1902 Encyclopedia > Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands

SOLOMON ISLANDS, an extensive group of islands, the largest and as yet least known of any in the Pacific Ocean, though among the very first that were discovered. They form a double chain of seven large and many small islands, extending for over 600 miles in a north-west and south-east direction between 5° S. lat., 154° 40' E. long., and 10° 54' S. lat., 162° 30' E. long. The northern extremity stretches to within 120 miles of New Ireland, the south-eastern point to 200 miles west of Santa Cruz, and the nearest portion of New Guinea lies about 400 miles to the south-west of the group. [252-2] See vol. xix. Plate III.

The Solomon Islands vary considerably both in size and character. It is as yet doubtful which of them is the largest, but seven are from 50 to over 100 miles in length and from 15 to 30 miles in breadth; several must there-fore equal the county of Cornwall in area. They are well watered, though the streams seem to be small ; their coasts afford some good harbours. [252-3] All the large and some of the smaller islands appear to be composed of ancient volcanic rock, with an incrustation of coral limestone showing here and there along the coast. Their interior is mountainous, and Guadalcanal, where there is an active volcano, reaches an altitude of 8000 feet. Malanta and Christoval are over 4000, Ysabel and Choiseul 2000 feet high. The mountains of the latter fall steep to the sea, and the whole of its north-east portion forms an elevated wooded plain. There is some level land in Bougainville, which is also said to possess an active volcano. Every traveller has extolled the beauty and fertility of the islands. In San Christoval deep valleys separate the gently-rounded ridges of its forest-clad mountains, lofty spurs descend from the interior, and, running down to the sea, terminate, on the north, in bold rocky headlands 800 to 1000 feet in height, while, on the south, they form and shelter bays of deep water. On the small high island of Florida there is much undulating grass land, interspersed with fine clumps of trees; but patches of cultivated land surround its numerous villages, and plantations on the hill-sides testify to the richness of its soil. To the south of Choiseul lies a small cliff-girt islet, Simba (Shortland's Eddystone), with a peak ending in a crater 1200 feet high, on the side of which are a solfatara and two boiling springs. It is inhabited, and has a small safe harbour. Surgeon Guppy, late of H.M.S. "Lark," has recently made valuable geological observations in the north and south of the group. The whole chain of islands appear to be rising steadily, and traces of ancient upheaval are very general,— for instance, Treasury Island, where a coral-encrusted volcanic peak has been raised 1200 feet, and the atoll of Sta Anna, the ring of which now stands hundreds of feet above the present level of the sea. Some of the smaller islands are of recent calcareous formation. Barrier and fringing reefs, as well as atolls, occur in the group, but the channels between the islands are dangerous, chiefly from the strong currents which set through them.

The climate is very damp and debilitating. The rain-fall is unusually heavy. Fever and ague prevail on the coast, but it is likely that the highlands will prove much more healthy. The dry season, with north-west winds, lasts from December to May.

A comparatively shoal sea—under 1000 fathoms— surrounds the Archipelago, and, including the New Britain and Admiralty Islands, stretches to New Guinea and thence to Australia. This sufficiently accounts for the Papuan character of its fauna, of which, however, it is the eastern limit, in spite of the fact that this shoal water extends to the extreme south of the New Hebrides. Here the strange little marsupial the cuscus (see PHALANGER) is still to be met with; the hornbill, the cockatoo, the crimson lory, and birds of a dozen other genera have already been discovered, "all," as Wallace remarks, "highly characteristic of the Moluccas and New Guinea, and quite unknown in any of the more remote Pacific islands." But, like the New Hebrides, the Solomon Islands possess a megapode (M. brenchleyi) which is peculiar to itself. An alligator frequents the coast, and the sea teems with fish. Insects seem to be fairly well represented. The flora has been even less studied than the zoology, but it also shows strong Papuan affinities. Vegetation is most luxuriant: unbroken tracts of magnificent forest clothe the mountains, where sandalwood, ebony, and lignum vitas have already been found. Mangrove swamps are common on the coasts.
The Solomon Islanders, excepting those of Bellona and Rennell in the south, and Ongtong Java in the north—who are pure Polynesians—are a small sturdy Melanesian race, taller in the north than in the south, but averaging about 5 feet 4 inches for men, and 4 feet 9 inches for women. They are well proportioned, with nicely rounded limbs. Projecting brows, deeply-sunk dark eyes, short noses, either straight or arched, but always depressed at the root, and moderately thick lips, with a somewhat receding chin, are general characteristics. The expression of the face is not unpleasing. The mesocephalic appears to be the preponderant form of skull, though this is unusual among Melanesian races. In colour the skin varies from a black-brown to a copperish hue, but the darker are the most common shades. The hair is dark, often dyed red or fawn. Crisp, inclining to woolly, it naturally hangs in a mop of ringlets 3 to 8 inches in length ; but, when carefully tended, it forms one smooth bush—the usual fashion for both sexes. Epilation is practised; little hair, as a rule, grows on the face, but hairy men are not rare. [252-4] Skin diseases are prevalent.

The Solomon Islanders are intelligent, of a quick and nervous temperament, crafty, thievish, and revengeful, yet, quickly amenable to good treatment, they make faithful servants. They are fond of dancing; their music is a monotonous chant with an accompaniment of bamboo drums. They make pan-pipes and Jew's harps. Of their religion and manners and customs very little is known. Their language is of pure Melanesian type though a number of dialects arc spoken throughout the group,—many even on the same island. Broken into numerous clans, they are rarely at peace with each other; but the attention bestowed on plantations proves them good agriculturists. Yams, arum-roots, bread-fruit, cocoa-nuts, and fish constitute the chief of their food. Pigs, dogs, and fowls are also eaten, and, as these are mentioned by Mendana, they must have been known in the islands for over three hundred years. The islanders are great betel-chewers, but little palm arrack or kava seems to be drunk. The respect paid to chiefs and elders varies in different islands. They are cannibals, though to what extent is unknown. Trophies of human skulls are common, and preserved heads—the face inlaid with shell—have been procured in Guadalcanal and Bubiana. They are said to pay honour to departed spirits. Carvings representing both men and animals often form the posts of houses and sheds, and adorn the prows of canoes. Their houses are square or oblong, strongly built, with high projecting roofs, which sometimes, as in their canoe-sheds, almost reach to the ground. The floor-mats are very rough. Large halls and spirit-houses exist in some of the villages, and great care and skill are bestowed on their decoration. [253-1] Great nicety of finish characterizes their weapons. They are mostly light and graceful, and consist of bows and arrows, spears, and clubs; the sling seems unknown. Some of the spears have the barbed head carved out of a human leg or arm bone; others, if not cut out of the solid wood, have bones, thorns, or splinters of wood attached in a most masterly manner. Arrows are similarly fashioned, and their reed shafts ornamented with incised lines. None of them appear to be poisoned. The bows, often large and powerful, are made of palm-wood or a strip of bamboo. Clubs vary considerably in shape; their butts are sometimes covered with finely-plaited coloured grass. Some, which are long and slight, are sickle- or scythe-like, others lanceolate or spoon-shaped; and some, smaller, resemble a very broad dagger. This is, in the Pacific, the eastern limit of the shield. It is an unknown weapon in the other islands —Melanesian as well as Polynesian,—but to the west, in the New Britain group, and in New Guinea, various forms of it occur, whence, through the Malay islands, it may be traced back to the Asiatic continent. The shield is also used by the Australians. That of the Solomon Islanders is made of reeds, and is of an oval or oblong form. Their canoes are built of planks sown together and caulked, and are the most beautiful in the Pacific. They are very light, slim, and taper, 20 to 60 feet in length, with 1 to 3 feet beam, but they balance so well that an outrigger is dispensed with. The high carved prow and stern—which are said to act as a shield from arrows when stem on—give the craft almost a crescent shape. These and the gunwale are tastefully inlaid with mother-of-pearl and wreathed with shells and feathers. Sails are not used, but the narrow pointed paddles propel the canoes with great speed through the water. [253-2] Graceful bowls, with some bird or animal for model, are also made. They are cut out of the solid, and sometimes measure over 8 feet in length. Stone adzes appear to be now used only in the interior and in the north of the group. They are well ground, flat and pyriform in shape, and very different from any made in the neighbouring groups of islands. Clothing is of the scantiest. Both men and women not unfrequently go naked; but, as a rule, some slight covering is worn, and neatly-made fringed girdles are used in some districts. Tattooing and scarring of the body is but slightly practised. Ornaments are used in profusion, and often are very tasteful. Carved wooden belts, coloured shell-bead bands, and a variety of armlets, combs, and feather head-dresses are worn, also shell disks covered with tortoise-shell fretwork. Necklaces of teeth and shell are common and multiform; one much prized is made of human incisors. The ears, and, in men, the septum of the nose, are pierced,—frequently, also, the cartilage of one or both nostrils. In these the strangest ornaments are inserted, such as tortoise-shell rings, bones, teeth, shells, crab-claws, and the like. [253-3]

History.—The Spanish navigator Mendana must be credited with the discovery of these islands, though it is somewhat doubtful whether he was actually the first European who set eyes on them. He sailed from Callao in 1567, by command of the governor of Peru, to discover the southern continent, the presumed existence of which in the then unknown region between America and Asia had already given rise to much speculation; but he seems to have been strangely unfortunate. Sailing west he discovered only a few coral islets (? Ellice group) until, having crossed more than 7000 miles of ocean, he fell in with an archipelago of large islands. By their size and position he considered them to form part of the land he was in search of, and in pleasing anticipation of their natural riches he named them Islas de Salomon. The expedition surveyed the southern portion of the group, and named the three large islands San Christoval, Guadalcanal, and Ysabel. On his return to Peru Mendana endeavoured to organize another expedition to colonize the islands, but it was not before June 1595 that he, with Quiros as second in command, was enabled to set sail for this purpose. The Marquesas and Santa Cruz Islands were now discovered; but on these latter islands, after various delays and troubles, Mendana died, and the expedition eventually collapsed.

Even the position of the Solomon Islands was now veiled in uncertainty, and they were quite lost sight of until, in 1767, two centuries after their first discovery, Carteret lighted on their eastern shores at Gower Island, and passed to the north of the group, without, however, recognizing that it formed part of the Spanish discoveries. In 1768 Bougainville found his way thither. He discovered the three northern islands (Buka, Bougainville, and Choiseul), and sailed through the channel which divides the latter two. In 1769 Surville explored the east coast, and was the first, in spite of the hostility of the natives, to make any lengthened stay in the group. He brought home some detailed information concerning the islands, which he called Terres des Arsaeides; but their identity wdth Mendana's Islas de Salomon was soon established by French geographers. In 1788 Shortland discovered New Georgia, with some of the smaller islands; and in 1792 Manning sailed through the strait which separates Ysabel from Choiseul and now bears his name. In the same year, and in 1793, D'Entrecasteaux surveyed portions of the coastline of the large islands. In 1794 Butler visited the group, and Williamson in the "Indispensable" explored the channels which divide Guadalcanal from San Christoval and Ysabel from Malanta. There was a break of nearly half a century before D'Urville in 1838 took up the survey.

Traders now endeavoured to settle in the islands, and missionaries began to think of this fresh field for labour, but neither met with much success, and little was heard of the islanders save accounts of murder and plunder perpetrated by them. In 1845 the French Marist fathers went to Ysabel, where Mgr Epaulle, first vicar-apostolic of Melanesia, was killed by the natives soon after landing. Three years later this mission had to be abandoned; but since 1881 work has again been resumed. In 1856 John Coleridge Patteson, afterwards bishop of Melanesia, paid his first visit to the islands, and native teachers trained at the Melanesian mission college have since established themselves there, as well as a few traders. About this date the yacht "Wanderer" cruised in these seas, but her owner was kidnapped by the natives and never afterwards heard of. In 1873 the "foreign-labour" traffic in plantation hands for Queensland and Fiji extended its baneful influence from the New Hebrides to these islands. Noteworthy recent visits are those of H.M.S. "Curaçoa" in 1865, H.M.S. "Blanche" and Mr C. F. Wood's yacht in 1872, the German warship "Gazelle" in 1876, and H.M.S. "Lark" in 1881-84.

[Further Reading] See Dalrymple, Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (Spanish voyages), 1770, i.; Hawkesworth, Collection of Voyages (Carteret, &c), 1792. i. ; Fleurien, Découvertes des François en 1768 et 1769 (Spanish voyages and Surville); Labillardière (D'Entrecasteaux), Recherche de La Pêrouse, 1791-91, i.; Durmont d'Urville, Voyage au Pole Sud, &c., 1837-40, v., and Voyage autour du Monde, ii.; Meade, Ride through the Disturbed Districts of New Zealand, &c.; Brenchley, Cruise of H.M.S. "Curaçoa," 1865; Wood, Yachting Cruise in the South Seas; Romilly, The Western Pacific, &c.; Schleinitz, "Geogr. u. Ethnogr. Beobachtungen auf Neu Guinea, &c." (S.M.S. Gazeile, 1874-76), Zeits. Ges. Erdkunde, xii., 1877; Guppy, "Recent Calcareous Formations of the Solomon Group," Trans. Roy. Soc. Edin., xxxii., and "Physical Characters of the Solomon Islanders," Journ. Anth. Inst., xv. ; Flower, Cat. Mus. Royal Coll. of Surgeons, pt. 1, Man; Codrington, The Melanesian Language; Meinicke, Die Inseln des Stillen Oceans; Wallace, Australasia; Yonge, Life of Bishop Patteson; Redlick, "A Cruise among Cannibals," Geogr. Review, i. (A. v. H.)


252-2 Islands of the Archipelago.—The larger are—in the eastern chain, Bougainville, Choiseul, Ysabel, Malanta; and in the western chain, New Georgia, Guadalcanal (often misspelt Guaclalcanar), San Christoval. The smaller are—Buka (the most northern), Shorthand, Treasury, Faro, Simba (Eddystone), Rubiana, Hammond, Marsh, Savo, Bnena Vista, Anuda, Ngela (Florida), Ulawa (Contrariété), Ugi, Three Sisters, Sta Anna, Sta Catalina, Bellona, Rennel (the most southern). Mendana mentions seeing near Buena Vista a small island in a state of violent eruption; he named it Sesarga. Ongtong Java is a group of coral islands in the north-east, but it does not, geographically, form part of the group.

252-3 Blanche Bay, Bougainville ; Port Praslin, Ysabel ; Maruvo, New Georgia ; Port Wiseman, Florida ; Curaçoa Harbour in Marau Sound, Guadalcanal ; Recherche Bay, Makira Bay, and Vanga Harbour, San Christoval.

252-4 On the islands in Bougainville Strait tribes with lank, almost straight, black hair and very dark skin are found. The mountains of the large islands seem to be thinly inhabited by a smaller and ruder race, with whom the coast tribes wage perpetual war and for whom they express great contempt.

253-1 See frontispieces to Brenchley's Curaçoa.

253-2 Rude outrigger canoes with mat sails are used in some parts of the archipelago.

253-3 Of the island manufactures fine specimens may be seen in the British, Cambridge, and Maidstone museums.

The above article was written by: Baron Anatole von Hügel, Curator of Museum of General Archaeology, University of Cambridge.

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