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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Solevu in Decay

The Solevu in Decay

With the arrival of the trader who, all unconsciously, was set to teach the natives an entirely new system of trade based on currency, all need for the solevu vanished, and each native product immediately acquired a recognized place in the scale of values, either in money or calico. Nothing shows the extraordinary conservatism of the Fijians better than the fact that they did not at once abandon the solevu in favour of an informal sale of native products to one another. The two systems continued to flourish side by side, the native carried his produce to the trader and took cash or groceries in exchange on the spot, but he continued to manufacture large quantities of goods intended for ceremonial presentations to his neighbours and to trust to receiving the equivalent at some time in the uncertain future. For a time the solevu was encouraged by the Government upon the ground that it would form a substitute for commerce until the natives should become accustomed to money as a medium of exchange, and that it was inseparable from the native social system, which for politi-page break
A War Dance.

A War Dance.

page 287cal
reasons it was convenient to retain. It was felt that without the solevu the manufacture of mats, pottery, salt, bark-cloth, sinnet, wooden bowls, etc., would fall into disuse, and that the material comfort of the people would be affected for the worse. Therefore it became usual for the solevu to take place at every half-yearly Provincial Council at which each district became in rotation the entertainers of the others. Upon the entertainers fell the burden of building new houses, a very salutary provision, of providing food for a vast concourse of people for several days, and of manufacturing an immense quantity of mats of native cloth to be presented to the visitors. In return the entertainers would theoretically be entitled to a share of the property presented by the guests on their arrival, and of that given at other councils when the part of playing host fell to others. This would have been well enough if the presentation had been kept within bounds, and the spoil had been properly divided, but the emulation of the chiefs to outdo one another in hospitality led them to bring pressure to bear upon their people, and the chief burden fell upon the women, whose principal duty was to produce the things required for the solevu. Moreover, less of the property reached the producers than formerly, the lion's share being appropriated by the chiefs who attended the council. Being a distortion of the real native custom, the solevu began to lose much of its native character.

At Ndeumba, where the natives earn considerable incomes from growing bananas, the property given consisted exclusively of European commodities, such as kerosene, tins of biscuits and calico, purchased in Suva, while at Rewa a cutter, filled to the hatches with tins of kerosene, formed the contribution of the Tonga district. The solevu had thus grown to be an intolerable burden. They were far larger and more frequent than in the old days, they were given and received by the wrong people. As long as a single tribe or joint family was concerned, every householder or head of family got his fair share according to his rank. It was not custom that the group of tribes that form the modern district should receive a presentation in common, and, as usual, the native mind could devise no new law to meet the new emergency. Accordingly, page 288in June, 1892, the Government formally forbade the interchange of property at Provincial Councils. By the people at large the order was welcomed, and as a means of commerce the solevu may now be said to have ceased to exist.

But one evil resulting from the mutilated custom still survives. In the old days a single district or village was rarely called upon to feed large assemblages of people; now, every Provincial Council is made the excuse for immense profusion and waste. At some of them as many as one hundred and sixty pigs and turtle and six thousand yams and taro are consumed in two days, and at the Annual Meeting of the Chiefs the food provided by the entertainers reaches more than ten times that amount. It is not all eaten, of course. Several tons of cooked food are thrown to rot on the seashore, but the Government is probably right in not interfering to check this prodigality. The necessity of planting large reserves of food secures the people against an unexpected famine, caused by flood, hurricane or droughts; if they lost the fear of being reproached for being niggardly it is more than probable that they would cease to plant sufficient food for their bare needs.

When the solevu of the Provincial Councils was abolished the Governor laid before the chiefs the proposal to establish a system of intertribal barter in the local markets, which is a Melanesian and Papuan custom; this ought not to have been repugnant to Fijian ideas, but the chiefs could not be induced to take any interest in the proposal, which shows that their attachment to the primitive solevu was no longer due to the necessity for barter, but rather to the elaborate ceremonial display which is so dear to the native mind.

Yet the Fijians are by no means deficient in the mercantile instinct. In some districts side by side with the solevu a regular system of trade by barter was practised. At Lekutu in Mbau the townspeople were in the habit of bartering fish and salt with the hill people for vegetable produce. There were regular market-places, and the barter took place at fixed intervals. At Kandavu a single household or tribal sept having a store of bark-cloth, or some other commodity, would invite the possessors of some coveted article to trade with them, and page 289on the appointed day would visit their village and hand over their property in exchange for cooked food as well as the wares they needed. Similar practices prevailed in Western Vitilevu between the natives of the coast and the mountaineers; these customs were called tango or veisa.

The growing use of money has been developed side by side with a system of traffic in native produce, not only with European buyers, but among the natives inter se. Natives of the coast districts of Tailevu, who are required periodically to take contributions of food to Mbau on the occasion of some ceremonial without expecting any remuneration, at the same time carry on a regular trade with their chiefs at Mbau, hawking vegetables or fowls from house to house for money or its equivalent in European articles. Thus they draw a clear line of distinction between lála and barter.