From eastern Indonesia to Fiji, the region of Melanesia forms a large slice of the Pacific Ocean. This was where human settlement of the Pacific began.
The name Melanesia is one of three Western inventions that describe the inhabited regions of the Pacific, the others being Polynesia and Micronesia. The boundaries of these regions can be blurred whenever their use for ethno-cultural segmentation is set alongside their geographical meanings. The terms are commonly applied when the islands of the globe’s largest ocean and its people are broadly categorised, and some understanding of them is useful.
Melanesia extends westward of Polynesia to take in the area occupied by Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, New Guinea and, technically speaking at least, Timor Leste. Southward the geographical definition of Melanesia includes Norfolk Island, bringing the region’s boundary close to New Zealand, southwestern point on the Polynesian triangle. To Melanesia’s north lie the small islands and coral atolls of Micronesia.
Earliest Settlement of Melanesia
The Melanesians came out of Africa via Asia in the wave of global settlement, forebears of the people who would make vast ocean passages to inhabit Polynesia. That is not to say settlement of Melanesia’s own small islands was a routine matter. There is evidence of human habitation on New Guinea dating to 50,000 years ago, but it took until around 1000BC for all the islands of Fiji to be settled.
As the inhabitants of the Southeastern Asia land masses reached eastward, they set the scene for the long canoe journeys across the Pacific that were to come. Off the northeast coast of New Guinea lie the places where people first began to island-hop the Pacific around 33,000 years ago. Little is known about what happened next, until the Lapita people and their culture emerged.
The Eastward Journey to Polynesia
The earliest firm evidence of the trend in eastward migration shows up in Lapita pottery, dating back to around 1500BC on the Bismark Archipelago. The ‘Lapita culture complex’ as it is known became a significant marker in the reconstruction of Pacific habitation. From those offshore islands of today’s Papua New Guinea the early voyagers made speedy progress. Lapita artifacts show that they had conquered Melanesia and reached as far as Samoa, deep into Polynesia, in the space of some 500 years.
Colonisation came to Melanesia as it did elsewhere in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands were German territory for a time, before coming under British jurisdiction. Germany also annexed north eastern New Guinea, but lost its territorial possessions in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. When Britain showed no interest in New Caledonia after Captain James Cook discovered and named it in 1774, France stepped in, doing likewise in Vanuatu, called by Cook the New Hebrides. Britain secured Fiji, an important source of sugar, and Norfolk Island, used as a penal colony.
Since the colonial era, independence has come to most of Melanesia, but there are exceptions. New Caledonia remains an outpost of France, while Norfolk Island is a part of Australia.
Images of Melanesia
To much of the outside world Melanesia is a place of mystery, a place where primitive rituals and customs persist despite the impact of colonisation, proselytising and commercial exploitation. Anthropologists have studied the region in detail, documenting its superstitions, religious practices, customs and traditions. The Western construct of Melanesia is of a primitive people, much of the stereotype formed as a result of early anthropological reporting and perceptions gathered when the region was a major theatre of World War II.
Conflict has long been a part of Melanesian life, nowhere more so than in the numerous tribal structures of the New Guinea highlands. In modern times, colonisation and commercialism have played their part in increasing ethnic and internecine tensions to the point where politics have turned nasty and violence has erupted. The people of the Solomon Islands and Bougainville have endured open warfare during their recent histories, while political mayhem in Fiji has seen the country expelled from the Commonwealth.
On the other hand, many islands in Melanesia, places including Vanuatu and New Caledonia, have become popular tourist destinations. Australians and New Zealanders continue to visit Fiji for their winter break despite the periodic unrest there.
Melanesian culture forms a large part of the tourism enterprise. On Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island, each year during the yam harvest visitors can observe the death-defying precursor to the commercial bungee jump. Remote places that have fascinated Western scientists for decades, the Tobriand Islands for instance, are now on the Lonely Planet map as places that welcome outsiders.