Project Canterbury

Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia

Edited by W. H. R. Rivers

Cambridge: At the University Press, 1922.

IV. Depopulation in the Solomon Islands.

By the Rev. A. I. Hopkins, Melanesian Mission.

PERSONAL experience of some fourteen years in the Solomon Islands confirms the impression of a decreasing population. The decrease is not so great or so rapid, I believe, as that in the New Hebrides and Santa Cruz groups, but it is quite grave enough to justify alarm as to the future existence of the people. My own experience was gained on the island of Mala (or Malaita), the most populous and virile of the Solomon Islands, and the one on which the decrease is least obvious. But I fear that even there it is going on, and at an increasing rate. The causes are many and complex, and how to arrest the evil is a very difficult problem indeed.

To one living in Mala there are noticeable as main contributory causes:

A striking decrease in the size of families. Almost everywhere the previous generation seems to have been much more numerous, though the small islets off the coast still swarm with children. In inland villages they are very few in proportion to the much more scattered population. When trying to find causes for this there come to notice:

(a) A growing postponement of marriage to a later age. I suppose sixteen to eighteen was the normal marriage age some years ago; now marriage rarely takes place so early. The men wait till they have returned from plantation work, and then take a year or two to settle down. The girls are getting much more independent, and do not marry as ordered, [62/63] but put it off. Probably on this account there is more immorality before marriage than previously.

(b) Decrease in polygamy. This tends to reduce the birthrate, but I do not think it is at all a large factor in the matter. I do not gather that polygamy was very common or extensive in the old days. Probably in the New Hebrides it was practised on a larger scale.

(c) Artificial restriction. This seems to have been a known but rare and condemned practice in Mala before the coming of the white man. Now it seems to be spreading and to meet with less condemnation. The natives who have returned from Queensland have spread the practice, and added new methods of abortion to the old ones. Concoctions from the bark of trees are used.

(d) Venereal disease. Venereal sores are terribly common and syphilis must be playing a part in enfeebling and diminishing the population. But the evidence and observation of a doctor would be necessary to compute the gravity of this cause.

(e) Dysentery. This is a great scourge and a constant anxiety. More people probably die directly from this cause than from any other. Here I think there is hope of improvement, for our school villages escape more lightly than the heathen villages. Their people are more accessible and more amenable to advice, and can be taught, though of course very imperfectly, to use sanitary measures such as isolating patients, burning down huts, etc. The presence of a missionary is of great value here. Epidemics vary much in virulence; some sweep away villages wholesale; others pass, affecting only a few cases in the village. The percentage of deaths is also extremely variable. Santa Cruz has lately suffered terribly from this cause, and there has been very heavy mortality in San Cristoval also.

[64] (f) Pulmonary diseases. It is very hard to judge whether these are more common, but probably it is so. The wearing of clothes, damp in heated huts, must aggravate these diseases, and the lessening vitality of the people tends to make resistance less effective. But statistically the death roll in Mala from this cause is not so very heavy, the people being more virile than those on the other islands.

(g) Infant mortality. Infanticide becomes less common, after birth at any rate, as Christianity spreads. But the death-rate of infants is very high. This is due mainly to sheer ignorance and foolish feeding. There seems hope of improvement here as the light spreads. On the other hand in places where food can be bought, infants are killed by being fed on tinned instead of natural milk, and rice instead of the chewed native food. There is a great opportunity for women's work here.

(h) Plantation life. This of course directly reduces the population by separating the sexes just at the marriage age. The girls are left behind, the men are congregated on plantations. Previously the exodus of men to Queensland had the same result. Now it is the gathering of males on plantations with a very small proportion of married men.

Behind all these overt causes of many deaths and a low birth-rate lies as the main cause the impact of civilisation on a primitive race, and its sudden contact with a far higher civilisation. Genuine Christianity alone can bring the two into harmony, raising the uncivilised and restraining the selfishness of the civilised. The old native life is losing vigour. Lessened fighting may have something to do with this, but the gain is far greater. It is the loss of interest in their own work, their own methods and their own lands. Life is made easier by money, wages, tools, etc., and there is temptation to idleness and slackness which the stress of [64/65] existence corrected in the old days. The white man is the black man's burden; unless he uses great restraint, his presence saps the black man's independence. The Government as neutral between white and black can do much here to secure to the black man a fair chance. Work on plantations is no remedy; the natives simply endure an unnatural life for a time to get money. Very few are helped by it to a higher mode of life.

What can be done. Native marriage customs and morality should be respected both by Church and State. The old sanction of morality, fear of death, is going. New religious sanctions are only slowly taking its place. To encourage early marriage is most desirable. White men often misunderstand and therefore despise native customs that are helpful morally.

Sanitary action. This lies within the Government sphere, but missionaries can do much to help. Regulations as to pigs in villages, and as to general cleanliness help much to check dysentery.

Bringing greater interest into native life. If means could be devised by which the native worked more for himself and less for the white man it would be stimulating. If he could be encouraged by the formation of small native companies to make plantations of his own it would be a step forward. At present he only picks the coconuts that happen to grow, and sells them or makes a little copra. In Mala a good many of our new school villages have planted coconuts of their own, but not on any regular method. The selling of their land is very discouraging to native energy. The tenure of land is so complicated and uncertain that no one individual feels secure against sale. Nor do they readily grasp the meaning of absolute sale of land. It might be possible to set apart certain unalienable reserves, including some good coconut land, where the native would know he was secure [65/66] and would find it pay to work for himself. Unfortunately the plantations require more labour than they can get, and the stay-at-home native is not in favour. It would be for the good of the natives if a far larger percentage of married people were on the plantations.

The Mission might do more to develop industry. When the new schools are established in the islands the teaching of carpentry with native timber might be developed; work in bamboo and garden work offer scope for teaching industry. Native industries might be encouraged. It might be possible in Mala to teach boat-building. The native now-a-days buys quite a large number of boats. If missionaries of the Mackay type could be found there would be a great work for them to do. By some such methods as these there seems a hope of averting the present rapid decrease. But the whole crux of the question is the relation of white to black. It can only be solved by more Christianity on both sides.

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