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[The following account is abstracted from a background paper prepared by A. Howard and J. Rensel for the Fiji Constitutional Review Commission in November, 1995. Data from the 1996 Fiji Census were incorporated on 1 December 1999.]

Like so many other Pacific Island, Rotuma suffered a significant depopulation as a result of diseases introduced by Europeans. The degree to which depopulation took place cannot be precisely measured since early visitors gave widely divergent estimates of the population during the early years of contact. The highest estimate, by Reverend Heath in 1840, was 12,000, but this is out of line with others. More reasonable estimates range from 5,000 by Tromelin in 1828 to 2-3,000 by Lucatt in 1841. The discrepancy between the latter two estimates may reflect a process of depopulation or simply differeing perceptions, but that depopulation occurred during the 19th century is a certainty.

The first report of an epidemic on Rotuma is in the log of Father Trouillet, a French priest. He wrote that some seven years before his arrival, about 1861, there had been a very bad dysentery epidemic--so bad, in fact, that there were not enough people to bury the dead. Trouillet also recorded the first documented epidemic in 1871, when dysentery took some 46 to 58 lives. The first census of the island showed a total of 2,491 Rotumans on the island. By 1901 this figure had dropped to 2,061. After a steady increase for a few years the population dropped to an all time low of 1,983 following a measles epidemic in 1911. In addition to introduced diseases, the population declined as a result of emigration, particularly by young men who took advantage of opportunities to sign aboard European ships. Commenting in 1867 on the extent of emigration, Rev. William Fletcher, the first European Methodist missionary stationed on Rotuma, wrote that upwards of 700 young men were known to have left the island in recent memory (Fletcher 1870).

The records show that in the first two decades following cession epidemics continued to plague Rotuma and took a heavy toll. A dysentery epidemic swept the island in 1882, followed by whooping cough in 1884, dengue in 1885, influenza in 1891 and 1896, and dysentery in 1901. Fish poisoning was also reported as reaching epidemic proportions in the years between 1885 and 1887. The crude death rate during this 20-year period was approximately 46 per thousand, for a population averaging about 2250 persons.

During the late nineteenth century, colonial officials and Rotumans alike expressed concern about Rotuma's depopulation, but their apprehensions have not been realised. In fact Rotumans have experienced explosive population growth since the 1920s, growing from a total population of 2,112 in 1921 to 9,727 in 1996 (see Figure 1). However, the number of Rotumans on Rotuma was nearly the same in 1996 as it had been 50 years earlier (2,580 compared to 2,543), with migration draining off the net population increase.

Fiji census reports over the past several decades document a dramatic shift in the distribution of Rotumans, with an ever-increasing proportion recorded away from their home island. According to the 1996 census, 73.5 percent of Rotumans lived elsewhere in Fiji. Although official counts in other countries do not enumerate Rotumans separately, data collected from Rotuma residents in 1989 and from Rotuman migrants to Australia, New Zealand and the United States in 1994 suggest that between 500 and 1,000 Rotumans live abroad.

This outmigration has had an effect on Rotuma's age and sex structure. In 1956 the age structure of the total Rotuman population reflected increases in numbers resulting from a decrease in death rates and continued high birth rates. Thus it had a broad base of children and tapered toward a peak at old age. The age structure of Rotuma paralleled that of the total Rotuman population, suggesting that migration to that point had included both sexes and all age groups in approximately equal proportions (with a slightly higher number of males in the 20-29 age group leaving, and fewer of the elderly).

By 1986 the difference between the structure of the overall Rotuman population and that of the island was dramatic. Although the overall structure retained the shape of a broad-based pyramid, the population on Rotuma resembled the shape of an hourglass, with smaller proportions of young children than previously, an indentation in the middle age groups, and relatively high proportions in the older age categories. This suggests that outmigration increasingly has involved young couples who either migrated with their children, or left Rotuma single, married in Fiji and had their children there.

Outmigration has also had an effect on household size. According to census reports the number of persons per household decreased from 7.1 to 5.9 persons on Rotuma between 1966 and 1976. This corresponds to the period of maximum outmigration, when the population of Rotumans on the island dropped by 16 percent.

Meanwhile, the proportion of children under 10 on the island declined with each census, from 34.2 percent (1,024 of 2,993 total population) in 1956 to 27 percent (699 of 2,554) in 1986. Although the percentage of children age 10-14 fluctuated, there has been an overall decrease, such that the total proportion of children under 15 dropped by nearly 10 percent (from 48.4 to 38.8 percent, or 1,449 to 1,004 in absolute numbers) over the thirty year period. This change may be attributed at least in part to changing migration patterns. An examination of dependency ratios over time is instructive.

The 1976 census shows a high dependency ratio for Rotuma (118 dependents to 100 adults of "working age," that is, ages 15-59) (Bryant 1990:140). But by 1986 the dependency ratio for Rotuma had dropped to 96/100. Furthermore, a comparison of the Fiji censes from 1956-1986 shows a steady increase in the dependency ratio for Rotumans in Suva, from 58/100 in 1956 to 67/100 in 1986. Whereas previously the Suva population of Rotumans included a higher proportion of pioneers, without spouses and children, because they now establish families--and keep their children with them--the population profile approaches that for the overall Rotuman population. The dependency ratios for Rotumans on Rotuma and in Suva both appear to be converging toward the overall dependency ratio for Rotumans, which in 1986 was 76 dependents per 100 of working age.

Although the dependency ratio is dropping on Rotuma, the percentage of the population 60 and over has more than doubled, from 4.3 percent (129 persons) in 1956 to 10 percent (258 persons) in 1986. By 1986, 50 percent of Rotumans 60 and older (258 of 519) were on Rotuma, whereas only 30 percent of the total Rotuman population lived there. This may be due in part to the fact that, more so than urban Fiji, Rotuma provides an environment in which older people are valued for their knowledge, wisdom and other contributions to their households and communities.

The high rate of emigration for Rotumans of working age is understandable. Fiji's diversified economy provides a broad base of employment whereas Rotuma's does not. Rotumans in Fiji are employed not only by the government but by private organisations; according to the 1976 Fiji census, 583 Rotumans worked for the government while 1,042 held positions in the private sector.

After young Rotumans leave the island in search of further education and employment, many opt to stay away, to marry and establish families and residences of their own. Some choose to go back to Rotuma, for shorter or longer periods, to visit, take a job, find a spouse, or resettle. Whether or not they return, many Rotuman migrants actively maintain connections with their home island.

Only 26.5 percent of all Rotumans in Fiji were living on Rotuma in 1996, while 25.7 percent were recorded as living in Rewa district, 22.7 percent were recorded as living in Naitasiri and 14.6 percent were recorded as living in Ba. Off-island Rotumans are heavily concentrated in the major urban centers of Fiji, with the largest concentration in the Suva/Lami area (64.1 percent in 1986). An additional 9.5 percent were in Lautoka and 6.1 percent in Vatukoula. Fully 87.8 percent of Rotumans living off-island were classified as "urban" in the 1986 census, representing 61.9 percent of the total Rotuman population.

The 1986 Census shows Rotumans reporting high rates of educational attainment, with 58 percent completing Form One or higher and over 4 percent reporting at least some post-secondary education.

The majority of Rotuman men were engaged in cash-based employment (57.1 percent) while Rotuman females were more evenly split between cash employment and the role of homemaker (27.5 percent versus 40.1 percent). If only off-island Rotumans are considered, the percentage of wage employment goes up considerably, with 70.3 percent of males and 34.4 percent of females so engaged. After cash employment, the most likely activity for Rotuman males was that of student (9.6 percent).


Bryant, J. 1990. Rotuman migration and Fiji: A response to uneven development. In Migration and Development in the South Pacific, edited by J. Connell. Canberra: National Centre for Development Studies, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. Pacific Research Monograph No. 24, 136-150.

Fletcher, Wm. 1870 The Wesleyan Missionary Notices. No. 13 Vol. III.

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