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Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia

Edited by W. H. R. Rivers

Cambridge: At the University Press, 1922.

V. The Depopulation of Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands.

By the Rev. W. C. O'Ferrall.

THERE is no doubt whatever that the population of this district has decreased very greatly indeed since the days when Bishop Patteson first visited it in 1856. The Bishop refers frequently in his letters to "large crowds," "crowded villages," "large crowds of men thronging the beach," etc.

My connection with these islands began in 1897 and it was evident that a considerable change must have taken place. Most of the Reef Islands were indeed still thickly populated, so was the island of Trevannion. The large island of Santa Cruz from Carlisle Bay on the north-east to C. Mendana on the south was deserted. If one might believe native accounts it had once been covered with villages. Graciosa Bay and the south-west side were thickly populated and from Graciosa Bay as far as Carlisle Bay there were a number of small villages. About six years later, when I left the district, a very marked decrease had taken place in the big island of Santa Cruz, Trevannion, and in many of the Reef Islands, notably Nukapu, Peleni, and Fenua Loa.

To what was this decrease attributable? The evidence of older missionaries (like Dr Codrington) shows that the main cause, previous to my sojourn, had been the labour traffic and occasional epidemics. From 1897 the first of these may be ruled out: these islands were placed under British protection in 1898 and very few Cruzians were recruited after that date.

[68] Pulmonary complaints were undoubtedly mainly responsible for the decrease. There were one or two bad epidemics of influenza, and one of dysentery which caused great mortality. One attack of influenza was, I remember, attributed by the natives to the visit of a trading steamer; it swept away large numbers of people about Carlisle Bay, several villages entirely disappearing.

The wearing of European clothes has been mentioned both in Mr Durrad's and Dr Speiser's papers as one of the factors which has contributed largely towards the depopulation. In my time very few of the Cruzians wore European clothes and therefore in these islands this custom, bad as it undoubtedly is, may be considered to have had a very limited effect.

Since 1904, when my connection with Santa Cruz came to an end, from all that one hears, the depopulation has increased rapidly. In a few of the Reef Islands where a vessel scarcely ever touches, the population seems to be maintained, but the Duff group is an exception, as through an epidemic--I think of influenza--there has been great mortality.

There is little doubt that unless something can be done, and done speedily, the native population will in another twenty years have almost died out.

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