Solomon Islands Pijin is one of the three Melanesian pidgins (along with Tok Pisin spoken in Papua–New Guinea, and Bislama spoken in Vanuatu) that are, more or less directly, the offshoots of the Pacific trade jargon of the early 19th century, known as Beach-la-Mar. This early jargon further expanded and stabilised during the plantation period of the second part of the 19th century that linked the Melanesian archipelagoes of Vanuatu and the Solomons to Australia. The labour trade to Queensland lasted 40 years, from 1863 to 1906. At the beginning of the trade period, the Australian planters started to recruit in the New Hebrides, the Melanesian archipelago closest to Australia: they then moved north towards the Banks Islands, the Santa Cruz archipelago and later, around 1874, toward the Solomon Islands, when recruiting in the southern islands became difficult. Around 13,000 Solomon Islanders were taken to Queensland during the labour trade period (Price and Baker 1976). The pidgin language (called Kanaka Pidgin English) that was used on the plantations became the lingua franca spoken between Melanesian workers (the Kanakas, as they were called) who did not share the same language, and between Melanesians and European overseers. When Solomon Islanders came back to the Solomons at the end of their contract, or when they were forcefully repatriated at the end of the labour trade period (1904), they brought Melanesian pidgin to the Solomon Islands. Old people today still remember the stories that were told by the old former Queensland hands many years after their return.
Following the annexation of the Solomon Islands by the British, Pijin became the medium by which Solomon Islanders interacted with British colonial officers, and with other Solomon Islanders from different ethnic groups. Some employees of the early colonial administration, such as the constabulary, were recruited among Pijin speakers because it meant that they had had previous contact with Europeans.
One of the first outcomes of the Pax Britannica had been the development of a plantation economy in the Solomons that had appeared as early as 1910, and the use of pidgin as the lingua franca of the archipelago. The plantations required a lot of labourers, who were recruited from different islands. Solomon Islanders began to migrate within the archipelago, between the plantation areas and the areas supplying the labour force Not surprisingly, the first labourers to engage themselves to work on the Solomons plantations were men who had been to Queensland before and who knew pidgin. Thus, the Kanaka Pidgin English of Queensland was reactivated on a larger scale by people building on their previous knowledge of it. In those days, young men did not learn Pijin until they went to the plantations. Over the years, circular migration allowed one or two generations of young men to be in contact with Pijin. As a result, the pool of Pijin speakers became enlarged. Pijin proved so successful as a lingua franca that it expanded very quickly within the population. Workers and overseers alike learnt Pijin by listening to other people talk. The workers learnt it from their fellow workers. The unspoken rule was that you spoke your language with people belonging to your language group and Pijin with everybody else, the overseer included. Some old-timers acted as interpreters for the newcomers (niusam).
Another important event in the history of Pijin is World War II and the presence of the American army in the archipelago in 1942. Even though most plantation labourers were repatriated during that time, many Solomon men (around 2000) were enrolled in the Solomon Islands Labour Corps and in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force, in which 680 Islanders enlisted (Laracy 1983). Solomon Islanders who witnessed that period say that they spoke to the American soldiers in Pidgin and sometimes in English when it was known to them. Many of the Americans had some basic knowledge of the Pidgin English spoken in then New Guinea. This pidgin, now called Tok Pisin, then called Melanesian pidgin, was one of the forty Pacific languages that the American army deemed potentially useful to their soldiers fighting in the Pacific. It was taught to the troops through the medium of a small handbook that had some phrases in Tok Pisin. Even though it is difficult to assess the degree of the transformation that Pijin underwent during that period, it is obvious that the more intensive the contact with English, the more the presence of English was going to be felt in Solomons Pijin.
It is during the time of Maasina Rule, the politico-religious movement that swept the island of Malaita after World War II, that Pijin became a political tool. Pijin proved crucial to the movement very early on, as it was the only language that could be understood by all ethnic groups alike. It is through Pijin that the political ideology of the movement was disseminated. Pijin assisted in the communication of the ideas of Maasina Rule (Bennett 1979), but also in forging the unity of the movement: linguistic barriers were broken down, and the notion of group identity gradually incorporated the wider notion of brotherhood. Through Pijin, the movement mobilised the Malaitan population and spread through traditional exchange networks, through mission links and through very large political meetings gathering people from different language groups.
Solomon Islands Pijin is now spoken throughout the Solomons archipelago. It is, by far, the primary lingua franca of the island group, superceding missionary lingua francas. Intrinsically linked to the 19th century labour trade to Queensland and to the 20th century local circular labour migration, Pijin from the start was used predominantly by adult males, most women and children simply having no access to it. It is still quite common nowadays to come across mature women in remote areas of the Solomon Islands who do not know Pijin at all. People, and women in particular, who were not incorporated into the traditional settings or contexts of Pijin usage and transmission (plantations, mission stations or schooling) had never had any need for Pijin, and /or any opportunities or incentive to learn it. The situation is being modified nowadays with increasing urbanisation, widespread primary schooling, development and reinforcement of a cash economy and growing transport links that make it possible for people to move back and forth between the villages and Honiara – the main Pijin-speaking area of the country. All these activities provide all members of the society, and not only men as had been the case before, with opportunities (and sometimes money) for travel within the island group. As movements of population increase, people of different linguistic traditions come in contact in a way and on a scale that differs drastically from traditional inter-group and /or inter-islands contacts. This has opened the way for Pijin to establish itself as the main language of the country.
Since the 1960s, Pijin has become the main language of the capital city of Honiara and the mother tongue of many young urban adults and of a new generation of young urban children who know no other language but Pijin. Pijin is not only the medium of communication of urban life, it is the medium of a type of culture that is different in many respects from the cultural world of the plantations, and from those of the villages. In Honiara, the strong position of Pijin is reinforced by the very high degree of language diversity we find in town (most of the 64 vernaculars of the country are represented in Honiara). People migrating to town have had to learn Pijin quickly if they wanted to create a social life for themselves outside of the limits of the wantok system. Due to the high number of inter-ethnic marriages in town, Pijin progressively found its way within the family circle, whereas it used to be used almost exclusively with non-family members, and particularly, with non-wantok people. Elsewhere in the country, people tend to have access to Pijin at a much earlier age and in wider contexts of communication than before. Radio programs, inter-ethnic contacts, social media, text-messaging in Pijin, all this has contributed to the expansion of Pijin in the country.
Despite still not having the official status of national language, Pijin has become the true national language of the Solomon Islands, the only linguistic cement that binds the country together. Papua–New Guinea and Vanuatu have recognised the major roles played by Tok Pisin and Bislama respectively in these countries. One hopes that the Solomon Islands will soon do the same for Pijin.