Melanesia is a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean and forms, together with Micronesia and Polynesia, one of the three cultural areas of Oceania. Melanesia includes New Guinea, the Torres Strait Islands of northern Australia, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Fiji Islands. The name Melanesia derives from Greek words meaning black islands and refers to the dark complexions of the indigenous inhabitants.
Human beings have inhabited Melanesia for at least 40,000 years, and Melanesians were among the first peoples to develop agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. Scattered islands and rugged terrain led to the formation of small cultural groups, often isolated from each other, and over 1,000 indigenous languages are spoken in the region. Traditional Melanesian society was not based on a system of hereditary chiefs; instead, individuals became politically powerful through their own actions.
Although the coast of New Guinea was reached by the Portuguese possibly as early as 1512, most historians consider the Spanish expedition of Alvaro de Mendaiia (1541-1595) as the first European contact. Mendana reached what he called the Solomon Islands in 1568. Despite naming the islands after a legendary king of great wealth, the Spanish found no gold and consequently the islands held little interest for them. The Dutch arrived later and landed in Fiji and New Guinea in 1643. English explorers, including Captain James Cook (1728-1779), visited the New Guinea area in the 1770s at about the same time the French visited Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
Western colonization did not really begin until the nineteenth century, and even then was limited by the presence of tropical diseases and the resistance of the indigenous population. Missionaries started arriving around 1839, and by the 1850s the Dutch, British, French, and Germans began claiming parts of Melanesia. The Dutch claimed the western half of New Guinea, whereas the eastern half was divided between Germany and Britain. These countries also split the Solomon Islands, with the British taking Fiji as well. France claimed New Caledonia, Vanuatu, then the New Hebrides, which was jointly ruled by Britain and France. Britain later transferred its holdings in New Guinea to Australia, and after Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914-1918), Australia acquired German New Guinea.
European colonialism united disparate ethnic groups under one administration, and imposed European languages, religion, economy, and political systems on top of the indigenous ones. Europeans introduced agricultural plantations using indigenous labor, and some Melanesians were brought to Australia in a form of slavery known as blackbirding. The British also brought laborers from India to Fiji.
Independence came late to Melanesia. Fiji became independent in 1974. The Australian territories in New Guinea became independent as Papua New Guinea in 1975, followed by the independence of the Solomon Islands in 1978 and Vanuatu in 1980. New Caledonia remains a French colony, and the western part of New Guinea is part of independent Indonesia, despite independence movements among the indigenous population. Postcolonial Melanesia has been troubled by ethnic conflicts, such as the recent coups in Fiji and secessionist movements in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands.