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Ethnology of Tongareva



The spread of population has been associated with the need for land upon which to plant coconuts. The right to land was established by occupation. The growth of population led to the parcelling up of islands into divisions and districts within which families traced their rights by inheritance from the first families who occupied the land. Smaller subdivisions were made by adjustment between families united by close blood kinship.

The whole system was flexible and adjusted itself from generation to generation. Flexibility was rendered possible by the social structure which, no doubt, was influenced to some degree by the importance of land. Patri-local residence made patrilineal inheritance important, but it did not immediately obliterate the rights of an absentee. A married daughter could at any time return from her husband's home and collect her share of the coconut crop on her father's land. During any prolonged absence her share was used by her father or brothers. If her share in her father's land was small and the land of her husband was more than sufficient to provide for their family, a married daughter might give up her active interest in her paternal land, and at her death her rights might vanish, through her failure to maintain the exercise of ownership. The shares of the patrilocal group were redistributed from generation to generation. On the other hand, if her share was large and her husband was comparatively poor, the married daughter maintained the exercise of ownership over her paternal lands. Thus Lamont (15, p. 184) mentions that Ocura (Okura), because she was the daughter of a high chief, was one of the richest heiresses of Omoka, whereas her husband, Turua, a younger son, was not at all wealthy. The couple lived on Motu-unga at the husband's home, but all their property came from Okura. The heiress could live with her husband and collect her crop from time to time, take her husband to live on her land, or apportion it out to her children. Matrilineal inheritance and matrilocal residence could thus occur, but by the time of her grandchildren, succession would again be page 58 patrilineal, and residence patrilocal. Hence, through inheritance and succession in the patrilineal line with patrilocal residence, the very recognition of the daughter in the patrilineal sharing of land led to the recognition of matrilineal succession and matrilocal residence.

In the distribution of land the eldest son, as the direct heir to his father's position, received the largest share of land. In a large family of boys the youngest members received comparatively small shares, but by marriage with wealthier wives or by adoption by wealthy relatives their condition with regard to land was adjusted. The wealthy man with no family adopted sons not only in order to have someone upon whom to lavish affection but to have assistance in managing his estate.

On the death of an individual without issue his share went back into the family pool for redistribution. Though the individual exercised the right of ownership over land during his lifetime, the family blood tie was never lost.

Because of the small area of the Tongarevan islands there are no large unoccupied back areas of forest land. What correspond to hinterlands over which communal rights are exercised are the sea and the lagoon. Even within the lagoon, however, communal rights over shell fish grounds and rocks are exercised only by the local groups which live near them. On the land the communal rights have disappeared.

The sharp definition of individual rights to land was no doubt accentuated by the coconut tree. The coconut, introduced by Mahuta, had to be planted by man. The man who planted a coconut on land that he occupied had the right to its fruit when it grew up. Thus, individual ownership of the land and the coconuts which grew upon it went together. The planting of coconuts, if allowed to go unchallenged, established the right to land even without occupation. It is probable that during the early spread of population families first planted some districts and moved to them when the trees became capable of bearing. On the larger islands the boundaries between divisions remained wide. The inhabitants of one division immediately pulled up any nuts planted near the boundaries by inhabitants of another division. To allow the trees to remain would have been to recognize rights of the owners of the trees to the land. All fruit-bearing trees have owners, and the nuts on the trees and those that fall to the ground are private, not communal property. In former times, the trees were watched, and an alarm was immediately raised if anyone climbed a tree not his own. Not only was there a natural desire to save inroads on private food supplies, but to allow strangers to take nuts was to admit that the tree was public property and so to diminish the rights of private ownership.

The jealous preservation of the rights of private property has now been relaxed, however. During my visits to the various islands we took drinking page 59 nuts from trees. If a member of our party owned the land upon which we happened to be, he indicated the tree from which nuts should be obtained and thus acted as host. If we met a man camped on his land, it was he who indicated the drinking nuts to be used. Where landowners were not present we took nuts without leave, knowing that for our particular party the owner would be pleased to act as an absent host.

When the mature nuts fall to the ground they remain there until the owner finds it convenient to gather them into heaps to remove later for food or for making copra. During the visit of H. M. S. Veronica in 1929 the sailors, after their walks, returned laden with mature nuts which they had picked up off the ground or from the small heaps. To them the coconut groves were a forest and the nuts common property. The natives watched them passing through the village of Omoka and said nothing, as the sailors were visitors to the country. All the trees and nuts, however, were private property and had other natives carried off the nuts in a similar way, the private property would have been claimed immediately. Some trees have been planted so irregularly that the straight lines demanded by modern surveys cut through the plantations, and an owner may find some of the trees to which he has claim are on the other side of an artificial modern boundary line. This has occurred at Rakahanga.

The scarcity of water springs increased the importance of coconuts as a beverage and led to the custom of giving a friend or relative a coconut tree for his private use when he visited the place where it grew. Such trees became private property, but carried no right to the land upon which they grew. The trees were inherited by the next of kin like any other private property. Today the owner of such trees collects the mature nuts for making copra for sale, and the conditions out of which the custom arose have disappeared.

Private ownership extends to goods and chattels as well as to land and coconut trees. However, free borrowing and ready acquiescence in lending exist. Such conditions are natural in a society which is composed of so many blood relations. People desiring the use of some material thing which they do not possess feel that they have the right to borrow or take that of a kinsman, and the owner cannot well refuse. To an outsider the use of the same object by different people conveys the impression of communal ownership, but within the community the individual ownership is known. A' close member of the family may borrow an object without asking for it, but if someone of a different family should take it, the action would be regarded as a theft and would lead to trouble. The restriction of the use of an object to the individual owner such as exists in Western culture would be looked upon as an exhibition of meanness and selfishness. It may be said, therefore, that with regard to most goods and chattels individual ownership exists with community use within the family.