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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Chapter 1 — Introduction

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Chapter 1

This study is set in the Cook Group, an archipelago of fifteen tiny islands totalling only 88 square miles in area, yet scattered over 850,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean between Tonga and Samoa on the one hand, and French Polynesia on the other. Since 1901 the group has been included within the boundaries of New Zeland, and its 18,000 people, who are culturally close relatives of the Maoris of New Zealand, are therefore citizens of that country.

The islands are divided physically into two groups. The Northern Group consists of seven islands of coral formation which constitute the central segment of that scattered band of atolls that sweeps across the Pacific from French Oceania to the Marshalls. The Southern Group islands are, with two minor exceptions, of volcanic origin, and all eight islands lie within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles of Rarotonga, the administrative headquarters of the Government of the Cook Islands. In area the islands range from Nassau which is only 300 acres, to Rarotonga which covers 16,602 acres. The population of the permanently settled islands ranges from 92 on Palmerston to 7,827 on Rarotonga; the total for the whole group being 18,041.1 The total population of the group was approximately 18,000 at the time of first European contact but declined rapidly thereafter until it reached about 8,000 at the turn of this century. Since that time, however, it has regained its former level.

1 NZPP A3 1960:8.

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The group lacks mineral deposits of commercial value, and its principal natural resources are the soil and the sea - though the potential of the latter is as yet little known. The soils vary considerably in their productive potential, but only 9,523 acres or 16 per cent of the total land area of the group is considered suitable for agriculture.1 Of the balance, approximately 17 per cent is taken up by the infertile rubble and sand of the coral islands which can support little in the way of commercial crops other than the coconut, 27 per cent is taken up by second class soils which are suited to certain tree crops but which are at present relatively little utilized, and the remaining 40 per cent comprises the mountainous interior of Rarotonga and the makatea (upraised coral) outcrops of the other Southern Group islands which are at present completely unproductive.

The climate of the group is tropical and shows little seasonal variation. The mean annual temperature lies in the mid-seventies. Annual rainfall is about seventy to eighty inches and in general is well distributed throughout the year, except in the Northern Group where periods of drought are sometimes experienced. Hurricanes usually strike some part of the group once or twice in each decade, and the commercial productivity of the islands hit is severely disrupted for a year or more thereafter.

Of the wealth of truly indigenous vegetation found in the group, very little indeed makes any significant contribution to human welfare. The coconut, banana, breadfruit, taro and most of the other subsistence crops were introduced by the Polynesian immigrants to the islands in centuries past, and other crops like citrus, coffee and tomatoes came with

1 Figures in this paragraph are based on Fox and Grange, Soils of the Lower Cook Group, and NZPP A3 1960:8.

page 3 the wave of European expansion across the Pacific during the last two centuries.

In the first part of the thesis an attempt is made to reconstruct the pre-contact land tenure system of Rarotonga, the largest and most populous island of the group. It was not possible to attempt a detailed description of the system of every single island as a basis on which to build a generalized model, owing to the time needed for such a task, and the inadequacy of the data available for the smaller islands. The main variations found to exist are between the systems applying on the atolls of the Northern Group and those of the high islands of the Southern Group, and are clearly imposed by environmental factors. Others, however, are attributable to differences in cultural origin – most markedly between the people of Pukapuka, whose origin lies in Western Polynesia, and those of the rest of the group, whose origin may be traced to Eastern Polynesia. To a lesser degree there are minor variations within each subgroup and even within individual islands, though no major differences are apparent between the islands of the Southern Group, which contains 85 per cent of the population and 86 per cent of the land area.1

In describing a land system as it was a century and a half ago, it is of course impossible to obtain the degree of accuracy which can be obtained by a contemporary field survey, but if a study of change is to be made, it is essential that it should start by determining the cultural situation as it was at the temporal baseline of the study -

1 With the possible exception of Mangaia, about which little is known. The results of recent anthropological researches by Dr Donald S. Marshall should be available shortly and will presumably clarify the tenure situation on that island.

page 4 in this case the moment of contact with European civilization.1 Furthermore, in order to abstract the land tenure system from the totality of the culture, we must essay a more precise analysis of the nature of land rights and obligations recognized; the spatial, temporal, demographic and juristic dimensions of each right and obligation; and the social and political structure within which the rights were organized.

In reconstructing the pre-contact land tenure system of Rarotonga we have five major sources of evidence. In the first place we have the physical features of the island, which have had clearly discernible and important effects on land use and concomitant tenure; and with this may be coupled the archaeological record - marae and house sites, boundary marks and grave-yards, irrigation works and terracing. There is also the one paved road which is still clearly discernible and which led right round the island following the low-lying fertile strip, but there were no roads or paths across the mountains. Sub-surface archaeological research, on the other hand, though one of the most useful aids to reconstruction, has not yet begun on Rarotonga.

Our second source of evidence is the mass of recorded data left by members of the culture concerned, people who were in many cases active participants in the pre-contact tenure system but who naturally did not make written records until the art of writing had been introduced and the process of change had begun. Rarotongans, in common with many other Polynesians, have exceptionally long memories, particularly for names, relationships and incidents. Their memory for numbers and periods of time, on the other hand, is often very

1 The date of first contact has been taken as 1823, for, though Europeans had landed on the island in 1814, it was not until 1823 that the islanders experienced prolonged contact with European culture. Even then it was Tahitian missionaries who were the agents of change, for no European missionaries came to settle until 1827.

page 5 imprecise. For instance, most sources agree that Tangiia, who migrated to the island in the thirteenth century, was the son of Kaungaki, was adopted by his maternal uncle Pou te vananga roa, and had a protracted dispute with his crosscousin Tutapu. In fact, the particulars of their relationships and controversies are given in considerable detail, and all the available accounts agree on the most significant points; but details of the number of voyages he made vary from one to a dozen and of the number of his followers from eight to four hundred.

The art of writing was first taught in 1824, but as matters of native custom were closely associated with heathen darkness little encouragement was given to the recording of affairs of the pre-Christian era until the arrival in 1851 of Wyatt Gill, a missionary ethnographer who took a passionate interest in pre-contact history and who during his thirty years of residence in the islands encouraged many men to record their knowledge of the old way of life.

One of the most important native manuscripts for far located is the four hundred page work of Maretu, an excannibal who became a pillar of the church. He made no abstractions or interpretations and simply recorded what he remembered; any relationships described are between particular people and thus, while they may not bear wide generalization, they do provide instances of actual behaviour. When such behaviour conforms to Maretu's expectations, which in all probability means that it conforms to custom, he makes no further comment; when it does not, he feels constrained to explain further or pass judgement. While he never quotes any principles of land tenure, he does describe incidents which illustrate particular principles in action.

While Maretu speaks almost exclusively of his own life-time, another Rarotongan, Terei by name, was a true historian page 6 and his 25,000 word narrative begins with the disputes which arose in Tahiti, as a result of which his forbears migrated to Rarotonga about the thirteenth century. His description of the early political organization and of the original land divisions of the island is confirmed from many sources. Another major writer, Taraare, was probably the most prolific of all. He also begins with events of nearly a thousand years ago, and traces significant historical incidents from that time until the arrival of the mission. In addition to these main sources, over a hundred other manuscripts by more than a score of native authors have so far been located - dealing with mythology, with particular incidents, with the histories of particular families, and so on, in nearly every case containing particulars of some aspect of the pre-contact pattern of life.

The native records have the advantage of having been written by men who knew no other language and no other culture than their own.1 On the other hand they suffer from the defect of their selectivity and partiality, for all the authors were either titled men or pastors, and each had the responsibility of preserving his own family's good name. This defect was to some extent unavoidable, as responsibility for preserving and passing on traditional knowledge lay with the lineage heads, who were necessarily titled men, and most commoners probably knew little of such arcane affairs.

Thirdly we have for evidence the records of external observers, persons whose impressions were based not on participation but on observation, and invariably through eyes which saw the situation in terms of cultures which differed markedly from those of the natives. The only known landings

1 These have all been studied in the vernacular, including the few which have been translated into English.

page 7 to have been made at Rarotonga prior to the arrival of the mission ship with the first Tahitian teachers in 1823 were from two trading schooners in 1814. But from 1827 onwards European missionaries resided there permanently, and for the next thirty years they were the only foreigners to make any lengthy stay at the island.

The early missionaries left about eight published works which deal significantly with this island but as more unpublished material becomes available their relative importance as source material is diminishing. The letters, journals, and reports of the missionaries have, however, been preserved and are very useful sources; since almost every month each missionary sent a detailed report to his directors in London, a journal had to be prepared for every missionary voyage, and reports had to be submitted every year. Despite a natural emphasis on ecclesiastical affairs these documents cover a very wide range of subjects, often describing customs or giving the background to disputes.

The advantage of these mission records lies in their detailed nature and frequency of recording, which affords a fairly constant picture of the march of events. All the missionaries understood and worked exclusively in the local dialect and they participated in almost every aspect of the local life. On the debit side, however, is the fact that, like all other foreign observers, the missionaries saw through eyes which were conditioned by a different culture, and though they understood the native language, they probably did not understand a number of the concepts expressed in it.

Other foreign observers were traders, whalers, travellers and warship commanders; persons whose visits were generally brief and for specific purposes, and whose writings accordingly provide relatively little information beyond details of trade, crops grown, names of local notabilities, and page 8 broad general descriptions of the people and their customs. Some of the later visitors, like Arundel, who first visited the island in 1870, have left very detailed reports of the contemporary scene; while others, like Bourke, who annexed the island in 1888, and Moss, who arrived as first Resident in 1891, took the trouble to collect details of the land tenure system.

Fourth among the available sources are the results of such earlier researches as may provide information about various aspects of the pre-contact era. By far the most important collection in this category is that accumulated by the Land Court, which was established in 1902 and which during the next five years determined the title to almost every piece of land on the island. The court records now amount to more than 20,000 pages of evidence and decisions, including many claims which go back to the pre-contact era. Unfortunately the detailed evidence is not always given, and indeed in quite a number of cases the decision only is recorded, thus precluding analysis on a quantitative basis. Nevertheless, by preserving its records in excellent order, the Land Court has, to a notable degree, provided a unique repository of early historical information.

Our fifth source of evidence for pre-contact history lies in contemporary field-studies, which may provide some indications as to the nature of the system which existed earlier, for, despite many changes, there appears to have been a considerable degree of carry-over. Change takes place at different rates in different aspects of a culture, and land tenure is one of the aspects of Rarotongan culture in which change has come about much more slowly than in such fields as religion or education. A present-day survey by itself can give only the slightest indication of the tenure system in the 1820s, yet in conjunction with the other sources page 9 mentioned it can not only give useful leads, but also at times give confirmatory evidence where the earlier sources are indicative but not conclusive. Also, present-day informants, while they do not know the pre-contact era at first hand, may well possess some traditional knowledge of pre-contact custom.

Finally, some inferences may be drawn from a knowledge of other tenure systems, particularly those in related groups of islands possessing a similar socio-political organization. These may give clues to correlations which may be sought, or show whether circumstantial probabilities are consistent with actualities elsewhere. Deductions made on this basis can only be in the nature of probabilities, but in some cases even these may be of relevance.

Each of the above sources has its inadequacies, but each helps to clarify the outlines of a situation which no longer exists; at least not in its pristine form.

The second part of the study is concerned with the effects of European contact on the tenure system during the nineteenth century. Here the records of the missionaries are the most detailed, though not necessarily the most objective; and they are supplemented by the reports, diaries and publications of naval and other marine officers, traders and travellers, as well as by the files of the British Colonial and Foreign Offices, the New Zealand Government and the Western Pacific High Commission. The evidence for this period, however, particularly in so far as it relates to competition for land, is heavily weighted in that it is generally concerned with expressing the viewpoint of the European and much less frequently with that of the Maori. There are, it is true, some records by Maoris, and some of the early records of the Land Court contain valuable evidence by Maoris, but the Land Court, too, was a European institution, and, in its early years at least, no less liable to prejudices page 10 than other interested parties. For the most part, therefore, Maori attitudes and opinions during this era have to be deduced from non-Maori sources.

For the final section, which deals with administrative policies and their effects, a considerable amount of material was available from official files and records (including those of the Land Court), as well as from a field study carried out from March 1959 to May 1960. The first month was spent in New Zealand consulting the records of the Department of Island Territories, and material in the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Polynesian Society and the Auckland Institute Library. From April 1959 to January 1960 was spent in the Cook Islands, where detailed field surveys were carried out in the Tengatangi district of Atiu, the four contiguous tapere known as Turangi ma Nga Mataiapo at Ngatangiia on Rarotonga and on the island of Palmerston. At Rarotonga the relevant records of the Land Court and the central administration were also examined. The Department of Island Territories and the Cook Islands Administration generously gave unrestricted access to files and documents, but while these were studied in some detail I have refrained from referring to those which are not normally available to the public. January to May 1960 was spent in field studies in Tonga and Western Samoa, but time and the volume of material collected has precluded the inclusion of comparative data from these sources.

In some aspects, and in particular those relating to the effects of decisions of the Land Court on the functioning of the tenure system, the analysis is at times rather critical. This criticism is not intended to be negative, but it is felt that the existing situation cannot be adequately understood, nor can remedial action be effectively taken, unless the causal factors are clearly identified. Nevertheless, there page 11 is always a temptation for one who looks on from the outside to drive the scalpel too deep, forgetting the fact that the analytic tools of today were not available to policy-makers in the islands earlier in the century. Likewise, it is easy for one who has no other function than to observe, compare and analyze, to be critical of the actions of those whose responsibility is to carry out a policy while isolated from information about comparable situations elsewhere, and while overburdened with a multiplicity of other duties which must be attended to. Theirs is indeed an invidious task.

In the final chapter an attempt is made to draw together the conclusions which arise from the study as a whole and to suggest some possible alternative approaches to the solution of the more serious problems thus brought to light.

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