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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands



While the lower social strata generally sought their wives within the district, those of higher rank (especially the ariki) often sought theirs from other districts.4 The degree of consaguinity within which marriage was prohibited is not known for certain; though there was much marriage of ‘near blood relations’.5 Gill states that exogamy was the rule, but that if a ‘tribe’ split, each portion was regarded as an independent unit and marriages between the two sectors were permissible, even for close kin.6 Within the ‘tribe’ (which term he does not define) distant cousins could marry ‘but must be of the same generation i.e. be descended in the same degree (fourth or fifth or even more remotely)

4 Of inter-district marriages between chiefs there is ample documentary evidence, but of the marriage of commoners only the evidence of present-day informants is available.

5 Moss, JPS 3:20.

6 Gill, AAAS 330.

page 49 from the common ancestor’.1 The ideal marriage was between persons whose parents were of the same rank, e.g. for the son of a mataiapo to marry the daughter of another mataiapo, but as such arrangements were often not possible, a multitude of other factors must have entered into the selection of marriage partners in many instances.
Polygyny was practised, though most sources consider it to have been the prerogative of the chiefs.2 Additional wives were often sisters of the first wife.3 Mission reports often exaggerated the extent of polygyny. Pitman speaks of Make a having had eight wives and Kainuku seventeen4 and Gill states that chiefs ‘were wont to have from three to ten wives each’.5 The available evidence suggests that two or three was the more usual figure, and in the source material the largest number of wives noted as living concurrently with any one man was six.6 In any case, on a small island where such a high proportion of men were chiefs, and where such infanticide as was practised was confined in the main to female children,7 there would simply not have been enough women to allow a high incidence of polygamy unless a large proportion of men remained bachelors until late in life.

1 Ibid. No pre-contact genealogical evidence to indicate the relationship between spouses has been located.

2 Indigenous writers do not specify any principle, but all polyginous marriages they refer to are those of chiefs. Foreign observers who refer to the plurality of wives do not indicate whether or not commoners were entitled to this privilege.

3 Among the many instances recorded in native accounts in which chiefs married sisters are two mentioned by Terei - Tuatua Taito 9 and 24.

4 Pitman, Journal 29.6.1827.

5 Gill, Gems… 12.

6 The wives of Kainuku Tamoko Ariki.

7 Gill, Gems… 13.

page 50 There is clear evidence to indicate that this was not the case. It is possible, however, that the mission exaggeration was unintentional, for like French, the Rarotongan language makes no clear distinction between wife and woman and in view of the considerable degree of premarital license permitted the reply to a question asking how many wives a man had had could have been very misleading.

Child betrothals were arranged between chiefly families, but the extent of this custom is not known. Mrs Buzacott tells us that some of the chiefs wanted ‘to marry Karika's son who is perhaps about ten years old, to a daughter of Makea who is perhaps about six years of age. It is perfectly consistent with their former customs for the parents to agree for their children in their infancy and childhood…’ This ‘marriage’ was contracted and a feast was prepared as a confirmation of the arrangement.1 When the parties united by such marriages reached adulthood they were not always satisfied with the match their parents had made and disputes on this account were common. Even in the marriage of adults, the choice of spouse was a family and not an individual arrangement.2

The marriage of persons of rank was the occasion of ceremony and gift exchange on a large scale. The relatives of each party accumulated their gifts, which were then transferred to the family of the other party for distribution.3

1 Mrs Buzacott, Journal 16.8.1830. Gill states that it was common among chiefly families. - AAAS 326.

2 Moss, JPS 3:20.

3 ‘… all the people took cloth to the newly married couple according to their custom, the people as a body to the chief's son and the relatives of the damsel to her father. After which the father of the young chief takes the portion of the cloth brought to his son and sends it to the father of the damsel - and he in return sends his portion to the chief.’ - Pitman, Journal 9.11.1829.

page 51 Like all other arrangements of note, a marriage was the occasion of feasting. Further gifts (mainly cloth) were brought to mark the first pregnancy and the birth of the first child.1

While the preferred marriage was between persons of the same social class, none of the classes were endogamous and it was not uncommon for chiefs to marry commoners.2 A family of low status could improve its position by giving a particularly attractive daughter in marriage to a powerful chief, and it was not uncommon for a chief to marry off his daughter into an inferior group in order to swell the ranks of his lineage.3

1 Ibid.

2 Gill, JPS 20:129. The existence of this custom is beyond doubt, but its incidence is impossible to ascertain as precontact genealogies generally omit wives other than the senior wife through whom the title passed.

3 Gill, AAAS 329–30.