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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Veikau, or Forest

page 362

The Veikau, or Forest

This term included all the uncultivated lands within the reputed boundaries of the tribe. As I have already said, these boundaries fluctuated with its military strength. Much of the land was worthless for cultivation, rough, bare hills, from which every scrap of soil had been washed by the summer rains, and on which the scanty herbage was scorched dry by the winter drought, and burnt annually in the autumn bush fires. To such land as this no value whatever was attached. At the foot of every hill ran streams, with patches of rich land here and there along their banks. To include this, the claim was laid to the whole tract. Besides its value as planting land, the actual forest was often claimed for the rights of cutting timber, and pasturing herds of half-wild pigs. Forests containing the vesi, valued as the best timber for the posts of houses, or sandal-wood, a profitable article of barter from remote times, were claimed with the same tenacity as in the case of the nkele; but they were claimed by the whole community, not by individuals. We have now to observe a very curious transition from communal waste lands to land owned exclusively, under the law, which is so well described by Sir Henry Maine. The waste lands belonged, collectively, to the tribe, but inasmuch as tribal matters were decided for the community by the chief, and an oligarchy of his supporters, the ordinary freeborn men of the tribe gradually ceased to ask for any voice in the disposal of the waste lands. The chief, accustomed to decide questions of appropriation without reference to his people, came gradually to look upon the waste lands as his private estate. The change finally came when fugitives approached the tribe asking for their protection. They came, of course, to the chief, as the tribal representative, and asked for protection, and for the usufruct of land on which to plant their food. He, in the name of the tribe, allotted to them a portion of the veikau on the ordinary tenure of dependants, namely, an annual tribute from the crops grown upon the land. This tribute, presented to the page 363chief, was divided out among his own people, but gradually the annual tribute was supplemented by produce yielded on the chiefs demand, whenever he had a feast to make. In making these demands he was no longer acting as a tribal representative, but as an individual. In the course of generations, the origin of tenure faded from the memory of the people, and it was only remembered that the land was held upon the condition of personal tribute to the chief, to be yielded on his demand. He was, in fact, the landlord, they the tenants. I shall describe in detail various tenancies that arose in this manner. We are concerned at present with its bearing upon the veikau. Among the lands thus granted to dependant tribes were considerable tracts that remained uncultivated. In theory the grant had been only in respect of the land actually used, but in practice it was common to regard the veikau surrounding the plantations as tenanted by the dependant tribe. This portion of the veikau was held on a different tenure from the main portion claimed by the predominant tribe. In the latter case the chief alone claimed the disposal of it, or of the trees that grew upon it. In the former he rarely gave leave even for the cutting of trees, without first intimating his intention to his tenants. They had in fact acquired rights over it allied to usufruct. They might cut timber in moderation without leave. They could appropriate to individuals of the tribe such portions as they required, but they might not grant leave to cut timber to outsiders without first obtaining the chiefs permission.

The owners of the soil of a conquered tribe are reduced to a servile status provided that their conquerors settle within reach of them. Mere conquest without occupation produces no change in the form of tenure. Tribute may be paid perhaps for a year or two, but as soon as the conquered tribe feels itself strong enough to repudiate its subjection the tribute ceases, and the tenure of land within the limits of the tribe have from the beginning remained unaffected. It is otherwise where conquest is followed by occupation. In such cases, from free landowners the conquered are reduced at one sweep to the nkalini-ni-kuro, or kitchen men, the lowest page 364status known to the Fijian customary law. An instance of this sudden change is to be found in the tribes of Maumi, Ovea and Mokani, who were probably originally owners of the soil on which they live, but who have been reduced by the occupation of the Mbau chiefs to the status of kitchen men. The ceremony of transfer varied in different districts. In Mbau it took the form of the soro-ni-nkele (earth tribute). When the conquered people came to pay their submission, besides the whales' teeth they presented a basket of earth in token that their land was at the disposal of their conquerors. This does not necessarily mean that the land was conveyed to their conquerors, for land, without people to cultivate it, was valueless. They rather conveyed their own bodies with the land on which they lived as being inseparable, and only valuable when in conjunction. Among primitive peoples an act done at regular intervals tends to become a permanent institution. There is no legislation among primitive tribes, but custom, however it may arise, tends to become law.

We come now to a feature in the rights of property that is very hard for a European, trained in the systems that are based upon the ancient Roman law, to comprehend. The doctrine ab inferno usque ad cœlum has no bearing in the islands of the Pacific. As I have already said, land as land had no value. Its value arose only from its potential produce. The thing treated with most consideration among primitive peoples is human labour, and the products of it. In Rome, and therefore of course in modern Europe, if a man plants fruit-trees on another's land, he has no claim to them. They belong to the soil in which they grow; but in Fiji, while you may be wrong in planting cocoanuts upon land which belongs to your neighbour, you do not on that account part with your rights over the product of your labour. The land remains his, but the trees are yours, from the surface of the soil to the topmost frond. You have, moreover, in virtue of your property in the trees, a right of way over his soil to get at your trees. To our minds this seems very unjust, but it must be remembered that in a country where the population is sparse, and where cocoanuts have at once a commercial value which page break
Picking Cocoanuts.

Picking Cocoanuts.

page 365land does not possess, cocoanut trees are held in far higher estimation than the soil in which they grow. As a general rule this conflicting form of tenure does not arise through the secret planting of trees. The tree owner or his father has, in almost every case, asked the leave of the owner of the soil before planting his cocoanuts. Where two men are connected through the marriage of their children or by merely personal friendship, this is a very common form of mutual obligation. In the case of chiefs, moreover, it is no uncommon thing for the overlord to pick out the pockets of soil most suitable for the growth of cocoanuts, and to order his vassals to go and plant them there. The tenants still possess their rights over the soil, but they would not dare to claim the nuts growing upon them. The distinction may be best seen by comparing the crops of yams or plantains, The tenants would take the first-fruits to the chief, preserving the rest for themselves, but they would take all the cocoanuts, even after expending their own labour in gathering and husking them. This form of tenure has been a great embarrassment in settling the ownership of land. Now that modern ideas have begun to take root, and that every land-owner hopes to let his land to a European at a fixed annual rent, payable in cash, the owners of the trees confront him at every point with their claims. The result is that the rights in the trees are very often disputed. European notions have been dimly seized upon, and land-owners stand upon their rights as if they had been bred under the English law of Real Property. The only way to settle these disputes is to buy out one of the claimants. Where this is not done, the owners of the trees should be allowed to have twenty-five years' usufruct of them, after which they and all others they may have planted in the interim should pass to the owner of the soil.