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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. N. Staley   12 February 1874

Croxall Vicarage | Lichfield

Feby 12th | 1874


I only received a few days ago your note of Janry 13th asking for information about the population of the Hawaiian Islands.1

In reply to your queries I would state that the population, before Cook’s visit, from undoubted evidence whether oral tradition or abandoned Kalo patches (taro or Kalo, the root something like a turnip, only grown under water & made into a thick paste), was at least 300,000.2 When the Missioners first went there in 1819 they were not 12 that number, though left to themselves; shewing there were causes at work depopulating the country even before the advent of Europeans.3 The rate of decrease, to say the least, has not been lessened even under all the influences of civilization and religion and education. There is an excellent system of state education compulsory— “The three R.’s” in the Native tongue are well taught— of late good female industrial training schools have been established (mainly through my instrumentality before 1870.— But yet the fact remains. In 1860 there were 67000 natives: at this moment not 50000! You can get the Hawaiian Govt’s last census (1870) I think, at the Hawaiian Consulate, (Manley Hopkins is the Consul) Corn Hill London.4

I think the males are greatly in excess of the females but the census will tell you. The half whites who are reckoned in the census as Natives are as a rule sterile.

I never heard of female infanticide ever having existed in the sense you affix to the word:—as in China or some parts of the Eastern Continent. But the Hawaiian woman hates trouble, or anything that interferes with her pleasures, especially riding (astride always) in horse racing: and she will do all she can to procure abortion. For several years after birth children are much neglected, & die of dirt squalour & neglect in great numbers eating too, improper food.5 Other causes that have diminished the people have been (1) syphilitic poison from the general prostitution, since the whaling fleet (indeed since Cook, went to the Islands) with white men.— There are now 1000 lepers: no doubt a form of this evil. (2) The breeding in, on a limited, isolated area for a long course of time, destroying fertility. It is seldom you see a married couple with children, or, if they have, with more than 2. (3) Punalua; a horrid form of Polyandria in which dear friends will change wives often for short periods (so far as concerns sexual intercourse)

In a work called ‘Mission Life’ for 1871 is a paper by me (page 124) on the social system, religion, usages &cc prior to the introduction of Xty and specimens of their myths.6 If you like to read it I will send it you. The chief was supreme over all persons in his clan. The person of the maiden was taboo to all but himself, however lax she might be afterwards to prevent conception. I shall be happy to add any thing further if you desire further information, for any scientific purpose on this matter.

Yours truly | T. N. Staley | (Bishop)

C. Darwin Esq


James Cook had first sighted the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, and was killed there in 1779 (ODNB). Taro: Colocasia esculenta. CD cited Staley’s figure of 300,000 for the population of the Hawaiian Islands in 1779 in Descent 2d ed., p. 186.
When American missionaries arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in 1820, the islanders had already had several years of contact with American, European, and Chinese traders, and the population had declined owing to the infectious diseases that they brought (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
CD cited figures from Hawaiian censuses up to 1872 in Descent 2d ed., p. 186.
In Descent 2d ed., p. 187, CD cited Staley for the information that many children died young in Hawaii.


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Staley, Thomas Nettleship. 1871. Hawaii before the introduction of Christianity. Mission Life n.s. 2: 66–70, 124–30, 327–34.


On the decline of population of the Hawaiian Islands, before advent of Europeans; infanticide, polyandry.

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas Nettleship Staley
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 89: 188–90
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9286,” accessed on 20 February 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22