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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The effects of social and demographic upheaval

The effects of social and demographic upheaval

Following initial conversion, a state of tension developed on most islands between the converted party and page 134 the heathens. In Rarotonga the teachers engaged in skirmishes against non-Christian parties and were not averse to confiscating lands and distributing them among their supporters.1 Within a year or two of the arrival of the first missionaries at Rarotonga they had been given literally scores of plots of land, some from fear and some in an attempt to court favour.2 Most of the lands held by the mission teachers and their followers were later returned to their former owners,3 though some were retained permanently.4

The cessation of polygamy at the instigation of the mission resulted in many wives returning with their children to their families of origin. The children then inherited in the maternal line in the same manner as they would have if their fathers had been living uxorilocally.5 Alternatively, some polygamous husbands allocated certain lands to the wives they had set aside, for the use of themselves and their children.6

1 ‘…the servants of Rio [a Tahitian missionary] seized the kaingas [lands] of several chiefs and retained them to this day.’ – Pitman, Journal 30.12.1827. He later describes other confiscations in which the teachers had participated and says that the people ‘…repeatedly told me that it was done by the two teachers…’. – Journal, February 1829. Rio possessed the only musket on the island.

2 ‘The various ariki and mataiapo gave pieces of land right round the island to the teachers.’ – Maretu, MS 88. The teachers held ‘a great many kaingas or portions of ground, which were…given them, at least some of them, from fear.’ – Pitman, Journal 10.11.1827. He also observed that the ‘chiefs as well as the poor people seem to be absolutely afraid of them, especially of Rio’. – Journal 12.9.1827.

3 Pitman, Journal 20.12.1827.

4 Such as those lands still held today under the Rio and Papehia rangatira titles.

5 As occurred with the issue of the first wife of Makea Pori – MB 23:11 NLC; and with the rejected wives of Rongomatane Ngaakaara of Atiu – Vaine Rere, MS 2.

6 E.g. Kainuku Ariki, as detailed in MB 1:266–94 NLC.

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A particular method of adjustment which occurred as a result of the establishment of the villages was the exchanging of a house-site in the new village for a plot of land elsewhere. While it was not widely practised, it was not uncommon in Aitutaki, and occurred in a few instances on Rarotonga.1 Exchange did not become customary, and after the villages became permanently established no further instances of it are recorded.

The first two decades of contact with European culture were marked by catastrophic population decline. In 1827 the population of Rarotonga was estimated at 6,000 to 7,000.2 By 1848 it had been reduced to 2,800,3 and by 1867 the numbers had fallen to 1,856.4 Although the decline was continuous, it was not steady, periods of relative stability being followed by sudden waves of deaths resulting from epidemics of introduced diseases.5 In the dysentry epidemic of 1830 the dead were being buried at the rate of ten to twenty a day in mass burials,6 and many houses were left uninhabited, ‘all their former inmates having gone to the grave’.7 A similar pattern of population decline occurred throughout the Southern Group, though on Mauke, Mitiaro and Atiu the losses were less severe.8

1 Re Aitutaki see Aitutaki MB 14:241–2; re Rarotonga see AMB 1:18 and Pitman, Journal 15.2.1830.

2 See page 45.

3 Pitman to LMS December 1848 SSL.

4 Lovett, James Chalmers: His Autobiography and Letters 82.

5 Major epidemics were dysentry in 1831 and 1843, whooping cough in 1848, mumps in 1850, fever in 1851, and measles in 1854.

6 Maretu, MS 134. He claims that a thousand people were buried at the Rangititi burial ground and six hundred at Araungaunga during the epidemic.

7 Prout, Memoirs… 313.

8 McArthur, Populations of the Pacific 83–9.

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As a result of these epidemics much land must have reverted by escheat to the heads of the various descent groups, and it is probable that many minor lineages and kiato either died out or were absorbed by others. Absorption of this type inevitably favoured those of higher rank as unclaimed rights reverted to the titleholder next in seniority in the rank hierarchy. In 1842 there were more than one thousand orphans on Rarotonga,1 and in 1846 almost twenty per cent of the children on Mangaia had lost their parents.2 As many adoptees did not inherit rights to all the lands of their adopting parents, but only to specific portions of them, this would tend to further accretions by titleholders.3

In 1862 Peruvian slavers raided the northern atolls. Within three years the depredations of slavers and epidemics had reduced the population of Penrhyn from 700 to 60.4 Immediately prior to the raids the people were living in three groups on separate islets. The majority of the people in two of these groups embarked for Peru, but none of the third group left. The leader of the group which remained behind thereupon brought the remnants (the majority of whom were presumably women and children) to live in his village.5 The exercise of land rights was further complicated when a ship repatriating Gilbertese slaves dumped one hundred and

1 Gill, Gems… 69.

2 George Gill to LMS 1.1.1846 SSL.

3 I have frequently heard it said by members of the older generation in both Rarotonga and Atiu that prior to the setting up of the Land Court many people were anxious to adopt the only surviving child of parents who had died. The adopting parents then took control of the land which the child was to inherit, but often retained the bulk of it as their own, as the child was unaware of the extent of its rights.

4 Royle to LMS 17.5.1865 SSL.

5 Chalmers, Journal 4.7.1872 to 13.9.1872 SSJ.

page 137 eleven of them on the island in 1865.1 Some of these were later taken to Manihiki and Rakahanga and the bulk of them were finally repatriated to their home islands about 1877.2 However, during their sojourn on Penrhyn they must have acquired some rights to the use of land, and they undoubtedly produced offspring whose descendants remain on the islands today.3 Slavers removed about a hundred people from Pukapuka in 1863,4 but attempts to entice people from Manihiki failed. At least a hundred were taken from Rakahanga,5 and of these one group of eighty-seven was comprised of ‘whole families’.6 As none of these people ever returned,7 their land rights must have been assumed by those who remained behind, though just how they were allotted is not known. Only a handful of slaves were taken from the Southern Group, and as these were young men their departure would have had little effect on land distribution.
From the mid-1840s large numbers of young men began signing on as crew on whalers and other vessels. Pitman estimated that over a hundred had gone to sea from his district alone between December 1848 and July 1849, and that equivalent numbers had gone from the other districts.8 The selective pressures operating resulted in the great majority

1 Royle to LMS 17.5.1865 SSL.

2 Bingham to Clarke 7.2.1878 ABCFM.

3 The languages and physical features of the Penrhyn (and some Manihiki and Rakahanga) people show distinct Micronesian traits which are probably attributable to this chapter of events.

4 Beaglehole, Ethnology of Pukapuka 5.

5 Captain Henry Richards to Rear Admiral Kingcombe 8.5.1863 Adm. 1:5826 PRO.

6 Wyatt Gill, Journal 9.2.1863 to 23.3.1863 SSJ.

7 With the single exception of Pilato of Pukapuka.

8 Pitman to LMS 3.7.1849 SSL.

page 138 of those who left being young males who were neither married1 nor members of the church.2 Few of those who went to sea ever returned.3
With the decline of whaling in the 1850s the young men began travelling to Tahiti, California, Samoa and elsewhere to seek employment.4 Before long even larger numbers were being recruited by labour ships to work on plantations and guano islands outside the group. While no statistics have been compiled, literally scores of references show that a very considerable proportion of the young adult male population was away from the group between 1850 and 1880.5 On Aitutaki ‘scarcely a lad [was] left for the work of the land’.6 The position on Mauke and Mitiaro was no better for in 1871, out of their combined populations of 380, a total of only 32 men was left and as a consequence gardens were neglected and food was in short supply.7 This organized recruitment of labour was controlled by the

1 The proportion of men to women at the time emigration began was approximately 100 to 150 – William Gill to LMS 26.3.1841 (reporting census taken). In 1849 it was estimated that there were two marriageable males to every marriageable female – The Friend 1.3.1849.

2 While youths were constantly leaving Mangaia to go to sea, by 1855 only two church members had gone. – Wyatt Gill to LMS 6.7.1855 SSL.

3 Pitman estimated the number at only one in twenty. – Pitman to LMS 1.1.1852 SSL.

4 Re Tahiti and California see George Gill to LMS 22.11.1850; re Samoa see Krause to LMS 23.8.1864 SSL.

5 By 1853 there were so many Cook Islanders in Tahiti that a special pastor was appointed to look after their spiritual welfare. – Gunson, ‘Evangelical Missionaries in the South Seas 1797–1860’ 525. In 1861, 70 Manihikians were employed on Washington Island. – The Friend 19.10.1861. For many years Atiuans were regularly engaged for work on Malden Island. – Arundel, Diary 5.11.1870. In 1869 some 42 Pukapukans were taken to work in Hawaii. – Beaglehole, Ethnology… 5.

6 Royle to LMS 13.12.1873 SSR.

7 Vivian, April 1871–6.2.1872 SSJ. Probably a high percentage of those remaining were aged or infirm.

page 139 ariki,1 who thus gained an additional source of income and personal power.

Within most of the islands there was a drift towards that village which became the port and trading centre. For example, on Mangaia in 1854 there were some 172 persons living in the ‘port’ village of Oneroa who belonged to the other two villages, but neither of them contained any Oneroa people.2 Moreover, while the average lineage in Oneroa contained 82 persons, that of the other two villages contained only 65.3 In Rarotonga, whereas at the time of first contact Avarua contained twenty-three per cent of the island's population, by 1854 it was the most important port and trading centre and had thirty-one per cent of the population.4 By 1895, when it was the headquarters of the Cook Islands Federation, it contained forty-five per cent of the island's population.5

This drift was effected by a relatively greater percentage of persons in the port village than in other villages, basing their claims to membership on customary criteria other than the norm of patri-virilocal residence. To some extent this was no doubt a voluntary shift due to preference for residence near the port, and accomplished by residence with matrikin or other relatives, by living with one's wife's lineage if she came from the port village, or by permissive occupation with some family in the area.

1 Arundel, Diary 29.10.1870. At Atiu, while the high chief organized the recruiting of labour he restricted numbers to the extent of ensuring that some able-bodied men were left to each extended family. – Messager de Tahiti 28.5.1864.

2 ‘Census of the Population of Mangaia’ December 1854 SSL.

3 Based on data in the above census.

4 Based on ‘Census of Rarotonga’ 1854 SSL.

5 Based on ‘Census of Rarotonga’ as at 1.6.1895 NZPP A3 1896.

page 140 To some degree, however, it was also a forced shift, for strangers from overseas as well as those from other villages married the port town women and lived on their lands, forcing local men to seek their wives in other villages. This resulted not only in greater pressure on the land of the port village, but in a higher percentage of persons there acquiring their land rights through secondary avenues. Both factors were conducive to an increase in disputes over land.

The next phase of population movement was from the outer islands of the Southern Group to Rarotonga.1 While this drift was manifest from all the islands, it can best be illustrated by the case of Mangaia, the island from which the largest stream originated. The chiefs of Mangaia had prohibited emigration during the 1860s and within three months of the lifting of this ban in 1872 over one hundred young men migrated to Rarotonga. That the migrants came more from the port village of Oneroa than from the other villages is shown by the fact that whereas before the migration began the average matakeinanga (a local group based on a lineage) in Oneroa had contained an average of seventeen persons more than those of the other villages, by 1880 it contained an average of seven persons less.2 Whereas Oneroa contained sixty-four per cent of the island's population in 1854, it contained only fifty-five per cent in 1880.3

1 Migration to Rarotonga from the Northern Islands was insignificant until after the turn of the century. Prior to that time the main stream of migration from these islands had flowed to Tahiti.

2 Based on comparison of data contained in ‘Te Rainga io Mangaia i te Marama ia December 1880’ (Census of Mangaia as at December 1880) CIA; and ‘Census of the Population of Mangaia’ December 1854 SSL.

3 Ibid.

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By 1895 Rarotonga had a population of 1,623 Rarotongans, 282 Mangaians, 77 Aitutakians, 139 persons from Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro, and 186 other islanders, as well as 147 non-Polynesians.1 While some of the immigrants were spread throughout the island, the bulk of them lived in the Avarua district, where forty-two per cent of the population was non-Rarotongan.2 Initially these immigrants could acquire the use of land by permissive occupation only3 though some of the migrants married into their host lineages, thus improving the security of the tenure of the land occupied by them.

The rights of those who left for overseas were not necessarily protected, and some of those who remained away for long periods found on their return that the rights to many, if not all, of their lands had been assumed by somebody else – generally a titleholder further up the hierarchy.4 In fact, as most of the islands had prohibitions on emigration from time to time, those who emigrated during such periods were likely to be treated with little sympathy on their return,5 and this knowledge may well have contributed to the fact that a high proportion of those who left never came back.

1 ‘Census of Rarotonga’ as at 1.6.1895 – NZPP A3 1896.

2 Ibid.

3 There was no selling or leasing of land among the islanders.

4 E.g. MB 22:46 NLC.

5 Prohibitions against emigration existed on Mangaia and Aitutaki for many years. – Chalmers to LMS 23.12.1872 and 19.12.1870 SSR. On Rarotonga all agreements for men to leave the island had to be made before ‘the ariki and the missionary’. – ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ 1879 clause 34. The whaler ‘Emily Morgan’ found in 1851 that despite this ruling (which they found then operative) numbers of natives applied to be signed on clandestinely. One man whom they repatriated to Rarotonga had a few days ashore and then begged to be taken away again. – [Jones] Life and Adventure in the South Pacific 96.

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Moreover, under native custom, rights which were not exercised tended to lapse, and the rights of those who left a landowning group reverted to that group or to its head as trustee. Reactivation of abandoned rights was possible only to the extent that the head of that group chose to grant them.

In pre-contact times, with the exception of Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro, there is little evidence of regular contact between the islands, and no evidence of any express provision being made regarding the land rights of persons who left for indeterminate periods and who might or might not ever return. The absentees were contingent members of the extended families from which they originated, but contingent membership of a descent group was normally associated with continuing interaction on appropriate social occasions. As most absentees were unable to maintain any contact with their home islands, as those at home were seldom aware of just where the absentees had gone or what their intentions were, and as few indeed ever returned,1 their contingent rights became increasingly marginal with the passing of the years. While the customary principles relating to contingent members applied to the absentees, the application of those principles was modified by new conditions, the most important of which were that the power of chiefs (particularly high chiefs) over land had increased, and that alternative ways of exploiting land rights had emerged.

It was not uncommon during the latter half of the nineteenth century for a rangatira who departed for other shores to leave his title, lands and people in the hands of the ariki.2 While there is inadequate evidence on which to

1 With the exception of labour recruited in groups to work in particular places for specific periods.

2 E.g. MB 15:182 NLC.

page 143 make a categorical statement, one gains the impression that in the pre-contact period the appropriate deputy of a rangatira was the person who would probably inherit the title after him, in other words the next person down in the authority hierarchy. This, however, had been a provision for illness or incapacity, while the titleholder was present though not active, and this custom seems to have continued in the post-contact era. Provision for absence from the island for indeterminate periods such as occurred in the nineteenth century may well have had no pre-contact precedent. Post-contact practice by the latter half of the nineteenth century at least was for the title to be held by the next person up the scale.1 While this may have been due to increased ariki power at this period, an alternative explanation is that by this means the titleholder felt that the chances of regaining his title on his return were better than if he delegated his rights to a deputy who might, in the course of time, consider himself to be the true titleholder.
While at the time of departure titleholders probably intended their absences to be only temporary, some were in fact away for decades and others never returned. During their absence, the ariki, in his role as rangatira, often allowed strangers to occupy portions of the land, and in some instances appointed them as titleholders (usually with

1 There are no instances of ariki being absent from their islands for long periods with the exception of Ngamaru Ariki, the paramount chief of Atiu who married Makea Ariki of Avarua. He in fact maintained his title and power and made frequent visits to his island to do so. Minor matters were attended to for him by the chief judge (a leading mataiapo) whose authority was clearly subordinate to that of Ngamaru. There are few instances of mataiapo being absent for long periods, but in such as have been recorded, the title and lands were administered by the ariki in the meantime.

page 144 a new title name).1 Sometimes when a titleholder on the island died, the heir was absent from the island, and the ariki assumed a trustee role in his absence. Not infrequently, however, the heir did not return, and even if he did the ariki was sometimes reluctant to relinquish power which had been his prerogative for so long.2

As a by-product of this population movement, some influential individuals were able, through migration and marriage, to hold land rights on more than one island.3 Such instances were uncommon, however, and the actual exercise of land rights in absentia was quite rate.4

Towards the end of the century, when ariki powers over land were at their height, it became common to regard the strip of infertile coastal land which lay between the lagoon and the coast road (which had been constructed in the 1830s) as being ‘under the special control and mana of the district arikis’.5 This was not in accordance with pre-contact custom under which the mana of the ariki over the whole district did not extend to such lengths, but was sufficiently widely recognized by 1903 to have been the basis for an ordinance under which one could not exercise any act of ownership on these lands without the written permission of the district ariki.6

1 Tinomana Ariki awarded titles to Salmon (a European), Taripo (a Chinese), Papehia (a Tahitian) and John Vairakau (a Hawaiian).

2 E.g. 106 E Rehearing NLC.

3 E.g. Tangiau who held rights in Mangaia and Rarotonga – Deeds Register Item 98 NLC; Tapanga who held rights on Rakahanga and Rarotonga – Hamilton Hunter to High Commissioner 10.9.1896 WPHC.

4 The only case noted was that of Ngamaru Ariki who leased lands on Mauke and Atiu, and performed other acts of ownership while resident in Rarotonga.

5 ‘The Coast Timber Preservation Ordinance’ 1903. It stated that this control and mana had been recognized for over twenty years.

6 Ibid. The ordinance was designed to preserve the coastal shelter-belt. There was no suggestion that the ariki held [gap — reason: unclear]

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