Volume 39 1930 > Volume 39, No. 153 > The problem of depopulation in Melanesia as applied to Ongtong Java. (Solomon islands), by Ian Hogbin, p 43-66
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ONGTONG JAVA is made up of a hundred or more small islands forming an atoll which lies to the north-west of the Solomon islands, round about latitude 5 degrees south and longitude 160 degrees east. It is peopled by natives with undoubted Polynesian affinities, though there are some marked differences between the culture and that of the Central Pacific. They are divided into two tribes, the Luaniua tribe and the Pelau tribe. I made two visits to the place, spending several months there during 1927 and 1928.

I propose to begin this account with a statement of the vital statistics. These were compiled from my own census and from my diaries, in which I recorded all births and deaths. For the period when I was absent from the atoll (February to May, 1928) I have used native records which I carefully checked.

  Luaniua Pelau Total Per cent. of Grand Total
Under 12 (Kamalili'i) 98 19 117  
12-21 (Koupiala) 66 22 88  
Over 21 (Kangaka) 112 35 147  
Total Males 276 76 352 50.8
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  Luaniua Pelau Total Per cent. of Grand Total
Under 12 (Kamalili'i) 96 23 119  
12-20 (Ka'upu) 55 19 74  
Over 20 (Hehinge) 117 31 148  
Total Females 268 73 341 49.2
GRAND TOTAL 544 149 693 100

Included in this list are six men, one from Taku 2 and five from Nukumanu,2 all of whom are married and living at Ongtong Java. Not included are four local women who went recently to Nukumanu and married there. Living at Luaniua are also two Solomon Island natives, both married, and a Sikiana man and his wife. These four are not included.

The following tables are for Luaniua 3 only, and cover the period from 10th November, 1927 to 9th November, 1928.

Males—Under 12 6
12-21 0
Over 21 10
Total 16
Females—Under 12 8
12-20 2
Over 20 11
Total 21

Grand Total of Deaths at Luaniua, 10th November, 1927 to 9th November, 1928—37.

Living—Male 5
Female 6
Total 11
Still-born 1—Male 2
Female 1
1   Not included in Table of Deaths above.
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It will be noticed that there is a difference between the upper age-limit for males and for females in the second age-group. This is unavoidable because the natives do not know their own ages. It is, however, easy to get them into age-groups. Girls have the thighs tattooed when they are about twelve years old. The face, back, and arms are not operated upon until the first child is about to be born, generally when the woman is about twenty. Three periods are therefore differentiated: one, when the girl is untattooed; two, when she is tattooed on the thighs but not on the face; and three, when she is tattooed completely. Normally the age of twelve marks the upper limit of the first period, and twenty that of the second. It is true that there are exceptions to the latter rule, but these are easily observable. Boys cease to run naked when they are about twelve, but they are not tattooed till they are twenty-one or thereabouts. The upper limit for the second age-grouping of men has accordingly to be placed at twenty-one instead of twenty.

When H.M.S. “Torch” visited Ongtong Java in 1900 the population was estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000. 4 Everything points to this being considerably below the correct figure. To begin with, the “Torch” did not visit any of the islands belonging to the Pelau tribe and probably only a few of the islands of the other tribe. It is difficult to see how a reliable estimate could have been made when this was the case. Mr. H. A. Markham of Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia, Solomon Islands, who lived at Ongtong Java from 1907 till 1923, told me that at the earlier date he estimated the population to have been 5500. Genealogies seem to agree with Mr. Markham's figures, and the ruins of houses or the cleared spaces where they once stood also support him. On the island of Keila I counted the ruins of seventy-five houses; there are now seven houses at Keila. I think we can fairly safely say that at the opening of the century there were at least 5,000 people at Ongtong Java. According to native informants the decline had already begun with a severe epidemic even before the arrival of the “Torch.” Be that as it may, I rather doubt if the population ever went much beyond 6,000.

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In every native society there were factors which prevented the population from increasing out of all proportion. Sometimes it was left entirely for nature to strike the balance, and this she did by means of plagues or famines. In other places society took matters into its own hands, and wars or even rites demanding the sacrifice of human life kept the numbers more or less in a state of equilibrium. Finally, in addition to either or both of these factors, sometimes it was an individual matter also. Thus, by means of infanticide or abortion the people kept themselves within the limits of their food supply.

At Ongtong Java there were quite certainly periodical famines between about 1860 and 1880 and there may have been others before that date. It seems that the whites settled there first in the later 'eighties and it was only a few years before this that the reigning king, Uila by name, had commenced planting the islands with coconuts in earnest. Until his time there were some islands which had but few coconuts growing on them. Whether Uila, in planting these, was doing something that had been vitally needed for some time, or whether on the other hand the population had only recently drawn level with the food supply, it is impossible to say. If the latter were true then there may not have been any famines prior to 1860. The possibility of the first being the case is not ruled out because the remedy was so simple. The kingship was a recent institution and it is likely that before the establishment of the kings no one had sufficient authority to inaugurate such a scheme as planting whole islands with coconuts. It is impossible to be certain about the matter either way. What is certain is that the place was populated to the limit of its food-resources at about 1880. Shortly after that date these resources were enormously increased by the measures of King Uila. Perhaps for nearly twenty years there was enough food to permit of an increase. This probably took place but at the turn of the century all this extra food began to be useless, except for trading with the white man, because the population began to decline.

In the old days, when the prospect of hunger faced an unborn child it was killed within the womb. Infanticide, except very occasionally with illegitimate children, was not - 47 practised, and once a child was born it was always sure to be looked after by someone, even if it were an orphan.

Abortion and famines, then, kept the population of Ongtong Java either static or with a very low percentage of increase. When the white man came all this was changed. In twenty years the population has dropped to fifteen per cent., at the very outside, of what it was under the old order. It will now be our object to discover why this is so.


Some of the factors which are said to cause depopulation may be ruled out entirely because they do not affect the problem at Ongtong Java. European clothing, for instance, is very rarely worn. It is true that calico and canvas have taken the place of the old woven mats, but the new materials are worn in the old fashion. Formerly, a mat one fathom long by eight inches wide was the ordinary dress of a man; now a piece of calico of the same dimensions serves instead.

The tendency to centralize, often cited as a factor, has only been in evidence for the last six years. Alcohol has, as far as I know, never been countenanced in the Solomons, and beyond two or three, none of the Ongtong Javanese have ever tasted it. Recruiting for labour in plantations elsewhere can never have been a cause of depopulation because there have never been sufficient natives away to make any appreciable difference. It does not seem necessary for me to go into whether or not these factors are responsible for depopulation elsewhere. They have not operated at Ongtong Java, and that is all that concerns us at present.

A belief is still prevalent that the island races were declining in numbers before the arrival of the whites. Roberts, in his book Population Problems of the Pacific,5 has collected all the evidence which he says is in favour of the decline. Of course, no figures can be given, but he sums up his argument by saying that owing to causes inherent in the natives themselves and in their culture, the people were decreasing in numbers before Cook entered the Pacific; even if no white man had ever set foot on any of these islands the people would still have declined. In other words, - 48 if white men have had any influence, it has been merely to hasten a process which had begun long before, and which would have proceeded by itself eventually to the same conclusion.

Let us examine this evidence of Professor Roberts. First there is that which goes to prove that the natives were degenerate. In Williams' Fiji and the Fijians, he finds the statement, “The ordinary native was cruel, cowardly, ungrateful, and of an intense and vengeful malignity.” 6 From a study of the native legends he finds that, “….. superstition, cruelty, immorality had all increased in Polynesia in the century before the coming of the Europeans.” 7 Finally, he says, “There was little, if any, care for the sick, and the maternal instinct, in Polynesia at least, seemed to be almost non-existent.” 8

The culture was also debased. The Polynesians and Melanesians were living a lotos existence. “There could be little virility and less ambition when the beneficence of a chastening environment was no longer felt …. The race, denied the health-giving process of selection and of struggle, was giving way.” 9 Yet thirty pages before he said that everyone lived in constant dread and fear for his life; there were continual wars and attacks, and no one was safe. It would seem that these two statements are contradictory. We also read that “lack of hygiene, insanitary conditions of living, the abasement of women, the physical results of cannibalism and other things predisposed the bodies of the natives to certain diseases.” 10

Even if all this were to be accepted as true it by no means follows that the population was decreasing. There is no necessary connection between cruelty and cowardice on the one hand and birth and death-rates on the other. Roberts' first error is to commit a fallacy of logic. It is of course tempting to follow the good old melodramatic tradition and say that the wicked get their deserts, but it is scarcely scientific.

Roberts has committed further errors. He has used material supplied by all sorts of people, untrained sailors, prejudiced early missionaries and others, without the slightest critical judgment. The result is that some of his statements are simply ridiculous. There is absolutely no authority - 49 for such an absurdity as that the Polynesians lacked the maternal instinct. Nor can any community be said to be immoral, as anyone who has had the smallest anthropological training well knows. If, as Roberts says, these Pacific natives were living in “depraved brutishness,” 11 how are we to deal with the work of such trained and expert observers as Malinowski, Firth, 12 and Margaret Mead? 13

We can safely set aside, then, the belief that the island races were decreasing in numbers before the arrival of the Europeans. In a few places it is possible that there may have been a decline due to some unknown cause, but except in such places as Easter Island, even for this there is no good evidence.


In another book on the subject of depopulation, that of Pitt-Rivers, 14 we find the following: “An examination of causes alleged by different observers to be responsible for a decrease in population, particularly in Melanesia and Polynesia, will show that all the alleged causes can be placed in one or other of two groups. In one group the causes of decline are attributed to the influence of contact with Europeans, and in the other group the causes are not attributed to European contact, but are held to be independent of it and inherent in the native culture and life. Clearly both groups cannot be held responsible.” 15

This is only true if we accept it as unproved that there was already a decline before the white races came. Since we do believe that it has not been proved we are able to rule out all the depopulating factors which are inherent in the native culture. One admits that it is highly probable that everywhere people did die for reasons which would not have operated in some white communities. Although the houses at Ongtong Java are clean and tidy, all the cooking is done inside them. There is no chimney, so that frequently the atmosphere inside is extremely unpleasant. - 50 Even when cooking is not in progress, for some months of the year a smoke fire has to be kept burning to give some relief from mosquitoes. I do not know if it has ever been definitely shown that smoky air is prejudicial to the health of infants, but it would certainly seem to be the case. Yet “whatever the varied conditions …. before the European advent, the populations must have been well adapted to survive them.” 16 None of the alleged causes of depopulation inherent in the native culture can have increased the death rate in the last thirty years. The fact that these elements in the culture are so frequently supposed to be depopulating-factors is because it is generally apparent that they cause death; they also did that, and to the same extent probably, centuries ago. Thus at Ongtong Java the water-supply is obtained from an open well in the centre of the village. At times this is cleared out and baskets upon baskets of stinking mud are removed from it. Since this is so it certainly looks as if the insanitary water-supply must cause death. If it does this to-day it also did so when the villages were first built. An introduced epidemic which is spread by water would, of course, be a different thing and I am not considering it at present. Whether or not it would be an advantage to correct the factors which cause death and which are inherent in the culture is another problem which I shall leave until later on.

Since nothing which belongs to the aboriginal culture can cause depopulation we may pass on to consider factors which have been introduced. Where a population has been static, but is now decreasing, the direct causes must be either:—

  • 1. A stationary death rate coupled with a decreased birth rate.
  • 2. An increased death rate and a static birth rate, or
  • 3. An increased death rate and at the same time a decreased birth rate. First I shall deal with the factors which lead to an increase in the death rate.

Pitt-Rivers is inclined to pass over introduced diseases as, if important, certainly less so than other things. With regard to Ongtong Java I cannot agree with him. Other factors are important, but none of them can I place before - 51 introduced diseases, though some perhaps might be arranged alongside.

It is fairly certain that formerly there was neither tuberculosis nor malaria in Ongtong Java. 17 I am well aware that the incidence of disease in the living is no indication of the death-rate, but it does seem significant that when a medical officer made an inspection in October, 1928, he found 89 per cent. of the people with the spleen enlarged, an indication of chronic malaria, and over 10 per cent. of the adults definitely tubercular. It must be borne in mind that both these diseases are now endemic. They have been introduced and there they will stay. This is a vastly different thing from, say, an epidemic of measles. Such a catastrophe may do enormous damage to life in quite a short time, but it does not continue to act as do endemic diseases. Unfortunately I did not have sufficient medical knowledge to identify all of the various diseases which were fatal while I was living there, but I am quite sure that half the adults died from tuberculosis, either alone or aggravated by malaria or some disease epidemic at the time.

Tuberculosis is of course an endemic disease in European countries also, where there is no decline. There it is not a new disease, however, and it is consequently far less fatal to us than it is to natives who, a century ago, did not know of it. Malaria, because it is new to us and to the Ongtong Javanese, is equally fatal to both.

Pitt-Rivers shows that mediaeval epidemics of bubonic plague did not affect Europe in the long run. Why then, he says, ought other diseases to affect the Pacific. Bubonic plague was epidemic; various dates are given when it swept through Europe. Epidemic and endemic diseases are very different. After an epidemic, other things being equal, any community of people ought to go on increasing at its old rate. If a community was static in population it ought soon to get back to its old level provided that the reason that it was static was purely a question of resources. Serious epidemics have swept through Ongtong Java at least four times during the present century. In 1926 there were 33 deaths at Luaniua within two months. Here was - 52 a community where other things were not equal, as we shall learn, and epidemic diseases became a passive cause of an increased death-rate even after their active influence had passed. In other words, epidemics act on the minds as well as the bodies of natives. They are therefore involved with the psychological factors which cause an increase in the death-rate.


Before any of these psychological factors can be discussed it is necessary to say something of the structure of Ongtong Javanese society and the position of the culture both formerly and to-day.

At Ongtong Java there were two tribes, the Pelau tribe and the Luaniua tribe. Each of these was divided into a number of patrilineal 18 joint families which owned land in common. The joint family had a manager or headman, and to him each member of it owed obedience. In each tribe a small number of these headmen were priests. The priests took it in turn to act as religious and secular head of the tribe. Each priest held this office for a year, and was then succeeded by another priest. When each had had his turn the first priest took over again, and so on in regular rotation. That was in theory. In practice all this went very well as far as religious matters were concerned, but in secular affairs it was the headmen who were important, each one in his own joint family. This was the natural result of the frequent changes and lack of any system of control.

Early in the last century and long before any white man of whom we have any record landed, a powerful joint family established its headman as King of Luaniua. It was some years before his claims were admitted, but after several battles he was acknowledged and became secular head of the community, demanding at least nominal obedience from everybody. He did not interfere with the priests, and they continued to act as religious heads in the same rotation as before. Before very long one of the Pelau joint families followed the example, and there also the office of king was established.

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Even after the kings had been in power for several decades, order was maintained chiefly by a belief in the supernatural. It was thought that people who died had their spirits freed, and it was these spirits who punished by death and sickness all breaches of the law. In addition to this there were ceremonies whose function was the maintenance of the public peace and well-being. Those which concerned the joint family and its well-being, such as funeral rites, I shall call “private” ceremonies. These did not demand the intervention of priests. There were also “public” ceremonies which concerned the well-being of the tribe as a whole. The function of these latter was, amongst other things, to bind all the joint families together into a single society, thus preventing the outbreak of wars between them.

To-day the private ceremonies are still carried out, but the public ones are forgotten by all but the senior men. There have been no priests for about ten years. Order is still preserved by the belief in immortality and also by the growing power of the king, owing to the judicious support of him by the Government. The native culture has therefore been partially destroyed, but much of it still remains.

Pitt-Rivers says that destroying the native culture leads to the loss of the joie de vivre, and this in itself is sufficient little by little to exterminate the race. 19 With this I heartily agree, but at Ongtong Java the culture has not been destroyed wholly, and I hesitate to say that the natives have lost their joie de vivre. He gives several pictures of people who have, it is supposed, lost the will to live. “Stevenson was greatly impressed by the absence of a will to live which seemed to overtake the native races of Polynesia and afflict them like a chronic disease from which they never recovered.”20 The natives of Aua, says Pitt-Rivers, have a word for this disease, tatareri. “It was heard most often after the brief visits of the Europeans' copra-schooner, or after the epidemics of sickness with which those visits so often coincided. They would utter the words as an answer when asked why they sat on such occasions in glum silence without inclination to do anything.” 20 And again, quoting Melville, he says of the Tahitians, “The islanders themselves are mournfully watching their doom.”21

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The impression I get from reading these is of people with little laughter or happiness left in them. He himself uses the word boredom for their state, and it would seem that the thought of extinction is ever lurking in their minds. If this is a true interpretation of the pictures, and from what one reads elsewhere there can be no doubt that it is, the state of affairs at Ongtong Java is rather different.

To begin with, I have never seen the whole population sit down in boredom. They are, whichever way you look at them, a cheerful and happy people who take what pleasures they have with keen enjoyment. They do their work, and when it is finished they sit and gossip and play cards. That gossip is generally light enough, though occasionally a gloomy note will strike in. Mostly it is about fishing exploits, the rapacity of the traders, or just pure scandal. Often you will hear them laugh, and not one but is ready to crack a joke with you (naturally, it depends who you are) either at his or your expense.

Yet for all that the older men and women think that they are a doomed race. It never seems to worry the younger people or even those who are just beginning to rear families. In the old days boys were clothed by their fathers when they reached puberty. Nowadays they are clothed much earlier, and the reason is given that the fathers will possibly die before their sons arrive at puberty; and rather than let other men clothe them, they do it themselves at the earlier age. Again, during the epidemic in August and September, 1928, the king proclaimed a day for dancing. The tone of his remarks to the assembled people was that many people were now ill and some had died; soon many of those present might be ill and many of them might even die, so let them dance now while yet they were alive and well, for who knows what fate will overtake him. I myself mentioned to some of my friends that I hoped that I would be in the Solomons again in three years, and if possible would make a trip to Ongtong Java to see them. Three of the closest of these friends each told me at different times that if I waited three years they would in all probability be dead.

The epidemic I have referred to was of myositis and cellulitis. I had been staying at Pelau and arrived back into the midst of the sickness. As my cutter dropped anchor, - 55 a canoe from the other direction drew up to the shore and we heard wailing, which told us that a corpse was on board. The next day there were two deaths, while 53 people were seriously ill. At that time there were more references to extinction than at any other. The men would tell me how evil the spirits of the dead were in waiting to kill all the people, and one or two said that they supposed that before long no natives would be left and that the place would be run as a white man's plantation. As may well be imagined, all these people being ill made more work for the able-bodied. Yet in the cool of the evening they would still go and play cards on the platforms above the beach, and though I would hear an occasional mournful turn to the conversation, they were still not only ready to joke among themselves but with me too.

Ongtong Java reminds one of a man who has a mortal disease but who is as yet fairly healthy. He will probably, he feels, die in a few years, but his normal attitude is to forget about it and perhaps consciously to suppress it and go on with life in as normal a way as possible. He makes no vigorous attempt to shake the disease off, for he is quite convinced that it would be useless. He refuses all aid from doctors. Medicine, says the native, is all right for white men, but it is a spirit which is killing me and medicine has no effect on that; if the medicine kills one disease the spirit, if it wishes me to die, will only send another more serious in its place. The Ongtong Javanese accept their fate with equanimity and with but little diminution of their cheerfulness, unless betrayed at odd moments by some extra twinge.

It should be noticed that the part of the culture which has remained, the belief in supernatural punishment, has a tendency to make a native fatalistic. He will not fight disease because he thinks it is useless to do so. I have heard sick people say on three occasions that they would be dead in a few days. Two of them were, but the third recovered. Sickness is more prevalent than it used to be; more people are ill and their attitude of mind certainly does not tend to improve their health, but on the contrary to make it worse. Thus minor ailments become serious complaints.

Where a people receives a shock and is not determined to survive it but is rather content to die, then it appears - 56 as if that people will inevitably die. The Ongtong Javanese community has received a shock, and passively, though not mournfully, acquiesces in its fate. Its people are content to die, and therefore they die. This attitude of mind may affect the death rate in two ways:—

  • 1. By increasing infant mortality through sheer lack of interest in the children; and
  • 2. By people simply lying down and dying.

The first of these is not important in Ongtong Java, as I shall presently show. Of the second, Malinowski says in Argonauts of the Western Pacific:21 “It is a well-known fact that the resistance and health of a native depend on auto-suggestion more even than is the case with ourselves …. Even the old Ethnographic observers … . have reported clear, unmistakable instances in which the loss of interest in life and the determination to die brought about death without any other cause. It is therefore not going beyond what is fully granted by facts, to maintain that a general loss of interest in life, of the joie de vivre, the cutting of all bonds of intense interest, which bind members of a human community to existence, will result in their giving up the desire to live altogether, and that they will therefore fall an easy prey to any disease, as well as fail to multiply.”

I have already pointed out that the native of Ongtong Java has not lost his joie de vivre, nor has he lost his interest in life. However, he has been cut off from all the bonds of intense interest and accordingly he dies by falling an easy prey to disease. When there are so many introduced diseases, both endemic and epidemic, as well as the old native scourges, it is very, very easy to fall a prey.

I think we may now conclude that the causes of an increase in the death-rate are, firstly, the introduction of new disease purely and simply, and secondly the break-up of the old culture. This latter has undermined the mental balance of the native and makes him die more quickly from both his own and the new diseases. That is why epidemic diseases have a lasting effect. European society had received no shock at the time bubonic plague was ravaging it, and so it soon recovered. Ongtong Java had been dealt - 57 a heavy blow already when influenza reached it, and therefore society there did not recover.

Let us now turn to the other side of the depopulation question, the possibility of a decrease in the birth-rate.


Apparently in every society which has been examined up to date and has been found to be decreasing in numbers, there has been a marked preponderance of males. It has been definitely established that this in itself is a cause of a decreased birth-rate. Only a certain number of males may marry unless polyandry exists (this custom is not found to any extent in the Pacific). The balance of unmarried males are driven to other methods for satisfying their sexual needs. This generally gives rise to prostitution, and hence the number of women available for marriage is further reduced.

At Ongtong Java we have a declining population without a marked preponderance of males, something entirely unique. From the figures above, the males form 50.8 per cent. of the total population, or an excess of 1.6 per 100 of both sexes. If we exclude the Taku and Nukumanu immigrants and include the Ongtong Java emigrants, as we have every right to do, these figures decrease to 50.07 per cent. and 1.4 per cent. respectively. In the three age-groups, females are in excess in the oldest and youngest, and males are in excess in the middle one. This is partially explained by the difference in the age-limits of this latter group. In any case, masculinity cannot be regarded as a cause of decreased birth-rate.

Pitt-Rivers brings forward many facts to support his argument that a disinclination to have children brings it about that none are born. I am not entirely convinced by these, because venereal disease may also be a factor. However, if we do accept the argument, we may say that decreased birth-rate is caused by:—

  • 1. Disinclination to have children; or
  • 2. Disinclination for sexual intercourse.

I have no hesitation in saying that the first, if it applies at all, only does so in a remote degree. It always has been, and still is, a disgrace to be childless. Pregnant women are treated with the highest respect. It is not till a woman - 58 is first pregnant that the tattooing can be finished. True, if she is married for a number of years and it is certain that she is sterile, she will be tattooed out of pity, but out of pity only. A woman pregnant for the first time is ornamented and decorated and generally made much of, but even if she has already had a child there are many tapu which ensure that she does as little work as possible. The husband may have intercourse with her until a month or two before the child is born, but for months afterwards this is forbidden. She is practically certain to have one child weaned (they are fed at the breast till they are two or three years old) before another is born. There is a series of rites concerning the first birth in a family and this is still carried out with obvious joy. It is always a proud moment for a father or a headman when a new life has been added to the joint family.

Remembering always that there is an interval of at least two years between each birth, and considering four children in a family as adequate, there are not many marriages which are unsatisfactory if both parents are alive. Very frequently to-day, one or both of the parents die before it is possible for them to have had four children. I know of only three women who are almost certainly barren, and two only who never married. The first of these latter was sought in marriage but declined, and the second was too ugly to get a husband. Genealogies may appear to show unsatisfactory marriages, not only because of early deaths, but also because of the high infant mortality. Children do not receive a name until they are a few days old. If they die unnamed they are promptly forgotten by all but the parents, and do not appear in genealogies at all.

To-day, four children to a family is not sufficient to bring back the population, but it seems that formerly it was enough to keep it static. I have heard women who have borne four children say that they did not want any more. It is probable that in the past they said the same thing. A family was and still is a necessity for social dignity, and a woman without children is always spoken of with a slight sneer or with pity. Nevertheless, a large family is not only scarcely necessary but it demands far more work. Those factors operated before the era of the white man, and I see no reason for any diminution of the birth-rate on their account.

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Other things being equal, there is no doubt that a polygynous community has a higher birth-rate than one which practises monogamy. Pitt-Rivers has, however, over-estimated the purely mechanical importance of turning a polygynous system into a monogamous one. Even admitting that women marry at an earlier age than men do in most societies, it is still difficult to see how more than a fraction of the men could have a number of wives, both on account of the fact that there would not have been enough women, and also because of the expense of maintaining a large household. Malinowski has pointed out that in the Trobriands the chief maintained his power by the marriage alliances which he made. At Ongtong Java the power of the chief was not maintained in this way. There has always been quite a narrow margin between the ages at which the two sexes marry in this community, and for that reason alone probably polygyny could never have been wide-spread. The kings and the wealthier headmen always had several wives, but poorer men found it sufficiently difficult to find food for one family, let alone two or three. I do not think that polygyny was ever suppressed by the Government, though it was discouraged.

It is very difficult to discover if there has been any diminution in the desire for sexual intercourse. There certainly has been no decrease in the number of marriages. As I pointed out before, there were only two unmarried women (both died in October, 1928) and only one unmarried man. Two of these three were deformed and therefore were not able to secure a consort.

Havelock Ellis believes that the sexual impulse is less strong in primitive peoples that in civilised ones. 22 His chief reasons for coming to this conclusion are, (1) the numerous prohibitions of intercourse imposed by society at certain times, and (2) their difficulty in obtaining sexual erecthism. At Ongtong Java there are practically no general prohibitions on sexual intercourse except between husband and wife for a certain period after child-birth. In any case it does not follow that because the prohibition exists the desire does not. For instance, if we find human sacrifice in any society it would be wrong to conclude that - 60 therefore human life was held cheaply. It might be the very reverse, and the people are offering to the gods that which they value most. Primitive people apparently do have difficulty in obtaining erecthism, but this is probably because they are less neurotic than we are and that actual sight or contact is necessary before definite erecthism is possible.

Unlike most Polynesian peoples—if, indeed, the Ongtong Javanese are Polynesians—their code of sexual morals before marriage is by no means loose. Intercourse before marriage does take place, but it is only on the sly. If it is discovered, marriage is the only thing to save the good name of the girl. One girl was actually discovered in flagrante delicto while I was living at Luaniua. For the next few weeks women made pointed references to the morals of dogs whenever she was present.

The deformed woman whom I mentioned as being unable to get a husband became a prostitute, and she with one other, a widow, served all the young men of Luaniua, sometimes a dozen per night. It does not seem that many of them needed these services oftener than once in a fortnight or three weeks. Masturbation is fairly common, but perversions are almost unknown.

My last remarks have been rather away from the point under discussion, namely, whether there has been any diminution in the desire for sexual intercourse. I would say that what evidence there is, though it is vague and unsatisfactory, seems to show that this has not been the case. I have already shown that there has probably been no diminution in the desire for children also. Both of these factors suggest that there has been little change in the birth-rate, so that we must conclude that changes in the death-rate are mainly responsible for depopulation at Ongtong Java.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if a new culture beyond the culture potential of the aborigines was introduced into a community, making sure that no new diseases went with it. If this experiment were possible and we found that the result was depopulation, then we could conclude that an attitude of mind was responsible. This would almost certainly operate through the birth as well as the death-rate. At Ongtong Java we have found - 61 that the birth-rate has changed very little and yet the result is still depopulation. Before we can discover why this is so it will be necessary to collect a few facts.


Trading-stations were founded there during the 'eighties of last century. In 1907 a mission was also established. The depopulation began with an epidemic in between these two dates. The mission was temporarily removed in 1910, re-established, and then abandoned a few years later.

Pitt-Rivers lays very much stress on what the missions do to break down native culture. It is this destruction of culture which is, of course, mainly responsible for the disastrous attitude of mind. “It follows …. that all missionary endeavour among heathen and savage peoples, because in endeavouring to impose new and incompatible culture-forms it is bound first to destroy the old ones, is incapable of achieving any result in the end except to assist in the extermination of the people it professes to assist.” 23 And again, “It has destroyed his (the native's) tribal life, the prestige of his chiefs, his morality, his pleasures, his beliefs, his hopes, the cement of his society and the very meaning of his life. It has, with clumsy dogmatism, meddled with his sex life, destroyed his tapu system, and freed him only from the old fears which made him loyal to his corporate group. It has left him with new fears and suspicions, and a helpless incapacity to control his own destiny, while it bids him mimic the culture forms he can never make his own.” 24

This has certainly been the case in the parts of the Pacific that I know best. The Ongtong Java mission did all of these things that it possibly could in the short time that it was there. It insulted and flogged the Ongtong Javan priests, it cut his images with an axe, it went through his temple beating biscuit tins, it flogged him if he retaliated by singing native songs outside the church, it whipped him if he went fishing on Sundays, it compelled him to go to bed at nine o'clock, it destroyed his own personal property, it sought to have a convert made king instead of the rightful - 62 heir, it forbade his ceremonies, 25 and more it would have done if it had not been removed. Yet if missions had never been allowed in the South Seas I still think that depopulation would have taken place, though probably less rapidly. The mission which did all this at Ongtong Java made no lasting impression. It was some years after it was removed that the last priest died, and with him the public ceremonies; but, as we have seen, most of the rest of the culture still remains. I do not for one moment wish to extenuate the crass stupidity of many of the acts of the mission and the utter ignorance on which they were based, but I do think that in the long run they did not matter very much. It hastened something that had begun before the mission arrived, and which would have gone on without any intervention on its part. Nukumanu and Sikiana, two similar near-by settlements, never had any missionaries, and yet they are exactly in the same state as Ongtong Java.

In the vanguard of the new culture came the traders. At first sight it would appear that they destroyed nothing but material culture. Looms became no longer necessary when Manchester could provide cloth so much prettier, 26 rope could now be bought and so save a long process, axes of steel were immeasurably better than axes of shell, and so on. But the traders did not provide benefits only. In the old time there was an incentive to work well and to take an interest in what one was doing. It is the old story of the small craftsman and mass production. Instead of joy in the work, there was now, except in such things as fishing, nothing but wearying monotony, the drag of picking up coconuts and cooking them, frequently to pay for something which was already worn out, destroyed or eaten. In the place of the joy of individual creation there was nothing but picking coconuts, and who could take an interest in that after a day or two? It must be remembered that even the doubtful ambition of gain could not operate because the only way the wealth of any man could increase was - 63 by the death of someone else. Thus was the ground prepared for the new attitude.

It is now an axiom of sociology that every custom originally fulfilled some social function. With the loss of much of the material culture some of the ceremonial customs became mere survivals because they were no longer necessary. Those customs, for instance, relating to some of the forces of nature were now anachronistic because nature was not now responsible in the same way for the culture elements. A steel axe changed the cutting of a canoe from a great undertaking to almost an everyday task; the sea was no longer the sole provider of tools and of pumice to sharpen them, and so on. At first the customs were kept up, but as survivals only, though nobody yet realised it.

No white man likes to live in an atmosphere which might explode at any moment, and so, either alone or with the assistance of the government, he insures both public peace and respect for private property. Customs which had this as their function already existed in the native culture, but it is only natural that the white man should make doubly sure. The native customs were generally religious and the punishment which followed their infringement was supernatural. This everybody knew. The imposition of a new order was out of the experience of the native, and led him to believe that crime was merely the negative act of being found out—he had no moral consciousness of wrong-doing. Peace and respect for the white man's property were made the more certain, but on the other hand many more customs became survivals.

The policy of the government at Ongtong Java appears to have been one of laissez faire except where natives meddled with white men or seriously with each other. I am quite positive that no place in the Pacific that has had as close a contact with whites has been less interfered with. Yet this community which has had little to do with governments and not very much with missions has suffered a decrease of its population by 86 per cent. in twenty years.

Diseases followed the traders and, unlike the mission, they did not go away again. Be it noticed that there was no tendency to decline until the diseases came, at least 15 years after the traders. The senior men who had been - 64 brought up entirely under the old order were already beginning to die, and the rest the introduced diseases carried off. The younger generation, now growing older, had been brought up amidst many customs which had lost their usefulness and, especially during epidemics, these were performed with less and less grace till finally they were abandoned altogether. A survival is a dead thing at best, and bound to perish sooner or later.

All this time the attitude of mind which faced certain extinction with calmness was gaining ground. Disease acted upon it and, by auto-suggestion, it acted upon and increased disease; the two were going hand in hand. The result of this was that there were scarcely any old men left, for people died before they reached old age. Old age is conservative. Having performed ceremonies for a life-time, old men go on doing them almost automatically and certainly without thought. The younger generations are brought up in the atmosphere until they too are old, and then they become the mentors of the new generation. But what of it when there are no old men? Tradition alone is never enough to influence conduct more than a fraction. The old men had acted from habit: the young as yet had acquired no habits, though the memory of those of their fathers remained. Ceremonial is nearly always a nuisance and few observe it unless they are forced to do so, either by public opinion or fear of punishment, or sheer habit. With no forcing agency, what was more natural than that bit by bit the ceremonies should cease? If these ceremonies, or the useful ones, had remained, they might have roused the members of society and in their hours of leisure given them something to occupy their minds, instead of letting them face and acquiesce in despair. That, I think, explains why epidemics in societies which have sustained no cultural shock have no appreciable effect in the long run. All the customs have still a function and so are kept up. The prospect of extinction never occurs to people, because they are too occupied, or possibly too stupid even to think about it unless it is obvious. Therefore they do not become extinct.

But why did not the Ongtong Javanese birth-rate appreciably decrease? The obvious and only explanation appears to me to be that the attitude of mind was not strong enough to make it do so. Much of the culture remains - 65 untouched by traders, mission, and government, and with it the idea that not to have a family is a public disgrace. People go on wanting children and having them and caring for them because public opinion says they either have to or be shamed. If these children survive diseases, introduced and native, they grow up and have children of their own, but by that time they realize that they are a doomed race. They therefore become an easier prey to those same diseases and they die either before they have reared an adequate family or at any rate before they reach a respected old age. It will go on like that unless there is more interference and all the culture is wiped away. Then they simply will not have children and the race will die out even faster than it is already doing. The reason why this does not take place amongst some peoples that have had no more interference than the Ongtong Javanese is because, unlike them, they probably have been a warlike race. If natives engage in war they meddle with one another. The white man cannot permit this, so war-making is punished. In such communities women have children not so much because public opinion says it is a disgraceful thing not to, but because it says that if they do not bear them to fight, extinction will necessarily follow. Although there be no further interference at all, once war is forbidden public opinion can no longer speak like this. Hence women cease to want children, because they will mean so much extra work for them.


The two chief reasons for the decline of the Ongtong Javanese we found first of all were introduced diseases which have become endemic, and the partial destruction of the native culture. This latter has led to a state of mind which acquiesces in extinction. The natives therefore fall an easy prey to their old diseases and the new ones, both epidemic and endemic. We considered the possibility of a decline in the birth-rate and came to the conclusion that this did not operate because people still desired both children and intercourse. In an endeavour to discover why this was so we had to probe into the history of the people, and in probing we learnt still more of that attitude of mind which acquiesces in extinction. With the coming of the white man the joy of creation went out of work. Customs - 66 also became survivals and finally they ceased to be observed. However, the idea that it was shameful to be childless was not touched. This we took to be the reason why the birthrate had remained substantially the same.

In the light of the fate of Ongtong Java, where there has been the minimum of interference except in the case of the mission, whose influence was, however, brief, it seems that wherever the white man sets his foot in the Pacific, depopulation must inevitably follow. Since this is the position, it is difficult to see what remedies can be taken. Roberts advocates indirect rule, but we have seen how this has failed at Ongtong Java. The government has supported the king, and only rarely interposed itself directly. Pitt-Rivers advocates complete avoidance and non-interference; but in places like the Solomon Islands, and they are typical of the rest of the Pacific, this is impossible since the commercial future of the group depends on native labour. In the last century the world has become so small that the white man must exploit the South Seas, and to advocate his removal from them is illogical; although we may distrust progress, it is ridiculous to ignore it. It would make the gorge of most anthropologists rise to see the way natives have been treated, and in many cases still are being treated in the Pacific, but since the white man, good and bad, is there, he must be accepted.

From the point of view of settlement, miscegenation seems to be the only solution of the problem. This, as Pitt-Rivers shows, means substitution, not preservation of the race. It also raises many new problems of a political nature.

As a deterrent against depopulation, but not as a cure, unlike Pitt-Rivers I would advocate increased medical service. Any more interference in most places will make no difference, and if not only the new diseases but the old ones too can be cured, some of the few children that are born might be saved. A man who is determined to die is perhaps better dead, but children might be saved to do a little work before they reach that stage. To work for the white man's gain seems to be the only thing possible for these peoples until they are extinguished, as it seems they certainly will be in the not distant future.

1   Part of the field research carried out while the author held a Science Research Fellowship of the Univesrity of Sydney. This research was carried out under the auspices of the Australian National Research Council.
2   Taku (Mortlock Is.), Nukumanu (Tasman Is.) and Sikiana are three groups of islands within a radius of a couple of hundred miles, all settled by people racially and culturally akin to the Ongtong Javanese.
3   Figures from Pelau depended on hearsay only, except during the couple of months I lived there. They are therefore too uncertain to bring forward.
4   Pacific Islands, Vol. 1; Western Groups, Admiralty Publication, 1908, p. 345.
5   London, 1927.
6   p. 31.
7   p. 32.
8   p. 32.
9   p. 60.
10   p. 61.
11   p. 63.
12   See Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori. London. 1929.
13   See Coming of Age in Samoa. London. 1929.
14   The Clash of Culture and the Contact of Race. London. 1927.
15   p. 47.
16   Ibid. p. 57.
17   Both are, for instance, unknown at Rennell Island, a raised atoll to the south of the Solomons. The Anopheles exists but is uninfected, probably because the place is very seldom visited.
18   Normally the joint family was patrilineal, but occasionally a man would be adopted into his mother's brother's joint family.
19   p. 143.
20   p. 144.
21   London, 1922; pp. 465-6.
22   Psychology of Sex, Philadelphia, 1927, Vol. 3, Appendix A.
23   p. 14.
24   p. 192.
25   Missionaries are not the only people who do things like this. A certain resident magistrate of the British Solomon Island Protectorate told me that his idea was that, to govern natives, the first thing to do was systematically to violate all their tapu.
26   I quote the native.