Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

[Chiefs and the Growth of the Confederation]

page 56

The principal authority upon the state of society among the Fijians when Europeans first came into contact with them, is the Rev. Thomas Williams, a man possessing intelligence and observation and the instinct of anthropological research without the training necessary for systematic inquiries. Belonging to the pre-speculation period, he described what he found and not what he wished to find, and in this respect he is a valuable witness, but, like other missionaries, he used a loose terminology in describing Fijian society, making the word "tribe" serve any group of men from a family to a state. His manuscript fell upon evil days. His scientific instinct of accuracy and detail was ludicrously out of keeping with the spirit of the missionary publications of those days, in which any customs that did not suit the English middle-class notions of propriety were either passed over as heathen wickedness too deplorable for description, or set forth (with a rich commentary of invective) in an obvious spirit of exaggeration to show the subscribers at home how perilous were the lives of missionaries, and how worthy the labourer of his hire. In his simple love of truth, Mr. Williams had forgotten to point the usual moral, and when Mr. Calvert brought home his manuscript in 1856, the Missionary Society decided that it must be edited with vigilance. A Bowdler was found in the person of a Mr. George Stringer Rowe, otherwise unknown to fame, who re-wrote most of what was supplied to him, he apparently page 57having no special knowledge of the subject. "But here," says this maiden-modest editor, whenever the outspoken Williams dares to touch upon the marriage laws, "even at the risk of making the picture incomplete, there may not be given a faithful representation."

The manuscript has long disappeared, and now we can never know exactly what was Williams and what was Rowe. In respect of its scientific accuracy, it may be questioned whether it did not find in Rowe a worse fate than the "Scented Garden" met at the hands of Lady Burton. Fortunately for science the loss of Williams's manuscript is not as irreparable as a distinguished anthropologist would have us believe. Mr. McLennan, in rating Mr. George Stringer Rowe for his meddlesome editing, remarks, "The natives were speedily converted first, and slowly extinguished afterwards. Comparatively few of the natives remain, and our chance of knowing well what were their laws and customs is perhaps gone for ever."1 Upon this curious assumption, he treats "Fiji and the Fijians" as modern Biblical critics treat the Pentateuch—namely, as an obscure treatise whose loose terminology can only be read by the light of internal evidence. Had he taken the trouble to ascertain that the Fijians, so far from being extinguished, still number more than two-thirds of their strength when Williams wrote, and maintain their old tribal divisions and some of their social organization intact; had he cared to look through the mass of evidence collected since the cession of the islands in 1874, he would have spared his readers a lengthy commentary, and himself a number of errors which go far to explain his unscientific attitude in his great controversy with Morgan on the classificatory system of relationship.

The key to the Melanesian system of government is Ancestor-worship. Just as every act in a Fijian's life was controlled by his fear of Unseen Powers, so was his conception of human authority based upon religion. Patriarchy, if not the oldest, is certainly the most natural shape into which the religious instinct of primitive man would crystallize. First there was the family—and the islands of the Pacific

1 Studies in Ancient History, 1876.

page 58were probably peopled by single families—ruled absolutely by the father with his store of traditions brought from the land whence he came. His sons, knowing no laws but those which he had taught them; planting their crops, building their huts and their canoes under his direction, bringing their disputes to him for decision, have come to trust to him for guidance in every detail of their lives. Suddenly he leaves them. How are they to believe that he whose approval they courted, and whose anger they feared but yesterday, has vanished like the flame of yesterday's fire? His spirit has left his body; yet, somewhere it must be watching over them still. In life he was wont to threaten them with punishment for disobedience, and even now, when they do the things of which he disapproved, or withhold their daily offerings of food at his tomb, punishment is sure to follow—the crops fail; a hurricane unroofs the hut; floods sweep away the canoe. Thus they come to propitiate the spirit armed with such powers to harm, and, in response to their prayers, victory is given them over their enemies. When they are beaten back, he is frowning upon them: when the yams ripen to abundant harvest he is rewarding their piety.

In this most natural creed was the germ of government. Each son of the dead father founded his own family, but still owed allegiance to the earthly representative of their deified father—the eldest son—on whom a portion of the father's godhead had descended. Generations came and went; the tribe had increased from tens to hundreds, but still the eldest son of the eldest, who carried in his veins the blood of the common ancestor in its purest form, was venerated as the head of the tribe. The ancestor was not forgotten, but he was now translated into Kalou-vu (lit. Root-God) and had his temple and his priests, who had themselves become a hereditary caste, with the strong motive of selfinterest for keeping his memory green. His descendant, the tribal chief, is set within the pale of the tabu: his will may not be disobeyed, nor his body touched without incurring the wrath of the Unseen. The priests and the chief give one page 59another mutual support, the one by threatening divine punishment for disobedience; the other by insisting upon regularity in bringing offerings to the temple.

Had there been no war in Fiji the power of the aristocracy would have been limited. Among the rnountain tribes of Vitilevu, who seldom extended their borders by conquest, the chief, while enjoying some measure of religious veneration, can issue no important order without the consent of the council of elders. He can exact no truckling homage where every member of the tribe is a blood relation. But for conquest, Fiji would have been a country of tiny independent states, no larger than a single village could contain. From conquests sprang the great confederations. The chief of a conquering tribe rose to be head of a complicated social body; the members of his tribe an aristocracy supported by the industry of an alien plebs composed of tribes they had conquered and fugitives from other conquerors. These too had had their tribal gods and tribal chiefs, but what have men, reduced to open slavery, to do with such dignities? A generation of ill-usage sufficed to wipe out the very memory of independenoe. For god and chief alike they had their suzerain, upon whose indulgence their lives depended.

Besides the fortune of war, the chiefs owed much of the enormous increase in their power to their system of land tenure. The land boundaries of the tribe were telescopic. Every tribe owned as much land as it could defend against the encroachments of its neighbours. There was, as will presently be explained, individual ownership of land actually under cultivation, but all waste land was held, theoretically, in common. And, since the mouthpiece of the tribal will was the chief, the waste lands were at his disposal. So long as he gave it to his own people to use he gained no power, but as soon as fugitives, driven out by other conquerors, began to run to him for protection, and were granted land on which to settle, he found a body of tenants springing up who regarded him as their personal overlord. It was to him that they paid their rent in kind and in labour; it was to him, and not to the tribe, that they gave feudal service in war. The page 60chief of a great federation had thus two distinct classes of vassals—serfs conquered in war, and feudal tenants.

Before the advent of Europeans and the introduction of firearms, the confederations were never very large. Tribe fought with tribe on equal terms; the besieged had an advantage over the besiegers. Every tribe had a natural stronghold, stored with food and water for many weeks, into which it would retire in times of danger. If they did not carry it at the first assault, by surprise, or by treachery from within, the besiegers went home to await a better opportunity, for the slow starvation of a garrison by organized siege had never occurred to any native leader. The largest confederations known to us by tradition—Verata and Thakaundrove—controlled less than ten miles of coast line. With the introduction of gunpowder in 1808 native wars became far more destructive. The powerful chiefs immediately doubled their power, and yet Thakombau, the head of the most powerful confederation of all, even in the zenith of his power, never ruled directly over more than fifteen thousand people, though, undoubtedly, he could bring influence to bear upon half the group.

The development of autocracy followed certain well-defined lines. At first the chief was priest and king after the order of Melchisedec of the Ammonite city, Jebus—that is to say, he received divine honours while wielding the temporal authority. But as the tribe grew the temporal power became irksome to him. The tradition of the founding of the temporal line in Tonga about the beginning of the seventeenth century throws the clearest light upon the origin of the spiritual and temporal lines. A king of Tonga had goaded his people into assassinating him; and his son, after avenging his murder, sought to put a buffer between himself and his rebellious subjects by delegating his executive power to his younger brother, reserving to himself all the solid advantages of his high station without any responsibilities. Safe from popular outbreak, he began to enjoy increased veneration owing to the more rigid tabu that hedged him in. In another case preserved by tradition the temporal power was founded by page break
Bringing first fruits to Mbau.

Bringing first fruits to Mbau.

page 61the indolence of the supreme chief. In order to rid himself of the cares of government, he constituted his brother his hereditary minister, and bequeathed to his descendants an ornamental and dignified retirement. The Mikado and the Shogun are analogues of the Roko Tui and the Vunivalu.1

In Fiji, the process of scission was found in every stage of evolution. Among the Melanesian tribes of the interior it had not begun; in Rewa the spiritual Roko Tui still wielded the temporal power; in Mbau and Thakaundrove he was beginning to lose even the veneration due to his rank. Just as the coast tribes had begun to adopt the Polynesian gods in addition to their own ancestral mythology, so they were more ready to follow the Polynesian example of separating the temporal from the spiritual chiefs.

The constitution of Mbau may be taken as a type of the Fijian constitution. First in rank was the Roko Tui Mbau (Sacred Lord of Mbau). His person was sacred. He never engaged personally in war. He was the special patron of the priests, who, in return, were unstinting in their insistence upon his divinity, He alone might wear his turban during the kava-drinking. It was tabu to strangle his widow, though the widows of no other chief were exempt from paying that last honour to the dead. At his death no cry of lamentation might be uttered, but a solemn blast was sounded on the conch-shell, as at the passing of a god.

Next in rank came the temporal chief, the Vu-ni-valu (Root of War, or Skilled in War), who was at once Commander-in-Chief and executive Sovereign. He never consulted the Roko Tui Mbau in temporal affairs, and he enjoyed tabu privileges little inferior to those paid to his spiritual suzerain. The Vunivalu always belonged to the Tui Kamba (Lords of Kamba) sept, and the Roko Tui Mbau to the Vusaratu ("Chief sept").

1 That the native tradition was not invented to account for the tribal constitution is shown in the form of the story, which records the assassination and the subsequent delegation of power without assigning any reason for the latter, or noticing the connection between the two. (See my Diversions of a Prime Minister, p. 304.)

page 62

The Tunitonga, the hereditary adviser and spokesman of the chiefs, ranked next. He was the state matchmaker, and disposed absolutely of the young chief girls, whose natural guardian he was.

The Mbete (priests) and Mata-ni-vanua (Royal messengers, lit. Messengers of the land) were next in consequence, though the chiefs of the Fisher septs wielded influence in proportion to their force of character.

Each sept had its own quarter of the town, the heralds at its eastern extremity, next the Vusarandave (hereditary soldiers), and the fishermen nearest to the mainland. Across the narrow straits were the planting lands of the subject tribes, who might be seen at every low tide, wading across the ford with contributions of food.