, still depends on the American bases — it has Andersen Air Force base as well as the naval base and NASA tracking station — and tourism, with the island’s beaches rated among the best in the world.

The island’s Governor Eddie Calvo summed up the feelings of its local residents by saying that “Guam is American soil and “we are not just a military installation.”