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From J. Stanley Gardiner (1898), "The Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:496-499.


The population of Rotuma has undoubtedly been steadily decreasing during this century. It was estimated by the Rev. James Calvert [fn. "Missionary Labours among the Cannibals," 1870, p. 586.] that in 1864 "there would not be more than 3,000 of any generation for whom the Scriptures would be available." In another place he states that there "dwells a population variously computed at from 3,000-5,000." [fn. Loc. cit., p. 552.] The Rev. Father Trouillet, of the Société de Marie, informed me that he should estimate the population in 1878 as certainly under 3,000, while Mr. Jacobsen, a trader, estimated the numbers in 1878 at 2,700. Native evidence shows that at the west end ,about 1870 Halafa had a population of fifty fighting men, while now it has only five; Lugula, on Sol Mea, had then forty to fifty men, but now does not exist; Fatoitoa and Hajaojao, near Halafa, were at least equally big; the former being deserted only twelve years ago; Maftau, Itomotu, and Savaia about seventy men each, while now they have not more than one hundred between them; the island of Uea a total population of about ninety, now thirty. On the other hand, at the west end Matusa has now a considerably larger population.

At the east end in the bush were three big towns: Hoite Rahiga, and another on Sol Hof, the remains of which I have seen. I think, perhaps, they had about forty houses between them, and allowing eight per house, by no means an overestimate, the population would be about three hundred and twenty. Besides these, there were many smaller towns in the bush here. On the coast, the hoag called Rotuma has now one house, while formerly it had about ten. There are, too, plentiful remains of former occupation in house-sites and burial grounds between the centres of population in Noatau and Oinafa; through Juju also there are even more plentiful remains of houses and Population. But, on the other hand, at the east end of the island certain centres, usually round churches, at least in Oinafa and Noatau, have certainly increased in numbers, though not to any extent proportional to the decrease of others

Examining the remains of planting, it appears as if the whole island, wherever practicable, was at one time tilled. The land where there is a good and deep soil, is, and was, no doubt tilled regularly from year to year, while the rocky country was planted more or less in rotation with yams and kava. Even on the steepest slopes, there are signs of clearing, the summits alone being left crowned by the hifo. The bottoms of the craters of many hills used to be planted too; in the crater of Sol Satarua, the lulu as it is termed, there are still bananas growing, but planted so long ago that the fact that it had a lulu at all was almost forgotten.

Taking all the facts into consideration and making all due allowance for exaggeration in native evidence, from a consideration of the facts on the spot, I estimate that the population in 1850 cannot have been short of 4,000, and that at the beginning of the century there were nearly 1,000 more. The census in 1881 showed a population of 1,126 males, 1,326 females, total 2,452, which in 1881 had decreased to 1,056 males, 1,163 females, total 2,219. In this last period of ten years there were four epidemics, viz, dysentery in 1882, whooping-cough in 1884, dengue in 1885, and influenza. The latter was very severe at first; the last epidemic of it was in 1896 and very mild, though the deaths of about eight individuals, mostly old people, must be ascribed at least indirectly to it. If these epidemics had not occurred, the decrease, I feel sure, for the decade would have been very small indeed

Inquiries from the natives as to the decrease put in the first place the emigration of natives from the island to the pearl fisheries of Torres Straits, to Fiji and elsewhere, as sailors. In the old days it was not uncommon for a hundred or more young men to leave the island in the course of a year, and of these certainly not more than one-third ever returned. In the years, too, of epidemics or hurricanes, still more would leave, though even after the latter there was always sufficient food for the support of all. To this cause and epidemics I ascribe mainly the decrease in the native population. Many epidemics are remembered, though few details are known. When Marafu was a boy, measles ran through the whole island, and he believes carried off about one person in every house. To epidemics, brought by the first Roman Catholic missionaries (p. 401), he ascribes their non-success and subsequent almost expulsion. Marafu, too, remembers to have heard of an epidemic which followed "the great Malaha war " (pp. 473-4), and was still more fatal. Now, owing to the great cleanliness of the people, good sanitary arrangements, and better food, epidemics are far less feared and less fatal.

Another cause was said to be the increased and increasing immorality of the people with the increased use of preventative medicines, which weaken the mother and future children. As good food as could be devised for the children seems always to have been known, and in recent years the use of tinned milks, so strongly urged by the present Commissioner, has undoubtedly still further diminished the mortality, so that I should not think at present that it is much greater than among the poorer classes of our larger manufacturing towns. The stamping out of yaws, too, I can scarcely think, would be beneficial, as I believe that if allowed to run its proper course, it gives the child immunity from other and more serious troubles in later life.

Before the greater prosperity of the people generally, together with better living, dating to some extent from the annexation to Fiji in 1880, I think that some slight decrease might be traced to inbreeding, which, I think, may affect the number of the children and the stamina of an isolated people, who have lived for a long period under precisely the same conditions. The customs of the island were opposed to the marriage of nearly-related people, and new blood was occasionally introduced by drifting canoes, so that I do not believe that this could be put down in the old days as a cause of decrease, considering that keen struggles constantly took place between districts, and undoubtedly between man and man. When a new land was colonised by the Polynesian, the inbreeding must have been very great, and yet, in Captain Cook's time, most of the islands in the South Pacific seem to have had large and flourishing populations; the new mode of life and the struggle for existence undoubtedly gave, even under these unfavourable conditions, a new vitality to the race. So I think that now the ready adaptability of the Rotuman to the changed conditions, brought about by the coming of the white man, is undoubtedly preventing the complete annihilation of his race, and is giving it an increased lease of life for many years. The variety of the stocks in the stores, the great quantity of tinned meats and milk, of biscuits and rice, of clothes and dress fabrics sold, show this adaptability, and are steps in the right direction. Stone houses have now almost entirely taken the place of the old native house, but I doubt whether this is a healthy step. The present Commissioner has done his best to encourage the people to trade, and though his measures are looked upon by many of the older natives with the greatest suspicion, they have during his term of office in the last five years shown a marked effect in a considerable increase of the population, taking the place of the old decrease, while at the same time there have been more natives leaving the island than returning to it.

Undoubtedly the most debilitating disease, that the native has to contend with, is elephantiasis, which has shown no signs of abatement. There is scarcely an adult native on the island, I believe, who has not got Filaria sanguinis in his blood; in the few I examined, if I took the blood sufficiently late at night, I never had any difficulty in finding the animal. If the disease is due to this, it might be greatly minimised by the covering over of the wells, so as not to allow the mosquitoes to breed in them. At present all teem with the larvae. The more immediate cause of the disease coming on seems to be a chill or something of that sort, and these are readily caught by the men from the custom of wearing thick coarse clothes in the day-time, but very thin loin cloths at night; they like, too, to sit about on the beach, after play at nights, so as to get cool. The women, on the contrary, always wear thin loin cloths, and at night commonly a sort of blouse as well and for this reason do not show the disease nearly so frequently.

The drinking of kava, now interdicted by the Wesleyan Mission, was, I believe, most beneficial; the effect is that of a mild tonic. It was not drunk at any time extensively by the very young men, but supplied a tonic at that period of life at which it was most needed. Elephantiasis comes on especially about forty, when a man has passed his prime, and I think that this interdiction has tended, and is tending, to increase the disease, and should be abolished.

It is interesting to note that the few white men who have married Rotumans have, as a rule, had very considerable families; Marafu and others counted up one night nine cases with thirty-nine children known to have lived beyond the age of childhood. Many of these half-castes are now married to native men or women, and generally have by them large families; the next generation becomes merged with the Rotuman, but still shows increased fertility. This factor in the increase of the race is now a small one, but it is steadily growing in importance, and will, perhaps, in time have a considerable effect.

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