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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

[the tenure of land]

page 354

At the cession of the islands in 1874 the form of land tenure among the Fijians was very imperfectly understood. Most of the settlers, seeing the large tracts of uncultivated land and the comparatively small patches of cultivation round the native villages, planted one year and deserted the next in favour of virgin soil, did not believe that the natives had any definite system of land tenure, or that, with so large a tract of waste land, they had found the necessity for evolving proprietary rights in the soil.

As soon as the sale of land by the chiefs to Europeans came to be investigated by the Lands Commission there was a bitter controversy as to what was the proprietary unit in the eye of customary law. It was the object of every claimant to land to show that the proprietary unit was the chief who had signed the deed upon which he relied. The natives on the other hand, chiefs and people alike, were at pains to prove that the land was vested in the people, that the chief virtually had no interest in it at all, and had acted ultra vires in selling it. The reader will remember the disastrous mistake made by the Government in British India—how as our empire spread our representatives took from their Mahommedan predecessors the assumption that all private property in land was held from the sovereign; that the soil was therefore theirs, and that any land laws would be of their creation; how Lord Cornwallis converted the Mahommedan tax-gatherers into landed proprietors, and how in the southern provinces this was reversed and the Government recognized nothing between page 355itself and the proprietors. Both these beliefs proved to be erroneous, because as in Fiji they were attempting to make certain facts accord with European ideas. In India the real unit was the village community; in Fiji, the tribal community.

The inquiries of the Lands Commission have shown that the proprietary unit is an aggregation of Matankalis seldom less than four, subdivided in their turn into Tokatoka (septs), but known for ordinary purposes by the name of the village they inhabit, or on occasions of ceremony by their title, Thavu. This title is in some instances, probably in all, taken from the name of the site of their original village. Matankalis generally took their name from the house site of their founders. A process of fission and fusion (unfortunately the latter in these days of excessive mortality) is continually taking place. If a Tokatoka becomes too numerous it is subdivided, and the new sept takes its name from that of the house in which its leader lives. If it becomes more numerous still it is called a Matankali. When the Matankali becomes reduced to six males or less, it is usually absorbed, and becomes a Tokatoka of the Matankali most nearly allied to it.1

The early basis of society throughout the world is kinship. If a man is not a kinsman, then he is an enemy, the craftiest order of wild beast. Among primitive tribes the groups of consanguineous relations are much larger than among civilized peoples, because there is always a tendency for persons owning any tie of kinship to band together for mutual protection. The Fijians had no territorial roots. It is not too much to say that no tribe now occupies the land held by its fathers two centuries ago. They are united by consanguinity, not by the joint ownership of the soil. But the longer they stay upon land, the stronger becomes their connection with it, until at last it becomes the basis of brotherhood, and the adoption of a stranger confers nearly the same privileges as those enjoyed by full-born members of the tribe.

page 356

The evolution of the chief in Polynesia is not so complicated as in Europe. Chiefs in ancient Greece were necessarily wealthy, and in Europe wealth led to chieftaincy. But in Fiji the chief arrived at his position only in virtue of being the representative of the purest line of the common ancestor, related to his inferiors of the same tribe, but distinct from the surrounding tribes, who admitted his authority in virtue of conquest. Sir Henry Maine well says, "When the relation which it created lasted some time, there would have been no deadlier insult to the lord than to have attributed to him a common origin with the great bulk of his tenants." For tenants in England innocent names have come to bear an insulting meaning; "villain," "churl" and "boor" are names perverted by the chiefs to indicate their contempt for the tenants, with whom in reality they were related.

The exalted rank of the high chiefs in Fiji does not seem to arise until his tribe has subdued others by conquest. His people seemed to treat him with far greater respect when he had allowed fuidhir tenants—fugitives from broken tribes—to settle on the waste lands of the tribe. The superstitious element that had hitherto lain dormant then brought into prominence the fact that in his body ran the purest blood of the Kalou-Vu, the ancestor-god, a being to whom reverence as well as obedience must be paid. The priests, who always cultivated an excellent understanding with the chiefs, encouraged this feeling, and in return the chief took care that the offerings to the gods were not stinted. At the death of the chief there was a limited election, such as was practised in Ireland as late as 1596. The candidates for election were limited first to the brothers of the deceased, and in default to his cousins, the sons of his brothers' brother. In default of these the son was elected if he was old enough. The reason for this law of succession is obvious. The tribe must have a leader in the zenith of his powers, and the dead chiefs brother was looked upon as the most fit person to be regent during the son's minority. The eldest brother succeeded, unless there were objections to him. In Bureta the ancient ceremony was still practised up to a few years ago. The people were page 357assembled after the burial of the chief, and one of the elders of the tribe proposed the name of his successor. Often voices from the crowd shouted objections. "No, he is hasty tempered." "One goes into his house hungry and he gives not to eat." Even if they had resolved on the appointment of the eldest brother as successor the objections were still made as a delicate hint to him to amend his conduct when he became chief. He was then taken to a stream and bathed, and the chief's masi was then wrapped round him. Once elected, whether by the actual ceremony or by a survival of it, he assumed control over the tenants in villeinage and over the waste lands of the tribe.

Now, among tribes sprung from a common origin, living upon adjacent lands, practising the same form of religion, subjected to the same conditions of intertribal warfare, and having attained the same social development, one would expect to find the land laws almost identical, but, on the contrary, in the narrow area formed by the watershed on the eastern part of Vitilevu, no less than eight systems of tenure have been found to exist.

The title to land is vested in the full-born members of a tribe. Three kinds of land are recognized. The yavu or town lot, the nkele or arable land, and the veikau or forest. The two first of these are nominally in the occupation of the heads of families. The veikau is common to all the members of the community, but it is always liable to be encroached upon and appropriated according to the rules to be laid down when I come to discuss the nkele.

1 The divisions of Tailevu and Rewa are—

(1)Matanitu— Tribe or Confederation.
(3)Tokatoka ni matankali—Sept.
(4)Mbatilovo (lit. "brink of the same pit-oven")—Joint-family.