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Land Tenure

Historical overview

According to Gardiner (1898), the pre-contact land-holding unit was the ho'aga, a kinship community under the direction of a titled subchief, the fa 'es ho'aga, who acted as steward (pure) of the land. It was his prerogative to divide it among ho'aga households for planting purposes. He was also responsible for settling disputes within the ho'aga. District chiefs (gagaj 'es itu'u) did not exercise control over ho'aga lands although they were given first fruits and were called on to settle disputes between ho'aga.

This arrangement was altered by three historical factors following European contact: a population decline, the development of a commercial economy, and the establishment of Christian missions. As adjacent ho'aga joined together in order to maintain adequate manpower in the face of depopulation, the kinship unity of the group was diminished, and ho'aga evolved into localized work units without regard to land holdings. At the same time, the growth of the copra trade gave households a longer-term interest in specific plots of land than previously, and with the encouragement of missionaries and traders, concepts of individual ownership (the right of the pure to allocate and transact land) emerged. In time, the right of the fa 'es ho'aga to distribute land gave way to the rights of household heads and their descendants. This process of fragmentation was furthered by land sales for money, pigs, and other goods.

After Rotuma was ceded to Britain in 1881, the colonial administration established the resident commissioner as magistrate and interpreter of custom. A land tax was implemented, the payment of which served to legitimize land claims. During the first two decades following cession the commissioners followed a policy of resolving land disputes by dividing holdings--a policy that intensified fragmentation. As the population rebounded [see Figure 1], a point of diminishing returns was reached and a trend toward declaring joint rights developed in cases where neither plaintiff nor defendant held a judicial advantage. This shift, along with an expanding population, led to a dramatic increase in communal land holdings.

Kinship and Land Tenure

The basic concept behind Rotuman kinship is the word kainaga, which in its broadest sense means 'kind, sort, variety, species, class' (Churchward 1940:235), in other words, 'members of the same category.' Since kinship on Rotuma is traced bilineally (through both mother and father), a person's kainaga consists of all their "blood" relatives. The term kainaga is also used in the more restricted sense of common descent from an ancestor who resided at, and held rights in, a given house site (fuag ri 'foundation'). Each person is said to have rights in the fuagri of their eight great-grandparents, although they may selectively exercise claims in only three or four. House sites are named and people describe their affiliation by referring to these names (e.g., "I belong to the Rirou kainaga.") Associated with each fuag ri are sections of bush land, and to claim rights in a fuag ri is to claim rights in these lands. Ordinarily, the senior member who lives on the fuag ri controls the land in the name of the kainaga. As steward of the land (pure) he or she is obligated to grant use privileges to other members of the kainaga. If a pure is unreasonable or overly stingy, the kainaga have a right to hold a meeting and depose him or her in favor of another person. If the pure dies or otherwise leaves the ancestral fuag ri, the kainaga are supposed to meet to choose a successor. Theoretically succession goes from elder brother to younger brother, to eldest son of eldest brother, to youngest son of eldest brother, to youngest son of younger brother, and so on. Women succeed to pureship only if there are no eligible males.

This traditional model of kinship and land tenure has been undergoing change as a result of several interrelated factors, most importantly extensive migration, housing changes, and increased commercialisation. Outmigration has resulted in whole families moving to Fiji or abroad, with the prospect of leaving land rights in the hands of distant relatives who may be reluctant to relinquish the land should migrants return. As a result, some families designate one member to stay on Rotuma to occupy their land. Siblings may take turns over a period of years assuming this responsibility. In other instances, migrants may simply allow their kainaga rights to go dormant. With so many relatives away, succession is now more an informal process with minimal consultation.

Changes in house construction have also affected land tenure and concepts of ownership. Previously houses were made of thatch or limestone, local materials that were transformed into houses through communal labor. Houses could be erected in short periods of time at minimal expense. If a new pure was selected the move was not unduly burdensome. With modern housing, however, constructed with imported, purchased materials, individual families have much greater capital investment in their homes. As a result they are resistant to giving up their rights in houses or the land on which they are built. Extensive capital investments in housing are now recognized as sufficient justification for a family group to remain on a fuag ri. This has the added implication of strengthening the claims of immediate descendants not only to the site but to associated garden lands and titles, if any (see Rensel 1991).


Churchward, C.M., 1940. Rotuman Grammar and Dictionary. Australian Medical Publishing Co. Ltd, Sydney, for the Methodist Church of Australasia, Department of Overseas Missions. 363 pp. (Reissued in 1978 by AMS Press, New York.)

Gardiner, J.S., 1898. "Natives of Rotuma." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27: 395-435, 457-524.

Rensel, J.P., 1991. "Housing and Social Relationships on Rotuma." In Fatiaki et al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue, pp. 185-203. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva.

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