Island Lives and Demographic Anxieties from Race to Development in Melanesia

Scandalous Subjects: Island Lives and Demographic Anxieties from Race to Development in Melanesia

Alexandra Widmer

Cooperation Partners: 

Transnational Health in the Pacific through the Lens of TB at the University of Auckland

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Letter from Dr. Frater to the British Resident Commissioner. “Vital Statistics, Land etc.” NHBS 17/I/6. Western Pacific Archives, University of Auckland Library.

This project was an ethnography of the scientific practices of counting human populations and the anxieties engendered by the futures that the numbers forecast; and an account of the Melanesian modernities entangled with the apprehensions of depopulation and population growth.  

During the twentieth century, scientists have been fascinated by small islands as laboratories for experiments on understanding the relationships between environment, culture, and population growth or decline. Islands have been sites for studying demographic trends through racial mixing, evolution, and adaptation and carrying capacity. The islands of Melanesia have held a fascinating place in scientific imaginings of cultural and biological diversity and understandings of race and population. Ths project explored these scientific debates from the vantage of the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu.

The project tracked the transition from scientific and early colonial debates on demographic decline to late colonial and postcolonial debates about curbing overly quick population growth. This was a shift from describing changes in human population size in racial terms or evolutionary possibilities to the achievement of economic progress on development goals by optimizing population size. The project explored how scientific understandings of human groups were associated with colonial management strategies to curb racial decline that gave way to postcolonial plans about balancing fertility with economic development.

Despite the humanitarian scandals foretold in the demographic research, neither colonial nor postcolonial governments launched a significant state approach to population control, but rather meted out their interventions on population in episodic, often failed, efforts. While large scale state and transnational interventions on population are crucial aspects of the history of population politics, from this context this project claimed that studying the attempts and failures of population projects in small populations is worthwhile as they were part of the scientific practice of understanding population, and, significantly, part of colonial and postcolonial realities. Colonial and postcolonial failures to realize progress based on the implementation of scientific accounting of populations are, indeed, at the core of postcolonial predicaments.