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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Confederation in Decay

The Confederation in Decay.

The first effects of foreign interference was to strengthen the power of the chiefs; the second, to destroy it. For more than two years Mbau enjoyed a monopoly of muskets, which enabled her almost to double the extent of her territory. To the eastward the kingdom of Somosomo swallowed up the whole of Taveuni and the eastern portion of Vanua Levu, while the Tongan immigrants under Maafu first conquered the Lau group, and then threatened the independence of Mbau itself. The immediate effect of subjugation was to blight the traditions and religion of the conquered tribe, for independence is as necessary to their life as light and air to the life of a plant. It is astonishing how quickly the status of a Fijian is reflected in his bearing. In an assemblage of Fijians an unskilled eye can pick out the members even of tribes who were subdued within the memory of men still living, by their slinking gait, their shifty eye, and the humble curve of their spine. A few years have changed them from warriors into beaten curs. Their chief, a hewer of wood like themselves, ceases at once to inspire respect; they approach him now without crying the tama, the prerogative he used to share with the gods themselves; they keep the tama for their alien page 63conqueror and his gods; of their own they pretend to have forgotten the very name, nor dare they any more to claim tauvu relationship with any cousin-tribe that has preserved its freedom. They have dropped out of the social fabric, and chief and subject alike spend their lives in weaving ignoble plots to alleviate the squalor of their servitude.

Far otherwise the conqueror. He who, but a generation back, would have sweated in the yam-field with his men, now grew fat upon the contributions of his tenants and the toil of his kitchen-men. His harem was crowded with the daughters of allied chiefs, and the fairest girls from every conquered village. Panders and sycophants flocked to him; dwarfs and negroes and renegade Europeans were in his train; buffoons told dirty stories over his evening kava bowl; poets forged heroic genealogies for him, and when he went abroad men squatted on the ground with averted faces and tama'ed. Every vessel that he used was sacred, and brought death to any lowborn man that touched it. Every member of his tribe swam upon the tide of his prosperity. His village became a village of chiefs, with serfs of their own to plant food for them, where the youths were trained to the chief-like exercises of war and seamanship and dancing, and the old men spent their nights in feasting and concocting plots for extending their dominion. As for the Roko Tui, the Sacred Chief among the conquered tribes—there being no place for such rank among serfs—he was fain to surrender his sanctity; among the conquerors he degenerated into an ornamental symbol of the powers divine.

The chief was seen at his best among those tribes that had preserved their independence without seeking to extend their borders. Among the Melanesian tribes in the western half of Vitilevu, in a number of isolated islands, such as Vatulele and the Yasawa islands, the chief was veritably the father of his people. Neither his dignity, nor the sanctity of his person depended, as with us, upon any adventitious barriers between himself and his subjects. Familiarity bred no contempt. Like them, he wore nothing but the malo; with them he plied the digging-stick at planting time. And yet, though any page 64might approach him, none forgot the honours due to him. When Roko Tui Nandronga worked himself into a drunken fury over the accidental burning of his kitchen, his whole people, chiefs and all, besmeared themselves with ashes, and crawled to his feet to sue forgiveness; and when the Colonial Government threatened to deport him for unjust exactions levied on his people, the very people who had suffered from his extortions implored the Governor to reinstate him, saying that they loved him as a father. "Can we picture," asks Teufelsdröckh, "a naked Duke of Wellington addressing a naked House of Lords? "Had the sage seen a Fijian chief among his people he would have marked how the naked brown skin may be clothed in a divinity that needs no visible garment to lend it dignity.

The first blow at the power of the chiefs was struck unconsciously by the missionaries. Neither they nor the chiefs themselves realized how closely the government of the Fijians was bound up with their religion. No sooner had a missionary gained a foothold in a chief village than the tabu was doomed, and on the tabu depended half the people's reverence for rank. The tabu died hard, as such institutions should die. The first-fruits were still presented to the chief, but they were no longer carried from him to the temple, since their excuse—as an offering to persuade the ancestors to grant abundant increase—had passed away. No longer supported by the priests, the Sacred Chief fell upon evil days. Disestablished and disendowed, he was left to subsist upon the bounty of the temporal chief, whose power and dignity had, as yet, suffered no eclipse, for it was not the interest of the Europeans who were now crowding into the group to attack it. The chiefs guaranteed their lives and property, the chiefs sold them land, and protected them in their occupation of it; the chiefs levied contributions to pay for the contracts they had made with them; and, in return, the white men were always ready with muskets and ammunition to help them to keep rebellious vassals in check.

The temporal chiefs sounded the death-knell of their privileges when they were persuaded to cede their country to page 65the British Government. Had they realized the consequences they would have preferred the danger of conquest by Maafu and his Tongans, or bullying by American commanders, as more than one has since confessed to me. But Thakombau was weary of bearing the brunt of European aggression, and when Thakombau persuaded, who was strong enough to hold aloof? The British Government began wisely enough considering the information at its disposal. Sir Arthur Gordon (now Lord Stanmore), the first governor, was gifted with a rare sympathy with native modes of thought. With the experience of the disastrous native wars in New Zealand before his eyes, he realized the importance of governing the country through its own strong native government. To deprive the chiefs of any of their privileges, to deny them all share in the government of their people, would have been to convert, not only them, but their people into enemies. To accept and improve the native system was at once the most just, the most safe and the most economical policy. His expert advisers were Sir John Thurston and Mr. David Wilkinson, the former deeply versed in native politics, and the latter in native customs, if not in customary law. With their help he set about enclosing the natives as it were within a ring fence. The islands were divided into provinces coinciding roughly with the boundaries of the existing confederations as he found them. The ruling chiefs were made lieutenant-governors under the title of Roko Tui, borrowed from the Sacred Chiefs who had no longer any use for it; the province was sub-divided into districts under chiefs with the title of Mbuli ("Crowned"); the system of village councils was extended to the province, and to the high chiefs themselves, who met once a year to make recommendations to the Governor. War and cannibalism were of course put down, and polygamy, which had long been forbidden by the missionaries, was discountenanced, but otherwise the existing native customary law was embodied in a code of regulations passed expressly for the natives to be administered by native magistrates under European supervision.