Map of Melanesia

Quick facts

Pronunciation: mel-uh-NEE-zhuns
Alternate Names: Papuans
Location: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia (Irian Jaya), Vanuatu (the former New Hebrides), New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and some smaller neighboring islands
Population: 9,732,390 (2016 est., United Nations)
Languages: English; Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu (Papua New Guinea); Bislama (Vanuatu); Solomon Islands Pidgin English (Solomon Islands); Bahasa Indonesia (Irian Jaya); other native languages
Religion: Christianity; some native religions

The vast Pacific Ocean is dotted with numerous islands of various size, shape, topography, climate and resources. Over thousands of years, a diverse array of peoples and cultures have evolved, sharing with each other an ability to adapt to and survive the environmental conditions and challenges unique to life in the islands.

When Europeans began sailing across the Pacific in search of new trade routes with Asia, they encountered many of these island societies. They used the broad terms “Micronesia,” “Melanesia” and “Polynesia” to demarcate island groups which seemed to share some physical or cultural similarities. The similarities, however, were largely superficial.

Melanesia, literally, the “dark islands” is the most culturally diverse of the three Pacific island regions. Individuals run the spectrum of body type and skin color, while social organization can be simple to chiefly hierarchies. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect about Melanesia is the wide diversity of languages spoken among groups of people living relatively close to each other. While some generalizations can be made, the languages of Melanesia are unique and some may be spoken by only a small number of people. Contact with westerners and each other, however, have allowed for the emergence of pidgins and creoles that allow these diverse groups to communicate with each other at a national level. The introduction of Christianity and colonialist regimes by foreign powers such as Holland, Great Britain, Germany, France and Japan have led to great social, political and economic transformations that continue to challenge the people of Melanesia today.

Physical geology

The region of Melanesia in the South Pacific is comprised of over 2,000 islands with a total land area of about 386,000 sq mi (1,000,000 sq km). It is bounded by the Arafura Sea to the west, Australia and the Coral Sea to the south; the equator, which separates Melanesia from the Micronesian islands of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia to the north; and the Andesite Line, an area of volcanic activity which separates the region from Polynesia and the islands of Tuvalu, Tonga and Samoa to the east.

There are four island nations in Melanesia: Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Also included are the French collectivity of New Caledonia, and the Indonesian provinces of Irian Jaya (West Papua) and the Maluku Islands (Moluccas/Spice Islands). The distance between island New Guinea to the west and the Fiji islands to the east spreads about 3,500 miles (5,600 km).

There are also smaller chains of islands associated with the different countries, including the Lousiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago of PNG and the Solomon Islands, and the Santa Cruz Islands which are part of the Solomons. The Loyalty Islands are part of New Caledonia, and the Lau Islands, along with Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, are part of Fiji. Other islands included in Melanesia are the Amphlette Islands and d’Entrecasteaux Islands (PNG), the Raja Ampat Islands, Rotuma (Fiji), Torres Strait Islands, and the Trobiand Islands.

The topography of the various islands of Melanesia is diverse, ranging from low atolls to high islands. The island of New Guinea, in fact, is the second largest island in the world and has tall mountainous regions as well as rich coastal areas. For much of Melanesia, the climate is mostly humid and tropical with seasonal winds and rains. There also is a lot of volcanic and seismic activity, and the islands are susceptible to occasional earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Populating Melanesia

Of the three culture areas of the Pacific, Melanesia is believed to be the earliest settled by humans. Although archeological evidence indicates some of the islands in Melanesia have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, little was known about the people and cultures of the region until the last century. The Torres Strait Islands near Australia, for example, are believed to have been one of the earliest inhabited places with people migrating there some 70,000 years ago when New Guinea was still part of the Australian continent. New Guinea probably was first populated around 40,000 years ago with people moving there from southeast Asia. These early Melanesian peoples were followed years later by a wave of Austronesian-speaking people who brought a sophisticated knowledge of ocean voyaging. The people, now recognized as part of the Lapita cultural complex, arrived in New Caledonia and the Loyalty islands around 1500 BCE, and Vanuatu was settled around 1300 BCE and Fiji by 1000 BCE.

The biggest challenge for describing Melanesian pre-history is understanding how so many different languages were able to evolve among the Melanesian islanders. Initially, scholars proposed that perhaps there were multiple migrations into Melanesia that resulted in a mixed race of peoples and cultures as each ethnic group jockeyed for position in their new home islands. However, it seems more likely that rather than any mass migrations, there was more of a “filtering” of people into the area in at least two stages from the southwest Pacific. The people that would eventually be known as Papuan-speaking arrived first, distantly related to each other but not Austronesian. The descendants of these people today live in the New Guinea Highlands and in parts of the Solomon Islands. Their languages and distribution implies that they were part of the oldest populations in New Guinea, dating back at least 25,000 years, maybe even twice as long before that.

The Austronesian-speaking Melanesians are believed to have arrived in the second stage, migrating in small groups over an extended period of time. It is not clear where exactly they originated from, but they had pottery technology that went as far back as 4,000 years ago. Still, these Melanesian migrations may go back even further than that, maybe one or two thousand years earlier.

Traditional Melanesian society

While languages in Melanesia are diverse, so is “Melanesian culture.” Of the hundreds of different groups that occupy the region, there is a wide variety of cultural practices, including social relations; the structure of descent units and acquiring social power; the emphasis placed on differences in sex and age; ritual ceremonies and rites of passage; and artistic expression. What follows, though, are some generalizations about Melanesian cultures that necessarily leaves out more of the unique, specific variations that can be found within the region today.

In the distant past, Melanesia was the site of encounter between two distinct cultural traditions: Papuan and Austronesian. As mentioned above, the ancestral Papuans were the first to settle this region. They were a hunter-gatherer culture, adapted to life in the tropical rainforests of what would become New Guinea. They spoke languages categorized today as Papuan, domesticated root crops like yams (Diascorea species), taro (Colocasia esculenta) and sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and eventually domesticated pigs. The Austronesian peoples arrived later from Southeast Asia, traveling in ocean-voyaging canoes, and occupied parts of the islands now known as the Bismarck Archipelago. These people were of the Lapita culture, marked by distinctive pottery, shell jewelry and seafaring technology. They settled in the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia before moving further east to eastern Micronesia and Polynesia. A mixing of people and cultures likely took place among some of the groups of Papuans and Austronesians. While the collective term “Melanesian” is used today to distinguish the descendants of these people from other Pacific Islanders, it belies the breadth of cultural diversity that exists in this region, or the complexity of the similarities between cultures in Melanesia with those of Polynesia and Micronesia.

Unlike Micronesian and Polynesian societies, except for a few groups, Melanesians in general were not seafarers. Most people were organized and stayed within the limits of their village territories. Their suspicion of foreigners and hostile reputation made this area of the Pacific the least visited by westerners for many years. In fact, some of the groups in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, for example, did not come in contact with any westerners until the early 20th century.

Most Melanesian societies supported themselves by horticulture and cultivated gardens or raised pigs. Only a few communities, however, were seafarers, such as the Trobriand Islanders, known for the ceremonial Kula ring exchange network. (The kula ring allowed for the exchange of prestige goods among participants who traveled hundreds of miles by canoe in a circular route around the various participating communities of the Massim archipelago.) Coastal communities tended to live in larger, more permanent settlements, while smaller, shifting settlements were more characteristic of interior communities. In Papua New Guinea along the Sepik River area, large villages with over 1000 people of descent-based local groups could be found; in places like Malaita in the Solomon islands, smaller villages of maybe 200 people packed on coral platforms in lagoons were more typical.

Although at the time of European contact, there were some Melanesian societies that had chiefs, Melanesian societies in general were largely egalitarian, and did not have pronounced hierarchies of social status and chiefly titles. Instead, certain men became rich and powerful by their hard work, intelligence, political marriages, and their recognized skills and ability to produce food and share with others, especially through large feasts. These “Big Men” acquired their social status and did not inherit it. They competed with each other and had to continuously defend their position until they retired, died or were replaced by another more successful or ambitious individual.

Because Big Men were influential rather than politically powerful, the dominant social organization among Melanesian societies was based on maintaining small communities of related families. In some societies, households consisted of a husband and wife, their unmarried children and sometimes the husband’s parents. More often, though, men and women were separated, with women and children living in domestic dwellings and men living in clubhouses. Large clubhouses could be found, for example, among the Sepik River area and the southern coast of PNG. Extended families lived in adjacent homes and came together frequently for meetings, ceremonies and feasts. Marriage outside with neighboring communities helped to minimize warfare, but quarrels and raiding were common and often led to war over grievances, rather than for territory or for blood.

Families or individuals controlled gardens and cultivated trees while kin groups held title to the land, which was passed on to descendants. Inheritance could either be through the male line (patrilineal descent), the female line (matrilineal descent) or a combination of both. Patrilineal descent was more common in northern Vanuatu, New Caledonia and lowland New Guinea, while matrilineal descent was seen in communities in the Massim, Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands, with some variations. Intermarriage was important in maintaining connections between descent or kin-groups, or creating alliances with enemies. Bride wealth usually consisted of pigs or other valuables and services to compensate a family’s loss of a female laborer. In some societies, such as in the Trobiand Islands, some men had more than one wife, a practice known as polygyny.

Gender relations among some Melanesian societies followed strict protocols when it came to separation and interaction between the sexes. Bodily fluids were considered powerful and care was taken in their disposal. Gender roles were more complementary than conflicting, with women engaged in domestic activities of child care and planting, while men, for example in the Highlands, were focused on acquiring prestige and power through exchange, marriages and mobilization of other men for warfare or hunting. Women in general had lower status than men, but in some societies, women had considerable ritual power as healers, elders and ancestors.

Melanesian religion lacked the pantheon of gods seen in Polynesian religion, but was steeped deep with beliefs in powerful spirits and ghosts that could inflict evil and harm the living. Religious rites and ceremonies were primarily designed to appease spirits and deflect evil in order to promote more favorable outcomes for specific human activities, such as hunting, fishing or growing food. People also believed in the power of magic and sorcery. Although there were no priests in Melanesian religion, men suspected of being sorcerers were greatly feared. The notion of mana, or power, and tapu (tabu/taboo), or sacred, are concepts that share similarities to Polynesian notions of similar name.

Warfare was common among Melanesian peoples, sometimes with large scale confrontations involving many warriors. Deaths could be substantial with the victors displacing the losers. Headhunting was known to take place in areas like Southern New Guinea among the Asmat and Maring-anim, and the Western Solomon Islands. Ritual cannibalism was practiced among certain Melanesian groups such as a few communities in New Guinea and New Caledonia, but was not practiced by everyone. Sorcery and magic were often used to defeat enemies or secure vengeance between feuding parties.

Regarding trade, the eastern end of New Guinea had particularly elaborate exchange systems, trading pottery or canoe timber and greenstone blades, as well as wood carvings such as platters or canoe prow boards. Trade was also important between the coastal and the interior regions for the exchange of salt, shell and other objects with forest products.

The Europeans at the islands of Melanesia for their great diverse ecology, with an abundance of plants and animals not seen elsewhere in the world. However, life was hard and generally, short-lived. Without centralized political units and the feeling of suspicion of other groups, many of the populations within Melanesia were isolated, and anthropologists find it reasonable that so many cultures and languages, each with their own characteristics and idiosyncrasies, would have evolved over time. Indeed more than 1,200 different Melanesian languages exist today, and most of them are part of the Austronesian family of languages. The non-Austronesian languages are found mostly in New Guinea, and some in the Solomon Islands. The languages do not seem to be related to any other and only distantly related to each other.

A brief history

Before 1840, life in Melanesia was largely undisturbed. Except for the the Dutch who in 1660 claimed island New Guinea to keep other European countries from accessing the very profitable Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia), very few Europeans traveled among the islands of the region they called Melanesia. By the early 1800s, however, European contact, missionary activities, trade and western imperialism would bring major changes and transformation to the people and cultures of Melanesia.

With the introduction of Christianity came the establishment of Christian missions, schools and western education. However, the early missionaries who had hoped to covert the islanders were not as successful as they were in Micronesia and Polynesia. Nevertheless, they persisted, drawing converts and discouraging many traditional cultural practices they deemed evil or offensive. In addition to the introduction of Christianity, there were two very significant developments in trade that had great social impact on the indigenous people: the sandalwood trade of the 1840s and the practice of blackbirding or the recruitment of labor for overseas employment that took place from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

Prior to the emergence of the sandalwood trade, whalers had visited the islands of Melanesia before and found ports, for example in the Solomons, to rest their crews and replenish their supplies. Other trade activities including Beche-de-mer and tortoise shell trade were not as common but happened in places like Fiji in the 1830s and 40s. These small-scale trades were not too disruptive and could easily be controlled; however, the introduction of knives, guns and other ironware into the islands began to cause lifestyle changes. The use of metal tools made short work of once tedious activities of food processing and craft production. Unfortunately, these early encounters also introduced diseases that devastated many of the small communities, adding to the social instability of the region and increased warfare.

The sandalwood trade began in the Hawaiian islands with European traders who desired the fragrant and versatile wood found in these islands. Around the same time as missionaries from London turned their attention to Melanesia in the 1840s, the sandalwood trade followed and went on for almost two decades. Unlike the earlier trading ventures, the sandalwood trade opened opportunities for material and cultural exchange never experienced before, and trade stations were opened in various locales throughout Melanesia. The Melanesians themselves  were very interested in trade and obtaining European goods, however, relations between the Melanesians and the Europeans were not always smooth. To participate in the trade, some of the natives began to sail as migrant laborers, working as part of sandalwood shipping crews.

As the sandalwood trade diminished Europeans began settling in the Pacific islands and parts of Australia. They set up large plantations which increased the need for imported labor. To meet this need, Melanesians were recruited, mostly from the southern islands of New Hebrides (Vanuatu), to work in plantations in Queensland and Fiji. While missionaries were able to warn some communities of the dangers of leaving with these labor recruiters, a handful of traders were ruthless recruiters and managed to take over 1,200 Melanesians to Queensland. Abuse of the laborers continued in spite of laws enacted to control the trade.

In 1872, the British government which controlled Australia passed the Pacific Islanders Protection Act in an effort to stop the exploitation of island laborers. However, it seemed the Melanesians themselves did not necessarily believe they were being exploited—seeing other workers return after three years and hearing of their experiences almost ensured a steady stream of available recruits eager to go to certain destinations over others and work with particular employers. Some men wanted to leave because of warfare, or famine, desirable trade goods or to escape scandal. Returning to their homelands gave them status, some wealth and prestige—enough to earn a bride price and marriage.

In 1885, the government gave notice that the labor recruiting trade would end in five years, leading to a rush for the “last chance” to go abroad. However, recruitment resumed again in 1893 for another ten years. The early years of the blackbirding trade saw mostly people from New Hebrides as labor recruits, while in the 1870s, more people from the Solomon Islands were recruited, and by the 1880s, more from the New Guinea Highlands.

The impact of the labor trade was immense. According to Pacific historian Ian C. Campbell, the labor trade kept the rest of Melanesia from being isolated after the abandonment of the sandalwood trade; it gave 100,000 Melanesians direct contact and experience with Europeans and their settlements in Australia and Fiji; it exposed the Melanesians to western goods including arms, tools and alcohol and tobacco, and provided an alternative to traditional life.

The trade also highlighted the need for regulation of European activities in the region, and a lingua franca developed which improved communication between the Melanesians and the foreigners. With the end of the sandalwood and labor trades, religion became an important point of interest for the Melanesians.

Within Melanesian, European trade and missionization in important ways often worked hand-in-hand, with one process affecting the other. By the 1830s, Christianity had been introduced to most of Polynesia, and Protestant missionaries looked further west into Melanesia to bring the Christian faith to this new unexplored area. However, the first attempt in Eromanga resulted in the martyrdom of the missionary. Nevertheless, the missionaries persisted and their presence inspired others with more economic interests to find opportunities in the area.

The sandalwood traders, though, were more successful in interacting with the natives, and the missionaries blamed the sandalwood traders for the lackluster response to their efforts to Christianize the Melanesians. However, the traders were more successful because they were able to offer material goods without having to impose a new religion on the people. But there were other impeding factors for why it took a while for Christianity to take hold: the lack of compatible religious features—such as a powerful, sky-dwelling god—that the Christians could impose on the native religious beliefs, which consisted mostly of spirits and ghosts. The diversity of languages was also a barrier to effective communication of religious beliefs as well as the lack of centralized authority to unite all the various communities of people. The shortage of missionaries compelled them to use Polynesian missionaries to help forward the cause. A good number of these Polynesian missionaries died but over the next few years, there were pockets of converted Christians the missionaries could add up.

The French also sent missionaries to Melanesia, in particular Roman Catholic Marist priests who were sent to New Caledonia in the 1840s. The result of having so many different mission groups working among so many different communities resulted in many variations in degree of acculturation or acceptance of Christianity and forced missionaries to often work in isolation of each other in often dangerous circumstances.

Christian converts also increased slowly with different approaches, including one that allowed for young boys to train as priests and form a Melanesian priesthood that could communicate with and convert their communities.  Another approach was to set up missions in the labor camps abroad, so that returning laborers might continue their interest and introduce Christianity to their home communities.

Along with missionization came western imperialism, and the islands of Melanesia became formal colonies of other European nations—France claimed New Caledonia, the Germans claimed New Guinea and the northern Solomon Islands, and the British claimed Fiji.

Overall, traders and settlers were not as attracted to Melanesia as they had been with Polynesia. The hostility of the environment and the people kept many westerners from moving into the islands. However, in 1860 France claimed New Caledonia, intending it to be a settler colony. But when not enough settlers moved there, the French designated it a penal colony in 1864, around the same time gold was discovered there. Because of this discovery, interest rose in the region, and British settlers began to move in as well. As a result, land was taken away in stages from the Melanesians to make room for settlers. The Melanesians, meanwhile, were forced to become tax-paying laborers.

Tensions between the Melanesians and the French came to a head in major revolts that took place in 1878 and during World War I. The French tried to undermine traditional authority by taking away power from ruling chiefs, dissolving tribes and displacing people from their home lands into reserves. A nickel boom in the 1870s also increased the presence of white settlers in the islands, but only the missionaries seemed to have some great concern for the welfare of the Melanesian population. At the turn of the century, rivalries between the British and the French in new Caledonia led to the organization of the condominium, a joint governmental arrangement over the territory.

The British expanded their interests in other parts of Melanesia as well. They began moving into communities in New Hebrides and started plantations there. In 1874, Britain annexed Fiji, establishing the Western Pacific High Commission in 1877.

In the 1880s, British and French interests in Melanesia continued with rival trading companies setting up posts.  An Anglo-French agreement as established creating a joint naval commission to regulate settlers’ affairs. The rivalry over Melanesia continued into the next decade, but the natural terrain and physical environmental challenges of the different islands kept them from being fully developed by European settlers. This impedance to European development by environmental obstacles also was seen particularly in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

The mountainous island of New Guinea was the focal point of much colonial activity and scheming because of its abundant resources. Traders and whalers had visited the island since the 1820s, and the Dutch had claimed the western half by the mid-1800s. British naval surveyors had visited the area also around that time, and missions were set up by the 1870s. German traders set up operations, and adventurers from Australia also were very interested, especially with the discovery of gold near Port Moresby. By the end of 1884 New Guinea had been divided between Germany and Great Britain. The Solomon Islands were largely caught in between, and were also partitioned, but only Germany formally took possession of some of the islands. The British took possession of the other islands in 1893 with the revival of the labor trade by the government in Queensland.

Early 20th century Melanesia

The claiming of Pacific islands by western powers and placing them under a central authority brought significant economic and cultural changes that continued through the first half of the 20th century. By 1906, France and Great Britain agreed to jointly govern Vanuatu, and Britain also transferred its holdings in British New Guinea, which they renamed Papua, to Australia.

During World War I, the German colonies in Melanesia were taken over by armed forces of Australia, New Zealand and Japan. By the end of war, it was determined by the League of Nations that these possessions should one day be independent nations, but until that time, they were entrusted to other independent nations to administer and oversee their development. Under this League of Nations mandate, German Samoa was given to New Zealand, Nauru and New Guinea to Australia and the Micronesian islands north of the equator given to Japan.

The Melanesian islands were the most challenging in terms of progress because of the physical environment and the fragmentation within the region due to the large number of languages and cultures among the Melanesian peoples. But it is also during the first three decades of the 20th century that much scientific exploration and anthropological studies of Melanesia are carried out. Racial and economic discrimination led to some uprisings in places like New Guinea and Fiji. The cargo cult phenomenon, such as the John Frum movement in Tanna, New Hebrides, and other religious movements in Melanesia in the 1930s were also seen as a challenge to European dominance.

Some of the bloodiest battles of World War II took place in Melanesia, as Allied forces attacked Japanese strongholds in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, including Guadalcanal and Bougainville. Some Melanesians directly experienced or participated in the war as the battalions of Papuan, New Guinean and Fijian soldiers, or as those who worked as laborers for the Australian army. Under Japanese occupation, natives saw their lands taken or destroyed and the Japanese as just another colonizing power. The war did provide some individuals to economically benefit from the pay and goods afforded by the presence of American troops.

One response during the postwar years was the further development of “cargo cults.” Cult movements had occurred throughout Melanesia and parts of Polynesia prior to the war, but they proliferated after World War II. These cults had much in common with millennial movements in other parts of the world that occurred in places where people were socially and politically displaced. A complex combination of Melanesian spiritual beliefs, Christian beliefs and a desire for material wealth, cargo cults of different kinds emerged among different Melanesian, especially after exposure to the wealth and benefits brought by American soldiers to the area during the war.

After the war, the prewar colonial territories were returned to their former colonizers. There were social and cultural challenges as people tried to rebuild and return to a state of normalcy, and governments began developing new colonial policies to usher in a new age for Pacific peoples in general.


Planning the future of Pacific peoples in the post-war era was a daunting task; it became clear that not enough information was available about the people and resources of the Pacific to formulate effective policy toward sustainable development. Anthropological research prior to the war into individual cultures was limited, site-specific and uncoordinated. More importantly, as political economist Tarcisius Kabutalaka has asserted, “The process of nation-building in Melanesia involved bringing together people of different languages, ethnic backgrounds and stages of development. The process brought together formally autonomous communities under the authority of a new state created and nurtured by a former colonial power,” essentially creating “nations within a nation.”

The ethnic and cultural diversity in Melanesia acted like a multitude of nations but the actual task of creating modern nations was left to the imperial powers that controlled the area, and not the indigenous people. Indeed, boundaries were set up to suit the purposes of the colonial administrations. Even with the establishment of independent states there were resistance movements in Bougainville, Papua, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. There were, however, usually Melanesian elites that were more accepting of the colonially established state boundaries.

The newly formed United Nations decided that separate agreements should be made between each territory and its trustee. The trusts were to guarantee human rights and promote development. The status of some Melanesian territories, however, raised questions of how to treat recently contacted peoples and those with longer experiences with western contact.

The Australian government, however, only placed one half of Papua-New Guinea under administrative trust. The government believed there was a debt owed to the people of Papua and New Guinea for their assistance in the war effort and wanted to develop policy that would take into consideration more native interests, but shortages in labor and other issues were such that native interests were never of highest priority. Labor cooperatives, however, were seen as a way to help bring about economic development and economic democracy and allow for more people to engage in the wage economy. Independence for Papua New Guinea was also complicated, partly from resistance by the Australian government to relinquish control, and partly because of the disunity among the various nationalist movements within the territory itself, but by 1972, both nations agreed to distance themselves and independence, for better of for worse, was achieved. Incidentally, the western half of the island of New Guinea, long under the control of the Dutch, fell under Indonesian power in 1962 and was renamed Irian Jaya.

After World War II, the French granted citizenship to their territory of New Caledonia, and representation of indigenous people in parliament. However, this move has kept the island as a territory of France. Uprisings in the 1980s forced the French government to rework new agreements to settle tensions between the French settler and native populations.

Shortly after the declaration for decolonization by the United Nations in the 1960s, only a few Pacific Island states had been decolonized. Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea became independent. Fiji’s independence though was complicated by the differing desires and interests of the native Fijians, the large Indian population and the small European population.

The Solomon Islands became independent in 1978 after the development of new political parties. In New Hebrides with its condominium government, the British wanted to withdraw but the French did not want to give up their control. A nationalist movement in the 1970s finally forced the French to withdraw and the islands were renamed Vanuatu in 1980.

20th century economies

Melanesia is a vibrant and dynamic region, rich with people and resources not seen in other parts of the world. However, political struggles, poverty and other social issues continue to impact daily life. Today, the population of Melanesia is approximately 10,000,000 people who live, work and participate in the global economy while still maintaining deep cultural traditions that distinguish them from their Pacific Island counterparts. Their exciting history and cultural awareness can be seen in their various forms of artistic expression.

In places throughout Melanesia, the physical body provides a space in which traditional designs and colors are imprinted, through elaborate face and body painting, wigs, headdresses, masks and costumes. Through vibrant colors and decorations, these items were meant to evoke a response by the viewer. Canoe prows, dancing shields, shell ornaments, tapa cloth and intricate wood carvings are recognized as important cultural art forms. Art work was essential to indicate status, honor individuals, or function as gifts. Large, human-shaped figures carved of wood served simultaneously as representations of ancestral spirits or symbolized the power of the object’s owner. Textiles also figure prominently in Melanesian art, especially for ceremonial gift-giving. In some places, mats can serve as an alternative to money. and are used for most transactions during ritual occasions such as births, marriages, or death. Barkcloth, usually manufactured by women, often depicted abstract-looking patterns but also figures of animals, plants, humans or spirits. Many communities have been able to innovate traditional art forms with modern aesthetics to create pieces that can be easily accessible for tourists and other world markets.

Christianity remains strong throughout Melanesia, with many leaders having been educated in mission schools, and large numbers of professed Christians can be found in all walks of life. The impact of Christianity on traditional life ways, however, has been profound, with many rituals and beliefs replaced by Christian dogma and practices.

Economically, a number of multi- and transitional corporations are operating in Melanesian states, bringing additional changes. Logging and mining are major industries, especially in places like PNG and the Solomon Islands. Political unrest linked to mining, though, has occurred in Bougainville, demonstrating dissatisfaction with agreements between landowners, governments and corporations. The changing economic scene also has impacted social organization—traditionally classless and egalitarian—turning them into hierarchical or stratified societies with politicians, public servants and business people making up an economic elite.

According to Melanesian specialist Roger Keesing, among the new elite, cultural nationalist ideologies have tended to focus on traditional customs (kastom) and the “Melanesian way,” an idea of promoting and preserving traditional life found in Melanesia, with cultural revivalism as a common theme.

For further reading

Campbell, IC. A History of the Pacific Islands. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Keesing, Roger M. “Melanesian Culture.” In Britannica, last modified 24 August 2022.

New World Encyclopedia Writers and Editors. “Melanesia.” In New World Encyclopedia, last modified 14 December 2022.