Island country, southwestern Pacific Ocean.
The country includes the islands of Guadalcanal, Malaita, San
Cristobal, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Rennell; the Russell, Florida,
Shortland, Santa Cruz, and New Georgia island groups; and small islands
and reefs. The country comprises most of the Solomon Islands chain
except for Buka and Bougainville, which are part of Papua New Guinea.
Area: 10,954 sq mi (28,370 sq km). Population (2007 est.): 495,000.
Capital: Honiara. The population is largely Melanesian. Languages:
English (official), Pijin (an English-based pidgin), and more than 60
indigenous Melanesian languages. Religions: Christianity (predominantly
Protestant; also Roman Catholic); also traditional beliefs. Currency:
Solomon Islands dollar. The Solomons group comprises numerous volcanic
islands arranged in two parallel chains that converge in the southeast.
They consist mostly of heavily wooded, mountainous terrain drained by
short, swift-flowing rivers. The climate is tropical. The economy is
based on agriculture, fishing, and lumbering. Tourism has been
developed; cruise ships and visitors to World War II battlefields stop
at the islands. The country is a constitutional monarchy with one
legislative house; its chief of state is the British monarch represented
by the governor-general, and the head of government is the prime
minister. The Solomon Islands were probably settled by 2000 bce by
Austronesian people. Visited by the Spanish in 1568, they were
subsequently explored and charted by the French and British. They came
under British jurisdiction in the 1890s; the British Solomon Islands
Protectorate was declared in 1893. The Japanese invasion of 1942 ignited
some of the most bitter fighting in the Pacific during the war,
particularly on Guadalcanal. The protectorate became self-governing in
1976, and full independence was achieved in 1978. In the late 20th and
early 21st centuries, ethnic tensions led to political instability,
including a coup in June 2000; a multinational force led by Australia
helped restore order.
Official name Solomon Islands
Form of government constitutional monarchy with one legislative house
(National Parliament )
Chief of state British Monarch represented by Governor-General
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Solomon Islands dollar (SI$)
Population estimate (2008) 517,000
Total area (sq mi) 10,954
Total area (sq km) 28,370
country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It consists of a double
chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in Melanesia. The country
comprises most of the Solomons chain, with the exception of Buka and
Bougainville, two islands at the northwestern end that form an
autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Honiara, on Guadalcanal Island,
is Solomon Islands’ capital and largest city.
The main islands of the group are large and rugged, rising to
7,644 feet (2,330 metres) at Mount Popomanaseu on Guadalcanal. They lie
in two parallel chains running northwest-southeast: the southern chain
includes Vella Lavella, the New Georgia Islands, Savo, and Guadalcanal;
the northern, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Malaita. The chains converge
on San Cristobal (Makira Island). The Santa Cruz Islands are a group of
small islands located some 345 miles (555 km) east of Guadalcanal; the
largest island in the group is Nendö (also called Ndeni Island or Santa
Cruz Island). Geologically, the Solomon Islands are part of the volcanic
arc extending from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu.
The climate is tropical oceanic—that is, hot and humid but relieved
by cool winds and abundant, year-round rainfall. Temperatures seldom
exceed 90 °F (32 °C), and rainfall generally averages 120–140 inches
(3,000–3,500 mm) a year. Heavily wooded, mountainous terrain is
characteristic, and, although there are extensive plains, only those on
the northern side of Guadalcanal have been developed for large-scale
agriculture. As in most island groups, animal life is limited.
There are hot springs on Savo, where a volcano last erupted in the
1840s. Solomon Islands has a number of other volcanoes. For example,
Tinakula in the Santa Cruz group and Kavachi, a submarine volcano near
New Georgia, have erupted regularly every few years, and Simbo Island
has a solfatara (a volcanic area or vent that yields only hot vapours
and sulfurous gases). Earthquakes and destructive cyclones also occur
Most of the population is Melanesian. Polynesians, who form a
small minority, live mainly on outlying atolls, principally Ontong Java
Atoll, Bellona, Rennell Island, the Reef Islands, the Stewart Islands
(Sikaiana), Tikopia, and Anuta. There are also small numbers of Chinese
and Europeans and of Gilbertese from Micronesia who were resettled on
Ghizo and Vaghena islands between 1955 and 1971 by British
administrators seeking to alleviate overpopulation in the Gilbert
Islands (now Kiribati). Almost all Solomon Islanders are Christian; most
are Protestant (mainly Anglican), with smaller numbers of Roman
Catholics and members of other denominations. A small minority practices
traditional beliefs. More than 60 languages and dialects are spoken.
English is the official language, but Pijin, an English-based Melanesian
pidgin, is the language that is most widely used and understood. Most of
the people live in small rural villages. They engage mainly in
subsistence gardening, pig raising, and fishing but are also involved in
the cash economy.
Civil unrest in the late 1990s and early 21st century, including
a coup in 2000, led to the near-collapse of the country’s economy.
Damage to infrastructure on Guadalcanal resulted, disrupting
transportation, commerce, and agriculture, and many enterprises were
forced out of business. Earthquakes followed by a tsunami in 2007 caused
further economic setbacks.
In the early 21st century the service sector employed the majority of
the active workforce and contributed almost half of the country’s gross
domestic product. Tourism has been developed but is not a major source
of income. Solomon Islands’ main resources, fish and timber, have been
exploited excessively, which has resulted in their depletion. Its other
export products are derived from plantation crops: palm oil, copra, and
cacao (the source of cocoa). China, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand are
the major recipients. The chief imports are machinery, fuels,
manufactured goods, and food, and Australia, Singapore, Japan, and New
Zealand are the main suppliers.
The islands have significant reserves of bauxite (on Rennell Island)
and phosphates (on Bellona), and some gold has been extracted on
Guadalcanal. Manufacturing primarily involves the processing of coconut
and other vegetable oils and of cocoa. Traditional handicrafts,
including woodwork, shell inlay, mats, baskets, and shell jewelry, are
made both for the tourist market and for export. The Solomon Islands
dollar is the official currency; indigenous currencies such as shell
money (from Malaita) and red-feather money (from Santa Cruz) are also
made for use in customary transactions.
The principal airport is Honiara International Airport, although
there are several airfields throughout the islands that may also serve
as international points of entry. The government-owned Solomon Airlines
provides domestic and regional air service. Ports handling overseas
cargoes include Honiara, Tulagi (the former capital), and Gizo Harbour.
Aola Bay, Viru Harbour, and Graciosa Bay are used mainly for log
exports. Interisland shipping is operated both privately and by the
Government and society
Solomon Islands is a constitutional monarchy, with the British
monarch, represented by a governor-general, serving as the formal head
of state. Still, the country, a member of the Commonwealth, is
independent, and the governor-general is appointed on the advice of the
unicameral National Parliament. The governor-general, who serves a term
of up to five years, must be a citizen of Solomon Islands. Members of
the Parliament are elected by universal adult suffrage and serve for
four years (unless Parliament is dissolved sooner). Executive power is
exercised by a prime minister (elected by and from Parliament) and a
cabinet appointed by the governor-general from among the members of
Parliament on the recommendation of the prime minister. Although
political parties exist in name, their organization and discipline tend
to be loose. The prime minister rarely commands a clear majority in
Parliament, and so governments are usually formed of a coalition of
parties or factions. Local government councils control matters regarding
transportation, economic development, health, and education.
Education is not compulsory. Schools are run both by the national and
provincial governments and by various churches. Many secondary schools
provide practical training in fields such as agriculture and development
studies. There are several teacher-training schools and a technical
institute, as well as a campus of the University of the South Pacific in
Honiara. Some students attend universities overseas, especially in Fiji
and Papua New Guinea. There is a hospital at Honiara.
Much of traditional culture endures. Crafts are promoted by the
Solomon Islands National Museum, established in 1969 in Honiara, and
dances and music are regularly performed. Panpipes and percussive
“bamboo bands” (assemblages of drums made of bamboo) are popular. An
indigenous literary movement developed in the late 20th century; the
writing is in English and mostly published in Solomon Islands. For a
more detailed discussion of the culture of Solomon Islands, see
This section focuses specifically on the history and development
of the area and country now known as Solomon Islands.
The Solomon Islands were initially settled by at least 2000 bce—well
before the archaeological record begins—probably by people of the
Austronesian language group. Pottery of the Lapita culture was in use in
Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands about 1500 bce. Material dating to about
1000 bce has also been excavated at Vatuluma Cave (Guadalcanal), on
Santa Ana Island, and on the outlying islands of Anuta and Tikopia.
The first European to reach the islands was the Spanish explorer
Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1568. Subsequently, unjustified rumours
led to the belief that he had not only found gold there but had also
discovered where the biblical king Solomon obtained the gold for his
temple in Jerusalem. The islands thus acquired the name Islas de
Solomón. Later Spanish expeditions to the southwest Pacific in 1595 and
1606 were unable to confirm the discoveries reported by Mendaña.
Geographers came to doubt the existence of the group, and it was not
until the late 18th century, after further sightings by French and
English navigators, that the Solomons were accurately charted. After the
settlement of Sydney by the English in 1788, naval and commercial
shipping began increasingly to pass through the Solomons’ waters.
Roman Catholic missionaries failed to establish a settlement in the
1840s but did so in 1898. Anglican missionaries, who had been taking
islanders to New Zealand for training since the 1850s, began to settle
in the Solomons in the 1870s. Other missions arrived later.
By the late 19th century the islands were being exploited for labour
to work the plantations of Fiji and other islands and of Queensland,
Austl. About 30,000 labourers were recruited between 1870 and 1910. To
protect their own interests, Germany and Britain divided the Solomons
between them in 1886; but in 1899 Germany transferred the northern
islands, except for Buka and Bougainville, to Britain (which had already
claimed the southern islands) in return for recognition of German claims
in Western Samoa (now Samoa) and parts of Africa. The British Solomon
Islands Protectorate was declared in 1893, partly in response to abuses
associated with labour recruitment and partly to regulate contacts
between islanders and European settlers, but mainly to forestall a
threat of annexation by France. Colonial rule began in 1896. Although
generally humane, administrators were more concerned with promoting the
interests of European traders and planters than those of the islanders,
and islanders were punished harshly for offenses against colonial law
and order. The murder of government tax collectors by members of the
Kwaio ethnic group on Malaita in 1927 was answered with a savage
punitive expedition, backed by an Australian warship, that burned and
looted villages and killed many of the Kwaio. Together with some of his
associates, Basiana, the leader of the tax collectors’ killers, was
hanged, and his young sons were forced to witness the execution.
With the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese began
occupying the protectorate early in 1942, but their advance farther
southward was stopped by U.S. forces, which invaded on August 7.
Fighting in the Solomons over the next 15 months was some of the most
bitter in the Pacific; the long Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the
crucial conflicts of the Pacific war. Throughout the campaign the U.S.
forces and their allies were strongly supported by the islanders. After
the war, because of the proximity of an airfield and the availability of
flat land and of the military’s buildings, Honiara on Guadalcanal became
the new capital, replacing Tulagi.
Another result of the war was to stimulate political consciousness
among the islanders and so inspire a nationalist movement known as
Maasina Rule, which lasted from 1944 to 1952. Subsequently, in response
to the worldwide movement for decolonization, the Solomons set out on
the path of constitutional development. The country was formally renamed
Solomon Islands in 1975, and independence was attained on July 7, 1978.
Peter Kenilorea, who had helped lead Solomon Islands to independence,
became its first prime minister (1978–81) and served a second term from
1984 to 1986. Solomon Mamaloni, another pre-independence leader, served
as prime minister several times in the 1980s and ’90s; resigning from
his final term in August 1997 amid allegations of corruption, he was
replaced by Bartholomew Ulufa’alu.
In 1999 Solomon Islands became embroiled in ethnic violence, with
rebels on Guadalcanal fighting to overthrow the island’s dominant
Malaitan minority. Ulufa’alu, an ethnic Malaitan, was deposed in a June
2000 coup, and civil disorder reigned. Later that year New Zealand and
Australian forces arrived, and a peace accord was signed. Although
sporadic violence continued, efforts began to rebuild the heavily
damaged country. The conflict had led to the near-collapse of the
country’s government, which was unable to provide services or ensure
public safety. Foreign aid was secured to repair the extensive property
and infrastructure damage.
Economic and political instability continued through the next several
years. In mid-2003 the governments of the Pacific Islands Forum formed a
multinational Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands
(RAMSI), led by Australia, that supplied troops to help maintain order.
The country’s recovery progressed slowly, supported by an influx of
foreign aid, particularly from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and the
European Union. After the 2006 general election, antigovernment riots
broke out and parts of Honiara were burned and looted; the new prime
minister, Snyder Rini, resigned after eight days in office and was
replaced by Manasseh Sogavare, who opposed the presence of RAMSI.
Conflict arose between RAMSI and the government over one of the prime
minister’s political appointments, and Sogavare threatened to expel the
multinational force. A compromise was brokered late in the year, and
RAMSI remained. After Sogavare lost a no-confidence vote in 2007, Derek
Sikua became prime minister. Consideration of a new constitution was
ongoing; it would address provincial and ethnic tensions by changing the
governmental structure to that of a federation of states.
Hugh Michael Laracy