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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Individual Tenure

Individual Tenure

The communal tenure of the veikau is found only in parts of the country where the land is in excess of the requirements of the population. Fortunately for students, there are in the group districts where, from war, migration, or other causes, the population has become congested. This is especially so in the delta of the Rewa river. The customary laws in force in this district deserve special study. In Rewa there is practically no communal tenure. Individual tenure is there due to the fact that every unit of land had to be reclaimed from the river or the sea. To this day, if one digs down a few feet below the surface, anywhere upon the alluvial flats, one finds mangrove roots. Perhaps the mangrove swamps were partly reclaimed by Nature, for the great floods that occur almost annually bring down a vast quantity of silt, which they deposit when the water recedes. But man has done much to extend the process.

When floods are expected long trenches are dug, which leave tiny embankments along their edge. The surface is flooded, the little ditches are obliterated by the deposit, and the waters, held in by the embankments, raise the entire surface of the land an inch or two. It is obvious that among the primitive peoples a man must acquire proprietary rights over land upon which he has expended labour.

Besides man, there is another agent at work in reclaiming land in the mangrove swamp, which extended from the page 370present coast-line to about two miles below Nausori, where islands are raised a few inches above high-water mark. These were the haunt of a burrowing crayfish, called the mana, which plays the same part in the swamps as do the earth-worms in the grass land in England. They are continually bringing up the subsoil of the swamp to the surface, leaving a long tunnel, reaching from the surface to the water underneath. As the tide rises they crawl backwards, until at high tide they are close under the mound they have raised. The Fijians, knowing this peculiarity, set at low tide a most effective trap, by which the mana is caught in a noose. I had heard it said that they carried a number of them to their taro plantations, and there set them at liberty, to carry on their unceasing work of raising the soil. But all the natives I have questioned on the point deny this, saying, "When did you ever know a Fijian let go an animal that is good to eat? We do not look ahead like you white men." However this may be, the mana undoubtedly does increase the size of these islands very rapidly.

The Rewa province is composed entirely of the alluvial flats in the delta of the great river. Over a large portion of these flats the land is broken up into little plots, surrounded by ditches, in which grow via and taro, while the higher ground included by them is covered with fruit-trees, and yams or plantains. Each of these plots has an owner; but the owners of contiguous ground are not usually men of the same tribe. We found it quite impossible to set a boundary to the land of any particular tribe, for the holdings of the individuals were scattered about the country, among the holdings of other tribes, in hopeless confusion. To explain this remarkable morcellement, which is unknown in any other part of the colony which has yet been investigated, we must turn to tradition, and to the peculiar political constitution of the Rewa people. The first settlers who came to the delta from the higher reaches of the river were the ancestors of the people of Nandoi, driven down by internal commotion among the tribes that inhabited the mountains. They found, at first, no land fit to grow yams or plantains, but the little islands in page 371the mangrove swamp were excellently adapted for defence, and they planted swamp via and taro, digging for the purpose trenches with banks on either side. The floods came and filled the trenches with silt. The process was repeated, until by degrees the ancient trenches and ridges were obliterated, and the whole country was converted into a rich alluvial flat, raised above the influence of the tide, but not beyond the fertilizing action of the highest floods. It was at this period that individual began to take the place of communal ownership. Considerable labour had to be expended before a supply of food could be grown. The wide circular trench must be dug, and the earth built up in the middle to make a bed for yams and plantains, while the trench was suitable for taro. This work was not severe enough to be beyond the power of a single family, and no call was therefore made upon the labours of the community, as in the case of public works of greater magnitude. Thus, as the Nandoi people came to regard these valueless swamps as their peculiar property, individual families appropriated portions of their common land, upon the undeniable claim of having expended labour upon them. Once appropriated, the land followed the customary law of the inheritance of chattel property—that is to say, it descended to the eldest surviving son, or, failing a son, to the eldest surviving brother. In default of a male heir, it passed to the clan, to be appropriated by an individual. It was like appropriation of nkele in other districts, only the appropriation was more complete, inasmuch as the labour expended on the property had been more severe.

In Rewa, moreover, the idea of communal ownership of land has died down, since the whole of it has been appropriated, and there is none left to be held in common.

While this explanation suffices to account for the existence of individual tenure, it fails to explain the curiously scattered location of the holdings. This, we thought, could only have been produced by an organized system of conveying land from tribe to tribe, and we were therefore at pains to trace the history of a number of these holdings, in order to formulate a customary law, by which such questions were governed.

The result of our inquiries may be summarized as follows:— There are nine distinct customs under which land may be transferred:

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I. Ai-Thovithovi-Ni-Ndraundrau (The plucking-place for the flooring-grass)

This was land given by the family of a bride as her dowry. In the ceremony of conveyance they said, "We give this land that Nambutu's child may eat of it, since he is our child as well as his." The husband, as long as he lived with his wife, had the control of the land, and it descended to her male children, but if she died without male issue it reverted to the donors at the second generation. In this case it was redeemed by the ceremony of vakalutu (making to fall back). Until it was so redeemed, the husband or his representatives could till or lease the land, but not dispose of it. Cases have occurred in which the donors have so long neglected to redeem their property that the circumstances of the original transfer have been forgotten, and the tenants have repudiated the demands for restitution. If there were a direct line of male descendants of the original grantee, the land never reverted, and it may be assumed that after land has been held for four or five generations, the failure of the male line would not lead to the restoration of the property to the original donors. There was no actual customary law of limitation, but the grantees would decline to accept the offerings of the vakalutu, and would be upheld in their refusal by public opinion.

There was another form of dowry, called ai-solisoli-i-tamana (the gift to the father), which was a plot of land given as a personal present to the bride's father, with which his sept or tribe had nothing to do. Such land could never be redeemed, but this form of dowry was rare, being confined to the marriage of daughters of high chiefs, whose families were large landowners.

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2. Ketenialewa (The woman's womb)

This is land seized as a punishment for adultery.

As soon as the offence became known, the friends of the injured man planted reeds (sau) on the land of the offender, or of his family, as a token of forfeiture. Reeds so planted were called ai-wau-tu-i-vu-ni-vundi (the club set in the banana patch). The family of the offender knew that they must either abandon the land or fight for it, but when by lapse of time the offence was forgotten, the land could be redeemed by vakalutu.

3. Veitumalelake (Defending the dead)

This was land given as a reward for defending the corpse of a fallen warrior from being seized by the enemy. If the disgrace of being spoiled of armour by the enemy led Hector to stake so much upon the rescue of Sarpedon's body, so much the more deserving of reward was the same action among the people who cooked and ate all bodies of fallen enemies.

4. Ai-Thovi-Ni-Nkanka (Reward for bravery)

This was land given to allies or to persons conspicuous for their bravery, for services in war. Land so given could be redeemed after a lapse of time.

5. Veitau-Ni-Vanua (Land given out of friendship)

This was land given by one friend to another to bind their friendship, but the tenure was temporary only, and the land was usually redeemed after the death of either the donor or the transferee.

6. Ai-Thuruthuru-Ni-Ngone (The child's introduction)

The child of a high chief was taken immediately after birth into the houses of the inferior chiefs to be exhibited to them. page 374Property of various kinds was given to it, but if there were insufficient chattels in the house, a plot of land was often formally presented. In such cases the tenure was not absolute, and the land reverted after vakalutu had been performed.

All these cases amounted to little more than the transfer of the usufruct of the land for life or for an uncertain period. The person enjoying the usufruct had the right to all the crops and timber grown upon the soil, but the fruit-trees remained the property of the donor. He might improve the land or let it go to waste, and in this respect his rights were superior to mere usufruct, but, as in the usufruct, he had no power to transfer or even to sublet. The reason for this was obvious. He would have been creating rights in the soil, which could not be redeemed by the original donor by the ceremony of vakalutu performed to him alone. It is worth noting that all these systems of transfer, though temporary, did not provide for the reversion of the land spontaneously as at any given time. Unless the donors in their own interest redeemed their property by the ceremony of vakalutu, the transferees acquired an absolute title by prescription.

Under the following kinds of transfer land could never be redeemed—

1. Ai-Sere-Ni-Wa-Ni-Kuna (Loosening of the strangling cord

This was land given by the family of a dead man to the family of his widow, who strangled herself in honour of her husband's memory. The custom of strangling wives is closely interwoven with the ancient beliefs regarding a future state. As has been explained already, the widow who did not court the strangling cord was assumed to have been unfaithful to her dead husband, and by following him along the path of the Shades she saved his memory as well as her own from dishonour, and her services thus deserved a recompense at the hands of his kinsmen.

Land given in this form of transfer could never be redeemed. page 375But it must be remembered that the transferees belonged to a tribe very closely connected by the ties of marriage and vasu with the donors, and that land was therefore virtually a transfer within the limits of the tribe.

2. Ai-sere-i-soli-ni-Mate (The unrolling of the shroud) and
3. Tholambuka (Carrying firewood)

Under these two customs, the relations of a sick man brought a bale of native cloth in which to wrap his body when dead, or firewood with which to cook his food when too ill to go and get it for himself, and the dying man, unable to make other return, presented them with a piece of land. Land so transferred was never redeemed, but in these cases again it is to be remembered that it was a transfer within the limits of the tribe.

4. Mundulinga (The lopped finger)

One of the chief forms of mourning for the dead was to lop off the little finger of one of the hands. Few of the older natives can be found who have the fingers of both hands intact; most of them, indeed, have lost both little fingers This act of mourning was confined to the relations of the deceased, unless he was one of the highest chiefs, and the transfer was therefore confined to the limits of the tribe. Like the other customs connected with death, the transfer was irrevocable.

It is to be noticed, therefore, that the only irrevocable transfers were confined to the limits of the tribe. Transfers from tribe to tribe could be redeemed by the ceremony of vakalutu. It often happened, therefore, that the male line of succession did not fail for several generations, and in such cases the original circumstances were forgotten, and the transfer became absolute by prescription. The ceremony of vakalutu was as follows: On a date agreed upon by both parties the original donors came to the house of the transferee page 376or his heir, and formally presented him with a whale's tooth and perhaps a quantity of native goods in addition, saying, "We have come to make the land (naming it) fall back to us. Akesa ate from it and her children, but now she is dead, and they are dead, and there are none of them left to eat from it. Therefore we would have it fall back." If the representatives of the transferee accepted the tooth, the redemption was complete, but if on the other hand they refused to accept it, the question remained in abeyance until one or other of the parties had brought it before a joint council of the tribe. Under very exceptional circumstances it might even become a casus belli, but as a rule the ground for refusal was, that the property presented was inadequate. For in Fiji, as in Europe, land, like all other commodities, has a commercial value estimable in chattels. The ceremony of vakalutu above described varied to some extent in different districts. In Vatulele and Tailevu, for instance, the symbol of transfer is a basket of earth, and the symbol of usufruct a leaf or a bunch of plantains.