All About the Solomon Islands

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Podcast Transcript

Lying northeast of Australia and almost east of Papua New Guinea lies one of the world’s lesser-known and seldom visited countries: The Solomon Islands.

The country has few resources, is located on no major shipping routes, and is seldom mentioned in any news stories whatsoever.

Yet it played a major role in the Second World War and is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet. 

Learn more about the Solomon Islands, it’s past and present, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I often wonder what the least-known country in the world is. The country that makes the news the least and is seldom thought of by anyone. 

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do believe a contender for the title might just be the Solomon Islands. 

It is a small country, but not the smallest. It is a poor country, but not the poorest. 

There are no modern major trade routes that would cause ships to pass through or near the Solomons.

Given the geologic origins of the islands, there is little in the way of minerals or other natural resources. The biggest export product is wood and timber. There was a small gold mine that used to operate, and there is also a limited amount of fishing. 

75% percent of people who live there are still engaged in subsistence agriculture at some level. 

So, why do an episode on the Solomon Islands?  For all the reasons I just listed. 

I visited the Solomon Islands back in 2007, very early in my travels. I spent more time there than I did in other countries in the region. My time there left a soft spot for the country with me, and I have always looked for mentions of the Solomon Islands in the news. 

Even if it was bad news, I still was curious as to what was happening in the country. 

Even though I read multiple international news outlets every day, the number of times I’ve seen the Solomon Islands mentioned over the last decade and a half, I could probably count on one hand. 

Let’s start with the geography of the islands.

The nation of the Solomon Islands consists of most of the archipelago of the Solomon Islands located east of Papua New Guinea, as well as a few outlying islands outside of the archipelago, including the islands of Rennell and Santa Cruz. 

When I say it consists of most of the archipelago of the Solomon Islands, the only island in the archipelago that isn’t part of the country is the island of Bougenville, which is the largest island in the chain and is part of Papua New Guinea.

The island of Bougenville is worth an episode of its own in the future, if for no other reason than it is scheduled to become the world’s next independent country in just a few years. 

The majority of the country consists of mountainous islands in the archipelago. There are over 900 islands that make up the country, the largest of which is the island of Guadalcanal, which is a name that many of you might have heard before. 

Another major island is Malaita, which is the most populated of the islands. The total population of the country is around 700,000 people, of which a third live in Malaita.

Almost all of the people in the country are classified as Melanesian by their languages. As with other Melanesian countries such as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, there are a wide number of languages that are spoken, many of which seems to have nothing in common with neighboring tongues. There are as many as 70 native languages spoken in the Solomons, as well as the unifying second languages of tok pidgin and English.

One exception to this is the islands of Rennell and Bellona. These small islands are part of the Solomons but lie off of the main archipelago. They are considered to be Polynesian outliers. 

Almost all Polynesian islands are located in an area known as the Polynesian Triangle, which consists of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island.  

However, there are a few islands outside the triangle, and Rennell and Bellona such islands. The language there is Rennellese, and I spoke to one man on the island who received medical training in New Zealand. He said he was able to understand people from Samoa or Tonga so long as they spoke slowly.

Human migration to the Solomons may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago. During the last ice age, sea levels were dramatically lower, and at that time, the Solomons were connected by land and were connected to Papua New Guinea and Australia. 

About 1200–800 BC, a migration of people known as the Lapita arrived on the islands. The Lapita were the ancestors of the Polynesians and were a seafaring people that came from Southeast or East Asia.

Their Austronesian language became dominant, and most of the 70 native languages spoken in the Solomon Islands today are classified as Austronesian.

The first European to discover the islands was the Spanish navigator, who came across the islands in 1568. He had sailed across the Pacific from Peru.

Almost 30 years later, in 1595, he returned in an attempt to establish a colony. Poor relations with locals and disease rendered the experiment a failure, and the colony was abandoned in 1598. 

The islands were forgotten and left alone for almost 170 years. 

In the 18th century, there were some French and British ships that visited the islands, but again there was no widespread attempt to colonize or settle the islands. 

Whaling ships began regularly visiting the islands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, where they would trade with islands for provisions. This actually resulted in a massive shift in power between the various groups on the islands.

People who lived in coastal regions had access to European weapons and technologies and were able to use these against people who lived in inland regions. 

The 19th century also saw the rise of what was known as “blackbirding,” which was basically the forced capture and enslavement of people on the islands to work on plantations in Australia and throughout the Pacific. 

I touched on this topic in my episode on Vanuatu.

Formal European colonial rule didn’t begin until 1886, when Germany annexed the northeast part of Papua New Guinea, along with the Bismark Archipelago and the northern part of the Solomons. 

The Germans basically ignored the islands and didn’t even send anyone to visit for years, just claiming the land on paper. 

In 1893 the British claimed the Southern Solomon Islands as a protectorate, and in 1900, Germany ceded all of the islands to Britain, save for Bougenville, which remained part of German New Guinea. That is the historical reason why Bougenville was never part of the nation of the Solomon Islands. 

Despite the European powers drawing lines on maps and claiming the islands, there was almost nothing in the way of day-to-day control or administration of the islands. Most people who lived on the islands had no idea that some European country had claimed it on a map.

By 1903, there were only 80 Europeans who were living on the islands in any capacity. 

There were regular conflicts between Europeans and locals, culminating with the murder of the colonial administrator William R. Bell in 1927.

Everything in the Solomons radically changed in 1942.

The Second World War came to the Solomons in May 1942 when Japanese forces landed and occupied the islands.

The islands themselves weren’t really of interest to the Japanese, it was just a means of protecting their flank in their campaign in Papua New Guinea.

The Americans quickly counter-invaded the islands. The Guadalcanal Campaign began on August 7, 1942, when US Marines landed on the islands of Guadalcanal, Florida, and Tulagi. It lasted until late January 1943 with the Battle of Rennell, when the Japanese finally gave up on the Solomons. 

The Solomon Islands was the location where John Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, was sunk. It was also the location for several on-screen depictions of World War II.  The 70s television series Black Sheep Squadron and the movie The Thin Red Line. 

The war thrust the Solomon Islands into the modern world. Whereas before the war, there were only a handful of foreigners on the islands, most of whom were missionaries, during the war, they were suddenly everywhere. 

After the war, islanders began to organize across islands for greater autonomy and independence. The capital was moved from Tulagi to the current capital of Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal in 1952. 

One idea floated by the British in the early 50s was to give control of the islands to Australia, but the Australians didn’t want the financial burden.

By the 1960s, as decolonization was well underway and the British made it clear that they didn’t want the burden of administering the islands either, the process of ceding control to the local population began. 

A legislative council was created, which represented all of the islands, constitutions were written up, and eventually, by 1976, full self-government had been achieved. 

The final step of formal full independence for the country took place on July 7, 1978.

Ethnic groups and islands dominated politics in the Solomon Islands. 

In particular, one of the biggest problems was the migration of people from the most populous island of Malaita to Honiara for economic opportunities. 

This migration caused tensions between the people from Malaita and those on Guadalcanal, which resulted in the creation of the Isatabu Freedom Movement in Guadalcanal in 1998.They were a nationalist group that fought against the government and people from Malaita.

In response, the Malaita Eagle Force was established.

The result was years of conflict and violence which resulted in the collapse and bankruptcy of the government. 

Eventually, in desperation in 2003, the parliament unanimously reached out for international assistance. This led to the creation of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands or RAMSI. It brought over 2,200 soldiers and police officers to the Solomon Islands.

Australia and New Zealand spearheaded RAMSI but also had members from 15 other Pacific Nations.  When I visited in 2007, there were still RAMSI officials that could be seen in the country. 

Given the tirade, I heard from one man on the island of Rennell, where there was no violence, the RAMSI forces weren’t necessarily welcome. 

The RAMSI mission ended in 2017.

Since the violence of 2003, one of the biggest issues has been Chinese involvement in the country. In 2006, there were riots in the Honiara Chinatown when it was discovered Chinese concerns gave members of the parliament bribes, and again in 2021, when the Solomons switched their official recognition from Taiwan to Mainland China.

Almost all of the unrest in the Solomons over the last 25 years has taken place in the capital of Honiara and Guadalcanal. Most of the islands in the country have been peaceful. 

Today the Solomon Islands is one of the least visited countries in the world. Prior to the pandemic, only 26,000 people visited annually, of which many of those were there on business or worked for non-governmental organizations. 

It isn’t a hard place to visit as there are regular flights, but it is also a place you have to intend to visit. You probably aren’t going to stop there en route to someplace else. 

While tensions in the Solomon Islands have been reduced, the underlying problems haven’t necessarily been solved. The potential of an independent Bougainville next door in just a few years might increase demands for the independence of some islands or a more federal system of government where individual islands and provinces manage their own affairs.

The fact that the Solomon Islands doesn’t get the attention of the rest of the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite its recent problems, from my personal experience, the people, the cultures, and the islands of the Solomons make it one of the most special places on Earth. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ‘Dan C 78’ over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Very informational ???????????????????????????????????????

Very informational I find that this podcast is very interesting, and I like how random the subjects are ?? can you do an episode about popcorn?

Thank you

Thanks, Dan! I don’t know if a full episode on popcorn is in the works, but it certainly might get a starring role in a future episode on corn, one of the most important commodities in the world. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.