Land Tenure in the Cook Islands
Chapter 9 — The New Role of Land
The New Role of Land
The production of surpluses
Prior to the advent of Europeans every man subsisted by the direct exploitation of land in which he held rights. Surpluses were produced for storage against the possibility of famine, for feasts and ceremonial, and for the prestige one gained by having ample supplies of food, but beyond this there is no indication of any incentive operating to engender the accumulation of large quantities of food or other material goods. As there was no product in general use which was not available in every district on each island, one's requirements were normally obtainable from land or water in which recognized rights were held.
As a result of contact with European culture, it became possible to subsist by other means than the direct exploitation of one's land rights, and consequently, to live without rights to land. Not many persons lived without some direct exercise of land rights, but among those who did were the pastors on islands other than their own, who were fed by their congregations, outer islands labourers on European plantations in Rarotonga, seamen on local schooners, and pearl-shell divers in Manihiki and Penrhyn who came from other islands.
1 Kelly, The South Sea Islands… 49.
The production of cash crops may be considered in two major categories according to motivation. Firstly there was production aimed at achieving divine grace and status within the church, for the most influential early contacts with European culture had been with missionaries who impressed on the natives the necessity for church buildings and offerings of saleable goods and money.1 Throughout the period a considerable proportion of total production was contributed in kind or in cash to one church project or another.2 A spirit of competition was maintained by the missionaries by announcing publicly the donations of each contributing group and individual,3 and an old man who sold his only cow in order to buy a new Bible for each member of his household was held up as an example of the ideal churchman.4
1 E.g. ‘The State of the Society's funds I have not failed to lay before the people and urgently as possible pressed home upon their consciences a consideration of the subject…’ - Pitman to LMS 23.9.1842 SSL.
2 There was extensive planting of arrowroot in Rarotonga in the 1840s and almost the whole crop was ‘devoted to the service of God’ - Pitman to LMS 3.7.1849; Mission pamphlets and the Bible were regularly sold for coconuts, arrowroot, dried bananas, and other produce - Buzacott, Mission Life… 207; for the eight years 1873 to 1880 Mangaia gave an average of $1017 per year in cash to the church as well as free services and gifts in kind - Harris to LMS 20.8.1881 SSR; in 1876 the people of Avarua spent £600 to £700 on repairs to their church - Lovett, James Chalmers… 116. This quite possibly constituted more than half their total cash income for the year.
3 Pitman to LMS 3.7.1849 SSL.
4 [Hutchen], ‘Phases of Native Life…’ 29.
Secondly, the land could be used for cash cropping with the aim of acquiring material goods for personal consumption. This aim, which was in competition with the pressure for funds by the church, served as an additional incentive to production. A part of this incentive was provided by the church itself through its insistence on the use of certain imported commodities, and particularly on the wearing of imported cloth,1 a commodity which was consequently the largest single item of trade throughout the period.2
A further incentive was provided by a demand for certain consumers durables, the possession of which was considered essential to the maintenance of social status. Until the 1850s, houses and furniture in the European style were popular with the leding families, in the 1880s sewing machines became a must in every household, and by 1890 buggies were de rigeur for chiefs of standing. Whereas in the early stages the bulk of non-subsistence production had been devoted to church activity, as time went on an increasing proportion was devoted to the acquisition of material goods. The scale of consumption on ceremonial occasions in particular seems to have increased markedly.3
1 Those who did not wear imported cloth were not considered eligible for baptism. - Maretu, MS 73.
2 While there is no statistical verification before 1880, the proportions of various articles paid in particular dealings show a high preponderance of cloth. For example, a whaler in 1837 bought 45 pigs for four to eight yards of blue cotton cloth per pig, 8 dozen fowls and ducks at six yards of cloth per dozen, and only for the smaller items of fruits and vegetables did they pay in ‘beads, toilet glasses, scissors, jewsharps, and fancy calico…’ - Putnam, Salem Vessels and Their Voyages 4:137.
3 For a wedding in 1904, for example, the presents given included 188 mats, approximately 5390 yards of cotton prints, 3500 yards of calico, 7 rolls of native tapa cloth, 70 dresses (some of silk and others of lace), 1 goat, 1 cow, 65 pigs, a clock, a Bible, a hymn book and £23.10.3 in cash. The total cash value was probably equal to more than 50 times the average annual per capita income of the island.
Changes in production patterns
The relative importance of particular crops and particular soil types changed in response to new techniques and the needs of the developing market. The introduction of the spade, the hoe and the plough made the production of field crops very much easier, and the axe and the horse facilitated clearing operations. There are clear indications of a shift in emphasis from swamp taro in favour of garden crops. Three factors seem to have been responsible: firstly, whereas the new implements facilitated an increase in output of garden crops per unit of labour, they had little or no effect on taro cultivation where the digging stick remained the most useful implement; secondly, while there was a keen demand for kumara and arrowroot for the providore trade, there was little demand for taro due to its poor keeping qualities; and thirdly, the introduction of cats led to a rapid decline in the number of land birds, and this was considered responsible for the increased depredations of the taro-eating caterpillar.
It may be assumed that the reduced amount of time necessary to produce a given quantity of food resulted in increased production to the extent of the available market. Ships calling for supplies seem always to have fulfilled their requirements, and at prices which compared favourably with those obtaining in Tahiti and Tonga. But the demand for fresh foods was decidedly limited and the people must soon have found the point beyond which additional production could not be marketed. While the providore trade at Rarotonga was considerable and fairly regular between 1835 and 1855, that at the smaller islands was erratic and unpredictable, and can hardly have been conducive to maximizing output.page 176
Until the mid-1850s the bulk of trade was in fresh foods which were sold to passing whalers and other vessels as ships stores.1 After that time, however, the relative importance of non-perishables increased. The first of these, cotton, was originally introduced by the mission as a house-hold crop for domestic use, but it soon became an article of trade for export. Coffee was also introduced, and its production expanded after the providore trade died away. From 1862 onwards regular shipments of perishable fruits, principally oranges, were exported to New Zealand.2 Like most others, this crop was first established in Rarotonga, whence it spread to the outer islands.3
These export crops took longer to grow, needed to be grown in larger quantities, and necessitated techniques of cultivation and processing with which the people were unfamiliar. There is no evidence of large-scale planting of oranges or coffee, in fact the great bulk of the trees were self-propagated.4 While cotton was widely planted in small plots it was only on Rarotonga after 1880 that any large plantations were established, and these by Europeans using immigrants from the outer islands as labour.
1 For details of the particular crops and livestock traded at the various islands, together with an indication of prices and quantities see Weekly Alta California 16.11.1850.
2 By 1865, ten to fifteen cargoes of oranges were being shipped to New Zealand from Rarotonga annually. - Krause to Governor 6.11.1865 TBC. The banana trade did not develop until the 1880s.
3 The introduction of oranges to the Cook Islands is credited to the ‘Bounty’ in 1789. - Maretu, MS 12. The first known cargo of fruit exported was shipped from Aitutaki in 1852 for California. - Lamont, Wild Life among the Pacific Islanders 99.
4 Moss to Governor 17.1.1891 NZPP A3 1891.
The attractions of cash cropping were never sufficient to induce the full utilization of the land and one of the least biased reporters noted that the proportion of arable land under active cultivation was ‘quite insignificant. Even the cultivations of the natives - their orange groves and coffee plantations, their banana and taro patches - are either part and parcel of the forest or are almost overshadowed by it’.1
This state of affairs may be partly explained by the drop in population, the limited market for fresh foods and the inadequacy of storage and shipping facilities for non-perishable crops. An even more important consideration, however, appears to have been that there was no marked change in the standards of subsistence consumption of the great majority of the people. With the possible exception of expenditure on imported cloth, most of the income received was spent on annual donations to the church, the acquisition of status goods, and ceremonial. The satisfaction of these needs was conducive to periodic spurts of production for particular occasions rather than to a steady continuous output to meet increased day-to-day costs. Market limitations were not the only deterrent to over-production, for the energetic were vulnerable not only to claims for atinga from above, but to obligations to share and to assist their kin. Nor was it considered proper for the lower social orders to outdo their superiors in standards of housing, ceremonial or other consumption.
1 Cheeseman, TLS 264.
The introduction of new livestock was not on a sufficiently large scale to engender special provisions in the tenure system, though it did result in increased difficulties in the control of wandering stock. Despite the erection of a considerable amount of fencing, there are indications that the ravages of wandering stock acted as a disincentive to production.1 Apart from new types of poultry, the main additions were cattle for beef, horses for transport and draught work, and goats for eating.2 None of these have multiplied greatly, and while only very few people ever kept cattle or goats, a high percentage of families owned a horse or two.
1 See, for example, instructions issued by the chiefs of Mangaia 19.11.1849 CIA; Chace and Turner to Wesleyan Missionary Society 26.3.1841 SSL.
2 Sheep were also introduced, but did not survive for long.
3 Te Puna Vai Rarotonga 2:22–3. There were three groups in each district, one for the men, one for the women and one for the Sunday School children. Each group worked as a unit, and planted its section of land collectively. The men's group was usually led by the high chief and the women's group by his wife.
The leasing and lending of land
The most lucrative indirect method of exploiting one's land rights was by transferring some portion of them to foreigners, usually by way of lease. By January 1899 the annual income to native owners from registered leases of land to foreigners was £502.10.0.1 Of this amount, some £445.16.0 was in respect of land on Rarotonga. In addition to the cash there must be added the value of rentals in goods,2 of commitments in addition to the fixed rent,3 and rentals payable in the form of a proportion of the proceeds from the land rented,4 or of improvements to the land.5
1 In fact many of the rentals were fixed in Chilean dollars, the exchange rate for which fluctuated around $10 to the £1. This exchange rate has been used to convert all rentals to pounds sterling.
2 Deed no.83 covered the lease of a section of land from Tinomana Ariki to Ah Chin for one pig per year. - Deeds Register NLC.
3 Deed no.159 provided that the lessee of land at Aitutaki had to pay a cash rental of $30 per annum as well as to care for the native owners ‘and give them food and also for their grandchildren’. - Deeds Register NLC.
4 Deed no.29 in respect of Tutakimoa plantation for coffee and orange growing made such a provision. - Deeds Register NLC.
5 Deed no.134 provided that the lessor was to get possession after 25 years of a house to be built by the lessee. - Deeds Register NLC.
1 An examination of the Deeds Register shows that at this period no leases had been made in favour of islanders.
The status of women
2 The previous ariki had no born children.
3 Mrs Buzacott, MS 8.
In the initial stages this was simply a case of ariki signing the leases in the capacity of titular head of the tribe on behalf of the owning descent group. But all too frequently, by the time the lease expired, the ariki regarded the lands concerned as his own and not infrequently cited the fact of the lease in his name as ‘proof’ of ownership. Moreover, in the last two decades of the century, there were instances of ariki leasing lands without the knowledge of the owning descent groups and others of their forcing leases in the face of strong opposition from the owners, and in a few extreme cases native occupiers were evicted to make way for more remunerative occupation by foreigners.
4(continued from previous page)Court investigations of ownership. Of these 45, some 39 were leases by ariki. In 20 of these cases the Court investigation showed that the ariki had no proprietary right to the land concerned, in 13 cases the ariki was found to be one rightholder among others, and in 6 cases ownership was awarded to the ariki alone. Of these 6 cases, however, 3 were lands which were vested by the time of investigation in either religious bodies or the Crown and whose ownership was accordingly never proven, 2 were lands awarded to the ariki for a life interest only pending full investigation (which has never been carried out) and in the one remaining case the ariki was shown to be sole owner of the land concerned. Of the 6 instances of lease by persons below ariki status, Court investigation showed that all lessors were either sole or part owners of the land concerned.
Many of the lands leased were those whose owners had either died or gone away. The motivation for leasing such lands cannot have been wholly mercenary, for it was the customary duty of the ariki to accommodate strangers, and they were under constant pressure not only from the potential lessors but also from the British Consul and later the British Resident. In the Avarua district of Rarotonga, where the number of foreigners was largest and the pressure to lease was greatest, the ariki must frequently have been embarrassed by conflicting obligations to visitors as against tribesmen. Nevertheless, the need to meet the requirements of visitors was at times used as a rationale to take land from those descent groups which were out of favour.
1 In addition to rentals some ariki collected harbour dues from vessels using reef passages in their districts. - MB 19:173–4 NLC.
Some observers have blamed the ariki for not granting leases to these strangers from neighbouring islands who settled on their lands, but it is most unlikely that many, if any, islanders would have wanted this form of tenure in any case. Even if the people had been familiar with it, the ariki made the laws and to a large extent administered them, and it is doubtful if a lease would have given any greater security than did residence at the pleasure of the ariki. Had cash rentals been charged on the scale paid by foreigners, relatively few islanders could have afforded them. Moreover, in Maori eyes, for a commoner to ask an ariki for a signed guarantee of tenure would probably have appeared as a gross insult. The relationship established by permissive occupation was a reciprocal and flexible one wherein the chief provided means for the sustenance of the visitor, who in return assisted the chief with produce and labour at appropriate times.
In effect what happened on Rarotonga during the latter part of the century was that the right-holders lost in the early decades of the century by disease and emigration were to some extent replaced by the influx of immigrants who were quite without rights. The number wanting permission to reside was considerable, and the number of chiefs in a position to grant that permission relatively few; the need of the immigrant was greater than that of the chief, and consequently one's continued residence was best secured by generous giving and liberal assistance with work.
In pre-contact times, the common people were the relatives of the chiefs, and had particular rights to particular portions of land. The lineage gained strength and status as its numbers increased, and it was accordingly in the interests page 185 of the lineage head to make land available to those who wished to use it; he could not exploit it in any other way. Furthermore, as the lineage functioned for many purposes as a single unit, what was in his interests was generally also in theirs. Once produce acquired a cash value, however, the land on which it grew acquired a capital value and, due to the range of consumer goods now available, what was in the chief's best interests was much less often in the common interests of the group.
The ability of any man with available land to produce crops for sale or export may suggest increased individual choice. However, this was limited in practice by the organization of the market houses which provided a channel through which the chiefs could exercise control over the production and sale of cash crops. These market houses were set up originally by the missionaries to assist and regularize trade. In the Southern Group, one such market house was set up on each island.1 In those islands where there was tension between districts this arrangement tended to produce difficulties, and in Rarotonga and Aitutaki - where trade was greatest and reef passages most numerous - the original scheme broke down and various districts established their own market houses.
1 Market houses of this type were not reported from the northern islands, probably as the volume of trade did not merit their erection.
2 The Market House… 1849.
1 The laws of Rarotonga provided that: ‘3. Chiefs are not to take the best pieces of cloth for their own use. Let them have a share and the people a share also. But if money only be paid by the captain it is right it should go to the chief. 4…. The person in charge of the market [i.e. the chief] is the proper one to take all things and deal with them… and the police are to take into custody any who do not obey these authorities.’ - ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ 1879 clause 22.
Commander Bourke found this chiefly monopoly on trade still operating throughout the group in 1888, but warned the chiefs that it was not in accordance with British traditions of trade. - Bourke to Admiralty 13.11.1888 CO 225 PRO.
2 The ra'ui was also sometimes used as a sanction forbidding the planter the right to harvest his crop - see, e.g. Hamilton Hunter to High Commissioner 10.9.1896 WPHC.
3 As from 1898 it became common for the ariki to advertise their ra'ui and the successful tenderer for the crop. - Cook Islands Gazette, passim.
In addition to the ra'ui, some high chiefs had forbidden their subjects to deal with European traders except through them, or with their permission.3 This system was ostensibly instituted to prevent or limit indebtedness, but it was open to manipulation. Moreover, during the 1890s many of the tribes owned ships which were invariably controlled by their respective high chiefs, and as these ships carried much of the produce exported from the islands the ariki thus acquired additional controls over marketing.
1 Sometimes the crop had to be sold through the ariki to the trader concerned. - Exham to High Commissioner 1.9.1890 FO 58 PRO. An example of exploitation by the chief who imposed the ra'ui is quoted in Te Torea 9.10.1897.
2 Provision was made for the ra'ui of crops by the Au (of which the ariki was head) but subject to the approval of the Resident. -‘[Law] For Electing the Au’ 1891. It is doubtful whether this approval was sought in fact.
3 Though this practice was specifically outlawed by the ‘Statute of Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro’ 1899.
1 This view was particularly prevalent on Rarotonga, Atiu and Mauke. Many European observers noted an apparent difference between the ‘family’ ownership on Aitutaki and Mangaia and the ‘chiefly’ ownership on the other islands - e.g. Bourke to Admiralty 13.11.1888 CO 225 PRO. While the use of the term ‘ownership’ in this context was perhaps imprecise the different degree of authority over land which was vested in high chiefs as against family heads is clear.
2 E.g. in 1895 Tinomana Ariki claimed that all the lands of untitled persons were given them by their chiefs, and that those who disobeyed her instructions would be made to ‘restore’ the lands they were using to the chief. - Te Tore a 18.5.1895. By 1900 the same ariki was claiming the whole lime crop in her district as her personal property. - Ioi Karanga 17.3.1900. In 1903 Ngamaru Ariki gave the island of Takutea, which he claimed as his exclusive property, to the Crown, but later Land Court investigation showed that his rights in the island were marginal only.
3 E.g. Wyatt Gill to LMS 28.10.1882.
4 E.g. Te Torea 25.5.1895.
5 E.g. in 1896 Kainuku Ariki was reported as having ‘driven away a portion of his relatives from their houses and lands which they claim from their forefathers’. -Te Torea 21.3.1896. In 1897 Tinomana threatened eviction for any person who disregarded her ra'ui. - Te Torea 24.4.1897. Land Court records contain many examples of commoners and holders of minor titles being turned off their lands, e.g. MB 4:81 and 4:116 NLC. Moreover, many of the older generation today speak freely of this period as the time of the mana ariki or chiefly power, when discipline was severe and subservience mandatory.
The impact of European culture during this century served to further differentiate the social classes, and to emphasize class stratification rather than the segmented aspect of the society which had hitherto been the more pronounced. It also resulted in a higher level and range of consumption. But, with the exception of the holding of rank titles by women and the abolition of the acquisition of land by warfare and ritual plunder, there was little change in the various customs relating to the tenure of land. However, in view of the vastly different context within which those customs operated, there was a considerable change in the relative incidence of various customary processes, and of their function in the operation of the society.
1 E.g. MB 19:163–4 NLC; Harris to LMS July 1882 SSR.