An Essay on the Principle of Population
By Thomas Robert Malthus
There are two versions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s
Essay on the Principle of Population. The first, published anonymously in 1798, was so successful that Malthus soon elaborated on it under his real name.
* The rewrite, culminating in the sixth edition of 1826, was a scholarly expansion and generalization of the first.Following his success with his work on population, Malthus published often from his economics position on the faculty at the East India College at Haileybury. He was not only respected in his time by contemporaneous intellectuals for his clarity of thought and willingness to focus on the evidence at hand, but he was also an engaging writer capable of presenting logical and mathematical concepts succinctly and clearly. In addition to writing principles texts and articles on timely topics such as the corn laws, he wrote in many venues summarizing his initial works on population, including a summary essay in the
Encyclopædia Britannica on population.The first and sixth editions are presented on Econlib in full. Minor corrections of punctuation, obvious spelling errors, and some footnote clarifications are the only substantive changes.* Malthus’s “real name” may have been Thomas Robert Malthus, but a descendent, Nigel Malthus, reports that his family says he did not use the name Thomas and was known to friends and colleagues as Bob. See
The Malthus Homepage, a site maintained by Nigel Malthus, a descendent.For more information on Malthus’s life and works, see
New School Profiles: Thomas Robert Malthus and
The International Society of Malthus.Lauren Landsburg
Editor, Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: John Murray
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Malthus courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Chapter I
- Chapter II
- Chapter III
- Chapter IV
- Chapter V
- Chapter VI
- Chapter VII
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter IX
- Chapter X
- Chapter XI
- Chapter XII
- Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIV
- Bk.II,Ch.XI, On the Fruitfulness of Marriages
- Appendix I
- Appendix II
Of the Checks to Population in different parts of Africa.
Book I, Chapter VIII
The parts of Africa visited by Park are described by him as neither well cultivated nor well peopled. He found many extensive and beautiful districts entirely destitute of inhabitants; and in general the borders of the different kingdoms were either very thinly peopled or perfectly deserted. The swampy banks of the Gambia, the Senegal, and other rivers towards the coast, appeared to be unfavourable to population, from being unhealthy;
*60 but other parts were not of this description; and it was not possible, he says, to behold the wonderful fertility of the soil, the vast herds of cattle proper both for labour and food, and reflect on the means which presented themselves of vast inland navigation, without lamenting that a country so abundantly gifted by nature should remain in its present savage and neglected state.
The causes of this neglected state clearly appear, however, in the description which Park gives of the general habits of the negro nations. In a country divided into a thousand petty states, mostly independent and jealous of each other, it is natural, he says, to imagine that wars frequently originate from very frivolous provocations. The wars of Africa are of two kinds, one called Killi, that which is openly avowed; and the other, Tegria, plundering or stealing. These latter are very common, particularly about the beginning of the dry season, when the labours of harvest are over, and provisions are plentiful.—These plundering excursions always produce speedy retaliation.
The insecurity of property arising from this constant exposure to plunder, must necessarily have a most baneful effect on industry. The deserted state of all the frontier provinces sufficiently proves to what degree it operates. The nature of the climate is unfavourable to the exertion of the negro nations; and, as there are not many opportunities of turning to advantage the surplus produce of their labour, we cannot be surprised that they should in general content themselves with cultivating only so much ground as is necessary for their own support.
*63 These causes appear adequately to account for the uncultivated state of the country.
The waste of life in these constant wars and predatory incursions must be considerable; and Park agrees with Buffon in stating, that independently of violent causes, longevity is rare among the negroes. At forty, he says, most of them become grey-haired and covered with wrinkles, and few of them survive the age of fifty-five or sixty.
*64 Buffon attributes this shortness of life to the premature intercourse of the sexes, and very early and excessive debauchery.
*65 On this subject perhaps he has been led into exaggerations; but without attributing too much to this cause, it seems agreeable to the analogy of nature to suppose that, as the natives of hot climates arrive much earlier at maturity than the inhabitants of colder countries, they should also perish earlier.
According to Buffon, the negro-women are extremely prolific; but it appears from Park that they are in the habit of suckling their children two or three years, and as the husband during this time devotes the whole of his attention to his other wives, the family of each wife is seldom numerous.
*66 Polygamy is universally allowed among the negro nations;
*67 and consequently without a greater superabundance of women than we have reason to suppose, many will be obliged to live unmarried. This hardship will principally fall on the slaves, who, according to Park, are in the proportion of three to one to the free men.
*68 A master is not permitted to sell his domestic slaves or those born in his own house, except in case of famine, to support himself and family. We may imagine therefore that he will not suffer them to increase beyond the employment which he has for them. The slaves which are purchased, or the prisoners taken in war, are entirely at the disposal of their masters.
*69 They are often treated with extreme severity, and in any scarcity of women arising from the polygamy of the free men, would of course be deprived of them without scruple. Few or no women, probably, remain in a state of strict celibacy; but in proportion to the number married, the state of society does not seem to be favourable to increase.
Africa has been at all times the principal mart of slaves. The drains of its population in this way have been great and constant, particularly since their introduction into the European colonies; but perhaps, as Dr. Franklin observes, it would be difficult to find the gap that has been made by a hundred years’ exportation of negroes which has blackened half America.
*70 For notwithstanding this constant emigration, the loss of numbers from incessant war, and the checks to increase from vice and other causes, it appears that the population is continually pressing against the limits of the means of subsistence. According to Park, scarce years and famines are frequent. Among the four principal causes of slavery in Africa, he mentions famine next to war;
*71 and the express permission given to masters to sell their domestic slaves for the support of their family, which they are not allowed to do on any less urgent occasion,
*72 seems to imply the not unfrequent recurrence of severe want. During a great scarcity which lasted for three years in the countries of the Gambia, great numbers of people became slaves. Park was assured by Dr. Laidley that at that time many free men came, and begged with great earnestness to be put upon his slave chain to save them from perishing with hunger.
*73 While Park was in Manding, a scarcity of provisions was severely felt by the poor, as the following circumstance painfully convinced him. Every evening during his stay, he observed five or six women come to the Mansa’s house and receive each of them a certain quantity of corn. “Observe that boy,” said Mansa to him, pointing to a fine child about five years of age—”his mother has sold him to me for forty days’ provision for herself and the rest of her family. I have bought another boy in the same manner.”
*74 In Sooseeta, a small Jallonka village, Mr. Park was informed by the master that he could furnish no provisions, as there had lately been a great scarcity in that part of the country. He assured him that before they had gathered in their present crops all the inhabitants of Kullo had been for twenty-nine days without tasting corn; during which time they had supported themselves entirely on the yellow powder which is found in the pods of the nitta, (so called by the natives,) a species of mimosa, and upon the seeds of the bamboo cane, which when properly pounded and dressed taste very much like rice.
It may be said perhaps that as, according to Park’s account, much good land remains uncultivated in Africa, the dearths may be attributed to a want of people; but if this were the case, we can hardly suppose that such numbers would yearly be sent out of the country. What the negro nations really want is security of property, and its general concomitant, industry; and without these, an increase of people would only aggravate their distresses. If, in order to fill up those parts which appeared to be deficient in inhabitants, we were to suppose a high bounty given on children, the effects would probably be, the increase of wars, the increase of the exportation of slaves, and a great increase of misery, but little or no real increase of population.
The customs of some nations, and the prejudices of all, operate in some degree like a bounty of this kind. The Shangalla negroes, according to Bruce, hemmed in on every side by active and powerful enemies, and leading a life of severe labour and constant apprehension, feel but little desire for women. It is the wife, and not the man, that is the cause of their polygamy. Though they live in separate tribes or nations, yet these nations are again subdivided into families. In fighting, each family attacks and defends by itself, and theirs is the spoil and plunder who take it. The mothers therefore, sensible of the disadvantages of a small family, seek to multiply it by all the means in their power; and it is by their importunity, that the husband suffers himself to be overcome.
*77 The motives to polygamy among the Galla are described to be the same, and in both nations the first wife courts the alliance of a second for her husband; and the principal argument she makes use of is, that their families may be joined together and be strong, and that her children, by being few in number, may not fall a prey to their enemies in the day of battle.
*78 It is highly probable that this extreme desire of having large families defeats its own purpose; and that the poverty and misery, which it occasions, cause fewer children to grow up to maturity, than if the parents confined their attention to the rearing of a smaller number.
Bruce is a great friend to polygamy, and defends it, in the only way in which it is capable of being defended, by asserting, that in the countries in which it principally prevails the proportion of girls to boys born is two or three to one. A fact so extraordinary however cannot be admitted upon the authority of those vague inquiries on which he founds his opinion. That there are considerably more women living than men in these climates, is in the highest degree probable. Even in Europe, where it is known with certainty that more boys are born than girls, the women in general exceed the men in number; and we may imagine that in hot and unhealthy climates, and in a barbarous state of society, the accidents to which the men are exposed must be very greatly increased. The women, by leading a more sedentary life, would suffer less from the effects of a scorching sun and swampy exhalations; they would in general be more exempt from the disorders arising from debauchery; but, above all, they would escape in great measure the ravages of war. In a state of society in which hostilities never cease, the drains of men, from this cause alone, must occasion a great disproportion of the sexes, particularly where it is the custom, as related of the Galla in Abyssinia,
*79 to massacre indiscriminately all the males, and save only the marriageable women from the general destruction. The actual disproportion of the sexes arising from these causes probably first gave rise to the permission of polygamy, and has perhaps contributed to make us more easily believe, that the proportion of male and female children in hot climates is very different from what we have experienced it to be in the temperate zone.
Bruce, with his usual prejudices on this subject, seems to think that the celibacy of a part of the women is fatal to the population of a country. He observes of Jidda that, on account of the great scarcity of provisions, which is the result of an extraordinary concourse of people to a place almost destitute of the necessaries of life, few of the inhabitants can avail themselves of the privilege granted by Mahomet. They cannot therefore marry more than one wife; and from this cause arises, he says, the want of people and the large number of unmarried women.
*80 But it is evident that the want of people in this barren spot arises solely from the want of provisions, and that, if each man had four wives, the number of people could not be permanently increased by it.
In Arabia Felix, according to Bruce, where every sort of provision is exceedingly cheap, where the fruits of the ground, the general food of man, are produced spontaneously, the support of a number of wives costs no more than that of so many slaves or servants. Their food is the same, and a blue cotton shirt, a habit common to them all, is not more chargeable for the one than for the other. The consequence is, he says, that celibacy in women is prevented, and the number of people increased in a fourfold ratio by polygamy, to what it is in those countries that are monogamous.
*81 And yet, notwithstanding this fourfold increase, it does not appear that any part of Arabia is really very populous.
The effect of polygamy in increasing the number of married women and preventing celibacy is beyond dispute; but how far this may tend to increase the actual population is a very different consideration. It may perhaps continue to press the population harder against the limits of the food; but the squalid and hopeless poverty which this occasions is by no means favourable to industry; and in a climate in which there appears to be many predisposing causes of sickness, it is difficult to conceive that this state of wretchedness does not powerfully contribute to the extraordinary mortality which has been observed in some of these countries.
According to Bruce, the whole coast of the Red Sea, from Suez to Babelmandel, is extremely unwholesome, but more especially between the tropics. Violent fevers, called there Nedad, make the principal figure in this fatal list, and generally terminate the third day in death.
*82 Fear frequently seizes strangers upon the first sight of the great mortality which they observe on their first arrival.
Jidda, and all the parts of Arabia adjacent to the eastern coast of the Red Sea, are in the same manner very unwholesome.
In Gondar, fevers perpetually reign, and the inhabitants are all of the colour of a corpse.
In Sirè, one of the finest countries in the world, putrid fevers of the very worst kind are almost constant.
*85 In the low grounds of Abyssinia, in general, malignant tertians occasion a great mortality.
*86 And every where the small-pox makes great ravages, particularly among the nations bordering on Abyssinia, where it sometimes extinguishes whole tribes.
The effect of poverty, with bad diet, and, its almost constant concomitant, want of cleanliness, in aggravating malignant distempers, is well known; and this kind of wretchedness seems generally to prevail. Of Tchagassa, near Gondar, Bruce observes that the inhabitants, notwithstanding their threefold harvests, are miserably poor.
*88 At Adowa, the capital of Tigré, he makes the same remark, and applies it to all the Abyssinian farmers. The land is let yearly to the highest bidder, and in general the landlord furnishes the seed and receives half of the produce; but it is said that he is a very indulgent master who does not take another quarter for the risk he has run; so that the quantity which comes to the share of the husbandman is not more than sufficient to afford a bare sustenance to his wretched family.
The Agows, one of the most considerable nations of Abyssinia in point of number, are described by Bruce as living in a state of misery and penury scarcely to be conceived. We saw a number of women, he says, wrinkled and sun-burnt so as scarcely to appear human, wandering about under a burning sun with one and sometimes two children upon their backs, gathering the seeds of bent grass to make a kind of bread.
*90 The Agow women begin to bear children at eleven years old. They marry generally about that age, and there is no such thing as barrenness known among them.
*91 In Dixan, one of the frontier towns of Abyssinia, the only trade is that of selling children. Five hundred are exported annually to Arabia; and in times of scarcity, Bruce observes, four times that number.
In Abyssinia polygamy does not regularly prevail. Bruce, indeed, makes rather a strange assertion on this subject; and says that, though we read from the Jesuits a great deal about marriage and polygamy, yet that there is nothing which may be averred more truly than that there is no such thing as marriage in Abyssinia.
*93 But, however this may be, it appears clear that few or no women lead a life of celibacy in that country; and that the prolific powers of nature are nearly all called into action, except so far as they are checked by promiscuous intercourse. This, however, from the state of manners described by Bruce, must operate very powerfully.
The check to population from war appears to be excessive. For the last four hundred years, according to Bruce, it has never ceased to lay desolate this unhappy country;
*95 and the savage manner in which it is carried on surrounds it with tenfold destruction. When Bruce first entered Abyssinia, he saw on every side ruined villages destroyed to their lowest foundations by Ras Michael in his march to Gondar.
*96 In the course of the civil wars, while Bruce was in the country, he says, “The rebels had begun to lay waste Dembea, and burnt all the villages in the plain from south to west, making it like a desert between Michael and Fasil.**** The king often ascended to the top of the tower of his palace, and contemplated with the greatest displeasure the burning of his rich villages in Dembea.”
*97 In another place he says, “The whole country of Degwessa was totally destroyed; men, women and children were entirely extirpated without distinction of age or sex; the houses razed to the ground, and the country about it left as desolate as after the deluge. The villages belonging to the king were as severely treated; an universal cry was heard from all parts, but no one dared to suggest any means of help.”
*98 In Maitsha, one of the provinces of Abyssinia, he was told that, if ever he met an old man, he might be sure that he was a stranger, as all that were natives died by the lance young.
If the picture of the state of Abyssinia drawn by Bruce, be in any degree near the truth, it places in a strong point of view the force of that principle of increase, which preserves a population fully up to the level of the means of subsistence under the checks of war, pestilential diseases and promiscuous intercourse, all operating in an excessive degree.
The nations which border on Abyssinia are universally short-lived. A Shangalla woman at twenty-two is, according to Bruce, more wrinkled and deformed by age than an European woman at sixty.
*100 It would appear, therefore, that in all these countries, as among the northern shepherds in the times of their constant emigrations, there is a very rapid succession of human beings; and the difference in the two instances is, that our northern ancestors died out of their own country, whereas these die at home. If accurate registers of mortality were kept among these nations; I have little doubt that it would appear, that, including the mortality from wars, 1 in 17 or 18 at the least dies annually, instead of 1 in 34, 36, or 40, as in the generality of European states.
The description, which Bruce gives of some parts of the country which he passed through on his return home, presents a picture more dreadful even than the state of Abyssinia, and shews how little population depends on the birth of children, in comparison of the production of food and those circumstances of natural and political situation which influence this produce.
“At half past six,” Bruce says, “we arrived at Garigana, a village whose inhabitants had all perished with hunger the year before; their wretched bones being all unburied and scattered upon the surface of the ground where the village formerly stood. We encamped among the bones of the dead; no space could be found free from them.”
Of another town or village in his route he observes, “The strength of Teawa was 25 horse. The rest of the inhabitants might be 1200 naked miserable and despicable Arabs, like the rest of those which live in villages.**** Such was the state of Teawa. Its consequence was only to remain till the Daveina Arabs should resolve to attack it, when its corn-fields being burnt and destroyed in a night by a multitude of horsemen, the bones of its inhabitants scattered upon the earth would be all its remains, like those of the miserable village of Garigana.”
“There is no water between Tedwa and Beyla. Once Indedidema and a number of villages were supplied with water from wells, and had large crops of Indian corn sown about their possessions. The curse of that country, the the Daveina Arabs, have destroyed Indedidema and all the villages about it; filled up their wells, burnt their crops, and exposed all the in habitants to die by famine.”
Soon after leaving Sennaar, he says, “We began to see the effects of the quantity of rain having failed. There was little corn sown, and that so late as to be scarcely above ground. It seems the rains begin later as they pass northward. Many people were here employed in gathering grass-seeds to make a very bad kind of bread. These people appear perfect skeletons, and no wonder, as they live upon such fare. Nothing increases the danger of travelling and prejudice against strangers more, than the scarcity of provisions in the country through which you are to pass.”
“Came to Eltic, a straggling village about half a mile from the Nile, in the north of a large bare plain; all pasture, except the banks of the river which are covered with wood. We now no longer saw any corn sown. The people here were at the same miserable employment as those we had seen before, that of gathering grass-seeds.”
Under such circumstances of climate and political situation, though a greater degree of foresight, industry and security, might considerably better their condition and increase their population, the birth of a greater number of children without these concomitants would only aggravate their misery, and leave their population where it was.
The same may be said of the once flourishing and populous country of Egypt. Its present depressed state has not been caused by the weakening of the principle of increase, but by the weakening of the principle of industry and foresight, from the insecurity of property consequent on a most tyrannical and oppressive government. The principle of increase in Egypt at present does all that is possible for it to do. It keeps the population fully up to the level of the means of subsistence; and, were its power ten times greater than it really is, it could do no more.
The remains of ancient works, the vast lakes, canals and large conduits for water destined to keep the Nile under control, serving as reservoirs to supply a dry year, and as drains and outlets to prevent the superabundance of water in wet years, sufficiently indicate to us that the former inhabitants of Egypt by art and industry contrived to fertilize a much greater quantity of land from the overflowings of their river, than is done at present; and to prevent, in some measure, the distresses which are now so frequently experienced from a redundant or insufficient inundation.
*106 It is said of the governor Petronius, that, effecting by art what was denied by nature, he caused abundance to prevail in Egypt under the disadvantages of such a deficient inundation, as had always before been accompanied by dearth.
*107 A flood too great is as fatal to the husbandman as one that is deficient; and the ancients had, in consequence drains and outlets to spread the superfluous waters over the thirsty sands of Lybia, and render even the desert habitable. These works are now all out of repair, and by ill management often produce mischief instead of good. The causes of this neglect, and consequently of the diminished means of subsistence, are obviously to be traced to the extreme ignorance and brutality of the government, and the wretched state of the people. The Mamelukes, in whom the principal power resides, think only of enriching themselves, and employ for this purpose what appears to them to be the simplest method, that of seizing wealth wherever it may be found, of wresting it by violence from the possessor, and of continually imposing new and arbitrary contributions.
*108 Their ignorance and brutality, and the constant state of alarm in which they live; prevent them from having any views of enriching the country, the better to prepare it for their plunder. No public works therefore are to be expected from the government, and no individual proprietor dares to undertake any improvement which might imply the possession of capital, as it would probably be the immediate signal of his destruction. Under such circumstances we cannot be surprised that the ancient works are neglected, that the soil is ill cultivated; and that the means of subsistence, and consequently the population, are greatly reduced. But such is the natural fertility of the Delta from the inundations of the Nile, that even without any capital employed upon the land, without a right of succession, and consequently almost without a right of property, it still maintains a considerable population in proportion to its extent, sufficient, if property were secure, and industry well directed, gradually to improve and extend the cultivation of the country and restore it to its former state of prosperity. It may be safely pronounced of Egypt that it is not the want of population that has checked its industry, but the want of industry that has checked its population.
The immediate causes which keep down the population to the level of the present contracted means of subsistence, are but too obvious. The peasants are allowed for their maintenance only sufficient to keep them alive.
*109 A miserable sort of bread made of doura without leaven or flavour, cold water, and raw onions make up the whole of their diet. Meat and fat, of which they are passionately fond, never appear but on great occasions, and among those who are more at their ease. Their habitations are huts made of earth, where a stranger would be suffocated with the heat and smoke; and where the diseases generated by want of cleanliness, by moisture and by bad nourishment, often visit them and commit great ravages. To these physical evils are added a constant state of alarm, the fear of the plunder of the Arabs, and the visits of the Mamelukes, the spirit of revenge transmitted in families, and all the evils of a continual civil war.
In the year 1783 the plague was very fatal; and in 1784 and 1785 a dreadful famine reigned in Egypt, owing to a deficiency in the inundation of the Nile. Volney draws a frightful picture of the misery that was suffered on this occasion. The streets of Cairo, which at first were full of beggars, were soon cleared of all these objects, who either perished or fled. A vast number of unfortunate wretches, in order to escape death, spread themselves over all the neighbouring countries, and the towns of Syria were inundated with Egyptians. The streets and public places were crowded by famished and dying skeletons. All the most revolting modes of satisfying the cravings of hunger were resorted to; the most disgusting food was devoured with eagerness; and Volney mentions the having seen under the walls of ancient Alexandria two miserable wretches seated on the carcase of a camel, and disputing with the dogs its putrid flesh. The depopulation of the two years was estimated at one-sixth of all the inhabitants.
Considerations générales sur l’Agriculture de l’Egypte, par L. Reynier. (Mémoires sur l’ Egypte, tom. iv. p. 1.)
à priori. The prevailing checks in two different nations may appear to be exactly the same as to kind, yet if they are different in degree, the rate of increase in each will, of course, be as different as possible. All that can be done, therefore, is to proceed as in physical inquiries; that is, first to observe the facts, and then account for them from the best lights that can be collected. .