Melanesia is the general name given to many groups of islands in the South West Pacific. These include New Guinea and the islands to its north, New Britain and New Ireland, the Trobriand Islands, the Solomons, New Caledonia, and the Fiji Islands.
"Melan" is a Greek word meaning black. These islands are termed Melanesia due to the very dark complexion of the native people in comparison to the lighter west Polynesians and north Micronesians. It is believed that Melanesians have lived in their islands for thousands of years, whereas Polynesians are fairly recent immigrants.
In some Melanesian groups, like Fiji, many of people have lighter skins owing to inter-marriage between Polynesian and Micronesian neighbours.
Many Melanesian tribes were head-hunters within the memory of people still living, but they were probably no more cruel than some white men who used to carry off the natives as labourers to sugar plantations, in Queensland and elsewhere, a disgraceful traffic called "blackbirding". Head-hunting and similar customs have died out more gradually, but none the less surely.
Today, many Melanesians have become christians. There are rich gold-mines in New Guinea and Fiji, but easily the most important industry throughout the islands is the production of copra.
This is the name given to the dried "meat" of the cocoanut. It contains 50% to 65% cocoanut oil, which is useful in the manufactures of soap, cooking-fats and other products. Wild cocoanut palms are almost as plentiful as gumtrees in Australia, but most of the copra is produced on great plantations. The husk of the nuts provides coir from which matting is made, and the natives use palmfronds for thatching the roofs and walls of their huts.
The large island of New Caledonia is an outpost for the French, only about 800 miles from the Queensland coast. In the 19th century, French criminals were sent there, just as English convicts were shipped to Australia in the early days. Now, New Caledonia has world importance because of its rich nickel mines. Three or four hundred miles north of New Caledonia are the New Hebrides, which were discovered in 1605 by the Spanish expedition of de Quiros. The islands were not seen again by Europeans until the 18th century, when they were visited by Captain Cook.
In 1788, La Perouse and his men were wrecked there some weeks after they had bidden farewell to Captain Phillip at Botany Bay. The islands are of interest today, because they are ruled jointly by Britain and France, the government being known as the Anglo-French Condominium.
About 800 miles to the west of New Caledonia is the Fiji group. Here too, the main crop is copra, though there are also many banana and sugar plantations.
In the 19th century, the Fijians were popularly believed to be the most ferocious of all the "Cannibal Islanders", but there are other reasons why we hear more of Fiji, than of some of the other Melanesian groups.
Seventy years ago, when people were beginning to think of Australian federation, it was hoped for some time that New Zealand and Fiji would form a part of the Commonwealth. On the little isle of Mbengga, there are natives who have so far baffled many scientists with their exhibitions of fire-walking.
Text adapted from The Story of the Pacific. The Sanitarium Children's Library, vol. 7, pg 8