The Pacific

The Pacific - from the continent of Australia to the islands of Hawaii - was the last major region of the world affected by the great era of European exploration in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The same lugubrious tale of explosive epidemics and drastic population decline that we have encountered in the Americas was repeated here.

The lengthy ocean voyages required to reach the Pacific screened out the danger of smallpox during the earliest years of exploration, although in time smallpox epidemics did devastate native populations throughout the entire region (for examples from Australia, Pohnpei, and Hawaii see Greer 1965; Butlin 1983; Campbell 1985; and Hanlon 1988). Influenza may have been restrained to some extent by the same distance-screening process, although influenzalike epidemics were reported in many early records and ongoing research on the spread of influenza viruses suggests ways in which the distance restraint may have been overcome (Hope-Simpson and Golubev 1987). Of greatest importance in the first decades of Western contact, however, were tuberculosis (which can explode with epidemiclike intensity in a previously uninfected population; see, e.g., Du-bos 1965) and venereal diseases.

An account of the devastation visited on the Pacific is as lamentable as is the account of what happened in the Americas. In southeastern Australia about 95 percent of the aboriginal population died off in slightly more than 60 years (Butlin 1983). In New Zealand the native population fell by about 60 percent in 70 years and at least 75 percent in a century (Lewthwaite 1950; Pool 1977). In the Marquesas Islands the population dropped by 90 percent in 65 years and by 96 percent in just over a century (Dening 1980). In Hawaii the native population was halved within 25 years following Western contact and reduced by at least 95 percent in a little more than a century (Stannard 1988). There are many more examples.

As with the natives of the Caribbean and the Americas, a primary cause of the Pacific peoples' vulnerability to the introduced infections was their lack of immunity to the new diseases and the fact that they were assaulted by a barrage of them simultaneously. In addition, some genetic factors may have also played a part. Because initial populations were relatively small in each newly settled island, the evolved gene pool in each case was probably relatively small, making large-scale die-offs more likely than would be the case in populations with a more complex and heterogeneous composition. Like American Indians, who also grew from a comparatively small population of early immigrants and who were isolated from the world's gene pools and great disease experiences for a vast period of time, Polynesians, for example, show a remarkably narrow range of blood types, with an almost complete absence of type B (Morton et al., 1967; Mourant 1983).

In the Pacific, as in the Americas, the populations that were not extinguished by their contact with the West in time began to recover. Partly because of the development of acquired immunities, and partly because of amalgamation with the races that had brought the new diseases (among Hawaiians, for example, the worst health profile today remains that of so-called pure Hawaiians, whose numbers have dwindled to less than 1 percent of those at the time of Western contact), the Pacific's native people now have birthrates higher than most of the immigrant populations in their homelands.

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