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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Leasehold (Thokovaki)

Leasehold (Thokovaki)

These holdings were not necessarily farmed by the persons to whom they were granted. There is throughout the Rewa province a remarkable custom of subject tenure known as thokovaki. This tenure is sometimes communal, sometimes individual. It is found throughout the Rewa delta from the Nakelo to the sea, thus including a portion of Tailevu. In the eastern end of Kandavu it reappears again in the form of rent paid by tenants called uraura-ni-vanua. Properly to understand the system it is necessary to glance at the history and political situation of the Rewa people. After the arrival of the Nandoi people already referred to, other tribes came down from the mountains into the delta. Principal among these were the Kai Rewa proper. They settled at first at Mburembasanga, where the land was naturally elevated above the mangrove swamp. They were warriors descended from an older branch of the first Melanesian immigrants, and page 377they naturally signalized their coming by preying upon the agricultural settlers below them. In this way they imposed upon them the task of contributing to the feasts on ceremonial occasions, and in course of time tradition has it that the Kai Nandoi themselves invited them to cross the river and settle on their lands, so as to spare them the irksome necessity of ferrying quantities of food across the river. By this time there had been intermarriage between the tribes, and land had been transferred to the new-comers under the form of transfer described as dowry. They did not cross the river for nothing. We find the Nandoi lands spread in a deferential semicircle round the holdings of the chief families, showing that the former had been despoiled of all their lands in the neighbourhood of the new settlement. Then the usual process of aggression began. The chief family was strong enough to protect fugitives, and fugitives came to them accepting at once, in return for their lives, the status of kitchen men (adscripti glebœ). Thus probably the most servile form of thokovaki originated. The chief also began to acquire holdings further afield. Like his peers on the highlands of the island, he ordered his newly-conquered vassals to plant him gardens on their own lands, and in process of time as the crops of taro and via succeeded each other in the same soil, the land came to be regarded as set aside for the chief, and as claiming the expenditure of annual labour for the chief's support. Succeeding generations did not stop to inquire how this came about. They had to cultivate year by year a certain plot of land for the chief, subject to their occupation. Another, perhaps the commonest, origin of thokovaki tenure is to be found in reclamation. The swamp was valueless and belonged to every one, but as no stranger could be allowed to settle upon it, the tribe, if they thought of it at all, thought of it as their communal property. The chief had a lien upon the labours of his vassals, provided that he paid them in food, and so it came about that the chief was the author of most of the reclamation. Of the land thus reclaimed he was regarded as overlord, and he could put whom he would upon it as his tenant. We found one piece of land in the very process of page 378transition. A reach of soil near Mburembasanga was reclaimed by order of the former Roko-tui-ndreketi, and planted regularly by his vassals. In Mburembasanga there was a difference of opinion whether this land was thokovaki, or whether it belonged to the tenants in fee simple. The chief left the question to the tenants, and they immediately chose to have it regarded as a subject tenure, thokovaki. Another origin of thokovaki may be found in the transfer called kete-ni-alewa (forfeiture for adultery). The chief seized the land and allowed the former owners to cultivate it under a subject tenure.

The small coastal islands, being unoccupied for agriculture, were also regarded as the property of the chiefs. These are sometimes found to be tenanted by vassals who tend the chief's pigs or gather his cocoanuts, and this is in a sense thokovaki tenure.

One of the most remarkable features about thokovaki tenure is that the tenants themselves disclaim the actual ownership of the land they cultivate. The chiefs seldom know where their land is. Before the Native Lands Commission the Roko Tui, or some other chief, often asked his tenants for the names and boundaries of the lands over which he was overlord, and if the tenant denied that a particular piece of land was thokovaki the chief asked the commissioners to accept the statement. It happened more than once that tenants gave the name of land for registration in their own name, saying, "We hold the land only on thokovaki tenancy, but the chief has favoured us and says that he will make it over to us absolutely."

It must not be understood that thokovaki rents are paid only to the superior chiefs. Persons of almost equal rank are found in the position of overlord and tenant. In the case of Nalea and Nambuli the Kai Nalea were the principal heathen chiefs before what I must call the Reformation, and the fact of their being extensive lords of thokovaki lands is an instance of the natural disposition of all ecclesiastical bodies to acquire landed interests. I may add that the Reformation which reduced Notho to unimportance occurred early in this page 379century. The assumptions of the priesthood had grown so intolerable that they threatened the prestige of even the chiefs themselves. At last the chiefs and people together determined to destroy the privileges of these upstart priests who were originally people of no birth. They therefore deprived them of their offices, and put in chiefs of rank in their place. The success of this experiment of a state church was never put to the proof, for Christianity came and swept away priests and gods alike. Of the six great clans known as the Sauturanga we find that persons of one are often in the relation of overlord to persons of another, though they are of almost the same rank.

The rent paid under thokovaki tenure was variously called ndrawe-ni-vanua, ura-ura-ni-vanua, etc. It varied according to the produce of the land itself. It might even take the form of manufactured property, but with the inexactitude of all primitive people, neither the amount nor the time for yielding it seems ever to have been fixed. Among the fishing tribes on the coast, who might easily have paid their rent in fish, we find that the fish is bartered first for produce and that the produce is then carried to the landlord. We may therefore assume that the rent must always in some sort be in the form of produce capable of being grown upon the land. Thus sinnet is permitted, because the fibre composing it may have been husked from cocoanuts growing on the land; mats, because the land grows the rushes used in their manufacture; baskets, because the osiers could be cut upon the land. The time for paying rent was fixed by the necessities of the landlord. If he had a feast to make or contribute to, he sent to his tenants, apportioning among them the total amount he required of the supply. It might happen that he made only one call upon them in a single year, while in another he might demand more than half their crops. But the safeguard against excessive demands lay in the fact that the tenant had always the power of deserting the land and offering himself as a tenant to a rival chief. In practice, therefore, no overlord dared to make excessive levies upon his tenants.

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The most striking example of thokovaki tenure is to be found in the tribe of Notho. From the myths which concern the origin of this tribe, we can gather that they are an off shoot of the tribe that now inhabits the distant island of Nayau, with which it is tauvu, that is, it worships the same gods and has a common ancestress. Tradition says that their ancestress when bathing was swallowed by a gigantic shark and was carried to the mangrove swamp where now stands the village of Nambundrau, where she was ejected by the fish and attended by the natives of the place. As a proof of this tradition the natives point to the fact that their ancient god is a shark, but it is scarcely necessary to observe that in this case, as in many others, the romantic history has been woven round the totem of the tribe and incorporated into the folk-lore. Seven generations ago, that is about 1750, the ancestor of the present chief moved to Nambundrau. At that time the only dry ground was a narrow island in the mangrove swamp. The chief was followed by the septs related to his family, and by two tribes that were tributary to him. They immediately began the work of reclamation, until year by year the island grew. Causeways were put forward into the swamp surrounding the moat so as to form fish-ponds. Sites were built for six other villages, which formed the nucleus of reclamation, until at the present day the whole area is composed of a network of causeways, gardens and fish-ponds. For the first fifty years of this process the swamp was regarded as exclusively the property of the chief. But as sufficient villages were formed under the leadership of one of his relations the swamp came to be looked upon as the property of the chief upon whose lands it bordered. The property rights of the chief in the swamp were of course of a negative order. He could only exercise them by refusing to others the right to reclaim it; but as no reclamation could be undertaken except under his directions, the land as it grew became the property of the chiefs. In Notho alone in all Fiji do the overlords not draw tribute from their own dependants, but gather it haphazard from tenants not their hereditary subjects. As each reclamation was completed the chief chose from his followers a tenant.

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The tenancy descended from father to son, but at any moment the tenant was free to throw up his holding and become the tenant of a chief more to his liking. The chief, too, for sufficient cause, had a right of eviction, and might offer the holding to any person of whatever sept, so long as he belonged to the aggregation of tribes known as Notho. So much was this liberty recognized, that now when a child is born in a family of tenants, the father and mother choose to which of the chiefs he should become client. Of a family of four boys the eldest would succeed his father in the tenancy, but the other three would each become tenants of a different chief. It will thus be seen that the clientele of the minor chiefs have no common tie of blood, and therefore the position of the overlord approaches far more nearly that of the landlord in Europe than is usually to be found in primitive communities.

The property of Notho consists of taro beds, cocoanuts and fish-ponds, and the rent therefore differs slightly from that paid in other districts. There are, besides, special offences. It was a penal offence to walk on a causeway bordering on another's fish-pond, and stamp on it so as to make the fish jump out.

This offence was often committed for the purpose of theft, but sometimes also out of pure mischief. These little fish are often given to the landlord as rent for the pond from which they were drawn. It will thus be seen that Notho cannot be said to be divided into matankalis. The only way to describe their social status is to say that the villagers of Nakuroiwai and Nathuru are all chiefs, and that the commoners in the remaining four villages are apportioned out among these chiefs individually, as tenants of their lands. The first-named villages own all the land, and the others are mere agricultural tenants, removable at will. But even in Notho, where the chief's rights in the soil most nearly approach to the absolute, it may well be doubted whether he could sell his lands to any European without violating the sense of justice of the whole district.