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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The commoner (unga or tangata rikiriki)

The commoner (unga or tangata rikiriki)

The young unmarried men, the untitled married men, and even many untitled heads of households were known as unga. page 43 There has been some controversy regarding the origin of this word and regarding the best English equivalent with which it may be translated. The words ‘slave’ and ‘serf’ have frequently been used but these do not seem appropriate. Perhaps the best definition is that given by Gill which concerns an analogy with the indigenous arrowroot (tacca pinnatifida), which has one or two large tuberous roots surrounded by many smaller ones. ‘To the highly imaginative native mind,’ says Dr Gill, ‘the large tubers symbolize the chief or chiefs; the smaller ones the landed proprietors owing allegiance to, and by blood related to, the chief or chiefs. But besides these, there are a great number of tiny tubers called unga, representing the serfs, or “little people” (tangata rikiriki) as they are often called i.e. people of no account whatever!’ He goes on to note that derivatives of the word unga are used to describe such things as grains of earth and crumbs of food, and that the underlying idea is that of ‘an insignificant grain or unit’.1 The word also refers to the hermit crab and it is not uncommon for informants today to interpret it (when used for people) as deriving from the fact that the commoner, like the hermit crab, lived in the shelter of somebody else's house. However, Gill claimed over a hundred years ago that this was a modern corruption.2

The social and economic status of the commoner is of some importance, and became a major issue when the Land Court was established and it became necessary to specify the relative rights of commoners and titleholders. Most

1 Gill, JPS 20:128.

2 Ibid. While vernacular references to unga are generally in respect of ordinary untitled men (e.g. Terei, Tuatua Taito 37) there are some instances in later sources where the word was used to denote under-privileged commoners (e.g. by Pa Ariki, NZPP A3(b) 1903:9), and it is possible that the meaning of the word was modified to some extent as a corollary of the rise in chiefly power in the nineteenth century.

page 44 early observers tried to pigeonhole the unga into one of the categories known to them from the feudal system. Wyatt Gill referred to them as slaves but said that they enjoyed ‘the protection of the land owner’.1 William Gill spoke of them as ‘the mass of common people who … under the above three ranks [ariki, mataiapo and rangatira], were in the condition of serfs’.2 Moss said that they held their land ‘by sufferance’ and that the services rendered by them were ‘personal and menial’. Their origin, he said, was ‘obscure’.3 But as Moss' analysis showed that all men in the society were either titleholders or unga, there appears to be no reason to consider their origin obscure, nor is there any evidence to suggest that they were other than the ordinary untitled members of the family whose origin was the same as that of the chiefs, except that the latter derived from generations of elder sons.
Reference is sometimes made in the literature to ‘slaves’ (tuika'a). The term seems to have some validity, though only in a relative sense. Tuika'a were either prisoners taken in war who were kept as retainers by the victors, or under-privileged refugees given asylum. They became part of the household, and should be regarded as under-privileged commoners rather than as slaves in a Western sense. If conditions were too onerous they always had the alternative of running away to serve some other chief. The name tuika'a literally means ‘sewn with sennit’ and refers to the custom of marking pigs by tying sennit through their nostrils. Some authorities consider that persons so

1 Gill, JPS 20:129. By ‘land owner’ he appears to mean the holder of the relevant title.

2 Gill, Gems… 12.

3 Moss, JPS 3:24.

page 45 classified were ‘but pigs reserved for the day of feasting’,1 but it is most unlikely that people who were clearly stated as being allowed to cultivate lands allotted them by their chief would passively wait around to be roasted at his convenience. Generally speaking, few ‘slaves’ were kept. Males were too dangerous for they would always be on the lookout for methods of retaliation, and females in the normal course of events became wives of the more privileged members of the household.

1 Gill, Life in the Southern Isles 34.