The following is excerpted from a Gutenberg Project
document. I tried to edit it down to size a couple of times, but in each case, I only did it violence
. Finally, I decided that this article must be presented in its entirety, in order to preserve its integrity as a contemporaneous commentary on "the British Empire
From THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY ------ OCTOBER, 1915 -------------
A HISTORY OF FIJI.
BY DR. ALFRED GOLDSBOROUGH MAYER
THE Fijians had a well-organized social system which recognized six classes of society. (1) Kings and queens (Tuis and Andis). (2) Chiefs of districts (Rokos). (3) Chiefs of villages, priests (Betes), and land owners (Mata-ni-vanuas). (4) Distinguished warriors of low birth, chiefs of the carpenter caste (Rokolas), and chiefs of the turtle fishermen. (5) Common people (Kai-si). (6) Slaves taken in battle.
The high chiefs still inspire great respect, and indeed it has been the policy of the British government to maintain a large measure of their former authority. Thus of the 17 provinces into which the group was divided, 11 are governed by high chiefs entitled Roko Tui, and there are about 176 inferior chiefs who are the head men of districts, and 31 native magistrates. In so far as may be consistent with order and civilization these chiefs are permitted to govern in the old paternal manner, and they are veritably patriarchs of their people. The district chiefs are still elected by the land owners, mata-ni-vanuas, by a showing of hands as of old.
Independent of respect paid to those in authority, rank is still reverenced in Fiji. Once acting under the kind permission and advice of our generous friend Mr. Allardyce, the colonial secretary, and accompanied by my ship-mates Drs. Charles H. Townsend, and H. F. Moore, I went upon a journey of some days into the interior of Viti Levu, our guide and companion being Ratu Pope Seniloli, a grandson of king Thakombau, and one of the high chiefs of Mbau. Upon meeting Ratu Pope every native dropped his burdens, stepped to the side of the wood-path and crouched down, softly chanting the words of the tame, muduo! wo! No one ever stepped upon his shadow, and if desirous of crossing his path they passed in front, never behind him. Clubs were lowered in his presence, and no man stood fully erect when he was near. The very language addressed to high chiefs is different from that used in conversation between ordinary men, these customs being such that the inferior places himself in a defenceless position with respect to his superior.
It is a chief's privilege to demand service from his subjects; which was fortunate for us, for when we started down the Waidina River from Nabukaluka our canoes were so small and overloaded that the ripples were constantly lapping in over the gunwale, threatening momentarily to swamp us. Soon, however, we came upon a party of natives in a fine large canoe, and after receiving their tama Ratu Pope demanded: "Where are you going"? The men, who seemed somewhat awestricken, answered that it had been their intention to travel up the river. Whereupon Ratu Pope told them that this they might do, but we would take their canoe and permit them to continue in ours. To this they acceded with the utmost cheerfulness, although our noble guide would neither heed our protests nor permit us to reward them for their service, saying simply, "I am a chief. You may if you choose pay me." In this manner we continued to improve our situation by "exchanging" with every canoe we met which happened to be better than our own, until finally our princely friend ordered a gay party of merry-makers out of a fine large skiff, which they cheerfully "exchanged" for our leaky canoes and departed singing happily, feeling honored indeed that this opportunity had come to them to serve the great chief Ratu Pope Seniloli; and thus suffering qualms of conscience, we sailed to our destination leaving a wake of confusion behind us. Moreover I forgot to mention that many natives had by Ratu Pope's orders been diverted from their intended paths and sent forward to announce the coming of himself and the "American chiefs." Thus does one of the Royal house of Mbau proceed through Fiji.
At first sight such behavior must appear autocratic, to say the least, but it should be remembered that a high chief has it in his power fully to recompense those about him, and this without the payment of a penny. Indeed, many intelligent natives still regret the introduction of money into their land, saying that all the white man's selfishness had been developed through its omnipotence. In Fiji to-day there are no poor, for such would be fed and given a house by those who lived beside them. The white man's callous brutality in ignoring the appeal of misery is incomprehensible to the natives of Fiji. "Progress" they have not in the sense that one man possesses vast wealth and many around him struggle helplessly, doomed to life-long poverty; nor have they ambition to toil beyond that occasional employment required to satisfy immediate wants. Yet if life be happy in proportion as the summation of its moments be contented, the Fijians are far happier than we. Old men and women rest beneath the shade of cocoa-palms and sing with the youths and maidens, and the care-worn faces and bent bodies of "civilization" are still unknown in Fiji. They still have something we have lost and never can regain.
It is impossible to draw a line between personal service such as was rendered to Ratu Pope and a regular tax (lala) for the benefit of the entire community or the support of the communal government; and the recognition of this fact actuated the English to preserve much of the old system and to command the payment of taxes in produce, rather than in money.
Land tenure in Fiji is a subject so complex that heavy volumes might be written upon it. In general it may be said that the chief can sell no land without the consent of his tribe. Cultivated land belonged to the man who originally farmed it, and is passed undivided to all his heirs. Waste land is held in common. Native settlers who have been taken into the tribes from time to time have been permitted to farm some of the waste land, and for this privilege they and their heirs must pay a yearly tribute to the chief either in produce or in service. Thus this form of personal lala is simply rent. The whole subject of land-ownership has given the poor English a world of trouble, as one may see who cares to read the official reports of the numerous intricate cases that have come before the courts.
For example, one party based their claims to land on the historic fact that their ancestors had eaten the chief of the original owners, and the solemn British court allowed the claim.
Basil Thomson in his interesting work upon "The Fijians; a Study of the Decline of Custom," has given an authoritative summary of the present status of taxation and land tenure, land being registered under a modification of the Australian Torrens system.
In order to protect these child-like people from the avarice of our own race they are not permitted to sell their lands, and the greater portion of the area of Fiji is still held by the natives. The Hawaiian Islands now under our own rule furnish a sad contrast, for here the natives are reduced by poverty to a degraded state but little above that of peonage. The Fijians. on the other hand, may not sell, but may with the consent of the commissioner of native affairs lease their lands for a period of not more than twenty years.
The Fijians appear never to have been wholly without a medium of exchange, for sperm-whale's teeth have always had a recognized purchasing power, but are more especially regarded as a means of expressing good will and honesty of purpose. A whale's tooth is as effective to secure compliance with the terms of a bargain as an elaborately engraved bond would be with us. More commonly, however, exchanges are direct, each man bringing to the village green his taro, yaqona, yams or fish and exchanging with his neighbors; the rare disputes being settled by the village chief.
In traveling you will discover no hotels, but will be entertained in the stranger's houses, and in return for your host's hospitality you should make presents to the chief. Indeed to journey in good fashion you should be accompanied by a train of bearers carrying heavy bags full of purposed gifts, and nowhere in the world is the "rate per mile" higher than in Polynesia.
As in all communities, including our own world of finance, a man's wealth consists not only in what he possesses but even more so in the number of people from whom he can beg or borrow. Wilkes records an interesting example of this, for he found that the rifle and other costly presents he had presented to King Tanoa were being seized upon by his (Tanoa's) nephew who as his vasu had a right to take whatever he might select from the king's possessions. Indeed, in order to keep his property in sight, Tanoa was forced to give it to his own sons, thus escaping the rapacity of his nephew. The construction of the British law is such that a vasu who thus appropriates property to himself could be sued and forced to restore it, but not a single Fijian has yet been so mean as to bring such a matter into court.
An individual as such can hardly be said to own property, for nearly all things belong to his family or clan, and are shared among cousins. This condition is responsible for that absence of personal ambition and that fatal contentment with existing conditions, which strikes the white man as so illogical, but which is nevertheless the dominant feature of the social fabric of the Polynesians, and which has hitherto prevented the introduction of "ideals of modern progress." The natives are happy; why work when every reasonable want is already supplied? None are rich in material things, but none are beggars excepting in the sense that all are such. No one can be a miser, a capitalist, a banker, or a "promoter" in such a community, and thieves are almost unknown. Indeed, the honesty of the Fijians is one of those virtues which has excited the comment of travelers. Wilkes, who loathed them as "condor-eyed savages," admits that the only thing which any native attempted to steal from the Peacock was a hatchet, and upon being detected the chief requested the privilege of taking the man ashore in order that he might be roasted and eaten. Theft was always severely punished by the chief; Maafu beating a thief with the stout stalk of a cocoanut leaf until the culprit's life was despaired of, and Tui Thakau wrapping one in a tightly wound rope so that not a muscle could move while the wretch remained exposed for an entire day to the heat of the sun.
During Professor Alexander Agassiz's cruises in which he visited nearly every island of the Fijis, and the natives came on board by hundreds, not a single object was stolen, although things almost priceless in native estimation lay loosely upon the deck. Once, indeed, when the deck was deserted by both officers and crew and fully a hundred natives were on board, we found a man who had been gazing wistfully for half an hour at a bottle which lay upon the laboratory table. Somehow he had managed to acquire a shilling, a large coin in Fiji, and this he offered in exchange for the coveted bottle. One can never forget his shout of joy and the radiance of his honest face as he leaped into his canoe after having received it as a gift.
Even the great chief Ratu Epele of Mbau beamed with joy when presented with a screw-capped glass tobacco jar, and Tui Thakau of Somo somo had a veritable weakness for bottles and possessed a large collection of these treasures.
Intelligent and well-educated natives who know whereof they speak have told me that they desire not the white man's system, entailing as it does untold privation and heart-burnings to the many that the few may enjoy a surfeit of mere material things . As the natives say, "The white man possesses more than we, but his life is full of toil and sorrow, while our days are happy as they pass."
Thus in the Pacific life is of to-day; the past is dead, and the future when it comes will pass as to-day is passing. Life is a dream, an evanescent thing, all but meaningless, and real only as is the murmur of the surf when the sea-breeze comes in the morning, and man awakens from the oblivion of night.
Hoarded wealth inspires no respect in the Pacific, and indeed, were it discovered, its possession would justify immediate confiscation. Yet man must raise idols to satisfy his instinct to worship things above his acquisition, and thus rank is the more reverenced because respect for property is low. Even to-day there is something god-like in the presence of the high chiefs, and none will cross the shadow of the king's house. Even in war did a common man kill a chief he himself was killed by men of his own tribe.
As it is with property so with relationships. The family ties seem loosened; every child has two sets of parents, the adopted and the real, and relationships founded upon adoption are more respected than the real. Rank descends mainly through the mother. The son of a high chief by a common woman is a low chief, or even a commoner, but the son of a chieftainess by a common man is a chief. Curiously, there are no words in Fijian which are the exact equivalent of widow and widower. In the Marshall group the chief is actually the husband of all the women of his tribe, and as Lorimer Fison has said in his "Tales from Old Fiji," their designation and understanding of relationships suggests that there was once a time when "all the women were the wives of every man, and all the men were the husbands of every woman," as indeed was almost the case in Tahiti at the time of Captain Cook's visit to this island.