Essays on the Marshallese Past

There Is Only So Much Land To Live On.
Population Control Measures In Traditional
Marshallese Culture

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. At present, over half of the population is under 15 years of age, a staggering figure which provides an enormous legacy for the future. One effect of this population growth is the increasing urbanisation of Majuro Atoll and the ever increasing dependency on food bought in stores. If we imagine that suddenly no more barges and ships came to Majuro, the consequences would be disastrous. In the old days there was no such steady supply of food from the outside. In this article, extracted from a larger report, we will have a look at the economic constraints of having a large number of children and how the Marshallese handled the problem of population growth.

The land area of the Marshall Islands is very much confined and prone to environmental influences such as gaining and eroding shorelines, exposure to cyclonic surges and tidal waves. Other environmental constraints regulating the size of a population on a given island (its "carrying capacity") are the size of the groundwater lens and the quality of the soil; both control whether cultivated plants other than pandanus and coconut could be grown successfully. Only very few islets within each atoll fulfilled these requirements and could be used on a permanent basis; other islets were often used as extended outlying gardens or seasonal/temporary fishing camps.

The well-being and ultimately the successful survival of an atoll population depended on the availability of food not only during times of normal seasons, with recurrent food shortages because some food was "out of season", but also - and more importantly - during climatic extremes, like tidal waves and typhoons and their after-effects such as devastated landscapes.

Whereas protein resources, in kinds of fish and shellfish, were abundant at almost all times, carbohydrates were restricted. Food stuffs remain edible only for a short time, especially in the tropic environment of the Marshall Islands. Even though staple foods could be hoarded (such asbwiro), this could be done only for a limited time. Therefore the amount of food available at any given time was limited by the following factors:

  1. productivity of the island or atoll
  2. amount of food stored for times of food shortages
  3. size of the population

Of these factors the productivity of the island/atoll could be influenced by the people only in a very limited manner. Fertilising the soil by bringing in pumice and leaves was practised. The amount of food stored for times of food shortages was limited by the productivity of the island and by the effort put into preparing and storing it. But even if as much food as possible was actually stored, the population could and would reach a ceiling limit beyond which people could no longer be satisfactorily fed. Once this ceiling had been reached it meant that each additional person to be fed meant less food for everyone else.

Given these constraints, it is obvious that a human population could not be allowed to grow in excess of the carrying capacity of the island/atoll, if the survival of the group as a whole should not be imperiled. There are a number of means to control population growth such as sexual taboos, abortion, killing the offspring (infanticide), killing the old (geronticide) and killing strangers (genocide).

The traditional Marshallese custom provided for several methods. The following is based on contemporary ethnographic sources and government documents, as well as descriptions from the early European visitors to the Marshall Islands.

Marriage and sexual interaction started relatively early, often before the onset of puberty. Girls married at an age of 12-14 and boys at 14-16. The young people attempted to avoid having children during the first years of their marriage and offspring were only present among older women.

The first reference to population control by infanticide comes from A.v.Chamisso, who visited the Marshalls in 1816 and reported that the number of children was limited. Only the first three children were tolerated, while the fourth and further newly born babies were buried alive. Exception was made only for children of the irooj. Chamisso quoting Kadu of Wotje, mentions that the infanticide took place because of the want of food. Infants and newly borns were commonly buried alive on the beach. It was also known to place babies on a raft and push them out to sea.

The German trader Hernsheim (1883) mentions that in the earlier days (pre-1880s) not more than two children were tolerated, for the want of food. But even in the 1880s, he mentions, more than two children are uncommon. A German government report on the conditions in the Marshall Islands one year after the Marshalls had become a German colony (1885) mentions that "the family members attend to abortion". Handicapped children, were systematically eliminated, because as Erdland puts it, they were regarded as a burden to society.

The other option was to induce an abortion. Depending on the disposition of the marriage partners, a child was either kept or removed. Abortion was not seen as murder, as the foetus did not count as a human being. According to Father Erdland (1914) abortion was very common among young unmarried girls, since a child born out of wedlock was a 'child born at

Graph showing the overall growth of population of Majro, 1858 to 1988.

the wayside'. Married couples, however, attempted to have at least one child; abortion is said to have been rather uncommon among them. Abortion was effected by the means of massage, conducted with the hands and/or sticks or (later on) bottles and aided by hot baths.

In times of food shortages, especially after typhoons, other methods were utilised to reduce the population and thus the number of mouths to be fed. The systematic killing of a certain number or class of people in times of need is not reported in the sources. Mentioned, however, is that when expedient, such measures could be adopted ad hoc, usually killing strangers: the atoll Likiep had been severely hit by a cyclone in the 1840s, as a result of which the people of Likiep were starving and living of grasses, weeds and fish. People from Mejit, who had been washed ashore at Likiep, were killed in order not to unnecessarily increase the number of people to be fed.

At times of war, all high-ranking and male prisoners of war, commonly with the exception of young girls, were killed; the common method was to drown them in the lagoon. In later times-of greater affluence-such people were enslaved. Castaways were either killed or kept as slaves.

The parameters governing the number of children changed very significantly during the last quarter of last century. The missionaries introduced Christian principles and European traders introduced the concept of money. The power of money as a storageable, though inedible staple was readily recognised by the Marshallese. Not only could one obtain goods desired, but one could also buy food-if one was privileged and could obtain/earn money in the first place.

Erdland (1914) quotes an instance of a woman from Jaluit Atoll. She had already eight children and upon asked whether she would like to "complete the dozen" answered that she intended to do so. Her argument was that her oldest was already earning money and that she would be a rich woman by the time all her children were grown up.

Little has changed since then. Today a large number of children is still seen as an asset, as an insurance for the future. In traditional times, there was only so much food to be grown - so population groth was controlled; today there is only so much food to be bought with the money earned - where do we go from here?

While it is the fundamental belief of the Historic Preservation Office that the traditions and skills of the old have a lot to offer to a modern society, we do not believe that the modern Marshallese society should go back to the days of infanticide and killing of castaways and strangers. But as we have shown, it was Manit in Majolto control population growth. Doing so meant and again means to ensure the well being of the society as a whole.

[Next Page]      [Back to Table of Contents]

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

select from the following...
World War II

Digital Micronesia-An Electronic Library & Archive is provided free of charge as an advertising-free information service for the world community. It is being maintained by Dirk HR Spennemann, Associate Professor in Cultural Heritage Management, Institute of Land, Water and Society and School of Environmental & Information Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. The server space and technical support are provided by Charles Sturt University as part of its commitment to regional engagement. Environmental SciencesInformation Sciences

© Dirk Spennemann 1999– 2005
Marshall Islands Kosrae CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam Wake Pohnpei FSM Federated States of Micronesia Yap Chuuk Marshall Islands politics public health environment culture WWII history literature XXX Cultural Heritage Management Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences CNMI German Colonial Sources Mariana Islands Historic Preservation Spennemann Dirk Spennemann Dirk HR Spennemann Murray Time Louis Becke Jane Downing Downing