Interpretive essay: Colonization tragic for Chamorros

It is difficult to envision the reality of Chamorros who survived the colonization by Spain. A 10-year-old boy who witnessed the arrival of Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores in 1668, would have seen an almost 93 percent drop in the population of his people if he lived to be 64-years-old.

Written accounts as early as 1602 describe the size of the native population of the Mariana Islands. Franciscan Lay Brother Juan Pobre de Zamora spent seven months in Rota after jumping ship to bring Christianity to the islanders. During his sojourn, he learned much about the islands from Sancho, a Spaniard who survived the shipwreck of the Santa Margarita near Rota in 1600 and lived among the Chamorros on Guam and Rota.

Sancho told Fray Juan Pobre that there were “nearly 400 villages” and “more than 60,000 people” on the island of Guam. Rota, he reported had 12,000 people living in fifty villages. Sancho said the “indios” had told him that the islands numbered over twenty and shared a common language but he did not know the size of the “islands lying in the direction of the volcano” or their population since he had not visited them.

In 1683, Jesuit priest Francisco Garcia, a Madrid based publicist for the overseas missions, published a book about Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores. A testament to the man that brought Christianity to the Mariana Islands, it contains a significant, albeit bias account of this traumatic period in Marianas history. It is now recognized as the most significant primary source for this period of Marianas History. Garcia wrote that there were 100,000 inhabitants in the Mariana Islands at the arrival of San Vitores in 1668.

Contemporary scholars, however, believe that these numbers were inflated. As late as 1950, estimates for the 1668 population of the island chain ranged from 40,000 to 73,000. Due to research into late seventeenth century documents, more recent population estimates lay between 30,000 and 60,000.

Once the mission was established, governors submitted reports to the Viceroy in Manila and the King of Spain. These reports contained summaries of the population. Interim Governor Antonio Villamor y Vadillo reported in 1705 that the inhabitants of the Mariana Islands numbered approximately 3,500.

Seventeen years later, in 1722 under the administration of Governor Luis Antonio Sanchez de Tagle, the number of indigenous inhabitants of Guam and Rota had dropped to 1,936. The first detailed census in 1728 reports a slight increase to 2,279 but by 1747 it had declined further. Louis Claude de Freycinet, circumnavigator and Commander of the French Scientific expedition that spent three months in the Mariana Islands in 1819 reported the population of indigenous inhabitants at a record low of 1,583 in the year 1747.

Causes for the decline in population

There have been many explanations as to the cause of this decline. Many think that the majority died in the Spanish-Chamorro wars. Disease carried aboard the sailing ships is another cause that is often cited. The fact that the population decline continued well after the pacification of the islands indicates that while war and disease killed a significant amount of people, there were other reasons for the continued downward spiral.

The “reduction” of the Mariana Islands, when inhabitants were forcibly removed from their homes in the northern islands and resettled in Guam, is believed to be the cause of more than three thousand deaths. Many died when the raging seas sank their vessels. The effects of moving to a warmer climate was said to have caused the demise of others.

The resettlement of people from eight northern islands increased the population density of settlements in Guam. This situation facilitated the spread of illness and disease among the inhabitants killing many of the weakest members, children and the elderly. Another factor stemming from the resettlement patterns were changes in sanitation practices that may have contributed to the general decline in the overall health of the population.

Emotional trauma from the rapid loss of their culture is reported to have resulted in suicide, infanticide and abortion. There are accounts that state that some inhabitants fled to other islands rather than lose their independence.

Illness and infection, malnutrition, and general overall stress may have also reduced the number of fertile young women or those being able to carry a child full-term. The deaths of children – many years prior, also reduced the number of girls that survived to childbearing age.

The introduction of alcohol and from Manila, the knowledge to make coconut liquor or tuba, was also reported to have had a negative impact on the population. Freycinet said:

Of all causes, however, the most active (though the least resisted) has been the excessive consumption of spirits. In general, primitive peoples are unwilling to recognize the danger posed by alcohol, because transitory pleasure masks the deadly strength of poisonous liquors.

Some “creoles” he said, had learned to make alcohol from maize as well. Another factor that increased the impact of alcohol on the population was the practice of providing alcohol instead of food to workers in order to cut costs. Alcohol abuse was a problem that extended to the early American Naval administration on Guam causing the early Naval Governors to prohibit all forms of alcohol and spirits on the island.

Le Gentil de la Barbnais, a passenger aboard the French ship Jupiter that visited Guam in 1716 recorded his impression of life in the islands. In his account of the Mariana Islands, Freycinet wrote:

He [Barbnais] paints a grim picture of a colony suffering and prey to thefts and assassinations, evils that in themselves bespoke a total absence of civil order. More than this, he presents us with natives groaning under the harshest of oppressions, physically and morally downtrodden and beaten, gnawed by leprosy, succumbing to ill treatment to the point that their numbers, which were from 15,000 to 20,000 at the time of conquest of the isles, fell to 1500 even by 1716, that is, within a space of eighteen years.

The decline in the population was so dire that Spanish administrators periodically came up with drastic proposals to deal with the situation. Among the recommendations were: the abolishment of the Real Presido of the Mariana Islands, the relocation of the population to Manila, the resettlement of 100 families from the Philippines, and the immigration of 10,000 colonists: 5,000 Chinese males and 5,000 Carolinians comprised of 1,600 males and 3,400 females.

Fortunately, the Spanish Crown did not approve these suggestions. One can only imagine the outcome of the influx of large numbers of colonists on a people numbering less than 2,000. In response to the suggestion to send 100 families to Guam from the Philippines, one advisor, pointing out the disadvantages of the proposal, said it would be “deplorable” to send 100 families because “it would be necessary that they be from the most despicable lot, lazy people; what if they turned out to be as vagabond in the Marianas as they are here?”

In 1739, in response to the 100 family proposal, King Philip V wrote in a letter to the Governor of the Marianas, recommending “to free women from all work contrary to their sex” and to assign the men to cultivate corn, tobacco and cotton “without denying them their freedom and compelling them to other types of work.” He continued:

If those natives were subject to a better mode of living and conservation than heretofore practiced, the result would not only be the creation of some trade with other islands, but also that their number would not so quickly decrease; indeed, the fertility of that country and the circumstances of freedom for inhabitants from the oppressions they suffer, would encourage many families to go there.

Instead of 100 families, the King ordered the Governor of the Philippines to arrange for the voluntary resettlement of “5 or 6 families of Indians or half-breeds” every two years. As further enticement the settlers would enjoy tax exemptions, and those who denied them these exemptions would suffer grave penalties.

In 1748 a ship with settlers bound for the Marianas from the Philippines was lost at sea. After that tragedy no settlers could be enticed to undertake the voyage to Guam. It is not apparent if any settlers under this program ever made it to Guam.

At the close of the eighteenth century the population of Guam and Rota was comprised of 142 “Militaires”, 591 “Espagnols,” 5,964 “Philippinois,” thirty “Mulatres” and 2,074 “Naturels” or Chamorros. Almost 7 percent of a population of 30,000 Chamorros at contact is what remained by 1799.

Built back up again

That the Chamorro people survived is truly amazing. There were about 9,000 Chamorros on Guam in 1900 and 23,000 in 1944 at the end of World War II. Sixty years later there are almost 177,000, including Chamorros in Guam, the Northern Marianas and the U.S. mainland. Chamorro people not only survived, but eventually thrived.

One researcher has suggested that one reason for the initial survival of the Chamorro people is that the smaller population allowed the Spanish to tend to and care for the people better. This may have some credence as many of the accounts relate how the priests sought out children to teach the Catholic faith to. Priests ministered to the spiritual and sometimes physical needs of the people. From the number of descendents of Spanish priests, however, it appears that at times this “ministering” overstepped the bounds of propriety.

One factor is undeniable, and that is the successful passage of the Chamorro language, traditional practices and cultural knowledge through the female line. This has ensured the survival of the Chamorro culture. While we can wonder, we will probably never know all of the factors that allowed the survival of the Chamorro people.

In the year 2000, there were 65,243 Chamorros enumerated on Guam in the federal census. That is forty-three percent of the island’s population of 150,000 people. Today the Chamorro people face similar demographic challenges to those faced by their early ancestors. An influx of outsiders due to the planned military buildup on the island will certainly impact them. An estimated additional 24,000 active duty military and their families are expected to move to Guam by 2014. In order to accommodate them, the island also expects an increase in workers from abroad to staff the numerous jobs that will accompany the buildup on Guam.

One significant difference is that there is now a pool of potential new residents from the Chamorro population residing off island. The numbers of Chamorro’s serving in the U.S. military also cannot be discounted. The military has traditionally been a popular option for employment for young Chamorros seeking education and travel. Exactly how many Chamorros will be included in the military families that will make Guam their home is unknown.

If efforts to recruit workers from the off-island Chamorro population are successful, the potential impact of outsiders on the community may be lessened. If we take the lessons from history, then we can expect that the Chamorro people will prevail even under these contemporary circumstances.

To be a descendent of a people that faced tremendous hardship and overcame incredible odds should instill pride in those of Chamorro heritage today. Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it well when he wrote, “A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them.”

By Jillette Leon-Guerrero

For further reading

Driver, Marjorie G., ed. Augustinian Recollect Friars in the Mariana Islands, 1769-1908. MARC Educational Series 24. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2000.

Driver, Marjorie G. Spanish Governors of the Mariana Islands and the Saga of the Palacio. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2005.

Freycinet, Louis Claude de Saulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan, CNMI: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation and the University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2003.

Garcia, Francisco, S.J. The Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father Diego Luis de San Vitores of the Society of Jesus, First Apostle of the Mariana Islands and Events of These Islands from the Year Sixteen Hundred and Sixty-Eight Through the Year Sixteen Hundred and Eighty-One. Translated from Spanish by Margaret M. Higgins, Felicia Plaza and Juan M.H. Ledesma. Edited by James A. McDonough. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2004.

Shell, Richard J. Saved from Extinction: Changes in Guam’s Population, 1700 to Mid-Century. MARC Working Paper 73. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 1997.

Underwood, Jane. “Population History of Guam: Context of Microevolution.” Micronesica: Journal of the University of Guam 9, no. 1 (July 1973).