Papuan-speaking hunter-gatherers from New Guinea were the only inhabitants of the Solomons for thousands of years, until Austronesian-speaking proto-Melanesians began moving in around 4000 BC. The Lapita people appeared between 2000 and 1600 BC. Polynesians from the east settled the outer islands such as Rennell, Bellona and Ontong Java between AD 1200 and 1600.
The first European visitor was Spaniard Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra in 1568, who returned in 1595 to establish a settlement on Santa Cruz. There was almost no further contact with Europeans until 1767, when the British Captain Philip Carteret came upon Santa Cruz and Malaita. British, French and American explorers followed, and whalers began arriving in 1798. Sandalwood traders visited from the 1840s to late 1860s.
On 6 October 1893, Britain proclaimed a protectorate over the archipelago’s southern islands, which was extended in 1897 and again in 1898. In 1899, Britain relinquished claims to Western Samoa, and in return Germany ceded the Shortlands, Choiseul, Ontong Java and Santa Isabel to Britain.
Between 1871 and 1903 blackbirders (slave traders) took 30,000 men from the Solomons to work in the cane fields of northern Australia and Fiji.
The year 1942 marked a turning point: in April the Japanese seized the Shortland Islands. Three weeks later Tulagi was taken and the Japanese began building an airstrip on Guadalcanal. United States troops landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, but were severely defeated by a Japanese naval force that had left Rabaul in New Guinea to attack the US transports. However, the US forces gradually gained the upper hand. During the Guadalcanal campaign, six naval battles were fought and 67 warships and transports sunk – so many ships were sunk off the northern coast of Guadalcanal that this area is now called Iron Bottom Sound. Around 7000 American and 30,000 Japanese lives were lost on land and at sea. The Allies recovered all islands after the official Japanese surrender in 1945. The town of Tulagi was gutted during the war and the Quonset-hut township of Honiara replaced it as the capital.
A proto-nationalist postwar movement called Marching Rule sprang up in Malaita, opposed to cooperation with the British authorities, whose rule had been restored after WWII. Britain began to see the need for local government, and a governing council was elected in 1970. The British Solomon Islands Protectorate was renamed the Solomon Islands five years later and independence was granted on 7 July 1978.
Ethnic tensions started to fester; the Gwale people (people from Guadalcanal) resented the fact that their traditional land was being settled by migrants from Malaita. Early in 1999, the inevitable happened. Civil war broke out, and hundreds died in the fighting. Following mediation by Australia and New Zealand, the Townsville Peace Agreement was signed between the two factions in October 2000. However, what began as ethnic tension descended into general lawlessness. Though the conflict was confined to Guadalcanal, ‘events’ started happening elsewhere, including in the Western Province. The whole country was crippled and traumatised, and the fragile economy collapsed.
On 24 July 2003, the RAMSI, an Australian-led coalition of police from Pacific island states, was deployed throughout the whole country to restore law and order. However, this progress was seriously undermined in April 2006, when the election of controversial Snyder Rini as prime minister resulted in two days of rioting in the streets of Honiara, despite the presence of RAMSI. Australia flew in reinforcements for the RAMSI personnel, which brought calm to the Solomons’ capital.
In early April 2007, a tsunami struck Western and Choiseul provinces. Aid workers arrived en masse to help rebuild the local economy.
In 1960 John F Kennedy invited two Solomon Islanders to his presidential inauguration in Washington DC. They were turned away because they spoke no English. In 1943 these two islanders had rescued 26-year-old skipper JFK and 10 survivors after their boat was sunk by Japanese during WWII.