Good morning everyone!

I am pursuing the idea of a society inspired by the ideals of "small is beautiful". Smallness has a value in itself. And that is what I want to express with the following quirky society:

I imagine that in the late 16th century, refugees of faith from Europe would land in Tasmania and establish their own civilization. From then on, other small groups from Europe would arrive regularly and reinforce the new society. In this assumption, the aborigines could accept the new faith and be absorbed into this society - so there would be no violent colonization and no human enemies in Tasmania.

These journeys could be financed and organized by wealthy patrons. It would be done on a small scale, because it is also to be done largely in secret.

I would like to see this civilization in Tasmania. This island is really on the edge of the world, is very isolated, and yet abundantly equipped with all the necessary resources. Especially with necessary mineral resources.

This society would be characterized in particular by its bronze orientation (production, processing and use of bronze). That is, although the island is rich in other useful metals (including iron ores), these people hold on to "their" bronze. From the beginning of the settlement until our modern days, this society resorts to bronze when it comes to metals - with a few exceptions, perhaps.

Because it is a small society, it is logically also a small-scale mining economy. For the production of bronze and its distribution, this means more concretely: artisanal mining. For an economy at the level of the 18th century, this is not a problem anyway.

Because Tasmania is much too large, I would concentrate settlement in the northeast corner (George Town, Dorset and Break O'Day), mainly along the coast. So the heartland is simply the land mass between the Tamar River and the east coast. Today's Scottsdale would be the capital.

In addition, there are a few small settlements in the inhospitable and hard-to-reach west, just because of the rich mines there. That is why there is only one harbour town there, Strahan. And even that only has a few hundred inhabitants in reality. The few settlements on the west coast exist even today almost solely because of the mines there. Even today, it's more like a colony.

There are three reasons for this division:

  1. The northeast is extremely livable, but does not allow too much settlement (small is beautiful).
  2. The southeast (in the Hobart area) would easily allow a much larger civilization, but is excluded for this very reason (again, small is beautiful).
  3. The west has enormously rich mineral resources such as copper and tin (which allows the production of bronze). However, this part of the island is almost hostile to life, which is why only a small part of the civilization lives there (mainly from mining).

In this assumption, the connection between the rugged west coast and the productive northeast coast is exclusively by boats.

All in all, the said society is concentrated on the coast of the Northeast, is at the technological level of the 18th century and covers its metal needs almost entirely with bronze only.

So my question is: If I want to keep the whole thing reasonably realistic, how small can such a society be in terms of population size? Or, in other words, how big does such a society have to be in terms of population?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ (1) Bronze can replace steel in many applications, but far from all. Very far from all applications. (2) I do not understand what the question means by "self-sufficient 18th century economy". There was very significant long-distance trade in the 18th century. For example, tea and coffee. They had tea and coffee in the 18th century, and they did not grow them in England or France. Or indigo. Or gum arabic. (3) The point being that you can easily have a self-sufficient village in the 18th century, but it definitely will not have the entire set of technologies available in 18th century Europe. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ 1.) This reaches limits, I am fully aware of that. Through cultural conformity and religious conviction, this society accepts this and holds on to bronze. With very few exceptions, perhaps. 2.) This refers to the technological level. That is, the craft, machine and chemical possibilities at the height of the 18th century. 3.) A single village would not be able to mine, smelt and process copper, tin, and probably gold, lead, etc., as well. Especially since agriculture employs a not insignificant number of the society. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ Pre-industrial revolution, the large majority of trade was by rivers or coastal trading. Power for mills was supplied by muscles or, preferably, waterwheels - windmills are a definite second choice due to the variability of the power supplied. Which means that your major centres, the centres of trade and where lots of milling will occur, need to be either on a navigable river (eg Launceston on the Tamar) or on the coast (eg Burnie, Devonport) or both (eg Hobart at the mouth of the Derwent). Scottsdale makes no sense as a pre-industrial capital. (And btw, it's evening here in Tasmania.) $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2023 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ Many love thanks for these great tips, dear KerrAvon2055!!! To get rid of the headache this problem is giving me, please allow me two desperate objections: ● First, I chose Scottsdale because its founding is justified as follows: The area was first surveyed in 1855 and was described as, "the best soil on the island ... well watered, with a mild climate" by the surveyor James Reid Scott, for whom the town is named. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 12:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Did you choose Tasmania for the irony? Tasmania is the poster child for the hypothesis that a society needs certain thresholds of population to maintain a given technology. There is physical evidence there of the resident isolated population post sea level rise slowly losing technology(and population) that the mainland kept. $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2023 at 18:57

3 Answers 3


At least hundreds of thousands

In another answer I explained the dependencies required for a technology-based society. It's applicable to the 1700s as easily as to the far future. You need thinkers to develop the tech. Robber barrons to build the tech. Workers to use the tech. Technicians to fix the tech. And all their families and all the support structure for those families and all their families etc. etc. etc.

Thus, I can't imagine (believably) a society of fewer than hundreds of thousands supporting 18th century tech. I am assuming that we're talking about Europe's 18th century - the Age of Sail. Not quite the "industrialized" level of technology, but still requiring substantial industries.

  • $\begingroup$ To really resolve this misunderstanding: My point is not to covering all the possibilities of an 18th century European state. My point is to have a small society with no more than 18th century technological capabilities colonize northeastern Tasmania in relative isolation with otherwise good conditions. Thank you for your guessing, btw! $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ I am sorry if I have offended you with anything. I don't understand what is so problematic about my question. How many people does it take to settle north-east Tasmania if the limitation is 18th century technology? From the beginning and then more times I have said decidedly that it is NOT TOTAL isolation. Please excuse me if I am misleading in this. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 18, 2023 at 6:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Brobi That isn't what you asked. From your own question, "how small can such a society be in terms of population size? Or, in other words, how big does such a society have to be in terms of population?" That's your question (asked badly, you're allowed to ask one and only one question). The words trade, commerce, isolation and similar do not appear anywhere in your question. I regret that you're making a rookie mistake. The question is perfectly clear to you - but you're not the intended audience. Your intended audience isn't understanding your post… we're not the problem… your post is. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 18, 2023 at 19:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Brobi Let me follow that up with an incredibly important piece of advice. I haven't checked all the comments. If you've made that clarification in comments and then expected everyone to read those comments you've made a mistake. You are obligated to edit your post to include any and all clarifications. Never assume people will read the comments to find clarifications. After very carefully reading your question, only the third-to-last paragraph can be assumed to mean "it has trade." It's a small detail in an ocean of detail and I can't find enough evidence at all to believe... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 18, 2023 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ ... you're asking for the starting colonization population. If that's what you're after, what research did you perform? The Mormon Pioneers settled several communities in remote areas in the mid 1800s, but they were traveling by handcart and covered wagon with limited resources and so likely reflect the limits you're looking for. Colonization from England, France, and Holland occurred in the 1700s. What were those limits? But, as a final recommendation, please consider using our Sandbox. It'll help you learn how to ask questions. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 18, 2023 at 19:32

We don't know for sure

We do not have examples of societies anywhere close to the technological development of 18th-century Europe existing without external trade. All the societies we know of with Iron Age or better technology engaged in trade over significant distances. Sometimes that was within a large society, rather than with other societies, but it always existed.

To make this question answerable, you need a lot more legwork. You need to research all the technologies of an 18th-century society, find out what resources they require, and work out how you can get them in Tasmania, or work around their absence.

For example, you presumably want printing? That means you need the right metals for type metal alloys, and the right substances to make printer's ink. There's an immediate problem in that you need gum arabic for the usual inks of the period. You can't grow the trees that produce it in the Tasmanian climate, so you'll need an alternative of some kind, without relying on modern synthetic polymers or dyes.

That's just one of hundreds of resource questions you need to answer.

  • $\begingroup$ I am happy to hear any objections! Best thanks for it! Already in the fifth sentence I wrote: "From then on, other small groups from Europe would arrive regularly and reinforce the new society." Because there are rich sponsors in this assumption, these would ensure that also mental capacities join the small society. I really just wonder how small such a society can be, or how large such a society must be, in order to be able to thrive in the few thousand square kilometers of the Northeast at a (purely technological) 18th century level. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 14:37

People usually trade with their neighbours. Maybe you should have a look at communities with no obvious neighbours.

A lower bound is probably set by St Kilda. That had been inhabited for thousands of years, though it may have been deserted and re-populated. The last permanent inhabitants were evacuated in the 1930s, but the population had problems when it fell below about 120 people, making them more vulnerable to random events, such as crop failures, or infant deaths. It is quite possible that St Kilda supported a stable population for a long time before it started getting regular visitors with unfamiliar diseases in Victorian times. a Disease came from visiting boats - neonatal tetanus, and 'the boat cough'.

Tristan da Cuhna has a population above 200. Pitcairn Islands had a stable population of 230 in 1930, but has since sunk to about 50. No place is wholly isolated these days, so it is hard to judge on today's data. My guess is that you need more than 200 people to survive untouched for centuries. That is rather less than a figure of 400, which I remember

The Minimum Viable Population for human colonies is given as somewhere between 50 and 500. These figures are not exact, and are contested, but they do not wholly disagree with the histories I have found. Go much below 100 and you are in trouble. Stay above 200 and you may last for centuries.

The quality of life may be changed by the occasional passing boat. A bag of cement (for example) mended the Pitcairn Islands' water tank. Doubtless they could have done some repair themselves, but small things like that can make life a lot easier. Does your colony exist in complete isolation?

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for the explanation, dear Richard!! I have emphasized in several places that it is not a matter of total isolation. I also believe that a population of 500 could not possibly have bronze production as I described at the beginning. Very likely, neither could 5000. 5000 might just be the population of the capital from the civilization as I described it. My own guess as to population size is somewhere between 25000 and 75000, but I'm not at all sure on this point, as the spread in estimated population size makes clear. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ The Vikings used to smelt bog iron when they needed it. They did this in much smaller communities that would fit in a longship or two. These were not stable communities was such, but they show that iron working is possible from scratch. The Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is an example. That could have supported between 30 and 120 people, but it was probably a temporary place to repair boats rather than a permanent community. $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2023 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, that's really interesting! I would not have thought that. You've given me material to read up on. I thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 17, 2023 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ it's a different culture, but monasteries attempted to be isolated and self-sufficient. They did not try to maintain a population, and they did not have the parliaments that small island cultures often did. They did not have the Industrial Revolution. But they would produce their own food and drink, books, architecture, furniture, and so on. $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2023 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ That could provide a real approximation. Thank you very much, you are extremely helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Brobi
    Oct 18, 2023 at 6:02

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