Melanesia: Geography, History, Politics and Demography

The Melanesia (In Greek, meaning"black islands") is a region that extends from the western side of the eastern Pacific to the Arafura Sea, north and northeast of Australia. It is made up of 2,000 islands with a total area of ​​about 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers), and houses approximately 12 million people. These islands have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.

The term Melanesia was first used by Jules Dumont d'Urville In 1832 to denote an ethnic and geographic group of islands other than Polynesia and Micronesia. Today d'Urville's racial classification is considered imprecise because it obscures the cultural, linguistic, and genetic diversity of Melanesia.

Melanesia: Geography, History, Politics and Demography

More importantly, this term combines two very distinct groups, the Austronesians and the Papuans. Papuans came to New Guinea about 40,000 years ago in agriculture. The subsequent wave of Austronesians, arrived from Taiwan, introducing ocean voyages.


The term Melanesia can be used in an anthropological or geographical context. In the anthropological context it refers to one of the three regions of Oceania whose pre-colonial population generally belongs to the same ethnocultural family as a result of centuries of maritime migrations.

The geographical conception of Melanesia is used as a reference to the area where political, ethnic and linguistic distinctions are not relevant. The term is also present in geopolitics, under the Preferential Trade Agreement of the Melanesian Spear Group, a regional trade treaty involving the States of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.


The 2,000 islands of Melanesia, with a total area of ​​about 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers), are home to about 12 million people. The climate of Melanesia is tropical humid. The vegetation includes forests and jungles, providing resources, shelter and isolation for the tribes of the interior.

The following islands and groups of islands are traditionally considered part of Melanesia:

  • Bismarck Archipelago
  • Fiji
  • Maluku Islands
  • New Caledonia
  • New Guinea
  • Solomon Islands
  • Torres Strait Islands
  • Vanuatu

Islands of mixed ancestry that do not necessarily self-identify as Melanesians:

  • Nauru
  • Timor
  • flowers
  • Sumba

Some of the islands to the west of New Guinea like Halmahera, Alor and Pantar can also be considered part of Melanesia, although the people in this area do not make use of the term.

He Bismarck archipelago Comprises 200 islands off the coast of northeastern New Guinea and belongs to Papua New Guinea. The archipelago includes mainly volcanic islands, the most important being: the Admiralty Islands, the Duke Islands of York, the Mussau Islands, New Britain, New Hanover Island, New Ireland and the Vitu Islands.

Fiji Consists of 322 islands (of which 110 are inhabited) and also of 522 smaller islets. The two most important islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

New Caledonia Is composed of a main island, Grande Terre and several smaller islands, the Belep archipelago to the north, the islands of loyalty to the east, the island Des Pins to the south, the islands of Chesterfield and the reefs of Bellona to the west.

New Guinea , Located just north of Australia, is the second largest island in the world. The name of Papua has long been associated with the island. The western half of the island contains the Indonesian provinces of Papua and west of Irian Jaya, while the eastern half forms the continent of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.

The Solomon Islands Are to the east of Papua New Guinea, consist of almost 1,000 islands, and cover a land mass of 28,400 square kilometers.

The Maluku Islands (Also known as the"Moluccas") are an archipelago in Indonesia, and part of the larger Malayan archipelago. They are located east of Sulawesi (Celebes), west of New Guinea, and north of Timor.

The Torres Strait Islands Are a group of at least 274 small islands in the Torres Strait. They are part of Queensland, a state of Australia.

Vanuatu Is located about 1,700 kilometers east of Australia, 30 kilometers northeast of New Caledonia, west of Fiji and south of the Solomon Islands. Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands, of which two - Matthew and Hunter Island - are claimed by the French overseas department of New Caledonia.


Melanesia: Geography, History, Politics and Demography 1

Melanesia is a territory that has been inhabited by humans for tens of thousands of years. The first pre-European inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands are believed to have emigrated from the Indonesian archipelago 70,000 years ago when New Guinea was still attached to the Australian mainland.

The first inhabitants of New Guinea arrived about 40,000 years ago, having traveled on the Southeast Asian peninsula. They developed one of the first known farms. A subsequent wave of Australian people from Taiwan, brought ocean navigation skills.

The Maluku Islands have been occupied for 32,000 years, as have the Bismarck and Solomon Islands archipelago, where the Polynesian settlers began to arrive around 4000 BC.

The Lapita people came to New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands around 1500 BC. The Polynesians also arrived in the 11th century. Vanuatu was established in 1300 BC, and Fiji around 1000 BC.

Portuguese and Spanish explorers made contact with the Maluku Islands (then known as the"Islands of Spices"), New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the 16th century. The Dalmatian sailors were the first Europeans to arrive at the archipelago of Bismarck also in Century XVI.

The Portuguese maritime explorer Luis Vaez de Torres Sailed through the Strait of Torres in 1606, and in that year a Spanish expedition became the first to reach Vanuatu. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman Visited Fiji in 1643, and the British explorer James Cook Baptized"New Caledonia"in 1774.

The European colonization of Melanesia accelerated in the late eighteenth century. Vanuatu suffered from"blackbirding"(blackbirding is an English term that defines the conditions close to the slavery that they subjected to settlers of some islands of Melanesia) in which half of the masculine adult population of some of the islands became semi - slaves contracted in Australia.

The Netherlands claimed the western half of New Guinea in 1828. Britain took control of southeastern New Guinea, and Germany claimed northeastern New Guinea (including the Bismarck Archipelago) in 1884.

New Caledonia became a French colony in 1853. Blackbirding prompted the United Kingdom to declare a protectorate over the southern Solomon Islands in 1893.

Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands in 1879. The Fiji Islands passed under British control as a colony in 1874. In 1906, the British government transferred responsibility for its territory in New Guinea to Australia.

The twentieth-century world wars brought about changes in the balance of foreign domination in Melanesia. During World War I, Australian forces seized German New Guinea, including the Bismarck Archipelago, both of which became territories of Australia in 1920.

The Japanese invaded New Guinea and the Australian territories in 1942. The highlands and eastern parts of the island became key battlefields. The Papuans fought alongside the Australian and American troops.

Some of the most intense fighting of World War II also occurred in the Solomon Islands. During World War II, the islands of Efate and Holy Spirit in Vanuatu were used as allied military bases.

During the Japanese occupation of the Maluku Islands, the islanders fled to the mountains and began a resistance campaign known as the South Moluccan Brigade. In 1942, the Japanese bombed neighboring Horn Island, which had an air base used by the Allies to attack parts of New Guinea.

Independence became a major theme throughout Melanesia after the war ended in 1945. Political leaders from the Maluku and Dutch New Guinea Islands discussed their independence with the Netherlands, but both regions came under Indonesian control.

Fiji became independent in 1970. Australia granted full independence to Papua New Guinea on 16 September 1975. On 2 January 1976, the Solomon Islands self-governed, and two years later became independent. Vanuatu achieved its sovereignty on July 30, 1980. Torres Strait Islanders became citizens of Queensland in 1967 with full access to Australian health services and social services and with the freedom to travel and work in Australia.

The struggles for independence continued in those Melanesian countries that remained under foreign control. Governments formed in the Solomon Islands since independence have not improved the country. The Democratic government was interrupted in Fiji by two coups d'état in 1987, caused by the refusal to have a government dominated by the Indo-Fijian community and a new coup occurred in the year 2000.

There has been intermittent ethnic and nationalist violence on the Maluku Islands and acts of terrorism by members of the Maluku Selatan Republic government in exile in the Netherlands since then.

The most striking discovery in Papua New Guinea took place on August 4, 1938, when Richard Archbold discovered the Great Valley of the Balim River, which had 50,000 Stone Age farmers living in orderly villages. The village, known as Dani, was the last ethnic group of its size to make contact with the Western world.


Fiji's policy takes place within the framework of a representative parliamentary democratic republic, in which the Prime Minister of Fiji is the head of government and a multi-party system.

New Caledonia has a political status that lies between that of an independent country and an overseas"department"of France. The western half of the island of New Guinea is made up of two provinces of Indonesia, Papua and West Irian Jaya, and is therefore part of the Republic of Indonesia.

The eastern part of the island, Papua New Guinea, which includes the Bismarck Archipelago, is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Queen Elizabeth II Of the United Kingdom is head of state, represented by a governor general. The executive power rests with the Prime Minister, who heads the cabinet. The unicameral national parliament has 109 seats.

The Maluku Islands, as of 2006, were divided into two provinces of Indonesia, Maluku and North Maluku.

The Torres Strait Islands are part of Australia and are governed by the Torres Strait Regional Authority.

Vanuatu has a Republican political system headed by a president. The Prime Minister, elected by Parliament, appoints a Council of Ministers to form the executive. The Vanuatu Parliament is unicameral, and has 52 members. The National Council of Heads focuses on cultural and language issues.


Melanesia consists of 2,000 islands and 12 million people who practice a variety of subsistence economies. Subsistence is the main feature of the Melanesian economies.

Fiji, endowed with forest, mineral and fish resources, has one of the most developed economies, although it still has a large subsistence sector. Fiji experienced a period of rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s but stagnated in the early 1980s.

New Caledonia has about 25% of the world's nickel, mostly extracted from open pit mines. They only have a small amount of land suitable for cultivation, and food accounts for about 20 percent of imports. Substantial financial support from France and tourism are key to the health of its economy.

Papua New Guinea is endowed with numerous natural resources, but exploitation has been hampered by rugged terrain, the high cost of infrastructure development, serious public order problems and difficulties with the title of the land. Agriculture is a means of subsistence for 85% of the population.

Pearling is an important source of income for Maluku Island in Aru. The Solomon Islands are a less developed nation, and more than 75% of their labor force is devoted to subsistence farming and fishing.

Fishing is the main economic activity in the islands of the Torres Strait, in particular the fishing of prawns, lobsters and Spanish mackerel, together with subsistence horticulture.

Vanuatu's economy is based on small-scale agriculture, which provides a livelihood for 65% of the population. Fisheries, extraterritorial financial services and tourism are other pillars of its economy. Mineral deposits are insignificant. The country has no known oil deposits.


Melanesia: Geography, History, Politics and Demography 2

It is probable that the original inhabitants of Melanesia have been the ancestors of the present inhabitants who are developed in the papua language. They are dark-skinned people, tall, with pronounced features.

It is believed that these people occupied New Guinea tens of thousands of years ago and have inhabited the islands of Melanesia for about 35,000 years (according to radiocarbon dating of artifacts found).

It is along the north coast of New Guinea and in the islands to the north and east of New Guinea that the Australian people came into contact with these pre-existing populations of the Papua speaking peoples, probably about 4,000 years ago.

There seems to have been a long period of interaction that resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture. It is probably from this area that a very small group of people set off east to become the original Polynesian people.

Most Melanesians belong to a Christian church. However, many people combine their Christian faith with some traditional pre-Christian Indian practices. In Fiji, Fijian natives are Christians and Indo-Fijians, mostly Hindus and Muslims.

The dense jungle allowed the tribes to remain isolated from each other. This gave rise to a much greater diversity of languages ​​and culture. There are hundreds of languages ​​and even dialects spoken throughout Melanesia.

Fiji has three official languages: English, which was introduced by former British colonial rulers, Fijian Bau, spoken by ethnic Fijians, and Indostaní, the main language spoken by Indo-Fijians. English is the main means of communication. Bau Fijian belongs to the Austronesian language family.

In New Caledonia, French is the official language, while an estimated 27 kanak languages, belonging to the oceanic sub-branch of the Austronesian languages, coexist.

There are three official languages ​​for Papua New Guinea, as well as more than 700 non-Australian (or Papuan) indigenous languages. 10% of the world's total languages ​​are spoken in Papua New Guinea.

In New Guinea there are more than three hundred languages ​​and two hundred additional dialects.

There are 74 languages ​​in the Solomon Islands, four of them extinct. While English is the official language, only 1 or 2% of the population speaks it, and the predominant language is Solomon Pijin or pijin.

In Vanuatu, English, French and Bislama (Creole language that evolved from English) are the three official languages, while there also speak more than one hundred local languages. The density of languages ​​per capita is the highest of any nation in the world (with an average of only two thousand speakers per language).

Although English is the official language of the Torres Strait Islands, there are two indigenous languages. The language of the western and central islands is a language member of the Pama-Nyungan language family, which covers most of Australia, while the eastern language of the Torres Strait is Meriam Mìr, related to the languages ​​of the coast Near Papua New Guinea.

Society and Culture

People in Melanesian countries often speak of the"Melanesian form,"a distinctive set of cultural values ​​and behavior. The Melanesians used the bow and arrow in hunting and fighting and practiced the hunting of the head as a tradition of stealthy assault to ensure the test of manhood.

Tattooing is practiced throughout Oceania, but scarification, or elevation of large scars or keloids as marks of age or social status.


In many places in Melanesia, an ancient social system, based on the matrilineal system, has changed to a patrilineal system. A combination of these two forms of social organization often exists.

In New Guinea, the basic house of the village consists of a husband, wife, single children and perhaps the husband's parents.

Extended families live in adjacent houses, meeting frequently for meals, company, work parties and ceremonies. Men's homes are no longer common, although young people can live with other singles.

The Torres Strait Islanders maintain a great respect for the elders. Families provide the framework within which kinship obligations are fulfilled and the distribution of resources is guaranteed. The family is also the source of emotional and spiritual support.


New Guinea is known in the popular imagination for rituals of cannibalism that were practiced by some ethnic groups. The Korowai and Kombai villages of southeastern New Guinea are two of the last surviving tribes in the world that are said to have participated in cannibalism in the recent past.

In the area of ​​Asmat, in the southwest of Papua, may have occurred until the early seventies. In a 2006 episode of the BBC documentary series, a man from Kombai recounts his involvement in cannibal rituals.

In 1963, a missionary named Tom Bozeman described the Dani tribe celebrating the death of an enemy killed in battle. According to Jared Diamond, cannibalism may have arisen in New Guinea due to the shortage of protein sources.

Traditional crops are low in protein compared to wheat and legumes, and the only edible animals available were small or unappetizing, such as mice, spiders and frogs.

Cannibalism led to the spread of Kuru's disease, which affects the brain, being a pathology similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This led the Australian administration to outlaw the practice of cannibalism in 1959.


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