Discovery of the Bonin Islands is attributed to the Spanish explorer Villalobos in 1543. Spain, however, never pushed her claims, although the islands lay along the route of the galleons between the Philippines and Mexico. The Japanese colonized the islands in the nineteenth century, claiming ownership on the traditional discovery by Daimyo Ogasawara Sadayori in 1593. He is credited with holding the islands as a fief from the Emperor of Japan, and of founding a colony that continued until 1624. Apparently the islands were then forgotten, as they were noted as a new discovery when visited by a Japanese ship blown off its course in 1675. The name "Bonins" is believed to be derived from "Bunin-shima," applied by the storm-driven sailors to denote the island's lack of population.
The islands first acquired importance during the Pacific whaling period. Claims of sovereignty were made for several countries by visiting ship captains, but none of these was followed through, until the British consul in Honolulu sent out a party of colonists in 1830. Settlement was made at Port Lloyd (Omura) on Peel Island ( Chichishima). The group included two Americans, one of whom, Nathaniel Savory, became the recognized leader, and was elected governor after the death of the appointed British representative. Perry visited the islands in 1853, made proposals for the establishment of a coaling station, and delegated one of his officers to proclaim formally the sovereignty of the United States over Haha-jima. Both these actions drew protests from the British government. However, neither government protested in 1861 when the Japanese established a hundred colonists across the bay from Port Lloyd. This venture failed within 15 months for lack of suitable land for rice cultivation. In 1875 Japan, after an official visit by government representatives, announced ownership of the islands, and both the United States and Great Britain acceded the claim. Further settlement was restricted to Japanese immigrants, and the early colonists were soon outnumbered. Because of their checkered history of discovery and settlement, all the islands have English and American as well as Japanese names.
The chain, extending over a distance of 85 miles, is made up of three island clusters, Mukoshima-rettŌ ( Parry Group) ChichishimarettŌ ( Beechey Group), and Hahajima-rettŌ ( Bailey Group), each occupying the central portion of a submarine ridge. All the Bonin Islands are irregular in shape, with cliffed shores, abrupt slopes, and few areas of level land. Beaches occur only at the head of coves. Altogether there are ninety-seven islands and islets in the chain, but their total area is less than 30 square miles. Early descriptions of the Bonin Islands report luxuriant tropical vegetation from water's edge to the highest peaks. Most of the timber trees have been cut, and the remaining woodland, about 50 per cent of the island area, is scrubby and thicket-like owing to thin soils and strong winds. Predominant trees are palms and pandanus, which grow up to an elevation of 650 feet. Tall grass covers the ridges and steep slopes, and the tree growth reaches its most vigorous development in the sheltered and more fertile valleys. Most of the streams are intermittent. The underlyink rocks are andesitic lavas, tuffs, and agglomerates capped with coral limestone.
The early settlers traded with the whalers, exchanging vegetables and fruits for whatever manufactured goods the ships might have to offer. Although money was sometimes accepted, it had no local use. Under the Japanese, sugar, truck, and fruit production were developed on a commercial basis, but these industries were declining because of competition with more favored areas. Only 11 per cent of the area is arable. Farms were small, averaging about 6½ acres, and they were often broken into scattered irregular plots adjusted to the contours. There was some dispersed settlement along the coastal roads, in the valleys, and at clearings in the forest, but most of the farmers lived in the villages. Approximately 60 per cent of the farmers were tenants brought in by development companies. Fishing was the major industry, supplying an export as well as an important item in the local diet. Salted whale, dried, salted, and canned tuna and bonita made up the greater part of the export that also included dried seaweed and canned turtle and oysters.