Essays on the Marshallese Past
There Is Only So Much Land To Live On.
The Republic of the
The land area of the
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
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
The German trader
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
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
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.
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
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