The islands now known as the Solomons are thought to have been inhabited originally by Melanesians, whose language has affinities with Malay but whose precise origin has not been determined. The first European contact with the Solomons, in 1567, was the sighting of Santa Isabel Island by the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña; the following year, Mendaña and another Spaniard, Pedro de Queirós, explored some of the islands. Mendaña named the islands Islas de Salomon, thinking that the gold source for King Solomon's riches was located there.
European contact with the Solomons was cut off for nearly two centuries until they were visited by the English navigator Philip Carteret in 1767. Following Carteret's visit, the British navy began to make periodic calls at the islands. During the period 1845–93, the Solomons were frequently visited by missionaries and traders. Indigenous peoples were also subjected to exploitation by "blackbirders," who impressed their captives into forced labor, often on colonial sugar plantations in Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti, or Queensland. The brutality of the kidnappers provoked reprisals by the islanders, resulting in mass slayings of both Europeans and local peoples.
In 1893, the British government stepped in and established a protectorate over certain islands in the southern Solomons, including Guadalcanal, Malaita (now Makira), San Cristobal, and the New Georgia group. The remainder of the Solomons had by this time fallen under German dominion; some of these, including Choiseul and Santa Isabel, were transferred by treaty to the UK in 1900. The British Solomon Islands Protectorate, as the entire group came to be known, initially was under the jurisdiction of the Office of the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific.
During World War II, the Solomons provided the theater for some of the most bitter fighting of the Pacific war after Japanese troops invaded and occupied Guadalcanal in 1942. A Japanese airfield on the island's northern coast—later known as Henderson's Field—was captured by US Marines on 7 August 1942, the opening foray in the Battle of Guadalcanal, which cost the lives of about 1,500 US soldiers and 20,000 Japanese. Guadalcanal was evacuated by Japan in February 1943, although Japanese forces remained elsewhere in the Solomons until 1945. Widespread destruction and loss of life were visited on the local peoples during the war, and the legacy of social dislocation gave impetus to the development of a pro-independence nationalist movement in Malaita known as the Marching Rule.
In 1953, local advisory councils were set up in Malaita, eventually spreading to other islands of the protectorate. In 1960, the territorial government appointed executive and legislative councils, which were granted their first elected minority in 1964. A new constitution promulgated in April 1970 provided for replacement of the two councils by a unitary Governing Council, the majority of whose members were to be elected. During May and June, the Solomon Islands' first general election was held, with voters selecting 17 of the council's 26 members. On 21 August 1974, a new constitution introduced a ministerial system of government headed by a Council of Ministers. A Legislative Assembly subsequently chose Solomon Mamaloni as the Solomons' first chief minister. In May 1975, a delegation from the Solomon Islands, led by Mamaloni, met with UK officials in London and set up a timetable for internal self-government and for full independence. On 22 June 1975, the territory's name was officially changed from the British Solomon Islands Protectorate to the Solomon Islands.
The islands achieved internal self-government in 1976 and became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations on 7 July 1978. Peter Kenilorea was prime minister until his coalition government collapsed in August 1981, after which Mamaloni returned to power. In October 1984, Sir Peter Kenilorea (as he had become) was reelected prime minister, but he resigned in November 1986, following allegations of mismanagement of funds; Ezekiel Alebua, deputy prime minister, succeeded him. In the general elections of February 1989 the People's Alliance Party (PAP), led by Solomon Mamaloni, defeated the Alebua government. Mamaloni became the new prime minister in March 1989. Mamaloni resigned as PAP leader in October 1990 and formed a coalition government with several members of the opposition. Francis Billy Hilly, an independent supported by members of the National Coalition Partners (a loose six-party coalition), became the Solomon Islands' new prime minister in June 1993. Hilly worked with the Melanesian Spearhead Conference to ease tension between the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. In 1994, Parliament voted to replace Hilly with Mamaloni, leader of the Group for National Unity and Reconciliation (GNUR), the largest political party in parliament.
In the 1997 National Parliament elections, GNUR retained its majority, and Bartholomew Ulufa'alu was elected prime minister. He pledged to resolve the Solomons' financial crisis by improving revenue collections and downsizing government ministries. He also grappled with the problem of finding a resolution to the ethnic conflict in Guadalcanal which dominated all other domestic political issues since late 1998. Disputed were issues of land ownership, access to education, employment and economic development between the people of Guadalcanal and Malaitan settlers on the island. That year, the Isatubu Freedom Movement (IFM), representing Guadalcanal's native people, began to forcibly evict Malaitans, who responded by forming the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). In May 2000, the MEF took Ulufa'alu hostage, staging a coup. Ulufa'alu resigned, and in June he was replaced by Manasseh Sogavare. Fighting between the two factions had left over 100 people dead and more than 20,000 displaced. A peace agreement was signed in October 2000, but it failed to end the violence. Unarmed peacekeepers from Australia and New Zealand were sent to supervise disarmament and demilitarization. In September 2001, IFM rebel leader Selwyn Sake was killed, threatening the peace agreement. In November, the MEF reported that 90% of its weapons had been surrendered. Allan Kemakeza of the People's Alliance Party was elected prime minister in December 2001. In February 2003, a member of the country's National Peace Council, Sir Frederick Soaki, was assassinated. He worked with the UN to demobilize former militants still employed by the government as police officers on Malaita. As of early 2003, Kemakeza's government was criticized for failing to curb the actions of militia members.