The region includes the four independent countries of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, as well as the French special collectivity of New Caledonia, and the Indonesian region of Western New Guinea. Most of the region is in the Southern Hemisphere, with a few small northwestern islands of Western New Guinea in the Northern Hemisphere.
The name Melanesia (in French Mélanésie) was first used by Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1832 to denote an ethnic and geographical grouping of islands whose inhabitants he thought were distinct from those of Micronesia and Polynesia.
The concept among Europeans of Melanesia as a distinct region evolved gradually over time as their expeditions mapped and explored the Pacific. Early European explorers noted the physical differences among groups of Pacific Islanders. In 1756 Charles de Brosses theorized that there was an "old black race" in the Pacific who were conquered or defeated by the peoples of what is now called Polynesia, whom he distinguished as having lighter skin.:189–190 In the first half of the nineteenth century Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent and Jules Dumont d'Urville identified Melanesians as a distinct racial group. :165
Over time, however, Europeans increasingly viewed Melanesia as a distinct cultural, rather than racial, area. Scholars and other commentators disagreed on its boundaries, which were fluid. In the nineteenth century Robert Codrington, a British missionary, produced a series of monographs on "the Melanesians" based on his long-time residence in the region. In works including The Melanesian Languages (1885) and The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folk-lore (1891), Codrington defined Melanesia as including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and Fiji. He did not include the islands of New Guinea because only some of its people were Melanesians. Like Bory de Saint-Vincent, he excluded Australia from Melanesia.:528 It was in these works that Codrington introduced the cultural concept of mana to the West.