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)

Early white visitors divided the South Sea region into three great areas which they called Polynesia (“many islands”), Melanesia (“black islands”), and Micronesia (“tiny islands”). These units are based partly on geography, but mainly on differences in the physical appearance, speech, and customs of the native islanders.



The Polynesian islands form a great triangle in the central and eastern Pacific. They are the homes of tall brown-skinned Polynesian peoples, best known of the islanders to Americans because the Hawaiians are of this type. There are about 360,000 Polynesians today.

Our troops going to these islands find the Polynesians friendly and attractive, as they were back in the days of Herman Melville (at Tahiti and the Marquesas) and of Robert Louis Stevenson (at Samoa). They are usually fisherfolk and gardeners, as were their ancestors, and live in picturesque villages along the palm-lined shores. But they have changed greatly through more than a century of contact with Western ways. They have long been Christians. Church, school, and trading store are parts of their village life.

Around the ports, and in Hawaii and New Zealand, where Polynesian groups have had most contact with whites, they have found acceptable the ways of Western civilization. Many of them go to high school and some to college. In New Zealand, Polynesian Maoris have been cabinet ministers.


The Melanesian islands lie northward of Australia but below the equator. They stretch from the western New Guinea region in the Netherlands Indies through to New Caledonia and Fiji in the cen­tral Pacific.

The islanders here are dark-skinned, as the name Melanesia suggests. Bushy-haired Melanesians live mostly on the coasts, heavy-featured Papuans (a name coming from a Malay word meaning “frizzly haired”) more in the interior of large islands, and short peoples here and there in the deep mountains and forests, some of them pygmy-size Negritos, “little Negroes.”

These peoples of Melanesia, numbering close to two millions, differ amazingly in language and in custom from district to district. Their traditional ways are often so unlike those of Western countries that it is hard for an outsider to understand them.

The islands of western Melanesia, with their malarial coasts and often hostile peoples, were avoided by early voyagers, so that they were not opened up until late in the nineteenth century. In the high, almost inaccessible interiors of New Guinea and New Britain there are still groups whose culture is that of the Stone Age. But the peoples living along the coasts and in the river valleys are by now mostly converted to Christianity, and are well along in the footsteps of the Polynesians. Our troops have found them invaluable as carriers, stretcher-bearers, construction workers, guides, and even guerrilla fighters. The eastern Melanesians in Fiji and New Caledonia are well adjusted to civilization.


The Micronesian islands, lying north of the equator from the Gilberts to the Marianas and Palaus, are of special interest to Americans at this time. They are small and scattered, most of them being coral atolls that rise only a few feet above the surrounding ocean.

The Micronesian peoples of the central and eastern islands, sometimes known as “Kanakas” from a native word meaning “man,” are much like the Polynesians in appearance. Those in the west, called “Chamorros,” are generally shorter and more Malay-like. Especially in Guam they have become strongly mixed in modern days with Filipino and Spanish strains. Altogether the total Micronesian population is about 110,000.

The western Micronesians have been under white influence for nearly four centuries, and nearly all of them have long been Catholics. Those farther east were brought into contact much later, largely through visits by American whalers and the work of American missionaries. Most of there are Protestants. The peoples of the Marshalls and eastern Carolines have had their schooling largely from American mission workers, even in Japanese days, and are no strangers to our customs and ideas. In Guam the Chamorros have moved ahead rapidly under American administration, but most Micronesians tend to be conservative, as might be expected of people whose life is closely adapted to getting along in such small islands, and who have felt the weight of one alien ruler after another.

Vigorous Peoples

The ancestors of all these islanders came from Southeast Asia by way of the Malaysian islands.

Long ago, the short Negrito folk, and also people akin to the heavy-featured Australian aborigines of today, crossed over the island steppingstones into New Guinea and Australia. The modern peoples of Melanesia have been welded mainly from these stocks, though with later, more Caucasian-like elements coming in along the coasts to help in forming a “Melanesian” racial type that is different from the “Papuan.”

Much later, probably in the early Christian era, the ancestors of the Polynesians struck east in large ocean-going canoes. Making possibly the greatest voyages ever known to man, they discovered and settled every habitable island in the eastern Pacific, and left traces of their passing on almost every unusable speck.

Observers two or three decades ago prophesied that the islanders would soon die out. Supporting this belief was the fact that, at the earlier stages of contact with whites, new diseases and other death-dealing influences took a heavy toll. The population of many islands was cut by a half or more.

In some areas, notably in parts of the Solomons and New Hebrides, numbers are still going down, so that he visitor finds villages with few children, or deserted entirely. But in most parts of the South Seas an increase is now under way. Birth rates have stayed high, being geared to conservative sex and family customs. Health work and better adjustment to modern conditions, meanwhile, are pushing the death rates further and further down In many places the population is now increasing very rapidly and the villages swarm with children.

Indeed, in some of the town areas, and on confined coasts and small islands, there is now a looming problem of over-population. Already some governments have had to resettle needy families in the more sparsely populated districts.

White Settlers

White people coming to the South Seas have been of many nationalities, but nearly all of a few frontier types: government officials, mission workers, traders, planters, miners, and—passing through—tourists. At the time of the Japanese attack there were about 33,000 white residents in the islands other than in Hawaii. Most of them lived in the few town centers, so that on hundreds of the smaller islands the native peoples rarely saw a white man.

The number of whites in the South Seas is much less now than it was a few decades ago. The depression drove out many settlers interested in commercial ventures, while educated natives are taking over an increasing number of the jobs once held by whites Each island group has a small number of white families who count it home, but there is no sign that the islands other than semitropical Hawaii, and possibly New Caledonia, will ever form an important zone of white settlement.

Peoples from Asia

Much more rooted in the island life are groups of Asian background, though these are mainly in the few larger territories and around the ports and industrial areas.

About 43,000 persons of Chinese descent are scattered through the Pacific islands, more than two-thirds of them in Hawaii. Fiji has over 100,000 British Indians, about equal to the number of native Fijians. Hawaii has more than 160,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, and large Filipino and Korean groups. Several thousand Tonkinese and Javanese are in the French colonies, especially New Caledonia, but nearly all of them are temporary laborers.

Little new immigration has taken place in recent years. By now, most of the people classed as Asian are island-born. Their numbers are increasing, but at the same time they are usually becoming slowly fused with the island stocks through intermarriage, and their ways of living have greatly changed from those of the Asian homelands. As with most immigrants winning their way in alien settings; these peoples are usually industrious, orderly, and progressive. The local-born youth hold citizenship in the new country, and many become well educated.

There is still plenty of prejudice in the islands against these Asian peoples, especially where they form a large group and their go-getting competition in economic matters is resented. Yet the realistic point of view demands that those who are permanent residents should be treated as a normal part of the population and their interests taken into account.

New Island Stocks

Considerable mixing has taken place between the native islanders and the incoming peoples, who rarely brought womenfolk with them in earlier days. Mixed marriages are less frequent nowadays, but the people of mixed ancestry already on the scene continue to act as a welding agent fusing together the different population groups into new combinations.

Many persons of mixed ancestry have been absorbed back into the native communities. But others are brought up in the white or Asian groups, forming a distinct “half-caste” element. Some of the latter suffer from social discrimination. Some are outstanding leaders in the island life, their dual heritage making it possible for them to act as links between the alien and the native groups. Many are college trained, especially in Hawaii, and take an important role in government and business.

So far, such mixture shows most fully around the ports and in Hawaii and New Zealand, where contact has been most intensive. Away in the future, however, the bulk of the island population will be of this fused type, though with the native strain still uppermost.

Next section: Political Control