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21 February 2012

A historical perspective


As countries throughout history battled over territory, the mad rush to gain colonial territory left the world with numerous island groups split down the middle or as archipelagoes where one or two islands were isolated from the rest of the group.

This created initially artificial divisions in otherwise homogenous places that eventually became quite real over time.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the colonial aspirations of both Germany and the United Kingdom ramped up in the South Pacific.

The Solomon Islands was one of the places where the interest of the two empires collided. Under Otto von Bismarck, Germany was making its first real run at international colonisation, encouraging private companies to stake out new lands for the country to claim.

One such company was the German New Guinea Company, which sought to create a system in New Guinea similar to that of the Dutch to the west in what is now Indonesia.

Establishing a colony in 1884, the German influence soon spread from New Guinea into the islands to the east – what we know today as the Bismarck Archipelago. As well, the northern Solomons further to the east also fell under this new protectorate.

Meanwhile, British and Australian missionaries had been entering the Solomons from the south only to receive hostile, often violent, receptions from the indigenous population; a population that had grown distrustful of outsiders due to their experiences with plantation labour recruiters.

These ‘recruiters’ resorted to trickery and/or kidnapping to obtain labour for sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji, as well as guano mines across the Pacific. In order to ensure peaceful conditions in the region, and to crack down on such illegal labour practices, the UK established its own protectorate over the south Solomons in 1893.

Eventually, the claims of the Germans moving in from the north met up with those of the British in the south. At the same time, Germany was looking to solidify it claims to the western half of Samoa, also claimed by Britain.

In 1899, a tripartite convention granted Germany’s request to claim Western Samoa in exchange for granting the Solomons to the UK – all except for the two northernmost Solomons, Bougainville (the largest of the group) and Buka, which remained with German New Guinea. After World War I, rule over the territory was transferred to Australia.

Under Australian rule, large copper deposits were first exploited on Bougainville, and starting in the 1960s the Panguna mine became one of the largest on the planet. Almost all of the profits from this operation went into the coffer of its Australian owners or to the Papua New Guinea government rather than back into Bougainville.

Disgruntled, a movement amongst Bougainvilleans for independence arose in the mid-1960s. While this did lead to some autonomy in 1972, as a non-integral possession of Australia, the islands was ruled to not be entitled to the same level of compensation as other Australian territory.

This, combined with the murder of two public servants in the highlands, stoked the fire of secession, and by the time PNG achieved full independence in late 1975, Bougainville had already seceded as the Republic of the North Solomons.

While this secession didn’t take, disputes over mining compensation continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, eventually resulting in full-blown civil war for much of the 1990s.

A ceasefire took hold in 1997, followed by the establishment of the Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2000, but a promised referendum on independence has yet to be held.

Source: The Geographer