Cultural Disparity and Political Solidarity in the Melanesian Island World

The islands of the southwestern Pacific are conventionally divided into Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, based on the writings of the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville from the 1830s. The etymology is Greek, with the base word nesos — hence “nesia” — meaning island, while “mela-,” micro-,” and “poly-” denote black, small, and many, respectively. The terms were not well chosen. There are “many” islands in all three regions. “Micro” islands (atolls) are also widespread in Melanesia and Polynesia; and a number of Micronesian islands, such as Guam, are substantial. And whereas Micronesia and Polynesia were named after the supposed attributes of the islands themselves, Melanesia received its name from its indigenous inhabitants, in reference to their skin color.

In early anthropological studies, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia were thought to be differentiated by the traits of their indigenous human societies, but only Polynesia is now regarded as forming a genuine culture region. All Polynesian languages are closely related and clearly descended from a common ancestor, and similar cultural and political patterns are found throughout its vast extent. Micronesian and especially Melanesian cultures, on the other hand, vary significantly, with few unifying features.

Owing to its lack of cultural commonalities, Melanesia might be regarded as a “racial” region defined by the physical appearance of its inhabitants, but this tactic also falters. A recent genetic study indicates high levels of genetic differentiation between separate Melanesian populations, which are especially pronounced in the interior regions of the larger islands. The same study also found relatively few genetic links between Melanesians and Polynesians, even though the ancestors of the latter passed through Melanesia before reaching what later became Polynesia, spreading their Austronesian speech in many coastal areas. But if Polynesian and Melanesian peoples remained genetically and culturally distinct, their separation was not absolute. Some studies indicate a Melanesian origin of some Polynesian Y chromosomes, while the Melanesian archipelago of Fiji later experienced a substantial flow of both genes and social practices from the Polynesian islands of Tonga.

The ancestors of the Polynesians are believed to have moved from Taiwan through insular Southeast Asia and then the coastal stretches of Melanesia before arriving at the previously uninhabited islands of Tonga and Samoa. There they developed the distinctive Polynesian cultural complex that subsequently spread, thanks to their unsurpassed navigational abilities, trough the vast triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Polynesian mariners also returned to Melanesia, where they settled on smaller islands outside of the main archipelagoes. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu contain many strictly Polynesian islands, known to anthropologists as Polynesian Outliers. If defined in purely cultural terms, Polynesia therefore intermeshes with Melanesia rather than forming the spatially separate area that is typically depicted on maps.

Although the varied people of Melanesia have few cultural or genetic bonds, they are gaining a sense of political solidarity, as we saw in last Thursday’s posting. Such newfound cohesion is perhaps best represented in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a trade association composed of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji. This Melanesian quartet seems to have drawn more closely together after the 2009 suspension of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum on charges of political repression and human rights abuses. Some scholars think that the MSG might “mobilise around Fiji, … as Fiji, forsaken by its traditional antipodean friends [i.e., Australia and New Zealand], ‘looks North’ to Asia, most particularly China and India, for new friends.” Melanesians are also banding together to protest what they see as anti-Melanesian prejudices held by other peoples. In the European cultural imagination, “Polynesia” has long connoted a tropical idyll of sensual delights, while “Melanesia” suggested savagery and cannibalism. Melanesian intellectuals insist that such views are deeply racist and need to be jettisoned.

Similar prejudice can be encountered among Pacific Islanders themselves. A June 24, 2010 article in Pacific.Scoophighlights the work of Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka of Solomon Islands who is confronting the issue. Anti-Melanesian sentiments, he argues, are directly encoded in Polynesian speech: “[Melanesians] are referred to as uli in the Tongan language, which means ‘dirty,’ while in the Samoan language they are referred to as mea uli, meaning ‘thing.’” Professor Kabutaulaka added that the issue “is not often discussed openly amongst Pacific Islanders” as it is considered too sensitive. The Pacific.Scoop article goes on to discuss the racial animosity felt by Melanesian students when studying with other Pacific Islanders in such schools as the University of the South Pacific, a multi-campus institution jointly owned by the governments of a number of Pacific island countries. Several Polynesian students quoted in the same article, however, deny the prevalence of racism.

Ethnic Strife and Cultural Solidarity in Melanesia

In trying to separate from Papua New Guinea, the people of Bougainville have sought full independence rather than union with Solomon Islands,* the country that encompasses the rest of the archipelago in which their island is located. The sentiment is not difficult to understand; Solomon Islands is a poor and unstable state beset with ethnic conflict.

Solomon Islands’ troubles intensified in the late 1990s, when feuding between the indigenous inhabitants of Guadalcanal and immigrants from the neighboring island of Malaita brought it to the edge of state failure. In 2003, the Honiara government requested international security assistance; Australia, New Guinea, and 20 other Pacific basin countries responded by sending a sizable peace-keeping mission, dubbed Operation Helpen Fren (Pidgin for “help a friend”). While reestablishing basic security, it did not generate stability. In 2006, rioters in Honiara torched the Chinese commercial establishment after rumor spread of Chinese businesspeople bribing members of parliament; the PRC had to send in chartered aircraft to airlift hundreds of its citizens to safety. Additional troops were deployed from Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, but the Solomon Islands government fell, and its economy plummeted.

The turmoil of Solomon Islands is not unusual in its locale. Ethnic strife, governmental instability, and general insecurity characterize much of its immediate neighborhood. As a result, Australian commentators have deemed the area an “arc of instability.” This politically fraught region extends from eastern Indonesia through Melanesia to western Polynesia (see map). But while “arc of instability” is an evocative phrase, it is ambiguous; other authors have deployed it elsewhere (including Central Asia and the vast swath of the planet extending from the Caribbean Basin to Southeast Asia).

Although much of Melanesia is beset with local discord, one Melanesian government has set its sights on what it sees as a more fundamental ethno-political conflict: that occasioned by Indonesian’s annexation of Western New Guinea. On June 21, 2010, the parliament of Vanuatu unanimously requested an international investigation into Indonesia’s acquisition of, and continuing rule over, the territory. The conflict is often framed in religious and regional—or metageographical—terms. As reported by Radio Australia, Vanuatu’s Parliamentary motion asks “the UN General Assembly to direct the International Court [of Justice] to look into the manner in which the mainly Melanesian and Christian western half of New Guinea island was incorporated into the Asian and Islamic country of Indonesia.”

Vanuatu’s leaders expressed confidence that other Melanesian governments will follow their lead – with one notable exception: Papua New Guinea (PNG), the giant of the Melanesian world. On June 23, 2010, a Vanuatuan member of parliament chastised PNG for “being out of step with Melanesian opinion on the legality of Indonesia’s Papua province.” But Papua New Guinea’s reluctance is not difficult to understand, as it would be highly vulnerable to potential Indonesian reprisals. In its case, both military and economic considerations tend to outweigh the desire for pan-Melanesian cultural and geopolitical solidarity.

In next Monday’s post, we will explore what “Melanesia” means.

* The country’s official name is “Solomon Islands,” without the use of the definite article (“the”).