The region includes the four independent countries of
The name Melanesia (in French Mélanésie) was first used by
The concept among Europeans of Melanesia as a distinct region evolved gradually over time as their expeditions mapped and explored the Pacific. Early European explorers noted the physical differences among groups of Pacific Islanders. In 1756
Over time, however, Europeans increasingly viewed Melanesia as a distinct cultural, rather than racial, area. Scholars and other commentators disagreed on its boundaries, which were fluid. In the nineteenth century
Uncertainty about the delineation and definition of the region continues. The scholarly consensus now includes New Guinea within Melanesia. Ann Chowning wrote in her 1977 textbook on Melanesia that there is
no general agreement even among
anthropologistsabout the geographical boundaries of Melanesia. Many apply the term only to the smaller islands, excluding New Guinea; Fiji has frequently been treated as an anomalous border region or even assigned wholly to Polynesia; and the people of the Torres Straits Islands are often simply classified as Australian aborigines. :1
In 1998 Paul Sillitoe wrote of Melanesia: "it is not easy to define precisely, on geographical, cultural, biological, or any other grounds, where Melanesia ends and the neighbouring regions ... begins". :1 He ultimately concludes that the region is
a historical category which evolved in the nineteenth century from the discoveries made in the Pacific and has been legitimated by use and further research in the region. It covers populations that have a certain linguistic, biological and cultural affinity – a certain ill-defined sameness, which shades off at its margins into difference. :1
Both Sillitoe and Chowning include the island of New Guinea in the definition of Melanesia, and both exclude Australia.
Most of the peoples in Melanesia have established independent countries, are admistered by France or have active independence movements (in the case of West Papua). Many have recently taken up the term 'Melanesia' as a source of identity and "empowerment". Stephanie Lawson writes that the term "moved from a term of denigration to one of affirmation, providing a positive basis for contemporary subregional identity as well as a formal organisation".
:14 For instance, the author