Contact between New Zealand and Melanesia was encouraged by Christian missionaries from the mid-19th century. The Anglican Church adopted Melanesia as its ‘special field’ for mission work in 1862, and Presbyterians were active in the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu). Mission activities were publicised through public lectures and in local newspapers. It was widely thought that the Melanesian mission of New Zealand would be followed by a Melanesian colony.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the main fighting in the Pacific war occurred in western Melanesia and Micronesia – far away from what had become New Zealand’s core areas of responsibility in central and eastern Polynesia. New Zealand troops were stationed in Fiji and New Caledonia, and participated in heavy fighting in the Solomon Islands. With the end of the war, New Zealand interest in Melanesia again subsided.
The 1988–97 conflict on Bougainville proved a catalyst for New Zealand engagement in Melanesia. The crisis was sparked by local grievances over the distribution of revenues from, and jobs at, Conzinc Riotinto Australia’s Panguna mine. It grew into a secessionist struggle after Papua New Guinea police and military forces attempted to suppress the uprising, but then withdrew leaving the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) in effective control.
Conflict continued, with the BRA pitted against the Bougainville Resistance Forces, and a myriad of local-level conflicts. In 1997 Papua New Guinea’s government hired a mercenary firm, Sandline International, to resolve the impasse, but this sparked a mutiny in the Papua New Guinea defence forces.
New Zealand had been involved in earlier efforts to broker negotiations, including providing a neutral venue for talks that culminated in the 1990 Endeavour Accord. The 1997 Sandline crisis, at a time of war weariness on Bougainville, offered a unique opportunity for peace. New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon and Ambassador to Papua New Guinea John Hayes invited all sides to talks at the military barracks in Burnham, near Christchurch, in 1997, and then at Lincoln University in 1998. Negotiations emphasised confidence-building and involved militia factions, church groups and non-government organisations as well as government representatives. They culminated in the establishment of a New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group.
After agreement to a permanent ceasefire in April 1998, leadership of the group passed to Australia, although New Zealanders continued to play key leadership roles. A peace agreement was signed in Arawa on 30 August 2001. It included plans for the establishment of an autonomous government for Bougainville, for a referendum on independence, and made provision for weapons disposal. In 2019, 98.3% of those who voted in a non-binding referendum favoured independence rather than continued autonomy within Papua New Guinea.