Historic Demographic Information for the Marshall Islands

Data quality

by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

The available demographic data on the Marshall Islands are of varied quality. The population data available for the Marshall Islands in general and for the individual atolls in particular are few and irregularly spaced.

The available data can be classified into two categories, estimates and censuses. The period of estimates began in 1767 and covered initially only selected atolls visited by the Europeans. The period of censuses began during the period of German colonial administration and has continued until the present day. The latter period can be split into two subphases, one before and one after World War II. The data collected after World War II are more reliable, while those collected before, mainly by German and Japanese colonial auhorities have been quoted from secondary sources, which have often been inaccurate or sloppy in their scholarship.

The estimates

The early European visitors Kotzebue and Chamisso (1986) remark on the extensive intra-atoll traffic with canoes, which may make early population estimates unreliable.

Several data exist for the period of German Administration some of which are summarised in Krämer & Nevermann (1938:172). Others are contained in colonial dispatches from the district office in Jaluit to the Imperial Governor in Rabaul, New Britain (New Guinea). However, many of the early German data are based on estimates or educated guesses rather than census counts. The first inofficial census it seems was undertaken by the German trader temporary administrator Hernsheim in 1887. His census of Jaluit showed that 1006 people, 335 of which were men (Finsch 1893:379). Hernsheim mentions that by 1886 censuses had been conducted on only four atolls (1887:297). The estimates provided by both the missionaries and the early visitors had to be reduced by about a quarter.

The Censuses

Apparently, the first official census was undertaken in 1897, which revealed that 11,081 Marshallese people lived in the Marshall Islands. However, the German Imperial Governments Report (Anonymous 1899) remarks that the census was probably not very accurate and that the population may be as large as 13,600. This was mainly due to extensive population fluctuatuons, the reasons for which we will investigate in the second part of this paper. The census data from 1897 are reliable for few atolls, such as Jaluit (

Censuses were also undertaken during the Japanese mandate over Micronesia. The quality of the data on the Japenese period variers widely. As almost no primary sources are available all information is culled from secondary material.

The effects of the Pacific War 1941-45 on the populations of some atolls, especially those with Japanese bases (Jaluit, Mile, Maloelap, Kwajalein, Enewetak and Wotje) cannot be underestimated. Apart from death caused by the American bombing raids, both Japanese occupation forces and Marshall islanders died of diseases and starvation once the bases of Kwajalein and Enewetak had been taken and the other bases had been isolated. In addition, Marshall islanders from other atolls had been conscripted for construction labour on the bases (USSBS 1947; Peattie 1988)

Censuses were taken in December 1957 and June 1968 (Hawaii Architects & Engineers Inc. 1968:50).

MALGOV undertook a census in 1967 which is referred to in Kabua & Pollock (1967:2)

The U.S. Peacecorps undertook a census on March 26, 1967 referred to in Kabua & Pollock referred to in (1967:2) (see also Hawaii Architects & Engineers Inc. 1968:50).


Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). Historic Demographic Information for the Marshall Islands -- Data quality . Albury:
URL: http:/marshall.csu.edu.au/data.html

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au

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