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Ethnology of Tongareva

Authority and Law

page 51

Authority and Law

Authority within the biological household rested with the father of the family, who controlled his sons and daughters and promulgated orders concerning ordinary routine. When the sons grew up community questions were discussed usually during the evening at the gravelled space before the huts. Though control was loose in minor matters, the father's authority as head of the family and owner of the food lands was indisputable in matters of moment. An elder son who deliberately opposed his father could be disinherited, and a large share of the land to which he would have succeeded could be given to a more obedient son. When the father became too old for executive activity he relinquished the government of the family to his eldest son.

The heads of the families, constituting a small, closely related group, met in the same way to discuss subjects of group interest. Though deference was paid to the opinions of the senior member, all were entitled to express their opinions. In an isolated community with few matters to excite interest all events that took place, or were about to take place, were fully and freely discussed.

The system of leadership by hereditary chiefs or senior members of families had already been established when Mahuta landed in Tongareva. In the subsequent development which took place the families and family groups retained their rights to free speech. The accretions that attended upon the chieftaincy in areas such as Hawaii, where the high chiefs became absolute autocrats, never took place in Tongareva, with its small population, territory, and limited natural resources.

In the territorial community government was really an extension of the principle that pertained in each family. The male population gathered together in a community meeting at the social center, either in the large house of the principal chief, or in the open space adjoining it. Such meetings took place in the daytime. In the free and prolonged discussions which took place the heads of family groups voiced their opinions, which were concurred in by their groups. The influence of a speaker in the community discussion was dependent upon his hereditary position and his personality and experience as expressed by his powers of oratory. The senior chief, or ariki of a district, if wise and of strong personality, might dominate the meeting, but though seniority was deferred to, it was not always accepted. If a lesser chief with a large numerical following of kinsmen dissented from going to war, the ariki could not, merely on the basis of his own superior rank, force him to change his opinion. The heads of families supported their group leader not only because he voiced the group opinion previously page 52 arrived at in conjunction with themselves, but also because he represented their blood group, and because the group prestige must be supported. Similarily, the skillful territorial leader could command the support of local groups by using judiciously the prestige of the territory of which the groups were component parts. The lowering of prestige at the hands of another territory was unthinkable and formed a strong incentive to united action. The thought of the loss of property as well as of life in defensive warfare was sufficient incentive to practically mechanical unity of action. The satisfying of ancient grudges was an additional stimulus.

The importance of the community assemblage is seen in the appointment of new ariki (See p. 49). In such an assembly there was no head to the government, as the old ariki was dead. The gathering was called together after the preliminary discussion of the place and time by the interested chiefs. If the deceased ariki had no son the gathering resolved itself into a meeting of a court of heralds. Like other community questions, the subject had been previously discussed by the local groups, and some plan of action had been arrived at by the groups immediately concerned in the succession. Pedigrees and closeness of relationship were put forward by the supporters of those concerned and a decision was arrived at after full discussion. The feast followed the acceptance of a nomination after the discussion by various speakers.

Regulations bearing upon the conduct of life, which in Western culture might be deemed to come within the province of government, were controlled automatically by established customs. Custom indicates appropriate procedure under the various circumstances which face the individual or the community. Children, by observing their elders or by parental instruction, are taught the correct procedure, and no other mode of action occurs to them in life.

In customs which carry prohibition it is natural to suppose that such prohibitions were originally instituted through family and group discussions, were accepted, and became established through continued observance. Customs act automatically, and there is no need for governmental control. Western civilization lacks the mechanism of custom and tapu which makes the lower cultures self-acting. Unless Western civilization is constantly controlled by a system of law courts, with an efficient police service, it often breaks down into depths of degradation into which lower cultures are incapable of sinking. When Lamont (15, p. 182) threw a piece of cooked turtle to some women and they fled screaming, “It is forbidden,” the chiefs had to control the stranger ignorant of customs by telling him not to do it again, because women were not allowed to eat the turtle cooked in the oven associated with a religious structure.

page 53

Some customs do not work automatically, but have to be initiated deliberately when circumstances demand. Such is the masanga custom of declaring a closed season over depleted coconut trees in order to allow the crop to recover. By declaring a masanga the individual may close down one tree or his whole plantation. His authority is that of ownership. He probably discusses the matter with the family and then ties a piece of coconut leaf around the trunks of the prohibited trees to indicate to his family that in gathering food supplies these particular trees must not be touched. A declaration of the masanga is an individual matter which concerns the owner and his family. A community masanga, however, requires a community gathering and an official declaration by the community government. Lamont (15, p. 273) describes such an event at Mangarongaro. Because of many deaths from a prevailing epidemic, death feasts had depleted the coconut supplies of the whole territorial division. A meeting was called at the territorial center, and the advisability of declaring a general masanga was discussed. The masanga cut off the main food supplies for a long period, and the only course open to prevent starvation was to raid the crops of other islands, which meant war and loss of life. To enter upon such a drastic step, the unanimous consent of the whole territorial group had to be obtained. As the members of the wrecked Chatham had been adopted into the Mangarongaro community, their consent was also necessary before the masanga could be declared. One of the native crew who knew native custom was much adverse to consenting to the masanga, fearing that the prohibition of coconuts would lead eventually to cannibalism. The native members of the community were anxious for the whites to agree to the masanga and to assist them in the raids which would follow. The whole matter was threshed out by speakers at the meeting. The symbol of the general masanga was the wearing of a piece of plaited sennit around the neck by all who accepted it. Lamont compromised by accepting the masanga and then going to another island to live while the custom was in force.

In some community customs the community acts without having to be officially notified. Thus, when a fleet of canoes appeared off the shore the news was called from mouth to mouth and the entire population appeared on the beach. After the preliminary speeches the reception of visitors followed the ceremonial pattern automatically, without any necessity for governmental control.

What constituted right and wrong conduct had been defined by custom. Custom was obeyed without thought of opposition and there was little need for courts of law with police to hale malefactors to justice. Prohibitions by tapus were observed out of fear and ingrained obedience. The person who broke the conventions of society was condemned by public opinion, page 54 and vilification was his psychological punishment. The wrongdoer lost prestige when he offended against his own community group.

Certain offenses, such as violence, theft, adultery, and homicide were recognized. The individual was the protector of his own property and honor. As Lowie (16) remarks, the individual was his own judiciary and his own executive. Small thefts led to recrimination and vituperation which might develop into personal violence. The theft of food supplies was a serious offense, and the thief ran a chance of being speared or killed by the enraged owner, or by community members who rushed, armed with spears, to the spot.

An unfaithful wife was beaten, and if the corespondent was caught he suffered physical violence. Divorce because of unfaithfulness consisted simply of separation. A husband might send his wife back to her own people, or a wife might leave her unfaithful husband. Whether or not a system of raiding or confiscation of property was practised was not ascertained. In the legend of the unfaithful wife, Sokoau, Sokoau was killed by her husband. The husband, for his outrage, was in turn killed by Sokoau's two brothers. The husband's people stood by, for they were afraid of supernormal powers attributed to the two brothers.

The crossing of a boundary between two districts which were hostile was a serious offence. The offenders, if caught, were killed, and the only legal remedy the relatives had was to act likewise when the opportunity occurred, or to lead an organized expedition against the enemy.

Deliberate raiding of plantations was conducted by armed forces who thought they would be quick enough to get away, or who were in sufficient force to engage in active hostilities. Here the only law was that of force, and retaliation for the owners of raided plantations was obtained in warfare.