Melanesians are thought to have migrated to Oceania from Africa during one of the first waves of human migration, about 50,000 years ago. They settled in a region known as Melanesia.
Melanesia is comprised of the independent countries of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands. it also includes French New Caledonia and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.
The term “Melanesia” was coined in 1832 by French naval officer Bory de Saint-Vincent; it is derived from the Greek language and means “islands of black [people].”
Upon seeing the indigenous people of the Melanesia region, I immediately thought, “they look Black.” A simple Google Image search returns people with smooth brown skin, full lips and noses, and coily hair. What was most striking is that some of them have natural blond hair.
Why Are Some Melanesians Black People With Blond Hair?
According to a 2012 New York Times article, “Island’s Genetic Quirk: Dark Skin, Blond Hair”, the light hair is due to a unique gene, known as TYRP1, that only Melanesians possess. TYRP1 “is distinctly different from the the gene that causes blond hair in Europeans.”
Certain features do not automatically mean admixture, which is often assumed when non-Europeans have phenotypes that are believed to be atypical of their ethnic backgrounds. In Melanesia, the presence of Black people with blond hair has nothing to do with outside influences.
It is simply a testimony to the diversity within the human race, and how our ideas of race are quite narrowly defined. For this reason, I try to be careful about classifying other peoples according to my own cultural (i.e. American) understanding.
This is discussed by Johns Hopkins University Professor Robbie Shilliam in his article, “Melanesia, Creoles, and Ideas of Blackness”:
“I had just returned to the UK from five years in Aotearoa, New Zealand. As I worked through the archives, experiences and commitments that would come to form a book called The Black Pacific: Anti-colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections, I presented some of the materials to the long-standing Pan-African Society Community Forum in Brixton, London…I was concerned that bredrin and sistren would too easily ascribe African-ness to the phenotypically Black peoples of the Pacific. I wanted to be sure to make the case that these Oceanic peoples had their own histories, genealogies, concepts, languages, cosmologies and politics. It would be the same, I reasoned to myself, as imagining that the simple ascription of Blackness to Accra Ghanaian, cockpit country Jamaican, British-born-X, Muslim Oromo etc. by itself solves the politics of pan-Africanism instead of setting the coordinates for struggles towards solidarity…”
Shilliam’s insightful article influenced me to find out how Melanesians classify themselves.
Melanesians and the Pacific Concept of Blackness
I came across a broadcast on ABC Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat in which the host, Tahlea Aualittia, asks Melanesian women living in Australia how they identify.
Law student Vatiseva Kacikilagi’s words were particularly enlightening.
She states, “Although I am not an African-American, I am still considered Black, especially here in Australia. For me, being Melanesian is something that I am very proud of. It obviously translates to the Black islands, which [was given to us when] a French explorer came and was dividing the Pacific into regions. Because we were the only region that was given the name due to the color of our skin, it was in a way used against us to weaponize our skin color, to make us feel like we were inferior.”
From listening to this discussion, it became clear that while the women interviewed take pride in their Blackness, they also see themselves as Melanesians, given their unique experience as a dark skinned Pacific islander people that departed from Africa eons ago.
Moreover, as another guest stated, given that many Melanesians have immigrated to Australia, where the Aboriginal people also refer to themselves as “Black”, the term has a different political, geographical, and historical meaning in the Pacific than it does in America and most of the world.
Both the Melanesians and Australian Aboriginal people descend from groups that left the African continent over 50,000 years ago, and yet they identify with a familiar history of racist subjugation due to their “African/Black” phenotype.
What the Oceanic experience raises is an interesting prospect, which is that one can be “Black” without being of (recent) African descent.
Professor Robbie Shilliam sums up this complicated idea of Blackness perfectly when he asks, “So, what does it take to commit to global Black Power, wherein pan-Africanism charts courses beyond or besides colonial cartography?…To conceptually un-anchor Black internationalism from balkanized narratives is to admit that Blackness does not diffuse globally in a modular form…”
This is indeed something to ponder.
To better understand the identities of Melanesians and other Pacific peoples, I plan to examine the complex history of Oceania.
Read Part 1 of my Follow the Sugar series here.
Next Post: West Papua, The Spice Islands, and the Legacy of the Dutch East Indies
“DNA Links Aborigines to African walkabout.” University of Cambridge, May 8, 2007.
Adobe Onyeakagbu, “Melanesians: Meet the world’s only natural black blondes”, Pulse, June 23, 2022.
Robbie Shilliam, “Melanesia, Creoles, and Ideas of Blackness”, Black Perspectives, June 29, 2021.
Sindya N. Bhanoo, “Island’s Genetic Quirk: Dark Skin, Blond Hair“, The New York Times, May 3, 2012.
Tahlea Aualiitia, “Melanesian, Black or Person of Colour: which one do you use to identify?”, ABC Radio Australia, June 19, 2020.
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