The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
In its communal aspect lala is the axis of the primitive commonwealth. A native cannot by himself build his house, or dig his plantation, and he has no money with which to pay others for doing so. Accordingly, he applies to the chief, who, acting as the mouthpiece of the commune, summons all the able-bodied men to come to his assistance. In return he must provide food for them, and he must take his turn in helping each of them whenever his services are required. Both in the larger confederations and the miniature republics of the inland tribes, this kind of lala is applied by the chief of sept or chief of village with the consent of the council of elders.
Communal lala is also indispensable for the performance of all public works, such as road-making, bridge-building; the erection of public meeting-houses, such as the church or Mbure-ni-sa, and it was also legitimately applied to such quasi-communal services as the repair of the chief's canoe or page 68house, the planting of food and catching fish, for the entertainment of strangers coming to trade with the tribe. In this respect the lala corresponds closely with our system of local rates. When exercised by the supreme chief to levy contributions for the equipment of an army or an embassy, it may fitly be compared with public taxation. Without it, the condition of the natives' houses, already bad, would become worse; their crops, already diminished, would become insufficient for their support; their villages, often now neglected, would become unfit for habitation, and the purchase and maintenance of boats and vessels become impossible. Where it has been abolished, as in Tonga and the Tongan community settled in Fiji, the necessity for combination is so keenly felt that the people have evolved a substitute of their own. Men and women voluntarily form themselves into clubs called Kabani (company) under various fanciful names, which are called together under the direction of an elected president to build houses, plant gardens, and do other combined work for one another. Disobedience to the order of the president is visited by a money fine, or by expulsion. A person who belongs to no club can obtain no assistance from his fellows.
I am not sufficiently acquainted with the history of the corvée in Egypt or the rajakarya of Ceylon to say whether they, like the lala, were instituted to meet the necessity of combination among a primitive people. The rajakarya, we know, was abolished because the high chiefs much abused it, but they did not begin to do so until the law of custom had begun to decay, owing to intercourse with Europeans. We had the lala ourselves up to the thirteenth century, or the magnificent churches of the Norman and Gothic periods would never have been built by people who were content to live in thatched hovels: in Scotland it survived until much later.
The communal lala has suffered far less decay than the personal. The chief had no selfish interest to tempt him to push it to excess; the people felt it no injustice, though they were compelled to supply extravagant contributions of food and property for the frequent solevu. Nor do they grumble at being compelled to contribute a sum of some £5000 page 69annually for the purchase and repair of vessels owned in common, for these exactions, burdensome as they are, minister to their natural vanity. It was when the government applied the principle of communal lata to sanitation that they began to cry out, for this was a clear infraction of the law of custom. Their fathers did well enough with a road twelve inches wide, with bridges formed of a single slippery log, with village squares unweeded save on the occasion of some great public function. When the chief orders the widening of roads and bridges, he is not voicing the want of the commune but the will of the foreigners.
It is worth noting as an illustration of communal lata that for the first few years after annexation the communal vessels usually belonged to the province. The people who contributed the purchase money did not grumble, because they regarded the collection as a personal levy by their chief. The vessel was at the disposal of the Roko Tui, who regarded it as his private yacht. But as soon as the people grasped the idea of owning a vessel in common, they began to subscribe for district and village boats, in which they enjoyed an ample return for their money. The government exercises a wise control over such collections. No money may be levied until the resolution of the Native Council has received the sanction of the government, and sanction is never accorded when the levy is likely to put an undue burden upon the people. And here again is an instance of how one cannot tamper with native customs without letting loose a pack of unforeseen evils. The collection of money for the purchase of vessels is a useful spur to activity; it maintains a profitable colonial industry without putting any strain upon the natives. But with increased facilities for travelling there is growing up a practice on the part of both men and women of wandering from island to island on the village boat, billeting themselves upon the people they visit, and leaving their families to take care of themselves.