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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Nkele, or Arable Land

Nkele, or Arable Land

The nkele is simply that portion of the veikau or forest that has been appropriated. Once appropriated it descends page 359according to the fixed laws of inheritance. But the ownership of a proprietor is strictly limited. There is no more absolute ownership known to the Fijian customary law than there is to the English. "No man is in law the absolute owner of lands. He can only hold an estate in them."1 The tenure of the nkele may be best compared to an estate for life. Each owner holds for the household to which he belongs; the household holds for the sept, the sept for the clan, the clan for the community, and the community for posterity. The owner of the nkele had over his land a little less than dominium and a little more than usufruct.

Now that the tribes have been so reduced in numbers by war and foreign diseases, and whole villages have been swept away, leaving only one or two representatives who have merged themselves for shelter and protection in the community most nearly allied to them, there is still little, even of the forest land, that has not some reputed owner. Thus, when a man would clear and cultivate some patch far removed from the village and overgrown by trees he first inquires (if he does not know) who is the direct descendant and representative of the tribe that formerly planted on the land. It is rare that no claimant can be found, and in some cases the communal rights have apparently merged into the individual ownership of a solitary survivor. But among tribes who have quite lately fought their way into land belonging to their neighbours, and who have successfully held the conquered territory until the cession of the islands to England, no member of the tribe can have rights over the veikau greater than those enjoyed by his fellows. Among these one may almost daily observe the manner of appropriating land when required for planting purposes. Under the primitive system, agricultural crops could not be grown in the same soil with success for more than two seasons, and consequently an industrious planter will have patches of cultivation scattered about upon the flat land bordering the watercourses for a large area surrounding the village, When he would acquire and dig a new garden he goes to the chief and uses some page 360such formula as this: "I have come, sir, to speak about my garden. I wish to plant on the little flat known as So-and-so." The chief asks those round him whether the land has an owner, and if they answer in the negative, tells the man to report his intention to his Matankali. Thenceforward the land, or the usufruct of it, is appropriated by that man and his heirs.

So simple a procedure cannot of course be tolerated unless the land far exceeds the requirements of the population; and it is curious to note in some communities such as Rewa, where the people outnumber the planting-grounds, that the procedure for appropriation or transfer becomes at once more formal and elaborate.

The ancient boundaries of lands were continually contracting and extending, in accordance with the military strength of the tribe. But when tribes were of nearly equal strength, and the fortunes of war were doubtful, both sides were as anxious to maintain peace as the diplomatist of modern Europe. Questions of land boundaries, where the land was so far more abundant than either side required, were submitted to a rough form of arbitration. If one tribe could show occupation, the other gave way rather than fight about such a trifle. Unless it had strategic importance or bore valuable fruit-trees, or salt-pans, or some other product whose loss would be felt, land in itself in those days was of no account. Almost the only things of value that the Fijians recognized in connection with land were the products of human industry—wells, trees and crops. To claim another man's plantation was a casus belli: to appropriate a patch of forest, reputed to belong to a neighbour, was an offence that could be palliated by a paltry present. Thus, if the council of the tribe determined to lay claim to a boundary enclosing a strip of debatable land, they sent men to acquire and plant gardens as near the projected boundary as possible. These gardens became the property of the men who planted them, and of their heirs, unless of course the neighbours resented the intrusion, and drove them back. The same custom prevails even more largely under the English Govern-page 361ment. As soon as the lands court is reported to be about to visit the district, every tribe begins extending its forest boundaries. The claims invariably overlap, and when the surveyor visits the spot, he finds newly-made plantations overlapping one another for several furlongs in inextricable confusion. Any of these plantations, if the claimants be successful, will be vested in the persons who acquired them, with of course the same restrictions as applies to the tenure of nkele generally.

Having sketched the manner of acquisition and appropriation of common land, I will now describe the common method of divesting the person of ownership. This could only be done immediately after appropriation, as a protest against his right to acquire and plant, or as punishment for a crime. In the latter case the crime must in some way have infringed upon the rights or dignity of a chief, and that chief must feel in himself the power to support his prohibition by force of arms if need be. The custom was called veisauthi. It consisted in sticking a row of peeled reeds into the acquired ground. From this the land-grabber understood that he planted again at his peril. If he felt strong enough he might continue, but he would have to fight for it. As a general rule he desisted, because he knew that the protesting parties, whoever they were, had not taken this step without counting the cost. If the protestors were persons within his own tribe, the dispute would be brought up before the council of headmen, and adjusted one way or the other. If the veisauthi was resorted to as a punishment for an injury to the chief, it was erected upon all the planting-lands of the offending person. It had only one meaning, that he must flee for his life, and, conscious of his guilt, he almost invariably did so. Even if he were stronger than the chief he fled to collect his strength among the enemies of the tribe, for the veisauthi in this case meant that he would be killed by foul means rather than fair—by the club in his sleep, or by poison.

1 Williams's Real Property.