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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The status of women

The status of women

The status of women improved as a result of mission influence and a surplus of males, and in Rarotonga in 1845, the Makea Ariki title passed to a woman - the sister of the deceased.2 She was the wife of Rio, one of the original Tahitian teachers and she lived at the mission headquarters where she was held in high esteem.3 This was the first occasion on which a woman had held a rank title or exercised the land rights concomitant with it. No legislative provision was made to accommodate this change of custom but, once the precedent was established, women came to assume a small but increasing number of titles on Rarotonga and on some, but not all, of the outer islands. It is noticeable that women held ariki titles much more frequently than they held

2 The previous ariki had no born children.

3 Mrs Buzacott, MS 8.

page 181
page 182

In the initial stages this was simply a case of ariki signing the leases in the capacity of titular head of the tribe on behalf of the owning descent group. But all too frequently, by the time the lease expired, the ariki regarded the lands concerned as his own and not infrequently cited the fact of the lease in his name as ‘proof’ of ownership. Moreover, in the last two decades of the century, there were instances of ariki leasing lands without the knowledge of the owning descent groups and others of their forcing leases in the face of strong opposition from the owners, and in a few extreme cases native occupiers were evicted to make way for more remunerative occupation by foreigners.

Rental from leases became a major source of income for the ariki, and of the total annual rental income of £502.10.0 from registered leases in 1899, £404.0.0 went to ariki, £10 to mataiapo, £33 to rangatira, £30 to ‘the Government of Aitutaki’, and £25.10.0 to persons whose rank is not known. The amount of income from unregistered leases and other informal arrangements is not known, but from the above leases alone each Rarotonga ariki derived an average of £64.2.8 - a not inconsiderable sum in relation to per capita

4(continued from previous page)Court investigations of ownership. Of these 45, some 39 were leases by ariki. In 20 of these cases the Court investigation showed that the ariki had no proprietary right to the land concerned, in 13 cases the ariki was found to be one rightholder among others, and in 6 cases ownership was awarded to the ariki alone. Of these 6 cases, however, 3 were lands which were vested by the time of investigation in either religious bodies or the Crown and whose ownership was accordingly never proven, 2 were lands awarded to the ariki for a life interest only pending full investigation (which has never been carried out) and in the one remaining case the ariki was shown to be sole owner of the land concerned. Of the 6 instances of lease by persons below ariki status, Court investigation showed that all lessors were either sole or part owners of the land concerned.

page 183 income from agriculture, which was then just under £3 per annum.1

Many of the lands leased were those whose owners had either died or gone away. The motivation for leasing such lands cannot have been wholly mercenary, for it was the customary duty of the ariki to accommodate strangers, and they were under constant pressure not only from the potential lessors but also from the British Consul and later the British Resident. In the Avarua district of Rarotonga, where the number of foreigners was largest and the pressure to lease was greatest, the ariki must frequently have been embarrassed by conflicting obligations to visitors as against tribesmen. Nevertheless, the need to meet the requirements of visitors was at times used as a rationale to take land from those descent groups which were out of favour.

The granting of permissive occupation to outsiders was likewise the prerogative of the higher rank orders, and as the newcomers (mostly immigrants from other islands) were given no security of tenure they were vulnerable to excessive demands for labour and tribute from their hosts. This is not to suggest that they were maliciously exploited, in fact Maori tenets of hospitality probably made it obligatory for a chief to grant to any stranger who requested it the right to build himself a house on that chief's land. Some of the immigrants married into the lineages whose lands they were using and thus acquired a more secure right for themselves and their children. Nevertheless, the great majority lacked security and bargaining power, for their continued residence was dependent on continued good relations

1 In addition to rentals some ariki collected harbour dues from vessels using reef passages in their districts. - MB 19:173–4 NLC.

page 184 with their hosts, and apart from the land there were few alternative sources of income and subsistence.

Some observers have blamed the ariki for not granting leases to these strangers from neighbouring islands who settled on their lands, but it is most unlikely that many, if any, islanders would have wanted this form of tenure in any case. Even if the people had been familiar with it, the ariki made the laws and to a large extent administered them, and it is doubtful if a lease would have given any greater security than did residence at the pleasure of the ariki. Had cash rentals been charged on the scale paid by foreigners, relatively few islanders could have afforded them. Moreover, in Maori eyes, for a commoner to ask an ariki for a signed guarantee of tenure would probably have appeared as a gross insult. The relationship established by permissive occupation was a reciprocal and flexible one wherein the chief provided means for the sustenance of the visitor, who in return assisted the chief with produce and labour at appropriate times.

In effect what happened on Rarotonga during the latter part of the century was that the right-holders lost in the early decades of the century by disease and emigration were to some extent replaced by the influx of immigrants who were quite without rights. The number wanting permission to reside was considerable, and the number of chiefs in a position to grant that permission relatively few; the need of the immigrant was greater than that of the chief, and consequently one's continued residence was best secured by generous giving and liberal assistance with work.

In pre-contact times, the common people were the relatives of the chiefs, and had particular rights to particular portions of land. The lineage gained strength and status as its numbers increased, and it was accordingly in the interests page 185 of the lineage head to make land available to those who wished to use it; he could not exploit it in any other way. Furthermore, as the lineage functioned for many purposes as a single unit, what was in his interests was generally also in theirs. Once produce acquired a cash value, however, the land on which it grew acquired a capital value and, due to the range of consumer goods now available, what was in the chief's best interests was much less often in the common interests of the group.

The ability of any man with available land to produce crops for sale or export may suggest increased individual choice. However, this was limited in practice by the organization of the market houses which provided a channel through which the chiefs could exercise control over the production and sale of cash crops. These market houses were set up originally by the missionaries to assist and regularize trade. In the Southern Group, one such market house was set up on each island.1 In those islands where there was tension between districts this arrangement tended to produce difficulties, and in Rarotonga and Aitutaki - where trade was greatest and reef passages most numerous - the original scheme broke down and various districts established their own market houses.

Each market house was controlled by the local ariki, who made regulations for the conduct of the market and fixed the prices to be paid for each commodity. A copy of the regulations and prices of the Avarua market house as at 1849 shows how the trade was organized and shared between the various landholding groups.2 Each of the six major

1 Market houses of this type were not reported from the northern islands, probably as the volume of trade did not merit their erection.

2 The Market House… 1849.

page 186 lineages within the tribe was to supply equal quantities of produce, and the chief of each was to handle sales and purchases for his group. Overall control of the market was exercised by Makea Ariki, and he or his appointee stayed with the captain of the providoring ship throughout the whole operation. This new role as intermediaries in trade gave the leading chiefs not only additional power, but also additional income, for their control extended to the distribution of proceeds from the market.1
Another important technique used by the high chiefs to monopolize the export of produce was the application of the ancient customary prohibition or ra'ui to cash crops.2 When an ariki placed a ra'ui on a crop of his district, it was forbidden for any person, including the person who had planted it and on whose land it grew, to harvest the crop until the ra'ui was lifted. A contract was then let by the ariki to the trader who made the most advantageous offer for the whole crop of the district.3 While the system probably originated to ensure the best possible price for produce, it also gave an unscrupulous ariki the opportunity

1 The laws of Rarotonga provided that: ‘3. Chiefs are not to take the best pieces of cloth for their own use. Let them have a share and the people a share also. But if money only be paid by the captain it is right it should go to the chief. 4…. The person in charge of the market [i.e. the chief] is the proper one to take all things and deal with them… and the police are to take into custody any who do not obey these authorities.’ - ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ 1879 clause 22.

Commander Bourke found this chiefly monopoly on trade still operating throughout the group in 1888, but warned the chiefs that it was not in accordance with British traditions of trade. - Bourke to Admiralty 13.11.1888 CO 225 PRO.

2 The ra'ui was also sometimes used as a sanction forbidding the planter the right to harvest his crop - see, e.g. Hamilton Hunter to High Commissioner 10.9.1896 WPHC.

3 As from 1898 it became common for the ariki to advertise their ra'ui and the successful tenderer for the crop. - Cook Islands Gazette, passim.

page 187 to turn the system to his own advantage.1 In 1891 this system of ra'ui of cash crops was given the sanction of law.2 The principal function of the ra'ui in the subsistence economy had been to preserve supplies for future consumption, but as the commodities concerned were perishable, all partook of them and the chief could consume no greater quantity than the commoner - though the most prized portions were undoubtedly the prerogative of the chief. But in a money economy the chief could utilize a greater proportion of the proceeds and the ra'ui was at times used as a restrictive practice functioning to increase his income.

In addition to the ra'ui, some high chiefs had forbidden their subjects to deal with European traders except through them, or with their permission.3 This system was ostensibly instituted to prevent or limit indebtedness, but it was open to manipulation. Moreover, during the 1890s many of the tribes owned ships which were invariably controlled by their respective high chiefs, and as these ships carried much of the produce exported from the islands the ariki thus acquired additional controls over marketing.

The increased centralization of authority in the hands of the high chiefs led to a de facto increase in their rights relative to those of the commoners. Towards the end of the century the view became widely accepted on some islands that the chiefs had absolute power over the land,

1 Sometimes the crop had to be sold through the ariki to the trader concerned. - Exham to High Commissioner 1.9.1890 FO 58 PRO. An example of exploitation by the chief who imposed the ra'ui is quoted in Te Torea 9.10.1897.

2 Provision was made for the ra'ui of crops by the Au (of which the ariki was head) but subject to the approval of the Resident. -‘[Law] For Electing the Au’ 1891. It is doubtful whether this approval was sought in fact.

3 Though this practice was specifically outlawed by the ‘Statute of Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro’ 1899.

page 188 and that the lower rank orders were merely occupiers at their pleasure.1 This was particularly so in Avarua district where the number of immigrants, both native and foreign, was greatest, and where the commercial value of land was at its highest. The view of the chiefs as absolute owners was not held only by the foreigners, for there are clear indications from their words and actions that some of the leading chiefs were of that opinion too.2
On Rarotonga particularly the tenure of lands held by commoners became increasingly less secure. Some were deprived of their lands in order that they might be leased to foreigners,3 others were evicted for minor breaches of courtesy which did not constitute breaches of law,4 and not infrequently even holders of the lesser titles found themselves turned off their lands on apparently insignificant pretexts.5 There was a marked increase in the volume of

1 This view was particularly prevalent on Rarotonga, Atiu and Mauke. Many European observers noted an apparent difference between the ‘family’ ownership on Aitutaki and Mangaia and the ‘chiefly’ ownership on the other islands - e.g. Bourke to Admiralty 13.11.1888 CO 225 PRO. While the use of the term ‘ownership’ in this context was perhaps imprecise the different degree of authority over land which was vested in high chiefs as against family heads is clear.

2 E.g. in 1895 Tinomana Ariki claimed that all the lands of untitled persons were given them by their chiefs, and that those who disobeyed her instructions would be made to ‘restore’ the lands they were using to the chief. - Te Tore a 18.5.1895. By 1900 the same ariki was claiming the whole lime crop in her district as her personal property. - Ioi Karanga 17.3.1900. In 1903 Ngamaru Ariki gave the island of Takutea, which he claimed as his exclusive property, to the Crown, but later Land Court investigation showed that his rights in the island were marginal only.

3 E.g. Wyatt Gill to LMS 28.10.1882.

4 E.g. Te Torea 25.5.1895.

5 E.g. in 1896 Kainuku Ariki was reported as having ‘driven away a portion of his relatives from their houses and lands which they claim from their forefathers’. -Te Torea 21.3.1896. In 1897 Tinomana threatened eviction for any person who disregarded her ra'ui. - Te Torea 24.4.1897. Land Court records contain many examples of commoners and holders of minor titles being turned off their lands, e.g. MB 4:81 and 4:116 NLC. Moreover, many of the older generation today speak freely of this period as the time of the mana ariki or chiefly power, when discipline was severe and subservience mandatory.

page 189 tribute supplied by the lower social orders.1 The end of the nineteenth century marked the peak of chiefly power over land in the group.

The impact of European culture during this century served to further differentiate the social classes, and to emphasize class stratification rather than the segmented aspect of the society which had hitherto been the more pronounced. It also resulted in a higher level and range of consumption. But, with the exception of the holding of rank titles by women and the abolition of the acquisition of land by warfare and ritual plunder, there was little change in the various customs relating to the tenure of land. However, in view of the vastly different context within which those customs operated, there was a considerable change in the relative incidence of various customary processes, and of their function in the operation of the society.

1 E.g. MB 19:163–4 NLC; Harris to LMS July 1882 SSR.