Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 45: What Future for the Islands of the Pacific? (1944)

The Pacific island groups vary greatly in economic worth, but some are very important. In addition to natural resources of the seas and forests, some islands have mineral wealth. On the larger islands there is room for the development of tropical plantations if markets can be found for their products.

Except around the few ports, the islanders still meet most of their needs from the local soil and sea. Some of them are expert “marine farmers” who develop and harvest the edible plants as well as the flesh foods of the island waters.

In their gardens ashore they grow yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and other vegetables and fruits. In the New Guinea region sago extracted from the pith of the wild sago palm is a main food for some peoples, while a few forest dwellers depend wholly on game and other wild products.

But many islanders have also learned to use goods from the trad­ing store, such as matches, cloth, soap, iron tools, and perhaps sewing machines and bicycles. To pay for these, and also to get money for government taxes and church contributions, they may produce goods that the trader will take. Everywhere, copra (dried flesh of the coconut) from which oil is extracted, has been the most important native product of commerce. Or young men from the native families may take wage-earning jobs, sometimes as contract laborers in the white man’s employ.

People living around the port towns depend much more upon store goods, and may get their income as government employees, business clerks, stevedores, and in other work.

In general the islanders are slowly expanding their economic needs, and using money more and more.


Commerce and Depression

Stories of the South Seas often picture a down-at-heel white trader or planter, perhaps with a native wife to pass him the rum bottle. Such figures of the earlier Pacific have now almost vanished from the scene.

Today, most of the island business is run by a few large firms, perhaps supplemented by Chinese or other Asian merchants, especially in the towns. In the same way, companies run many of the plantations profitably and efficiently under resident managers.

From about 1860 on, white settlers became interested in growing tropical crops instead of depending upon the native producer. Much of the pioneer work in modern tropical agriculture was carried on in the South Seas. For a time the planters used native workers, in some places under the notorious blackbirding system by which many natives were kidnaped or recruited under false pretenses, and comparatively few ever got back to their homes. Later, laborers were brought in from Asian and even from European countries.

The abuses of the labor traffic led to very close government regulation of labor conditions. Land transactions with natives have also been brought under official control, so that nearly all lands held by whites are leased.

Until about 1920, commercial agriculture expanded in the more accessible and favorable districts of the South Seas. Then came a depression from which the islands have not fully recovered, and which became much worse in the 1930’s. Their products had to compete with a rapidly expanding output from other countries such as the Netherlands Indies, Malaya, and the Philippines with cheaper labor and easier transport than in the scattered islands. Synthetic products have also cut increasingly into the limited markets. In the worst years, about 1933 to 1935, many native communities were forced to go back largely to their old-time barkcloth and other local products because of the closing of trading stores.

Though governments have tried to bolster the existing plantation enterprises by giving preferences, subsidies, bounties, and other artificial aids, many white planters have abandoned their holdings. This was the rather gloomy picture when war broke over the Pacific.

Are the Islands Rich in Minerals?

In 1888 gold was discovered in Papua. Since then other gold mines have been opened in northeast New Guinea, Fiji, and the Solomons. About sixteen million dollars’ worth of gold was exported annually from these territories before the war.

The richest mineral development, however, has taken place in New Caledonia, which has been called a “treasury of precious metals.” For many years it has supplied about one-twelfth of the world’s nickel and chrome, while out of a long list of other minerals cobalt, manganese, and iron have also been mined.

These enterprises point to the fairly assured fact that the Melanesian islands form one of the important mineral zones of the earth. So far, however, it has been worth while to prospect and work only the more valuable minerals because of the difficulties of terrain and high costs of development. Though copper, coal, iron, zinc, and many others are known at various points throughout Melanesia it may not be profitable to exploit them until the more accessible deposits elsewhere run low. Undoubtedly the existence of this mineral wealth was a main reason why Japan has long coveted these islands.

The greatest puzzle today is whether this region will become a major source of petroleum. Signs of oil have long been known from Ceram, a producing field in the adjacent Moluccas, right through to New Caledonia. Since 1911, millions of dollars have been spent by private companies and by the governments in prospecting for a commercially valuable strike. Just before the Japanese attack, oil in paying quantities was tapped near the extreme western tip of New Guinea and boring was in progress at several promising points in south Papua.

The smaller islands of the open Pacific cannot be expected to have much mineral wealth. But several of the raised coral islands have valuable rock phosphates, notably British-controlled Nauru and Ocean, Makatea in the French Tuamotus, and Angaur in the Japanese mandate. The Japanese also worked bauxite on some of their islands as a source of aluminum.

What Are the Economic Prospects?

The war has brought even greater shocks to the economic life of the islands than did the depression.

In the Japanese-occupied areas trade goods became almost nonexistent because the Japanese were in no position to transport them to the islands. Markets, too, were cut of. By contrast, places occupied by the American forces entered a hitherto undreamed-of period of prosperity, with plentiful jobs, goods, and money. The letdown, however, has come as our troops have moved out again.

In the field of tropical agriculture, the native islanders usually have the advantage of an assured food supply, and have their own land and labor. This will enable them to get along under conditions where the white planter would go to the wall. The main need of native producers is to get help in learning to diversify their crops and in marketing their output to best advantage. One of their assets is a closely knit family and community system and this sometimes makes it possible for a group of natives to form a kind of cooperative or joint-stock company.

As for the white man’s enterprises, the best chance, in the opinion of those who know the islands well, seems to lie with larger company or cooperative methods of production. Large-scale interests can spread the risks by growing varied products. They also have the capital to carry on technical research and development, and to introduce machine methods which can do away with unskilled but costly hand labor.

The great success of plantation enterprises in Hawaii, where the annual production exceeds by far that of all the other South Sea areas put together, rests partly on the fact that they can sell their goods on the closed American markets, but also in great measure upon the use of industrial methods of farming. Development of this kind would gradually do away with the need for indentured labor. Such labor still exists in some of these other areas, one of the blackest spots in the island welfare picture.

Travel through the South Seas will certainly increase in the future, and this should open up wide markets for the crafts and curios of the island peoples. The island groups close to New Zealand have a busy trade in tropical fruits, an enterprise promoted by the New Zealand government. Trade relations of this kind, which link tropical and temperate areas, may be developed further. These are examples of how economic welfare may be carried forward.

It looks, however, as if the countries having charge of the islands will have to bear greatly increased economic responsibilities over a long period of future development. This they probably will be will­ing to do in view of the benefits they get in security and because, after all, the official revenues in any territory depend upon its economic progress. To the extent that the various South Sea governments are willing to collaborate with one another, their tasks in solving the economic problems of the region should be made easier.

Next section: At the Postwar Conference Tables