Archaeological evidence suggests that the Solomon Islands have been inhabited since 1000 BC. European penetration began in 1568 when the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana, exploring from South America, spent half a year in the islands. Believing that gold was present, he gave them the name of Solomon’s Islands, after the legendary King Solomon’s mines. During the 18th century a few European explorers visited the Islands, but made little impression on the inhabitants who lived in small isolated communities, often at war with one another.
In the next century, as Europe’s penetration of the Pacific advanced, naval ships began to call, and missionaries and traders arrived. From 1870, the islands were subjected to ‘blackbirding’ (attacks little different from slave raids), when kidnappers from Queensland and Fiji abducted Solomon Islanders as labour for the sugar plantations. The Solomon Islanders fought back fiercely, leading to slaughter on both sides.
In 1893 Britain made the South Solomons (Guadalcanal, Savo, Malaita, San Cristobal, the New Georgia group) a Protectorate, to which the Santa Cruz group was added in 1898 and 1899. In 1900 Germany ceded to Britain the Shortlands group, Santa Isabel, Choiseul and Ontong Java. With the establishment of the copra industry in 1908, and the spread of Christianity throughout the islands, raiding and fighting as a way of life began to die out, and mission schools provided a basic educational system.
The Solomon Islands were occupied by the Japanese army during the Second World War, and counter-invaded by American and Allied troops. There was almost continuous fighting from 1941 to 1943, and Guadalcanal was the scene of a six-month battle which was crucial to the outcome of the war in the Pacific. The Solomon Islanders fought on the side of the Allies, achieving renown for their courage in battle, and several were subsequently decorated.
After the war, the movement for self-determination gathered strength. There was political unrest in Malaita and elsewhere, which was eased by the setting up, from 1952 onwards, of local government councils, elected by universal adult suffrage.
In 1974 the governing council approved a constitution that provided for a governor and a legislative assembly of 24 elected members. In 1975 the name ‘British Solomon Islands Protectorate’ was formally changed to the present name. On 2 January 1976 the country became internally self-governing, proceeding to full independence on 7 July 1978. Solomon Islands came to independence under the leadership of Peter Kenilorea (later knighted), who had three periods in office, the first two consecutive. He was succeeded by his deputy Ezekiel Alebua in 1986. Other prime ministers since independence include Solomon Mamaloni, leading the Solomon Islands National Unity, Reconciliation and Progressive Party (1981-84, 1989-93 and 1994-97), and Francis Billy Hilly, leading the National Coalition Partners (1993-94).
At the general election in August 1997 Prime Minister Mamaloni’s main challenger was Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, leading a new group, the Alliance for Change, comprising several small parties and independents. The new coalition won, and Ulufa’alu became prime minister.
In July 1998, while parliament was in recess, Ulufa’alu dismissed Finance Minister Manasseh Sogavare and brought two members of the opposition Group for National Security and Advancement into the cabinet. Sogavare then led a group of six MPs to join the opposition, and though he could barely command a majority in parliament, Ulufa’alu appeared determined to continue in government.
Intercommunal conflict In the latter part of 1998, growing intercommunal tensions in Guadalcanal Province erupted into violence. The indigenous people of Guadalcanal were concerned about continuing settlement on the island of large numbers of Solomon Islanders from other islands and especially from Malaita, who dominated the national public service and the private sector in the capital, Honiara, located in Guadalcanal.
During 1999 the violence intensified and many thousands of Malaitans (including many long-standing residents of Guadalcanal) were driven to take refuge in Honiara or return to Malaita. In June a state of emergency was declared and, at the government’s request, the Commonwealth Secretary-General sent Sitiveni Rabuka, former prime minister of Fiji, to broker a peace deal. Agreement was reached on restoring peace and on the longer-term achievement of a more equitable ethnic balance in the national public service and the police force. A Commonwealth peace-monitoring group was to be provided.
Commonwealth-brokered peace Following further unrest, in August 1999 Rabuka brokered a new peace agreement (known as the Panatina Agreement) which included a reduction in police presence in Guadalcanal Province with effect from mid-August. In September 1999 the state of emergency was ended and in October a Commonwealth peace-monitoring group began supervision of the handover of arms by the militants. However, ethnic unrest continued into 2000, led by opposing militia – Malaita Eagle Force and Isatabu Freedom Movement. In June 2000 the Malaita Eagle Force took the prime minister and governor-general captive and compelled the prime minister to resign. When it was able to convene a quorum of members on an Australian warship, parliament elected Manasseh Sogavare as prime minister and he formed a new government. With the support of the Australian and New Zealand Governments, the warring militia and the national and provincial governments engaged in a peace process leading in October 2000 to the signing of a peace agreement in Townsville, Australia. This provided for a general amnesty for all members and former members of the militia on the condition that they hand in their arms within a given timeframe, and economic development of the island of Malaita.
Former militia members were to be involved in the collection of arms and the return of law and order, and an international monitoring team was to supervise the handover of arms. Sporadic outbreaks of violence continued. Another peace agreement was concluded in February 2001 but still there were armed militia at large and many weapons remained in the hands of former militia members.
In June 2003 Solomon Islands’ then prime minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, with the unanimous approval of parliament and the support of regional leaders, accepted Australia’s offer to lead an international intervention force to restore law and order. The force of some 2,200 soldiers and police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, began operations in July 2003. Its first priority was to disarm the various militias and restore order. By 2005 the force had been reduced to a few hundred.