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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Community of Property through Kere-Kere

Community of Property through Kere-Kere

The Fiji commoner reckons his wealth, not by the amount of his property, but by the number of friends from whom he can beg. There is no time in the history of the Fijians when literal communism obtained. The tribal waste land, it is true, was held in common, but the land actually in cultivation for the time being, and the cocoanut and other fruit trees were the recognized property of the man who planted them and of his heirs. Poultry and pigs were held individually, and the ownership was jealously guarded, the poultry being marked in various ways to secure identification, and native manufactures of all kinds were the individual property of the makers.

But, while individual rights were thus far recognized, the claims of the tribe and of relationship were so strong as to constitute a lien upon all individual property. A man who would regard the theft of his pig as a deadly injury, and who would resent a stone thrown at his pig as an insult offered to himself, would not feel aggrieved if called upon by communal lala to provide food for visitors to the village, even though they were unwelcome, nor would he think of refusing any of his possessions to a fellow-townsman who begged them of page 80him, consoling himself with the reflection that the gift affords him a claim upon the borrower at some future time.

What the solevu was between tribes, the kere-kere was between individuals—a mere substitute for trade by barter. A man had more salt in his house than he wanted; his more needy neighbours begged it of him. He in his turn, wanting yams for his daughter's marriage feast, has a claim upon each one of them. And so the system works out to a balance. It may be the first stage in evolution from the state in which the proprietary unit was the tribe, or more probably it is the most ancient of all laws of property, and dates from the day when Palæolithic man first found a bludgeon that balanced to his liking. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how primitive society could exist without some such custom as communal lala and kere-kere within the limits of the tribe. So long as there was but one standard of industry and all men worked alike, the system answered well enough; but, as soon as each individual became free to indulge his natural indolence, having no longer the stimulus of fear, the custom was mutilated. The industrious had no longer any incentive to industry, knowing that whatever they accumulated would be preyed upon by their more idle relations. Fear of public opinion still prevents the richer native from refusing what is asked of him, though he knows very well that the recipient of his bounty is too idle and thriftless ever to be in a position to yield him an equivalent.

Kere-kere, which was formerly the pivot of native society, now wars unceasingly against the mercantile progress of the people. One might multiply instances of the resentment shown by Fijians against any of their number who tries to improve his position, or accumulate property, by braving the ridicule of those who would beg of him. In the few cases in which Fijians have shown sufficient independence to defy the importunities of their friends, they have been made the victims of a kind of organized boycott well calculated to deter others from attempting to follow their example. There is the case of Tauyasa of Naselai on the Rewa river, who had a banana plantation and paid coolies and Fijians to work for him. His page 81industry prospered so that he was able to buy a cutter and a horse, and furniture for his house. To the chiefs who flattered him, and the host of idle relations who wanted to live upon him, he turned a deaf ear, obstinately refusing to part with his property. They retaliated by circulating infamous stories about him, and by ridiculing him with the taunt that he was aspiring beyond his station, and was trying to ape his superiors, the reproach that is of all the hardest for a Fijian to bear. The worry of this petty persecution preyed upon his mind so grievously that he took to his mat, and foretold the day of his death. But not even his memory was allowed to rest in peace, for the native teacher who preached on the Sunday following his death, cried, "Who shipped China bananas on the Sabbath?" and then in the pause that followed, he whispered hoarsely, "Tauyasa!" Again he shouted, "Where is Tauyasa now?" and slowly twisting his clenched fist before him he hissed between his teeth, "He is squirming in the everlasting flames."

A native of Ndeumba, who used to make a net income of £250 a year from his banana plantation, and had money deposited in the bank, asked not long ago whether the government would not make the custom of kere-kere illegal, so as to furnish him with an excuse for refusing to give money away. He could only keep his profits to himself by depositing them in the bank and saying that he had none, and who knew whether the bank might not some day stop payment as he had heard banks had done in Australia? If the government would only make begging between relations illegal, he said he would have a valid excuse for refusing to give; otherwise he would always be ashamed to refuse money to importunate relatives. When this was mentioned to some Mbau women of high rank without the disclosure of the man's name, they at once identified him with Sakease, whose niggardly spirit appeared to be notorious.

Occasionally Fijians of the lower classes show real strength of character in their thirst for progress. The province of Mba in Western Vitilevu, having no paramount hereditary chief of its own, had been, for administrative purposes, placed page 82under the control of a Roko Tui, artificially created by the government, and one Sailosi, a well-educated man of inferior birth and quite unconnected with the province, was appointed provincial scribe—an office of small pay but great responsibility, for the scribe is not only the official adviser of the Roko Tui, but also treasurer for the large sums of tax-money and rents that have from time to time to be distributed. This man did his work very well, and was proportionately unpopular in the province. Surrounded by enemies who desired his downfall, he contrived to acquire property and to live as far as he could in European comfort. He filled his house with furniture and cultivated a flower garden. After several abortive conspiracies to deprive him of his post by false accusation and of his life by witchcraft, incendiaries burned down his house and all it contained while he was absent on official business in Suva, and on his return the people pressed forward with pretended expressions of sympathy to enjoy his discomfiture. He surveyed the ruins of all he possessed without a sign of emotion, and then he said, "It is well; I have always wanted a larger house, and now you will have to build me one." And they did. It is sad to have to record that this man, too, fell a victim to the temptation of borrowing from the public funds, which so few Fijian functionaries can resist.

Though few Fijians can be brought to trust a bank with their savings, they are quite alive to the advantages of receiving interest. When the Native Commissioner had been trying to foster a habit of investment through the pages of the vernacular newspaper he received a letter enclosing four shillings. "I send you this, sir," ran the letter, "in order that you may make it give birth. I should like its yield to be one dollar once a month."

It seems to be a common belief among Europeans that one has only to abolish the power of the chief to secure to every native the fruit of his own industry. That this is not so is proved by the example of the Tongans, who, being a less conservative people than the Fijians, are more inclined towards page 83social progress. The powers of the chiefs were there abolished by law in 1862, but, during the forty-four years that have elapsed, the principal result of the change has been to impoverish the chiefs without enriching the people, while the loss of the power of combination has deprived them of the power of building any but houses of the poorest description. And in Fiji the majority, being naturally indolent, are interested in preserving the ancient right of begging property from a relation and the fixed determination of the idle majority to live at the expense of the industrious minority; and the moral cowardice of the minority in not resisting their organized spoliation quite neutralizes the encouragement to accumulate savings which should have resulted from the recognition of private property by English law. No less in Tonga than in Fiji is ridicule the most effective weapon of intimidation. The people are enslaved, but to a more merciless despotism than the tyranny of chiefs—the ridicule of their fellows.

If native laws are to exist at all under the new order, this native habit of kere-kere must be swept away. New wants must be developed, wealth must take the place of rank as the factor of social importance, the idle must be made to feel the sting of poverty. The easy-going native must be made to feel the pangs of the auri fames, the earth must be cursed for him, competition with its unlovely spawn of class hatred, pauperism, and vagrancy must be cultivated in a people to whom they are unknown, for at present the Fijians have no spur to the acquisition of money except the desire for some particular luxury. The earth need only be tickled to laugh back in harvest. Most of the necessaries of life are produced equally in every village. When a native takes produce to the market it is for no abstract desire for the possession of money; he has in his mind a definite object upon which the proceeds should be spent; a new sulu, a lamp, or a contribution to the missionary meeting. If he has no such object he will let the surplus produce of his garden or his net decay rather than undergo the trouble of taking it to the market. Facts never page 84pointed to a clearer conclusion. Under his own social Arcadian system the Fijian thrived and multiplied; under ours it is possible that he may thrive again; but under a fantastic medley of the two he must inevitably go under. No man can serve two masters.