The little-known Solomon Islands are a particularly unusual frame of reference for a work of contemporary fiction. By contrasting New England and Oceania, The Bird Skinner sheds light on a fairly obscure culture.
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago of about 900 islands located in Melanesia, a subregion of Oceania in the western Pacific. Most of the islands are mountainous due to volcanic activity, others are often tiny low lying sandy atolls. The closest land masses are Papua New Guinea and Australia to the west. It is believed that Papuans first settled on the Solomon Islands about 30,000 years ago. A new round of immigration from Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE brought new languages as well as agricultural and boat-building innovations. Archaeological evidence only goes back about as far as the 13th century CE, with notable fortresses and shrines including those at the Nusa Roviana headhunters' hill fort.
European explorers first reached the country in 1568, when Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira landed on Santa Isabel Island. Traces of gold found on Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) caused him to believe he'd found the wealth of the biblical King Solomon and led to the island chain's name. Future attempts to found a colony were unsuccessful, as were later expeditions by the British, French, and Dutch. It was not until the nineteenth century's major missionary activity that the Solomon Islands finally came under European rule, with Germany taking on the northern region as a protectorate in 1886 and Great Britain the southern region in 1893. Later, Britain absorbed control of the entire nation.
For such a small and obscure island country, the Solomon Islands played an unpredictably large role in World War II (as the character Jim experiences in The Bird Skinner). Japan invaded the islands in January 1942 and the United States retaliated by sending Marines to Guadalcanal and Tulagi, the site of British administration. The Solomon Islands would see some of the bitterest fighting of the war. The Battle of Guadalcanal (in August 1942) was the first major offensive against Japan and resulted in a much-needed Allied victory. The Japanese withdrew from the islands in December; their new defensive posture significantly weakened their Pacific campaign.
Britain regained control of the Solomon Islands in 1945, and the nation earned independence in 1978. Since that time it has been a parliamentary democracy but remains part of the Commonwealth of former British colonies, such that Queen Elizabeth II is still the official sovereign. The country is led by Governor-General Frank Kabui and, since 2011, Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo. Border conflicts with Papua New Guinea dominated the 1990s, and ethnic violence against the Malaitans between 1997 and 2003 was another major source of upheaval. In February 2013, an 8.0 earthquake and accompanying tsunami destroyed five villages and 100 homes.
The population of the Solomon Islands is estimated at around 580,000. The capital and largest city is Honiara (on Guadalcanal) and is home to nearly 65,000. Ethnic Melanesians make up about 95% of the population. While about 90% identify as Christians, it is still common to honor ancestral spirits in local customs. The currency is the Solomon Islands dollar and the official language is English, but this is only spoken by 1-2% of the population and so is much less commonly heard than the lingua franca, Pijin, a Papuan language. Timber and palm oil are among the islands' major exports, which has led to a dangerous level of deforestation. Tourism, especially for diving, is another key industry.
This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the
November 2014 paperback release.
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