The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
If there had been but one system of land tenure throughout the group, the loose limitation of the personal lala enacted by the government would have worked well enough, so long as the hereditary chief had been the holder of the government office. But among no primitive people in the world, perhaps, is found so great a diversity of institutions relating to land as among the Fijians. The group being the meeting ground of the Polynesians, whose ruling aristocracy claimed special rights in the soil, and the Melanesians, whose institutions are republican and who hold their waste lands in common, there is every grade of land tenure ranging from absolute feudalism or serfdom to peasant proprietorship. And the systems are further complicated by the natural peculiarities of the soil; in river deltas where cultivable land is continually shifting and but little labour is required to reclaim fields from the mud flats, ownership becomes necessarily individual, and a regular system of transfer springs up.
For several years it did not occur to any one that the right to personal lala was merely a property in land. For the first few years after annexation the government had enough to do in settling the land claims of Europeans without touching the thorny question of native titles. The Lands Commission established the fact that the chiefs had no right to sell land without consulting the wishes of their people, but it was outside the scope of the inquiry to define what their interest in the land really was. That the government had a suspicion of the truth is shown by Section 4 of Regulation No. 5 of 1881, in which it is provided that 40 per cent, of the rent of lands leased to Europeans is to be given to the Turanga i taukei—a status that exists in all the large confederations, but which is unknown among the tribes of Melanesian origin in western Vitilevu.
Personal lala, then, was a landed interest. The chiefs of the large confederations had acquired it partly by appropriating the common lands of the tribe, and partly by the conquest or protection of the weaker tribes that made up their confederations. And if this seems to be but a slender title to so enormous a privilege, let it be remembered that the large landed proprietors in Europe have come by their property in no more regular or legitimate a fashion. Until the establishment of the Copyhold Commission some of the landed interests in England were quite as divergent from modern ideas as lala. Yet, among those who advocate that property in land should be transferred from the landlord to the State, there are few who propose to make the change except upon the basis of fair compensation to the landlords. It is a recognized principle of modern legislation that whenever a class has acquired certain rights by prescription, no measure injuriously affecting such rights shall be enacted without fair page 72compensation. Policy as well as justice made it incumbent upon the British Government to confirm in their ancient rights the chiefs who had voluntarily ceded their country.
But the attempt to reduce these rights to written law was most unfortunate. Chiefs who were landlords were, at a stroke of the pen, given the right to exact personal lala from tribes who were not their tenants; and throughout quite half the group, the right to personal lala was conferred upon chiefs who were not landlords at all, and had no claim to it whatever. Confusion became worse confounded when the hereditary chiefs were expelled from office for misconduct, and persons of inferior rank were appointed to succeed not only to their official duties, but to their private rights to personal lala. Had the question been understood it would have been easy to frame a regulation of limiting the exercise of personal lala to those chiefs entitled to it by ancient usage, allowing each disputed case to be decided on its merits, and to limit the holders of government offices of Roko Tui and Mbuli to lala for communal purposes. It says much for the tenacity of customary law that the chiefs took so little advantage of the ignorance of the government—an ignorance that may be compared with the mistakes made by the Indian government in the matter of the Ryots. The chiefs of the miniature republics of western Fiji have never attempted to claim personal lala, and even chiefs, such as Roko Tui Ra, who were brought from other provinces by the government to be Roko Tui over people who had never been federated under a paramount chief, have used their powers very sparingly, although they were placed in the false position of having to maintain large establishments on very insufficient salaries.
The Colonial government has been bitterly attacked by certain European critics for permitting lala to exist at all. Insufficient knowledge of the subject has betrayed them into expressions as inaccurate as they are intemperate. "Slavery," and "Legalized Robbery," are not the strongest terms that have been applied to lala, and the people have been described as sunk in apathy and despair under the exactions of their page 73chiefs. Let us see how far these charges are borne out by facts. The native regulations that defined the lala also provided that—"If any town shall desire to commute its lala work due to any chief for a fixed annual payment in money or in kind, and such chief shall have accepted such commutation with the Governor's sanction, the right of lala cannot again be resumed by him. A record of all such commutations shall be kept in the Natives Affairs Office." Although many native communities now receive large incomes from rents and surplus taxes, from which commutation could be paid, there has been no single instance of an application to commute the lala during the thirty-one years in which the Regulation has been in force. If the people felt the lala to be oppressive they would not have hesitated to tender the trifling annual payment that would free them from it. There is no doubt that the lala has been pushed beyond its legitimate uses, but always by the chiefs of the confederations. Personal lala cannot be legitimately applied without the reciprocal obligation of providing the workers with food (vakaotho), and when the chief neglects this obligation, or uses the lala in the execution of work for Europeans, the lala at once becomes, not legalized robbery, for it is illegal, but oppression. An instance of this occurred before annexation, when, as already related, the American Government had fined king Thakombau £9000 for the destruction of Vice-Consul Williams's house in a fire that was probably accidental. The people of the Tailevu coast were ordered to fish bêche-de-mer for sale to Europeans in order to meet the American claim, but they refused, though they knew that refusal might cost them their lives. For Thakombau they would cheerfully have stripped themselves of all they had, but to collect produce destined for a foreigner was an infringement of the law of custom.
The instances of oppressive lala nearly all came from one province—that of Thakaundrove—governed by a young chief who, having been educated in Sydney, wished to live in European style beyond his means. For abuse of the lala, especially in levying goods for sale to Europeans, he was page 74punished more than once by the government. The people who complained against him were those over whom the hereditary right to lala did not exist, and not those who were the natural tenants of his estates. It is a significant fact that although the people have largely lost their fear of lodging complaints against their chiefs, most of the complaints that are made allege wrongful division of money or land, while very few indeed are based upon abuse of the lala. The commission appointed in 1893 to inquire into the causes of the decrease of the natives went very fully into these charges, and reported that throughout the largest portion of the group, no real discontent existed, and that in those provinces where the chief had influence enough to abuse the lala, the reported discontent was rather in the nature of grumbling at the inexorable regularity of the call for tax and communal work than at the chief's lala, for punctual recurrence is peculiarly abhorrent to the desultory mind of the Fijian. These murmurs, which are not thought worthy of being formulated in complaints, naturally reach the ears of the resident Europeans, to whom they are given as excuses for broken promises, and for disinclination to work. The fact is that lala by a hereditary chief, unless pushed to great excess, is not considered a hardship by a Fijian. And seeing how lately the chiefs enjoyed absolute power, and how the temptations laid in their way by the introduction of money have increased, it is surprising how little they have abused their power. It is unreasonable to expect from them an entire freedom from errors which are not unknown in our own civilized society, where the rich take advantage of the poor, the strong of the weak, the shrewd of the simple.
Defects are common to all social systems, and at the most the legal recognition of the so-called communal system and the government of the chiefs was a temporary compromise intended to last only until the people could walk alone. The hostile critics of the system have viewed the question solely by the light of modern civilization, holding the belief that whatever fails to coincide with that system must be forcibly dragged into line with it. They have forgotten that no social page 75system is perfect, that in civilized society there are many who own more property than they can profitably use, while others have scarcely enough to maintain existence. Our own system is in a process of transition. Our upper classes, formerly basing their claim of rank upon the purity of their descent, now rely upon the possession of wealth. The relations of master and servant having passed from slavery to wageearning, are now in the first stage of evolution from wageearning to profit-sharing. The system may some day reach perfection, perhaps in the direction of state socialism, but it is not in its present state a model upon which the Fijian should be made to mould itself.
Two examples of spoliation recognized by customary law should here be cited, because though they are "robbery" legalized by the law of custom (albeit unlawful in the eye of the government), it has never occurred to any one of the victims to seek redress. The first was exercised by what is known as the right of the vasu which has its origin in the peculiar marriage laws of the Fijians. Every Fijian was said to be vasu to the clan of his mother, and in theory had a lien over all the property of her family, but of course only the sons of women of high rank would dare to claim such a right, though low-born vasus could always count upon a welcome at the hands of their cousins. To the rights of the vasu levu (great vasu), e.g. the son of the reigning chief's daughter or sister who was royal on both sides, there was practically no limit. He might ransack the houses, sweep the plantations bare, kill the pigs and violate the women without a murmur from the unfortunate dependants of his kinsmen. In this way villages are occasionally swept of everything of value. I do not think that in former days the people felt anything but honour in being so singled out for plunder, and even now, when they are fully aware of their legal right to refuse, the ties of custom are stronger than their new-born love of independence. They give their property with an outward show of good-humour, and vent their mortification in grumbling among themselves, and to the neighbouring Europeans. I remember Mbuli Malolo, who, as chiefs page 76went, had a high reputation for care of the welfare of his people, taking his ten-year-old daughter, just recovered from sickness, for a tour round the poverty-stricken islands of the Mamanutha group. The little girl was led from house to house to point out every article of clothing and furniture that happened to take her childish fancy; and, everything she chose being swept up and carried instantly to her canoe, she left a trail of destitution behind her. Though the poor people knew that I had power to redress their grievance, they made no complaint; they only mentioned the matter to account for their abject poverty. In 1887 I offered to interfere on behalf of certain natives of Koro, thus despoiled by one of the Mbau chiefs, but the natives themselves begged me to take no action, saying that it was their custom to give whatever their chiefs asked, and that their grumbling to Europeans who had given me the information was not to be taken seriously. In this they could not have been actuated by fear of the chief's resentment, for he belonged to another province, and had no official relations with them.
The other example is the curious custom arising out of the tie of vei-tauvu, which, though not due to the influence or authority of chiefs, has also sometimes the effect of stripping a village of all movable property. As already explained, the people of two villages, who, though now widely separated, worship the same god—that is, trace their origin to a common source—are said to be vei-tauvu, and have the privilege, when visiting one another, of killing the domestic animals, stripping the food plantations and appropriating all chattel property belonging to their hosts. A remarkable instance of this occurred in 1892. The formerly influential, but now quite insignificant, island of Nayau, on the eastern confines of the group, contrived, with the utmost difficulty, to raise a hundred pounds for the purchase of a cutter. In due course the people came to Suva to take over their little vessel. On the first night out, whether by accident or design, they dropped anchor at the chief village of the tribe of Notho. Under ordinary circumstances they would have behaved themselves as befitted persons of their insignificance, but, no sooner had they page 77anchored than a deputation of the Notho chiefs put off in a canoe to bid them welcome as brothers of the tauvu. In the speeches of welcome allusion was made to the old tradition of the origin of the Notho tribe, how, in times long past, a princess of Nayau had been swallowed by a monstrous shark, and how a Notho chief having slain and ripped the monster, rescued her and took her to wife. Her rank being superior to his, her children worshipped the Tutelary God of Nayau, which was a shark, and the two tribes became vei-tauvu—that is to say, of common origin. In these poverty-stricken islanders the men of Notho were now to recognize the elder branch of their family. It took a little persuasion to convince the visitors of the full extent of their good fortune, but when they were convinced they made ample amends for their neglect. While the men of Notho sat passive in their huts, they ran riot through the village, tearing down the cocoanuts and plantains, rifling the yam stores, and slaughtering every pig and fowl that did not escape by flight. They destroyed, indeed, far more than the hold of their little vessel could contain, and they left their dear brothers of the tauvu with nothing but complimentary speeches to console them for the famine they would have to face.
Unlike the vasu, the vei-tauvu was used reciprocally. The Notho clan cherishes the intention of visiting Nayau, and exacting from their brothers an eye for an eye. But the custom, like the tie of relationship in which it is founded, is already in decay, being incompatible with the growth of modern ideas of property. Had it been frequently exercised the government would long ago have put a stop to it.
The Commission of 1893 recommended the government to encourage the chiefs' tenants to commute the obligation of personal service. In Tonga, on the abolition of the personal right of lala, the chiefs were compensated by being made Lords of the Manor over large tracts of land which yielded a fixed rental from every native occupying them, and from every European settler to whom the landlord chose to lease land. The Crown collected all rents and paid them over to the landlord, who, however, had no right of eviction. The page 78tenants held their land on hereditary tenure, and default in payment of rent was visited with distraint instead of eviction. This system was possible in Tonga, because in ancient times the land there was regarded as the property of the spiritual chief, the Tui Tonga, who could thus be made to grant manors to his inferior chiefs without doing violence to native ideas: but in Fiji, where the rights of the Crown have never been insisted on, and the land is for the most part vested in the commune, such a scheme would be impracticable.
In Fiji the time has come for adopting one of three schemes, for the tendency towards the sub-division of the communal land among individuals is growing so rapidly that unless something is done immediately, the government will find itself face to face with a very serious difficulty. Either the tenants should be induced to buy out their chiefs' interests for a sum down to be invested for the chief by the government, or an annual money compensation in lieu of all personal lala should be fixed by the native land court; or in those districts in which land is likely to be leased to Europeans, portions of the communal land should be vested absolutely in the chief in lieu of all personal lala, with the power to lease, but not to sell, his holding. The economical aspect of this latter arrangement would be to throw open to settlement on easy terms considerable areas of native land in various parts of the colony, for the chief would eagerly welcome tenants who would yield him an income in money in lieu of the services of his people. While many of the chiefs would gladly accept such commutation, it is doubtful whether the people, superabundant though their land is, would voluntarily part with any portion of it for an equivalent, so slender in their estimation is immunity from personal service. Yet, so tenacious is the law of custom, that for some time after they had commuted their obligation it is probable that the people would continue to give their services voluntarily to their chief, whose prestige would be in nowise affected by the legislative restrictions imposed by foreigners.