The wealth of Solomon, a Biblical King of Israel (c. 970-931 BC), is probably the most prominent story of prosperity in the vast pool of fortune-narratives in Western Tradition. It is believed Solomon amassed 500 tons of gold – from the legendary mines of Ophir.

The dream of grand fortune propelled Christian kings and nobles into geographical discoveries and colonial projects. The obsessive search for El Dorado or the King Solomon Mines shaped a good part of human history. And the Solomon Islands in the far away South Pacific were effectively named (or envisaged) before they were even “discovered” by the Spanish.

Oddly, such Islands of bounty were mentioned in the legendary Inca account Topa Inca Yupanqui. In the story, a ruler Tupac Inca sailed his flotilla from the Peruvian coast, westwards into the Pacific, until he discovered the islands of Avachumbi and Ninachumbi in about 1480. On his return from this ten-month-long voyage, he brought with him “black people, gold, a chair of brass, and a skin and jaw bone of a horse.”

With fired imagination, Spanish navigator, Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira (1542–1595), went to replicate Tupac’s journey. He discovered, explored and named Islas Salomon in 1568. He tried to set a colonial outpost there. In 1595 Mendaña and Fernández de Quirós (1565–1614) set a short-lived colony on Nendo (Ndeni) – in the Santa Cruz group. For two months, an attempted settlement was hindered by senseless violence and killings, and when a friendly-disposed Chief Malope was killed, the enterprise ended in dramatic failure.

Undeterred, an idealistic Queirós visited the Solomon Islands again in 1606, but was again unable to set a viable settlement. Afterwards the Solomon Islands were not disturbed by Europeans until 1767 when Philip Carteret (1733-1796), a British navigator, stopped at Santa Cruz and Malaita during his circumnavigation of the globe.

It was not for the lack of will, technical means or geographical knowledge, but rather a combined result of logistical difficulties, closely linked to the lack of commercial opportunities. It is instructive to consider that the Philippines, at the similar incredible distance and six months eastward-sailing to the New Spain’s ports, Acapulco in Mexico and Callao in Peru, became a viable colony because of the hefty trade with China.

Forehead ornament made of clam and turtle shell, Western Province. It was acquired in 1921.
Forehead ornament made of clam and turtle shell, Western Province. It was acquired in 1921. Image: Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

In 1606 Fernández de Quirós founded another short-lived Spanish settlement on the Island Espiritu Santo (in Vanuatu) while his “companion” Luís Vaz de Torres (c. 1565-1607) explored the Gulf of Papua New Guinea and claimed the entire island for the King of Spain (1607). But the colonial interest had the strong commercial pull in the Philippines and “East Indies” where silk, porcelain, tea and spices helped mercantile capitalists to make their fortunes.

Melanesia was left largely out of the colonial plans for a few centuries, at the benefit of several generation of indigenous communities. But was gold really discovered by Álvaro de Mendaña? The Gold Ridge Mine on Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands began producing some precious metal in 1939, but it is rather troublesome venture and unlikely to bring prosperity to the nation.

However, the Solomon Islands are rich in biodiversity, on land and in surrounding waters, as well as amazing cultural heritage developed by many generations of indigenous Islanders, beginning with the first human groups who arrived here some 30,000 years ago. Many layers of cultural tradition have been accumulated since, some imperceptible in the long depth of time. Others are more prominent, like the expansion of Austronesian people nearly 4,000 years ago, which left vivid linguistic traits and cultural customs. In the first and the late second millennium before Common Era culture distinguished by Lapita pottery left its marks in Solomon Islands. It is difficult to say if and how early encounters with the Spanish influenced culture as we know it from the 19th and 20th century. Various cultural traits such as head-hunting, body tattoo, dugout canoe with outrigger and omnipresent bark-cloth suggest long-standing links with Austronesian family in Southeast Asia on one hand and Polynesia on the other.

The Solomon Islands, with over 6,000 artefacts, is the third largest collection from the Pacific region held at the Australian Museum. Over 1,000 objects were acquired in 19th century and another 1,000 by the end of the First World War. By the time of the Solomon Islands independence (1978), the collection reached nearly 4,000 objects.

Bamboo Panpipes
This bamboo panpipes from Guadalcanal Island exemplify a common and important musical instrument of the Solomon Islands. Acquired by the Museum from the Australian Board of Missions in 1900. Image: Emma Furno
© Australian Museum

A sizable part of the collection was assembled before the Second World War by academics, Raymond Firth (700), and Ian Hogbin (90), and therefore is well documented. Nearly 180 objects from the “Old Collection” have no documentation, but are possibly some of the oldest in the collection (1870s-1880s). A small collection obtained from Captain Hamilton (1880s), who was involved in blackbirding, is an example of early opportunistic collecting. A full-size head-hunting canoe Tomako built at the beginning of the 20th century is a material evidence of highly accomplished maritime technology.

The collection was assembled by donations and purchases from over 300 individuals and organisations, and objects collected in the field by over 70 people - captains, traders, casual visitors and academics. The Australian Museum collecting-expedition to Santa Cruz group in 1926 shows our active interest in this area.

Additional information:

The Spanish entered the Pacific on 28 November 1520, under the command of Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães – Ferdinand Magellan. He gave the ocean its name which remains unchanged ever since. Only five months later, the energetic commander reached the Chieftain of Sugbu (now Cebu, Philippines), claimed the islands for the King of Spain and named them Archipelago of Saint Lazarus. He attempted to take it by force, but lost the battle of Mactan and was killed on 27 April 1521. But the Spanish persisted - in 1570 they conquered the Kingdom of Manila and became the colonial rulers in the Philippines.

Ophir (pronounced 'o-fa') is the site where the first significant deposit of gold was found in Australia, in 1851. Ophir, at the confluence of Summer Hill Creek and Lewis Ponds Creek, is about 27 km north-east of Orange in New South Wales. In the 1850s, over 2,000 miners dug the ground for their fortunes, but the deposits of precious metal were fast exhausted. Ophir, named by Europeans in reference to Biblical story, is a part of the Wiradjuri homeland. The gorge was known as Drunong Drung (many snakes).