Michener served 2 tour of duties in the South Pacific. He traveled to 49 Islands and was considered an expert. He describes the Island groups this way:
1) Polynesia-(many) situated in the east. Contains Tahiti, Somoa, Hawaii, Rarotonga. They are the islands most think about when they hear South Sea Islands. The population are light-brown, tall, beautiful.
2) Micronesia- (small) northwest. Guam, Saipan, Palau. Mixed stock of Spanish descent-light brown, medium size, first to be self-governed.
3) Melanesia-(black) southwest Guadacanal, Bougauville, New Caledonia, New Hebrides-Very black population, small stature late in developing self-government.
The exception is Fiji at the exteme east of the Melanesia Islands. There, the people are tall, handsome and have had self-government for many years.
The International Dateline runs down the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Somoa and Fiji. The world’s day begins in Fiji and ends in Somoa.
New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, is the location of the play. It’s in the Melanesia chain of Islands.
In 1825, trader Peter Dillon's discovery of sandalwood on the island of Erromango began a rush that ended in 1830 after a clash between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade called "blackbirding." At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad. It was at this time that missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, arrived on the islands. Settlers also came, looking for land on which to establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 soon tipped the balance in favor of French subjects. By the turn of the century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.
The jumbling of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory.
In 1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power.
Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal demeanor and relative wealth, was instrumental in the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with two members in Parliament.
New Hebrides during the war saw no combat. They were part of the supply route for the soldiers fighting in the Coral sea in New Guinea and northward in the Solomon Islands where some of the bloodiest battle took place like Guadal Canal.
Michener met a real woman named Bloody Mary. She was a woman from Tonkin, which later became North Vietnam. She got her name, not from betel juice but from her fierce fighting in the exploitation of her people by the French colonists. The foreshadowing of the Vietnam conflict is in this microcosm. She worked for a coconut plantation owner named Ratard, but earned money how she could, including grass skirts, human heads, and liquor for the soldiers. Her money went for the freedom fight of her people.
It was a real place- Ambae. From the East coast of Santo, the island is a clear blue pyramid rising from the ocean in the early morning light. But as the sun climbs higher, except for rare, clear days, the island quickly disappears behind a glare of sea haze.
Ambae's pyramid shape is due to its volcanic origins. The island is a large semi-active shield volcano rising to 1496m above sea level. It's Vanuatu's second highest island with crater lakes on the summit and cloud forests on the upper slopes. East Ambae is wet and the west is a rain-shadow area.
There was a real Bali Ha’i. Michener mentions in his book . In the Treasury Island in the Melanesian chain, he came across a village with scrawny residents, ramshackle huts and 1 pig. It was desolate and hopeless looking. On a cardboard sign, he saw the word, Bali Ha’i. The name stuck with him.