Lesson 4: The Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands is a group of about a thousand volcanic islands and atolls that covers an area of 11,000 square miles in the sea just east of Papua New Guinea.

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Melanesians are believed to have inhabited the Solomon islands for several thousand years, living independently until initial Spanish settlement in the late mid-1500s led, slowly, to visits by British Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s. Once the British established a formal political presence and declared the southern Solomons a protectorate in 1893 the missionaries had much more success converting the population to Christianity. Solomon Islanders, some already scarred as victims of “blackbirding” as described above, (the following link is primarily for grown-ups) didn’t all welcome missionaries and colonial authorities with open arms. Still, many islanders did convert to Christianity and British and Australian firms welcomed them with open arms…at least as low wage workers on coconut plantations.

The Solomon Islands were still firmly under British colonial control in the 1942 when the Japanese, still inspired by their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, began to establish themselves on the Solomon Islands’ most populous island, Guadalcanal. Americans expelled the Japanese but the Japanese fought back; the Battle of Guadalcanal lasted for an incredibly bloody six months. After securing Guadalcanal the Allies used it as an essential base in their continued war against Japan.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945 the British regained control and established Honiara as the capital of The Solomon Islands. Not only was economic reconstruction after the War slow, but the introduction of Western machinery and, frankly, Westerners themselves was a severe shock to many Solomon Islanders. The British became less determined to keep the islands and eventually granted them independence in 1978. The Solomon Islands chose to remain a member of the British Commonwealth with the British monarch as formal head of state.

But all was not well. Honiara was home to many ethnic Malaitans and immigrants from other islands. In 1998 Istabu militants (the prime ethnic group in Guadalcanal) attacked Malaitan settlers, accusing them of taking Istabu jobs. The Malaita Eagle Force rose in response, and soon enough there was a full-fledged war between the Eagle Force and the Istabus that ultimately resulted in a Malaitan-led coup. Though the term is generally agreed to be an oversimplification, many in The Solomon Islands refer to the war as “the ethnic conflict.” In 2003 the Solomons’ parliament approved international intervention by other Pacific powers (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea) and there has since been an uneasy peace. In 2009 South African Bishop Desmond Tutu helped set up an island Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help citizens address the most difficult days.

Are those difficult days in the past, or is there more trouble to come? Though the ethnic fighting has calmed, the peace is still uncertain and new. The Solomon Islands is currently one of the poorest nations in the Pacific; 75% of Solomon Islanders are subsistence farmers or fish to feed their families. The government continues to sputter; allegations of corruption keep leading to coups. To add insult to injury, in 2007 there was a major earthquake and a large tsunami. Still the Solomon Island tourist bureau beckons: “Enjoy your piece of paradise…,” calls their website. “We may be worlds apart, but only hours away.”

More information:

Wikipedia on The Solomon Islands | Everyculture’s Solomon Islands overview | HistoryLearningSite.co.uk’s narrative of the Battle of Guadalcanal | (some grownups-only content here) The Solomon Islands has a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address unsavory episodes in its not-too-distant past.

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