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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 64

Health of the Islanders

Health of the Islanders.

As yet the natives have not considered any sanitary regulations—their houses, although comfortable and suited to the tropics, are badly drained and ill-ventilated, the greater number of them being extremely unclean habitations. Mat upon mat is often piled upon the naked earth until the bottom layer is a mass of decomposition; the consequence is that vermin abound, and the natives have to resort to the use of lime in order to keep themselves personally free from the pest. Contagious diseases of every kind; spread amongst them like wildfire—an epidemic kills them off by thousands. Should we not endeavour to prevent this? The natives should be induced to build their houses upon higher ground, not upon the sea-shore; also to keep them in open spaces. In many inland villages I have seen the rank vegetation clustering around the very walls of the huts, which sometimes it is even difficult to discover. A traveller all at once stumbles on a native village buried in the luxuriant growth of the tropics. More wood and stone should be used in the construction of the private dwellings; coral will make a good floor when wood is not to be obtained.

The natives are also very improvident in their domestic habits, sometimes gorging to excess, at other times almost starving; they have no regular hours for taking food, but the principal meal is towards evening. Their chief article of diet is vegetable, which renders them incapable of sustaining any very prolonged labour. It is doubtful whether the free use of cocoa-nut is beneficial to health; in my opinion, maize would be found far more nutritious. The dense coast population of Ceylon is chiefly supported by the cocoa-nut, and we often hear of great epidemics raging in that island; some 10,000 natives were carried off by cholera in 1867.

Hardly sufficient attention is paid to the purity of the water supply, upon which health in the tropics so greatly depends. Where running water is used, the streams are generally fouled by the natives, and standing water blight to be avoided;—the great amount of vegetable decomposition constantly taking place soon charges standing water with a pestilential deposit. Some of the islands are, however, in themselves very unhealthy. These are principally to be found in Western Polynesia; why they should be so is a page 84 difficult matter to determine. In many instances the islands surrounding any particular spot are healthy, whilst the spot itself is the abode of fever I and ague; indeed it is oftentimes found that three sides of an island are healthy, while the fourth is totally the reverse.

The prevailing winds have much to do with the subject, and likewise the neighbourhood of the Australian continent. Large deposits of vegetable matter in a state of decomposition will also be found to greatly influence the healthy condition of the atmosphere. For these reasons the windward side of any island is more healthy than the leeward, in consequence of receiving the steady current of the south-east trade winds.

In the report of the Commissioners—Commodore Goodenough and Mr. Layard—concerning the cession of Fiji, there is a paper containing some observations by Dr. Messer upon the health of the islands. That gentleman states that the Fijian Archipelago is singularly free "not only from tropical diseases, but also from most of those diseases which in England and other countries yearly cause a largo amount of sickness." This is saying a great deal for future white residence in that group. It would be of the utmost advantage if our medical officers, generally, in the Pacific would report upon the health of the islands, as the most healthy are the most valuable for European residence. The climate of an unhealthy island will greatly retard the work of colonization. Our information on the subject is at present very vague, but I think I am fully entitled to say that the Pacific Islands are more healthy, and more suitable for European residence than the West Indies or British Guiana.