Pacific Populations

Pacific Populations: Fertility, Mortality and Movement in Colonial Oceania

Speaker Series and Workshop

Organised by Dr Emma Thomas

An increasing global population has characterized modern world history, but the view from the Pacific urges an interrogation of this trend. Population and fertility decline have long been acknowledged phenomena across Oceania, signalled, for instance, by the 1922 publication of W.H.R. Rivers’ anthology Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia. European colonial expansion, Rivers and others thought, was the key factor driving population decline in the region. Questions about demographic data for the Pacific Islands prior to and following European ‘contact’ have engaged subsequent scholars working in fields including history, archaeology, anthropology, and the biomedical sciences. Questions about the causes and effects of population change have also endured, as scholars have weighed and debated the impacts of factors ranging from introduced diseases and epidemics to migratory (and exploitative) colonial labour regimes and alienations of indigenous lands. Colonial discourses about ‘dying races’, which frequently held Pacific Islanders (and Islander women in particular) to be responsible for their own demise, continue to demand scholarly critique. Meanwhile, Oceanians have told their own histories of epidemics and sterility-causing disease, brought to their islands by voyaging and colonizing Europeans. This workshop, hosted by Laureate Centre for History & Population at UNSW, will bring together scholars whose research investigates the vexed histories of depopulation in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Oceania. As global climate change renders issues of migration, land, and population increasingly urgent across the Pacific World, the workshop offers an important and timely reconsideration of the decline of Pacific populations during colonial rule.

Questions we will address include:

  • What unique perspectives and insights do histories of Pacific Islands contribute to the history of population in the modern world? How do scholars ‘diagnose’ the causes and understand the effects of depopulation in relation to Europe’s global expansion?
  • How have Pacific Islanders understood questions of sickness and health, reproduction and the family? How have indigenous knowledges and practices pertaining to population interacted with biopolitical medicine in colonial Oceania?
  • How did strategies for discussing and dealing with depopulation in the Pacific differ and/or converge across a range of empires (European, American, and Australasian) and colonial situations (including settler colonies, plantation economies and missionary settlements)? How did these strategies engage or ignore local specificities?
  • How does a critical examination of de/population enable and/or challenge us to research across a variety of scales, from the intimate, to the local, regional, and global? What are the research methodologies that allow for a critical reconsideration of depopulation in Oceania?

Key themes of this workshop include, but are not limited to:

  • In/fertility
  • Neonatal, maternal, and infant health
  • Histories of medicine
  • Environmental histories
  • Indigenous medicine and family planning
  • Colonial population politics and policies
  • Violence
  • Land and water use
  • Labour, capitalism and migration
  • Missionization/Christianisation
  • Migrations and diasporas

The Pacific Populations speaker series will be commencing 9 August, and running monthly until May 2023. The workshop will take place on 1-3 June 2023 at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and online.

For more information, contact:


9 August 2022, 10am (AEST/UTC+10h/8 August, 6pm MDT)

Assistant Professor Seth Archer, Utah State University

‘Indispensable Filibusters: Foreign Physicians and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’

6 September 2022, 10am (AEST/UTC+10h/5 September, 7pm CDT)

Dr Christopher Kindell, University of Minnesota

‘“Keep your house in order”: Smallpox, Public Health, and Transpacific Mobility in 19th-Century Hawai‘i’

11 October 2022, 12pm (AEDT/UTC+11h)

Emerita Professor Margaret Jolly, Australian National University

‘Decolonizing Discourses of Depopulation in Oceania: Revisioning Indigenous Pasts and Futures’

8 November 2022, 10am (AEDT/UTC+11h/7 November, 7pm EST)

Assistant Professor Sandra Widmer, York University

‘Labour, Land and Imagined Futures during times of Pacific Depopulation’

14 February 2023, 10am (AEDT/UTC+11h)

Dr Simon Chapple, Victoria University of Wellington

‘Why Has There Been So Little Debate on the Size of the Contact-Era Māori Population in New Zealand?’

14 March 2023, 10am (AEDT/UTC+11h/12pm NZDT)

Jacqueline Leckie, Victoria University of Wellington

‘Yaws in the Pacific: Never forgotten’

11 April 2023, 5pm (AEST/UTC+10h/9am CEST)

Dr Jean Louis Rallu, Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques

‘Population estimates, post-contact decline and ideologies in Pacific islands’

Speaker Series Abstracts (Click to Expand)

Assistant Professor Seth Archer, Utah State University

‘Indispensable Filibusters: Foreign Physicians and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’

This paper investigates the influence of European and American physicians and public health officials among the Hawaiian ali‘i of the nineteenth century. While few foreigners set sail for Hawai‘i in order to practice medicine or public health, enterprising men from Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States gravitated toward health care as the need among the ruling chiefs (and as opportunities for personal gain) presented themselves. One missionary cum filibuster used his knowledge of Hawaiian health concerns to become, first, chairman of the Hawaiian legislature’s Sanitary Committee and, later, the most powerful official in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. I suggest that new and ongoing health concerns among the ruling chiefs resulted in such men being elevated to positions of authority and gaining material wealth, including land grants. As for the ali‘i, persistent health problems and mortality among their ranks, along with broader population loss and the marginalization of Native Hawaiian medical practitioners, led them to privilege foreign physicians and to rely on their ministrations throughout the nineteenth century. Growing wise to the trend, newcomers refashioned themselves as health care practitioners in a bid to hold sway over the chiefs.

Dr Christopher Kindell, University of Minnesota

 ‘“Keep your house in order”: Smallpox, Public Health, and Transpacific Mobility in 19th-Century Hawai‘i’

Scholars exploring the history of infectious diseases in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific World have often focused their attention on colonial encounters, the arrival of Christian missionaries, and the depopulation of Indigenous peoples before the mid-19th century. Far less explored, however, is the fraught relationship among smallpox, commercial trade, and the institution of public health during the 1860s, 70s, and 80s. These three decades marked a transformative era in Hawaiian and Pacific World history that was characterized by rapid urbanization, the advent of transpacific steamships, and the increased mobility of Indigenous and immigrant laborers. When considered together, these interrelated circumstances overexposed the Hawaiian Islands to virulent diseases. As a result, a multitude of historical actors — from health officials and businessmen to Native Hawaiians, Chinese immigrants, and affluent globetrotters — clashed over the most effective methods for safeguarding Honolulu and the Hawaiian Islands from the foreign introduction of smallpox. Drawing on public health reports, medical correspondence, newspapers, and personal accounts from medical professionals, this presentation will demonstrate that such controversies pivoted on the perceived and actual efficacy of two distinct public health measures that became increasingly institutionalized during the mid-19th century: maritime quarantine laws and universal vaccination programs. On the one hand, a strict quarantine could prevent the introduction of smallpox, but only at the cost of impeding commercial trade. On the other hand, vaccinations could immunize an entire population, thus rendering quarantine measures obsolete. Yet in reality, vaccinations often proved inadequate due to the volatility of early operation techniques and racialized tensions between Western medicine and Indigenous and immigrant cultures.

Emerita Professor Margaret Jolly, The Australian National University

‘Decolonizing Discourses of Depopulation in Oceania: Revisioning Indigenous Pasts and Futures’

Like many parts of the colonised world, Oceania suffered dramatic losses of people, primarily due to the movement of new viruses and bacteria in epidemic waves: measles, smallpox, influenza, dysentery, tuberculosis and importantly venereal diseases which caused morbidity and death and imperilled fertility. This was especially intense in the century from the 1820s to 1920s. In some parts of the Pacific, population plummeted by 90% from levels prior to European contact.  Depopulation was intimately connected with colonial dispossession of land and ocean and new systems of labour such as indenture on plantations, producing commodities like cotton, sugar and copra. It was also implicated in pervasive Christian conversions, political turbulence and transformations since Indigenous ideas of human flourishing and decline were typically situated in holistic ontologies of cosmic regeneration and degeneration. Foreign discourses about depopulation often marshalled arguments about ‘the dying race’ and even insinuated that Indigenous factors (like poor mothering or masculine malaise) were core to this ‘fatal impact’,  thus ‘making them responsible for their own demise’. Simultaneously many foreign commentators and even official censuses, diminished the extremity of population decline. Recent studies across archaeology, anthropology, demography and history revision the scale and the profound significance of depopulation. This paper will offer a distillation of some recent research, especially for Hawai’i and Vanuatu, and bring a gender lens to this history. The central role of Indigenous men in fertility (human and non-human) was marginalised in colonial regimes which focused on mothers and children. It will also ponder the intersection of gender and race in contemporary conversations about population in an era of climate crisis, and propositions by feminist scholars like Donna Haraway that humans should be ‘making kin not babies’.

Assistant Professor Alexandra Widmer, York University

‘Labour, Land and Imagined Futures during times of Pacific Depopulation’

“Why should we bring children into the world only to work for the white man?” is what W.H.R. Rivers reported ni-Vanuatu told him in the early 20th century. He, and other researchers in the 1910s-20s, heard ni-Vanuatu narratives like this in relation to the broader phenomenon of rapid population decline. The researchers worked to understand such Pacific narratives of depopulation in terms of the psychological effects of colonialism, women’s fertility control and especially infectious diseases. In this talk, I will home in on the fact that in this phrasing, ni-Vanuatu undesired futures were imagined in terms of particular kinds of work under colonial conditions. I will focus on the place of work, labour migration and land in the imaginaries and narratives of Pacific depopulation, with a particular focus on Vanuatu. I will examine this through the work of prominent scholars like W.H.R. Rivers and Felix Speiser as well as British, French and Protestant mission documentation of population size and what they proposed to do about it. To the extent that sources at hand allow and by reading colonial sources against the grain, I foreground ni-Vanuatu articulations of work and sovereignty. I explore the following questions:  How was sovereignty implicitly undermined in the ways that labour migration and wage labour figured into the demographic imaginaries? As settlers and some colonial governments attempted to expand regional plantation economies during this time of high death rates and low fertility rates, how did their discussions of land use and labour naturalize certain futures about work?  I will also connect these Pacific depopulation narratives to global demographic imaginaries of land and labour in the early 20th century. I see this empirical discussion as a way of thinking about how demographic narratives about population size were entangled with agendas of dispossession and the production of labourers.

Dr Simon Chapple, Victoria University of Wellington

‘Why Has There Been So Little Debate on the Size of the Contact-Era Māori Population in New Zealand?

The size of the contact-era Māori population is one of the most important numbers in New Zealand’s short 800-to-900-year demographic history. Contact-era population size is critical to understand two key trends: (a) the rapidity of population growth following people’s arrival in New Zealand, probably  in the late 13th century and (b) the extent and temporal pattern of Māori depopulation following enduring contact with the rest of the world post-1769.

In the Americas, Australia, and the Oceanic Pacific there has been considerable scholarly activity in the last fifty years addressing questions of the size of contact-era indigenous populations. The consensus views have generally shifted in an upward direction, suggesting considerable indigenous population collapse immediately following European contact, largely through higher death rates on account of “virgin soil” bacterial and viral epidemic diseases from Eurasia which were introduced by European shipping.

New Zealand, curiously, has remained largely isolated from these academic trends. The conventional inward-looking New Zealand demographic wisdom is that the contact-era Māori population was 100,000 people or fewer. That view is echoed in local mainstream histories, which suggest extremely modest European contact-induced population decline between 1769 and 1840. Depopulation however accelerated, it is conventionally argued, following signing of the Treaty and mass British migration from the 1840s to the 1890s, at which point the Māori population began again first to stabilise and then to increase.

The presentation traces the history of Māori population estimates and population debate in New Zealand with a view to answering the question of why New Zealand has been insulated from these debates and addressing the extent to which New Zealand Māori population exceptionalism is justified by the existing evidence base.

Associate Professor Jacqueline Leckie, Victoria University of Wellington

‘Yaws in the Pacific: Never forgotten

Treponemal diseases remain under-researched within studies of depopulation within the Pacific Islands. Historical studies have been undertaken on syphilis, but little research has addressed yaws (treponema pallidum pertenue). Yaws was endemic in the pre-European tropical Pacific. Yaws was  highly disfiguring to skin, bones and joints and, like syphilis, caused immense suffering and morbidity. When untreated, yaws advanced to extremes in the tertiary stage, bringing severe disability and deformities, including extreme facial disfiguration (gangosa). Yaws was far from benign. The extent of suffering and death in the Pacific from yaws was staggering but remains undocumented by historians. My research has revealed past evidence of extensive tertiary yaws among Fijians. Dr Sylvester Lambert of the Rockefeller Foundation argued that yaws was responsible for miscarriage, lowered birth rates and infant death among the “Pacific Races”.  

In this paper I share historical research on yaws from the nineteenth century to mid- twentieth century in the South Pacific. I address indigenous understandings of yaws, and interventions to control yaws. The Pacific is neglected globally in treponemal research and the history of yaws in population research.  

Dr Jean Louis Rallu, Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques

‘Population estimates, post-contact decline and ideologies in Pacific islands’

Post-contact population decline in European colonies is bound with estimates of the size of indigenous populations at contact, but these estimates vary greatly in the Caribbean, mainland Americas, Pacific islands, etc. However, Pacific islands provide much more reliable statistical data on post-contact population trends than older colonies, at least for particular islands and limited periods of time.

We shall review early, late 18th century, estimates of Tahiti population by navigators, in light of historical and anthropological information, and recent archaeological data. Then, we shall assess missionary and civil registration data quality – the former being designed to assess the progress of Christianisation and registered only baptisms (including of adults) and converts’ deaths. We shall design reconstitutions of population trends in Tahiti from 1767, using available data – data of other Eastern Polynesian islands in similar situations when Tahitian data are lacking – in relation to missionary, administrative and medical reports. Our approach will consider a situation of pre-contact population stabilized through various cultural practices, mostly abortion-infanticide, suddenly affected by new epidemic and endemic diseases, resulting respectively in very high deaths rates of short duration and decades of abnormally low fertility and high mortality, making post-epidemic recovery questionable, or even impossible, and resulting in constant decline. Finally, we shall evaluate later estimates, missionary ‘censuses’, and scholarly estimates of the 1960-1970s.

The debate on estimates of population at contact has strongly been influenced by various ideologies and political considerations. Low estimates are necessary to reduce the responsibility of colonial governments for severe decline due to lacking or inadequate social and health services for Polynesians. However, reading between lines, it appears that some authors of recent estimates would have accepted and supported much higher figures than they actually published.