1902 Encyclopedia > Melanesia


MELANESIA. This term comprises that long belt of island groups which, beginning in the Indian archipelago at the east limits of the region there occupied by the Malay race, and, as it were, a prolongation of that great island region, runs south-east for a distance of some 3500 English miles, i.e., from New Guinea at the equator, in 130° E. long., to New Caledonia just within the Tropic, 167° E. long., and eastwards to Fiji, in 180°. This chain of groups has a certain geographical as well as ethnical unity. Its curve follows roughly the outline of the Australian coast, and large islands occur, with a number of small ones, along the whole length, with mountains of considerable height, coinciding pretty closely with a line of volcanic action. Melanesia is usually held to begin with New Guinea, this great island being then viewed as the headquarters of that dark Papuan race which, widely and variously modified in all the other groups, occupies the whole region, as the name Melanesia implies; but the race really extends farther west, for the large islands Flores and Timor, with several smaller ones, are also essentially Papuan.

New Guinea, 1490 miles long, and containing about 303,000 square miles, the largest island in the world after Australia, is clothed with almost impenetrable forests, through which mountain ranges rise to a height of 13,000 feet. Parallel to its longer axis, 150 miles to the north, are the Admiralty Islands, all small, with one exception, in which the hills rise to 1600 feet, and which is probably of volcanic origin, as the natives use spearheads and implements of obsidian. A Polynesian element seems to be present, and customs peculiar to both races have been observed. Mr H. N. Moseley, of the " Challenger," found them shrewd but honest traders, with much artistic skill in their carvings and designs. They have numerals up to 10, with an idiom for 8 and 9, viz., 10-2 and 10-1, which is found also at Yap in the Carolines, and in the Marshall Islands.

Next follow, east, the two large islands of New Britain, about 340 by 23 English miles, with active volcanoes up to 4000 feet, and New Ireland, about 240 by 22 miles. Next comes the Solomon group, 600 English miles in length, with seven large islands from 135 to 90 miles long, all running north-west and south-east, with volcanic peaks up to 8000 feet. The forms more characteristic of the New Guinea fauna do not extend beyond this group. Its forest vegetation is especially luxuriant. Then comes Santa Cruz, a small group partly volcanic, but with numerous coral reef islands. Then the Banks and New Hebrides group, over 500 English miles in length, all volcanic except the Torres reef islands in the north. Several spots in this group are occupied by people of purely Polynesian race, immigrants apparently from the eastward. Two hundred miles southwest from the New Hebrides lies the island of New Caledonia, about 240 by 25 English miles. It is in parts very mountainous, rising to 5380 feet, the rocks being sedimentary and plutonic, but there are no volcanoes. It lies half way between Australia and Fiji, 700 miles from each. Being outside the equatorial belt, it is much drier and more barren than the other groups, and its fauna and flora have many Australian and Polynesian affinities. The small Loyalty chain lies 70 miles east of New Caledonia, and parallel to it. Fiji is detached from the other Melanesian groups, and differs from them in various particulars. It consists of two large and about 300 small islands, the total area being about 7400 square miles.

Of the two great Pacific races—the brown Polynesian, and the dark Melanesian—the former, considering the vast region it occupies, is singularly homogeneous both in appearance and language, whereas in Melanesia even neighbouring tribes differ widely from each other in both respects. Still, all the Melanesians have certain common characteristics which distinguish them sharply from the other race. They stand at a lower level of civilization, as is well seen at certain spots in Melanesia where isolated Polynesian settlements exist, due probably to involuntary migration, and where the two races, though they have some peculiar customs in common, live in bitter mutual hostility. The Melanesians are mostly "negroid" in appearance, nearly black, with crisp curly hair elaborately dressed; the women hold a much lower position than among the Poly-nesians; their institutions, social, political, and religious, are simpler, their manners ruder and often indecent; they have few or no traditions; cannibalism, in different degrees, is almost universal; but their artistic skill and taste, as with some of the lower African negroes, are remarkable, and they are amenable to discipline and fair treatment. Their languages, amid considerable differences, which, as between the Melanesian proper and the Papuan, are very wide, have features which mark them off clearly from the Polynesian, notwithstanding certain fundamental relations with the latter.

The various Melanesian groups will be found described in detail under separate headings.

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