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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

By conquest

By conquest

Throughout the pre-contact era, conquest constituted the ultimate title to land; all land being held either by conquest or the ability to resist it.1 The act of conquest resulted in the transfer of the land rights of the conquered in that particular area to the hands of the victors, who subsequently dealt with them in one of the following four ways.

Firstly they could retain the rights permanently, and in the cases where the defeated party were exterminated this was invariably the case. The conquerors usually divided the lands among themselves, and settled some of their number there, for empty lands were liable to be settled by someone, and the surest way to retain title was to occupy.

Not infrequently, however, the losing party fled rather than risk extermination, and sought asylum in some lineage in another area (if possible, one to which they could claim relationship).2 They could either request assistance to

1 In all the records of pre-contact battles in the vernacular source material there are few indeed wherein a land dispute is given as the cause of the outbreak. The most common causes were disputes over rank titles (which, of course, carried certain land rights with them), insults, and actual or attempted adultery with the wives of chiefs. Nevertheless, it is clear that the acquisition of land was often an important motive for warfare, and that the exchange of insults was the appropriate provocation to justify the commencement of hostilities.

2 Frequently the accounts do not give sufficient detail to determine whether or not the refugees sought out kin in their search for asylum. In many cases, however, the fact of relationship is stated, but in no case is there evidence to the effect that the refugee and the host were unrelated. It seems probable from the evidence that one sought out the most powerful relative from whom shelter could be expected.

page 86 enable a counter-attack to be made1 or they could accept defeat and take no further action with regard to the lands they had lost. When the anger had subsided and a decent period had elapsed, the rival groups often wished to restore harmonious relations, for it must be remembered that the adversaries were generally kin, and that there were centripetal forces tending to bring them together for mutual assistance and family celebrations as well as the disintegrative forces which brought them into conflict. Provided the resources were adequate to support them, and provided effective social relations could be maintained, every social group was strengthened by additional members.

It is therefore not surprising that many instances occur wherein individuals or families which had been defeated and banished were later permitted to return and have some or all of their lands restored to them. Sometimes this occurred within the lifetime of the actual aggressors, sometimes not until the next generation or even later.2

Alternatively again, the land was sometimes restored in full, but conditionally. The defeated party might be required to render tribute periodically in acknowledment of

1 It was often not possible to make such an attempt immediately, and it was customary to make tattoo marks on the throat and arms as a reminder that vengeance was yet to be exacted. If it were not satisfied within the lifetime of the aggrieved party then he could pass it on to one of his children who was then obliged to act himself or to pass the mark on to his children. - Pitman, Journal 2.6.1829.

2 For example, in the late eighteenth century Tinomana Ariki was insulted by a member of one of the descent groups living in the district. Tinomana assembled a war party and attacked the offending family, killing all except one. The conquered lands were allocated among Tinomana's followers, but when the sole survivor attained manhood, he was given a particular portion of the lands of his descent group, and was later elevated to the rank of mataiapo. - Terei, Tuatua Taito 43–4.

page 87 their subordinate status, or they might only be required to concede the point which had been at issue. In such cases the defeated party were not given full title to the land, but rather a conditional title subject to the fulfilment of certain obligations. Instances are also recorded where the defending party, realizing that they could not withstand the assault, surrendered and were allowed to remain in undisturbed occupation of their lands. In these cases, having demonstrated their superiority and received a public acknowledgment of submission (gilded with appropriate gifts) the victors were prepared to act magnanimously.1

Finally, there were instances where the conquerors restored the lands completely and unconditionally. Survivors who fled would constitute a lingering threat to the conquerors, who would be well aware that if a suitable opportunity presented itself the exiles would attempt to repossess the disputed lands. It was probably for this reason that attacking parties attempted to exterminate their enemies to a man. Thus, if the defeated survivors were numerous, or if they were supported by strong friends, it was unusual for the victors to try to retain all the lands permanently. Conquerors sometimes took the pigs and chattels of their enemies and destroyed their crops, houses and marae. After retaining the control of the lands for some time they allowed the fugitives to return and repossess their lands, provided they showed due humility in doing so.2

1 E.g. Maretu, MS 84.

2 The classic and best documented case in this category is that of the defeat and driving away of the Avarua people in about 1815 at the hands of Pa and Kainuku, and their subsequent restoration about seven years later. All their pigs were taken and all their crops destroyed. Not a coconut or a breadfruit tree was left unscathed. The lands, however, were restored in their entirety. - Maretu, MS 18–29.

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