The size of the Solomon Islands population before large-scale contact with the outside world is difficult to estimate, and early foreign residents were certain that significant population decline had occurred during the nineteenth century, largely caused by introduced diseases. There is ample evidence of this decline spread throughout the entries for the Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopaedia. The first census was not until 1931 when 94,066 people were recorded. Archaeologists have estimated that the pre-contact population of Vanuatu could have been as high as 700,000. (Huffman 2012) Based on land size and sixteenth to twentieth century estimates and observations, the population of the Solomon Islands (including Bougainville) was far higher than that of Vanuatu. The pre-contact population of Solomon Islands was probably in excess of 200,000 and possibly twice or even three times that level. A figure of 500,000, close to the present-day population level, is entirely plausible and may still be far too low an estimate.
The Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century recorded substantial populations. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century estimates for the Protectorate suggest the total population was between one and two hundred thousand people, with Malaita the most populous island with about fifty to one hundred thousand people. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, warfare and raiding depopulated large areas in the Western and Central Solomons. The effect was particularly marked in the New Georgia Islands and on Choiseul and Isabel, but raids also affected the Russell Islands and parts of Guadalcanal. By the second half of the century, decades of headhunting raids (q.v.) from New Georgia, inter-tribal fighting and introduced diseases had reduced Isabel's population to a few thousand. The labour trade to Queensland and Fiji (1870-1914) and probably also the Anglican Melanesian Mission's transportation of students on its ship the Southern Cross introduced new diseases, which must have killed many. Epidemics of measles brought in by the labour trade in the mid-1870s may have reduced population in some areas by as much as one-quarter to one-third. Resident Commissioner Woodford (1896-1915), who first visited the Solomons in the early 1880s, was convinced that decline was ongoing and that Solomon Islanders would soon become extinct.
Evidence from Makira supports the view that there was significant loss of population, particularly through dysentery epidemics. In the 1870s, John Still of the Anglican Melanesian Mission became the first European to walk across the island. In the interior he found villages on most of the hills and a substantial population. Coastal villages also had large populations: in the 1880s H. B. Guppy estimated that Wango on the north coast was home to about five hundred people. By the 1900s, when Father Charles Fox first lived on the island, he reported that there were few inland villages. In the 1910s, Fox was shown the deserted sites of forty-six inland villages around Heuru, and only three villages remained. (Scott 2007, 84-86). Another good example of depopulation in the Eastern Solomons is Vanikolo, which had about four thousand people in the mid-nineteenth century, but less than fifty by the 1930s. The extent of this depopulation may have been exaggerated, however, and most early statistics are rough and unreliable. Some foreign observers took deserted village sites as evidence that populations had died, but villages could empty for many other reasons and were often reinhabited later. (Woodford 1922; Rivers 1922)
As District Officers were able to collect more accurate data from some places in the 1920s, some officials backed away from their earlier claims regarding drastic and inevitable depopulation. That said, it seems likely that populations did plummet in some places, most notably 'Are'are on Malaita, Rennell and Bellona, Makira, and probably parts of Choiseul. However, by the 1920s other areas such as Gizo, Isabel and Santa Cruz were beginning to see population increases. (AR 1974, 17-18)
The first census was conducted in 1931, when District Officers made counts in their districts over several months. They enumerated 94,066 people in all: Central (5,300); Choiseul (4,051); Guadalcanal (14,215); Isabel (including Russell Islands) (5,700); Makira (5,080); Malaita (41,052); Rennell and Bellona (1,500); Temotu (7,560); and Western (8,474); and unclassified (483), which included 478 Europeans. In 1931, the census reported there were 89,568 Melanesians, 3,847 Polynesians, 478 Europeans, 164 Chinese and 9 people from other races.
The Second World War probably checked population growth somewhat, particularly on islands occupied by the Japanese or otherwise directly affected by fighting. Another census was attempted in November 1949 but it had to be abandoned due to organized resistance by Maasina Rule. The 1959 population estimate was based on sample areas thought to contain 27.7 percent of all Solomon Islanders living outside of Honiara, and statistics from a head count made during a 1956-1958 anti-yaws campaign. (AR 1971, 7) The latter campaign provided reasonably accurate statistics and an approximate population figure of 114,700: 108,000 Melanesians, 5,000 Polynesians, 700 Europeans, and 600 Chinese, Indians and Fijians. There was also a group of about 400 Gilbertese who had been resettled at Gizo from over-populated Sydney Island in the Gilbert and Ellice Colony. (AR 1957-1958, 57) The 1959 census estimated the population to be 117,620 Melanesians, 4,625 Polynesians, 781 Europeans, 366 Chinese, 459 Micronesians, 139 Part-Europeans and 86 others. In 1959, Honiara had a population of 6,431. Based on this large sample (the 1959 census and the 1956-1958 anti-yaws campaign), the total Solomons population was estimated at 124,000.
These statistics showed an average annual increase since 1931 of 0.94 percent for Melanesians and 0.65 percent for Polynesians; however it was thought that specific annual rates fluctuated widely. The figures for the Roviana sub-district of New Georgia, compared with records from 1949, indicated a 3 percent annual increase. In the Reef Islands, over the previous four years the increase had been 2.8 percent. It was estimated that the Melanesian population overall would increase 1.5 percent over the next four years. Population densities varied widely: the Protectorate average was 10.8 persons per square mile, but for Isabel it was 4.3, for Vanikolo 1.0, for Nupani 762 and Tikopia 359. (AR 1959-1960, 7) The classification of Polynesians also changed in later censuses: in 1959 the Reef and Duff Islanders were counted as Polynesian, but by the 1970s they had been divided into Melanesians and Polynesians. (AR 1974, 17)
The next census was in 1964, when the estimated population was 133,200, and in 1965 the estimate was 136,750, broken down into 128,200 Melanesians, 1,800 Micronesians, 940 Europeans, 510 Chinese and 200 people of other racial origins. (Polynesians were not distinguished and the Micronesians were the Gilbert Islands immigrants (q.v.). The 1966 estimate was 139,730: 130,765 Melanesians, 5,180 Polynesians, 1,840 Micronesians, 570 Chinese and 255 others. Honiara had a population of 6,684: 5,406 Solomon Islanders, 624 Europeans, 414 Chinese, and 240 others. (AR 1965, 9) At the end of 1969, the total population was estimated at 152,000, comprising 141,500 Melanesians, 5,500 Polynesians, 2,040 Micronesians, 1,900 Europeans, 700 Chinese and 360 others. (AR 1969, 89)
There was a national census in 1970 that recorded the total population as 160,998 persons. Central District had 54,762 people, and Honiara 11,191, with 23,996 living in other parts of Guadalcanal. The rest of Central District had 19,575 people: Munggaba-Minggiki 1.504; Nggela 5,351; Russell Islands 2,715; Santa Isabel 8, 653 and Savo 1,352. Eastern District's population was 21,468: Anuta 150; Makira 10,921; Reef Islands 4,053; Santa Cruz 3,433; Tikopia 1,040; Ulawa 1,469; Utupua 232 and Vanikolo 161. In Malaita District lived 51,722 people, 50,659 of them on the main island (including Small Malaita); Ontong Java had two centres: Luaniua at 633 persons; Pelau 240 and Sikaiana 163. Western District had 32,231 people: Choiseul 8,017; Marovo 4,538; Roviana 1,950; Shortland Islands 1,950 and Vella Lavella 9,227. Another 815 Solomon Islanders were recorded as aboard ships on the census night. (AR 1970, appendix II) The growth of the population was clear in that there were twice as many children aged 0-4 as there were adults aged 20-24. Numbers on Malaita had grown significantly over the previous ten years. In the whole Protectorate there were 85,179 males and 75,819 females, with the male excess strongest among Melanesian children aged 10-14. The population density, apart from Honiara, varied from a maximum on Luaniua on Ontong Java of 633 persons per square mile to a minimum of 2.72 for the 163 people on Vanikolo. The highest concentration was in Honiara. In 1950 Honiara had a population of 3,548, which had increased to 6,684 in 1965, and to 11,191 persons in 1970: 7,237 males and 3,954 females (AR 1971, 7)
The 1959 and 1970 censuses revealed interesting data about the relatively late age of marriage. The medium age of marriage was twenty-seven for Melanesian men and about five years less for women. The proportions of those who never married decreased with age but levelled off at about age forty, at about 5-7 percent for men and 4-6 percent for women. The percentage of widowed persons increased with age, as one would expect, but Polynesian women tended to spend a shorter time in a married state than Melanesian women. Internal migration, in which men in particular moved for work, disturbed the averages. Melanesian women appeared to be more fertile (6.1 children) than their Polynesian equivalents (5 children), but that more Polynesian women were spinsters, widows or divorced affected these statistics and it was thought the true figures were similar. The average life expectancy for Solomon Islanders was 51.3 years. Child mortality figures were high but had declined by the end of the 1960s. The crude birth rate recorded in 1970 was calculated at 41 per thousand, bringing the annual rate of increase to approximately 3 percent, with the highest levels in Western (3.6) and Eastern (3.5) districts. There were almost eighty infant deaths per thousand. (AR 1974, 7-19)
The 1970s saw a rapid upward movement in population, from 166,290 people in 1971, to an estimated 178,940 in 1974, to close to 200,000 at independence in 1978, and steadily rising to 285,000 in 1986, and 328,723 in 1991. The 1996 census never took place, but that year the population was estimated to be 367,400 people. A national census did occur in 1999 with the financial help of the European Union, but it was very difficult to collect data during the 'crisis' years (1998-2003), and that probably led to inaccuracies. Of the 1999 population, 112,114 (27 percent) were under twenty years of age. While in the 1980s the average life expectancy was fifty-seven years, by 1999 it had increased to sixty-seven. About 94 percent of Solomon Islanders were Melanesians, 4 percent Polynesians and the rest immigrant Micronesians, Chinese and Europeans.
Honiara's population was recorded as 49,107 in 1999, though it shrank during the crisis years. The true population of Honiara and environs before the crisis may have been as high as seventy thousand, and is probably now (in 2013) around one hundred thousand. The three most populous provinces-Western, Guadalcanal and Malaita-were home to 62,739, 60,275 and 122,620 people respectively. The other provinces trailed well behind them: Makira-Ulawa had 31,006; Central, 21,577; Isabel, 20,421; Choiseul (Lauru), 20,008; Temotu, 18,912; and isolated Rennell and Bellona Islands Province was the smallest at 2,377 people.
In monetary terms, Solomon Islands is by international standards one of the world's poorest countries, but even with, and indeed because of the high concentration of people in rural areas, the communal social system and subsistence agriculture and fishing delivers a good lifestyle for most people. There is widespread poverty in urban centres, heightened by the collapse of per capita incomes during the ethnic and social unrest of 1998-2003. That has created a pool of disaffected unemployed and poor that poses a medium-term risk for the government. Of particular concern is the median age of the population, with over 40 percent of people under the age of fourteen, and 50 percent under nineteen. Creating employment for such a large section of the population will likely prove impossible for the government, despite improving economic prospects. Large numbers of young people are migrating from rural to urban areas, concentrating the idle population in towns, particularly in Honiara.
The 1999 national census put the country's total population at 409,042, and predicted it would reach 432,000 in 2001, and exceed a half-million by 2005. As already noted, this census was carried out under trying circumstances. Eventually a thorough census was made of Guadalcanal Province, actively supported by the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), but in Honiara and on Malaita the influx of refugees made accurate counting impossible. As tensions built again in mid-2000, final checking was made difficult by a lack of personal security for staff in Honiara, staff changes, and diminishing transport facilities.
The 2009 census was carried out under better circumstances, and listed 515,970 people-264,455 males and 251,415 females. To date only its outline statistics have been published: Central (26,051), Choiseul (26,372), Guadalcanal (93,613), Isabel (26,158), Makira-Ulawa (40,419), Malaita (137,596), Rennell-Bellona (3,041), and Western Province (76,649). (Solomon Islands Government Statistical Bulletin 06/2011)
Until the 1950s, the annual growth rate was around 1 percent, after which the rate began to increase. The 1999 official annual rate of population increase is 2.8 percent, and it has been as high as 3.7 percent in recent decades. The latter is the second highest rate in the Pacific (behind the Marshall Islands), and amongst the highest in the world. (BSIP Census 1959; NS 21 Jan. 1966; Commonwealth of Australia 1989, 12; Otter 2002, 8; Island Business July 1998, 29; Bennett, 2000, 327; Solomon Islands Government Draft Solomon Islands Census Results 1999, 16-18, 38-50)
- Commonwealth of Australia, Australia's Relations with the South Pacific, Australian Government Publishing Service, Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Canberra, 1989. Details
- Scott, Michael W., The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, Nth. Carolina, 2007. Details
- Woodford, Charles M., 'The Solomon Islands', in W.H.R. Rivers (ed.), Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia, Cambridge University Press, London, 1922, pp. 69-77. Details
- Otter, Mark (ed.), Solomon Islands: Human Development Report 2002; Building a Nation, Volume 1, Main Report, Mark Otter, Brisbane, 2002. Details
- Rivers, W.H.R. (ed.), Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia, Cambridge University Press, London, 1922. Details
- British Solomon Islands Protectorate, Census, 1959. Details
- British Solomon Islands Protectorate (ed.), British Solomon Islands Protectorate News Sheet (NS), 1955-1975. Details
- Huffman, Kirk, 'Making Land Work?', Explorer, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 30-32. Details
- British Solomon Islands Protectorate, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Annual Reports (AR), 1896-1973. Details