Significant events in the history of the islands of the South Pacific include the population by Polynesian groups between 2,000 B.C. and 800 A.D., the discovery and colonization by Europeans between 1600 and 1900, and the annexation or independence of the major islands between 1880 and 1980. The first inhabitants of the major islands travel by canoe from Southeast Asia and reach Australia and New Guinea by 2000 B.C.
These groups settle Samoa, Fiji and Tonga between 1300 and 200 B.C and the Marquesas Islands by 100 B.C. Later groups reach Hawaii, Easter Island, Tahiti and New Zealand between 200 and 800 A.D.
After Spain discovers the Solomons in 1546, Europeans begin exploring southern Pacific islands in search of “terra australis incognitus,” the unknown southern land rumored to contain abundant supplies of gold, silver and spices. The Dutch discover Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga and the Fiji Islands between 1642 and 1643, and Easter Island in 1722. The British claim Tahiti in 1767, New Caledonia in 1774 and Hawaii in 1778.
European colonists and missionaries arrive and the islands pass between countries during the 9th century. New Zealand becomes a British colony in 1840, followed by Fiji in 1874. France acquires Tahiti in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1853. The United States annexes Hawaii and acquires Guam, the Philippines and eastern Samoa from Spain in 1898.
In 1942, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and attacks Dutch and British possessions in the South Pacific, bringing World War II to the region. Hawaii becomes the 50th U.S. state in 1959 and the major islands obtain independence from European powers, starting with Samoa in 1962, Fiji and Tonga in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975, and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in 1978 and 1980.