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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. M. Coan   14 February 1874

325 West 27th St., | New York,

Feby. 14th 1874.

Mr. Charles Darwin,

Dear Sir:

My friend Prof. Youmans refers your question about the declining population of the Hawaiian Islands to me,—for the insufficient reason that I was born there (of American missionary parents) & spent my boyhood & early youth in the group (1836 to 1855).1 I fear that I cannot contribute much to the question. Nothing, I think, has been written to point out any essential or racial infertility among the Hawaiians, as distinguished from definitely pathological infertility. My own belief is that their decline in population is due in some extent to essential infertility: but this cause is not, as far as I know, discriminated from such causes as abortion, foeticide, infanticide, & syphilitic taint, all of which except, perhaps, the last I think to be still active among the natives. Until more accurate data can be had respecting the amount of these destructive agencies, I should feel uncertain respecting any decline in the reproductive power arising from more general causes. But I think that such a racial decline may exist;—the “mysterious agency”, perhaps of which you speak in chapter XIX of your “Journal of Researches”.2

I enclose my notes & references, taken during the past week from such books on the Islands as I had access to, for what little they may be worth. The list of censuses is, I believe, quite complete & accurately transcribed. I have figured in parallel columns the percentages of decrease of different periods.

—The half breeds were thought to be healthier & more clever, when I lived at the Islands, than the pure natives; & they were fertile, & are now fast increasing. I remember that a reward was offered, I think by the government, to parents who should have a family of more than (I think) 4 children.

If you think it likely that I could furnish you with any further data, I beg that you will call upon me, for I cannot express my debt of gratitude toward you for the reading of your works.

Respectfully yours, | Titus Munson Coan.

[Enclosure 1]

“Is the decline of population in the Hawaiian Islands in any extent due to the declining fertility of the natives?”

Cook’s est. exaggerated, Jarves’ History—(the best—) 8vo, p. 397. Causes of decline, 400, diseases: carelessness of life: promiscuous intercourse & incest: (venereal diseases have almost exhausted themselves:) fecundity comparatively rare: foreign clothing: filthy habits: drunkenness.3

Ellis, Pol. Res., 1831, iv. 326 (2d ed.) infanticide prevalent in islands: p. 319, wars, intoxication, infanticide, diseases, causes of depopulation, Foeticide & abortion to be included.4

Darwin, Journal of Researches, c. xix5

Hill’s Travels, Society & Sandwich Is., p. 110.6

Hopkins’ Hawaii, Lond. 1869. c. xxiii; in 1840, in 1 district, but 14 of the population were under the age of 18; by the census of Great Britain in 1851, the ratio of persons under & above 20 years = 912 to 1112.7

R. Anderson’s Hist. of S. I. Mission, Boston, 1870. p. 332 Dr. Beratz testifies that no unusual amount of syphilis is now to be found on the Islands.8

Same author’s Hawaiian Islands, Bost. 1865. c. xvi, particulars of census for 1860 p. 277.9

[Enclosure 2]

Hawaiian Spectator, 1839, (Honolulu) a valuable article by a Hawaiian, David Malo; & one by the Rev. A. Bishop, stating there the majority of children born in the Is. died before they were 2 years old.10

Sandwich Island notes by a Häolé, (G. W. Bates), N.Y. 1854, has an intelligent estimate of past & present causes of depopulation, pp. 341–351.11

Paradise in the Pacific, N.Y. 1873, Wm. R. Bliss, (an intelligent person) p. 57: “Marriages between the natives are not prolific, even when the married are in comfortable circumstances & of industrious habits, offspring are regarded as a calamity.”12

See also Answers to Questions by R. C. Wyllie, Minister of For. Relations, addressed to all the Haw. Missionaries: Honolulu, 1848, 8vo, an important work: I cannot get at it here; it may be in the Brit. Museum;13 AS. Dibble’s Hist., p. 128, on infanticide.14 Ans. to Questions, p. 47. says: “Habits (of illicit intercourse)15 were often commenced at the age of 2 or 3 years, & continued in such a manner as to induce genital impotency.” “These habits were deemed necessary to the preservation of friendship & good feeling toward one another,” says the “Haoli”, from whom the above quotation from “Questions” is taken, p. 344.16

[Enclosure 3]

Hawaiian depopulation: Causes summarized

I Past. abortion


Early & excessive copulation


Licentiousness, polyandry




Measles, Smallpox, influenza, & other foreign diseases. Leprosy has been developed during the past few years.

II Present

—Foreign diseases: influenza, measles.

—Changed habits of life: particularly dress, wh. seems fatal, Houses, cookery, occupations, are no longer adapted to the environment. The Hawaiians’ habits were more changed in 50 years than the Englishman’s in 1000;17 & the change was imposed, not spontaneous.

—Utter recklessness of health & life; irregularities of dress, diet, medical treatment, habits of sleeping & bathing, etc. The Hawaiian will not take the trouble to change his wet clothes: he will wear clothes one week, & go naked the next; he will rush into the river during the height of an eruptive fever.

—Licentiousness is still prevalent in many forms though less so than formerly.

—Abortion & foeticide I believe to be still practised secretly.

The Hawaiian has little power, physical or psychical, of resisting disease. His [lease] of life is small. At present he does not die so easily of foreign diseases as formerly, selection having taken place. In the case of syphilis & the exanthemata, the point of saturation seems to have been approached, as in the case of European constitutions.

[Enclosure 4]

The population of the group has been estimated at various periods as follows:

Total Pop.

No. of foreigners,

excluding half-castes,

i.e. pure foreigners only.

Periodical decrease

between the

different official censuses,

in the total population.

1779, by Cook, 400,000
1823 142,050
1832 (off. census) 130,313
1836 " 108,579 21734 4 years .16 p.c.
1850 (off. census) 84,165 1962 24414 14 " .22
1853 " 73,138 2119 11027 3 .13
1860 " 69,800 2716 3338 7 .045
1866 " 62,959 4194 6841 6 .098
1872 " 56,897 5366 6062 6 .095
Decrease from 1832 to 1853 (21 years) 57,175, = 44 p.c.
" " 1853 to 1872 (19 years) 16,241, = 22 p.c.

Cook’s estimate was a mere guess: & the estimate of 1823 was not much better. Even the official censuses are not very accurate.— The half-breeds are in majority   Children of Chinese fathers & Hawaiian mothers (married): the next in number are the children of married American men & Hawaiian women: there are various other combinations, & illegitimate children.— The children of the American missionaries, now living on the Island, are some 200 in number. They intermarry freely, & are prolific.

CD annotations

1.1 My … periods. 2.4] crossed pencil
3.1 —The … increasing. 3.2] double scored red crayon
Enclosure 2:
1.1 Hawaiian … old. 1.3] scored red crayon
1.1 1839] underl red crayon
4.1 See … infanticide 4.4] scored red crayon; below ‘B Museum’ red crayon
Enclosure 3:
2.6 polyandry] underl red crayon
5.1 —Changed … spontaneous. 5.4] scored red crayon
Enclosure 4:
1.1 The … follows:] below ‘xx’ red crayon


CD’s letter to Edward Livingston Youmans has not been found. Coan’s parents, Fidelia and Titus Coan, were missionaries at Hilo, Hawaii (DAB s.v. Coan, Titus).
In Journal of researches 2d ed., pp. 434–5, CD had discussed the decline in the population of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as a result of disease, the introduction of alcohol, and the extinction of wild animals, adding, ‘Besides these several evident causes of destruction, there appears to be some more mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal.’
Coan refers to James Cook. James Jackson Jarves wrote: ‘Cook’s vague estimate in 1779, made the population 400,000, but 300,000 would have been nearer the truth’ (Jarves 1844, p. 397).
Coan refers to William Ellis and Ellis 1831.
See n. 2, above.
In Hill 1856, pp. 110–14, Samuel Smith Hill pointed out how strange it was that although in the West Indies and islands off the coast of Africa, whites died while the native-born flourished, in Hawaii the opposite occurred. For the fall in population in Hawaii, he blamed the imported diseases, measles, influenza, and dysentery, indifference to life, and the habit of lying in cold water when feverish.
See Manley Hopkins 1862, pp. 368–9. The 1869 edition of Manley Hopkins’s Hawaii was printed in New York; no London edition of 1869 has been found.
See Anderson 1870, p. 332 n. 1.
Coan refers to Malo 1839 and Bishop 1838.
Coan refers to [Bates] 1854. Häolé: white person, foreigner (Hawaiian).
Coan refers to Bliss 1873.
Sheldon Dibble alleged that Hawaiian mothers sometimes buried infants alive because they were sick or a nuisance (Dibble 1843, p. 128).
Square brackets in original ms.
Coan refers to [Bates] 1854 and Wyllie [1848].
CD cited Coan for this opinion in Descent 2d ed., p. 187.


Anderson, Rufus. 1865. The Hawaiian Islands: their progress and condition under missionary labors. 3d edition. Boston: Gould and Lincoln.

Anderson, Rufus. 1870. History of the Sandwich Islands Mission. Boston: Congregational Publishing Society.

[Bates, George Washington.] 1854. Sandwich Island notes. By a Häolé. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Bishop, Artemas. 1838. An inquiry into the causes of decrease in the population of the Sandwich Islands. Hawaiian Spectator 1: 52–66.

Bliss, William R. 1873. Paradise in the Pacific; a book of travel, adventure, and facts in the Sandwich Islands. New York: Sheldon and Company.

DAB: Dictionary of American biography. Under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. 20 vols., index, and 10 supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Simon & Schuster Macmillan. London: Oxford University Press; Humphrey Milford. 1928–95.

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

Dibble, Sheldon. 1843. History of the Sandwich Islands. Lahainaluna: Press of the Mission Seminary.

Ellis, William. 1831. Polynesian researches during a residence of nearly eight years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. 2d edition. 4 vols. London: Fisher, son & Jackson.

Hill, S. S. 1856. Travels in the Sandwich and Society Islands. London: Chapman and Hall.

Hopkins, Manley. 1862. Hawaii: the past, present, and future of its island-kingdom; an historical account of the Sandwich Islands (Polynesia). London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

Jarves, James Jackson. 1844. History of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands, embracing their antiquities, mythology, legends, discovery by Europeans in the sixteenth century, re-discovery by Cook, with their civil, religious and political history, from the earliest traditionary period to the present time. Boston: James Munroe and Company.

Journal of researches 2d ed.: Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. 2d edition, corrected, with additions. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1845.

Malo, David. 1839. On the decrease of population on the Hawaiian Islands. Translated by L. Andrews. Hawaiian Spectator 2: 121–30.

Wyllie, Robert Crichton. [1848.] Answers to questions proposed by His Excellency, R. C. Wyllie, His Majesty’s minister of foreign relations, and addressed to all the missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands, May, 1846. [Honolulu: Department of Foreign Relations.]


On the declining population of the Hawaiian Islands [see Descent (1875), pp. 186–7, 187–8 n. 43].

Letter details

Letter no.
Titus Munson Coan
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
New York
Source of text
DAR 69: A11, DAR 90: 40–3
Physical description
ALS 2pp † encl 7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9290,” accessed on 1 June 2023,

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