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Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia

Edited by W. H. R. Rivers

Cambridge: At the University Press, 1922.

VI. The Solomon Islands.

By C.M. Woodford, late Resident Commissioner.

IN the absence of any guide in the nature of a census return it is impossible to state with absolute certainty that the native population of the Solomon Islands has decreased during recent years, or is now decreasing, but my opinion, founded on what I remember of the number of natives living in particular localities thirty years ago compared with the number observed in 1914 is that there has been a considerable decrease, and in some cases there is no doubt of the fact.

I am of opinion that a decrease on certain islands, I refer to Ysabel, Russell Island and the west end of Guadalcanar, had been going on for at least three or four centuries, owing to the head-hunting and slave raids carried on in those islands by the natives of New Georgia and adjacent islands, and that from about the date of 187o up to 1903 there must have been a decrease in the native population of the islands of Malaita, Guadalcanar, and San Cristoval owing to the emigration of natives to work on the plantations of Queensland and Fiji.

These two causes, having now ceased to operate, may be left out of the present consideration, but I think that in the whole of the Solomon group a decrease since the advent of the white man is in progress owing to changed conditions of native life, among which I give preference to the injudicious use of unsuitable clothing, which I am convinced is a fruitful cause of disease, and the introduction of new diseases, viz. dysentery, influenza and yaws.

[70] The consequences of the contact of the native races with the white man have been serious to the native in other parts of the Pacific, as has been abundantly shown in the cases of the Hawaiian Islands, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

The conditions under which the natives of Fiji lived previous to their intercourse with white men were very much the same as those obtaining among the natives of the Solomons. The population of Fiji was largely Melanesian, like that of the Solomon group, and it may therefore be presumed that similar causes would produce like effects in each case. It is therefore fortunate that a most valuable Report has been published entitled: Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the Decrease of the Native Population, Govt. Printing Office, Suva, Fiji, 1896.

This Report should be in the hands of all attempting to deal with the causes contributing to the decrease of a native population living under like conditions, and it is fortunately accessible. It would appear from the Report above quoted that with a higher birth-rate than that of England and Wales the death-rate of infants under one year old was more than three times as high as the London death-rate, and that if the death-rate had not exceeded that prevailing in European countries there would have been an increase. In 1891 more than half the total deaths in Fiji were those of children. I believe that in the Solomons, while the birth-rate is high, a large number of the children die in infancy, and that the mortality among the whole population is excessive, owing largely to the diseases mentioned above.

Epidemic diseases. Measles, dysentery and whooping-cough have been the most fatal epidemic diseases in Fiji. Forty thousand died of measles in the great epidemic of 1875; whooping-cough in 1884 killed three thousand, and [70/71] epidemic influenza and whooping-cough in 1891 accounted for fifteen hundred deaths.

Small-pox, so far as I know, has never occurred in the Western Pacific, in spite of a recent assertion that it has, nor, considering the rarity of its occurrence in Australasia and the rigorous measures taken for its suppression, is it likely to occur.

The Solomons have been happily spared such a fatal epidemic of measles as that referred to above. It was certainly brought to the group once by the Mission steamer ` Southern Cross' about the year 1898, but was confined, by quarantine, to the ship itself. On a later occasion a mild epidemic, supposed to have been measles, and with the characteristic rash, introduced from an unascertained source, caused great anxiety, in the total absence of any medical man. It affected almost all the natives employed in the Government station at Tulagi and spread elsewhere, but passed away without any ascertained fatal effects.

Dysentery of a most severe type is the most rapidly fatal disease in the Solomons. Death has been known to occur within three days of the attack. It is supposed in Fiji to have been an introduced disease. Whether that is the case in the Solomons it is impossible to say. One recent instance is known where it was certainly introduced from outside by a labour ship.

Influenza and the diseases resulting from it are responsible for many deaths in the Solomons and this disease is undoubtedly introduced afresh from time to time by ships.

The Polynesians even more than the Melanesians appear to be thoroughly aware that outbreaks of disease resembling influenza are likely to follow the visit of a strange ship. At the Polynesian island of Ongtong Java or Lord Howe's group near the Solomons, it used to be the custom as late as 1900 [71/72] to asperge with ashes and water the persons landing from any ship to ward off the risk of disease, and I have myself submitted to the process on three or four occasions. Latterly the custom may have fallen into disuse as the group is more visited by ships than used to be the case.

Yaws (framboesia). Neither Mr Durrad nor Dr Speiser in their remarks refer to this horrible disease, but it assuredly occurs in the New Hebrides. It is probable that the visible effects of yaws are sometimes mistaken for those of another disease. In the Solomons it is common, although it is not believed to be of so universal occurrence as in Fiji where every child is infected with it sooner or later. The Fijian Commission attached such importance to this disease as a factor tending to the deterioration of the race that its conclusions may be quoted: [See page 163 of Report.]

(I) that yaws is a serious constitutional disease, the severity of which is lost sight of from the fact that it is almost universal among Fijians;

(2) that yaws and its sequelae are not only responsible for many infant deaths, but that they sap the vitality of the whole native race;

(3) that from its resemblance to syphilis we think it possible that it has an enervating effect on the child-bearing functions of native women;

(4) that, through familiarity with it, the natives have no fear of it as a disease of childhood; that they dread its appearance in adults; and that this has probably originated a universal belief that unless children acquire the disease they will grow up weakly and dull;

(5) that yaws occurring in the first year of childhood is almost invariably fatal;

(6) that the natives do nothing towards curing the disease, [72/73] except when it is passing off, their idea of treatment being practically to allow it to saturate the system of its subjects;

(7) that the natives have no well-defined idea of its inoculability, but imagine it to be a disease that "grows out of the child." That almost all native children suffer from the disease for a period varying from three months to two years or longer; and that during that time no care is taken to cover or prevent the exposure of their sores, which thus serve as founts of infection;

(8) that the natives have no idea that the sucuve, soki, or lovo and kakaca (diseases which affect the feet) of adult life are the sequelae of yaws.

Dwellings. The native house of the Solomons is on the whole well suited to the climate if kept clean, and there are some excellent examples on Florida of what a native house ought to be; so the native can build a good house, and if he likes, can keep it clean. The floor of the ordinary Solomon house is the bare ground. The sleeping places are generally bedsteads raised on posts driven into the ground and raised from it about eighteen inches to two feet, which, however uncomfortable they may be, are better than sleeping on the ground itself. The ideal Florida house above referred to is raised on posts three feet or more above the ground and floored with an interlacing platform of split bamboo.

The water supply, unless it is drawn from a natural spring or running stream, is generally liable to contamination. It is in most cases an open well or waterhole entirely unprotected from the infiltration of filth and full of decaying vegetable refuse.


It will be impossible for many years to come to make a census of the native population of the Solomons as a whole, [73/74] but the Government should be asked to commence with the districts more directly under control and those under the influence of the resident missionaries of all denominations.

This would be no great task in such islands as Florida, Savo and others of the smaller islands, parts of New Georgia and the islands in the Bougainville Straits. Registers of births, marriages and deaths should be kept. Native ordained ministers should not perform marriages until their names had been registered for this purpose by the Government, in the same way that the names of white ministers are at present registered, and they should be responsible for furnishing the proper register of marriage to the Registrar. In the absence of civil officials, native or white, the registered native ministers might for the present also furnish the information required for birth and death records in their districts.

The Government should be invited to consider the expediency of taking measures to order the removal of houses and villages from insanitary situations and to order the closing of infected sources of water supply. In the case of villages situated in low land near the sea, the use of tube pumps might supersede the drawing of water from open wells and waterholes. As a rule in such situations there is an ample supply of water at a few feet from the surface. The cost of such pumps would not be serious and could be met partly by the natives themselves and partly by the aid of a Government subsidy. The sites for pumps should be selected by an officer versed in sanitary science and the work carried out by Government workmen. With the closing of contaminated sources of water supply it is believed that a diminution at any rate in the epidemics of dysentery would be brought about.

The medical advisers of the Colonial Office are fully alive to the seriousness of the disease of yaws in the Pacific and [74/75] other tropical countries, and a new remedy for this disease, salvarsan, has recently been discovered. The results of experiment with the new formula have been encouraging.

Measures should be taken to prevent the misuse of unnecessary clothing. The use of heavy clothing of woollen cloth, such as is worn by white men in temperate climates and which the natives particularly favour, the fashion having been introduced by labourers returning from Queensland, might be rendered impossible by the imposition of a heavy customs duty on articles of this description. This would impose no hardship on any one, as the white man does not import such clothing for his own use, and the native could not purchase it if the cost were prohibitive.

The cotton waist-cloth, the sarong of the Malay, the Fijian sulu and the Samoan lavalava, is the proper garment for a native to wear, and in such a climate as the Solomons a man wants nothing else. The Wesleyan missionaries in New Georgia were encouraging the natives three or four years ago in wearing short trousers of calico. This was a step in the right direction, but the simple waist-cloth is preferable.

Natives living in contact with white men or under missionary influence think that a shirt or singlet is necessary. If these garments were ever washed their use would not be so much open to objection, but a Solomon Islander will wear them day and night, wet or dry, until they disintegrate into a network of holes or rags. They should be taught to do without body clothing. The missions have it in their own hands to discourage or even to prohibit the use of such clothing at school or in church. The sight of a healthy skin is more decent than that of a dirty shirt. The use of coconut oil for anointing the skin should be encouraged. It keeps the skin healthy, and prevents colds and parasitical disease such as ringworm.

[76] In the case of a woman, a loose cotton blouse, hanging to the waist outside the waist-cloth, might be worn if it were considered necessary. This garment is known in Fiji as a pinafore.

If a native desired to be extravagant in dress he would have ample opportunity in a choice of waist-cloth of a quality superior to the ordinary trade calico at present imported for his use.

The advantage or otherwise of mosquito nets is doubtful. Certainly they are now required to be provided by regulation for natives working in the employment of white men on plantations. They have of course the advantage of protecting natives at night from the bites of mosquitoes, but the Fijian practice, where mosquitoes in the river deltas and coast districts are much more numerous than in the Solomons, of using a sulu as a coverlet for the whole body from the feet upwards when sleeping, appears to be preferable. Breathing over and over again the vitiated atmosphere confined within a screen measuring 6 ft. x 2 ft. x 3 ft. and enclosing about 30 cubic feet of air contained within a receptacle of dirty cheesecloth, the condition of which after a few days' use by a native can be easily imagined, cannot be healthy.

As warding off attacks of malarial fever, the mosquito net from a native's point of view may be left out of the question. It is probable that the blood of all natives in the Solomons is thoroughly impregnated with the malarial microbe from birth, and fresh infections by the bites of anopheles mosquitoes probably have little effect. It is not observed that natives suffer to any great degree from acute attacks of malarial fever. Among the white residents, on the other hand, it is very prevalent in an acute form, and frequently fatal.

Early marriages should be encouraged and married natives [76/77] accompanied by their wives and children might be permitted in some cases to engage as labourers on approved plantations where the manager was himself a married man whose wife would be willing to interest herself in the condition of the women and children. The women should not be allowed to do plantation work, but house work and laundry work in the manager's house of a light description would be of educational value.

The Government might be approached with the view of forming an industrial settlement in an approved locality under the control of a resident official. There are many homeless and masterless natives wandering about who loaf upon any village careless enough to entertain them. These men should be given the opportunity of making houses for themselves and wives should be found for them.

The heads of some of the large capitalist companies at present at work in the Solomons might also be approached upon the subject of model native settlements on parts of their estates which have reached the production stage. Natives of good character might be settled on these lands as tenants.

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