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[The following account is abstracted from a background paper prepared by A. Howard and J. Rensel for the Fiji Constitutional Review Commission in November, 1995.]

Political Organization

Traditional Leadership

At the time of discovery by Europeans in 1791 Rotuma was divided into seven districts, each relatively autonomous and headed by a gagaj 'es itu'u 'district chief'. There were also three positions that were pan-Rotuman in scope: the fakpure, sau , and mua. The early literature primarily refers to the fakpure in two capacities: as convener and presiding officer of the council of district chiefs, and as the person responsible for appointing the sau and ensuring that he was cared for properly. The fakpure was gagaj 'es itu'u of one of the districts, presumably the one who headed an alliance that was victorious in the latest war. The sau was an object of veneration whose basic role was to take part in the ritual cycle, oriented towards ensuring the island's prosperity. The role of mua received less commentary in the early literature than that of fakpure and sau, but most of what was written refers to the mua's activities in the ritual cycle. A French priest, Fr. Trouillet, wrote ca. 1873 that the sau appeared to be an appendage of the fakpure, while the mua appeared to be more associated with spiritual power (Histoire de la Station...).

Most early accounts focus on the office of sau (generally mis-translated into English as 'king'). Early observers generally agree about some aspects of the sau's office. Most reported that the sau was appointed by the fakpure and that he was chosen from different districts in turn, although no order of rotation is specified. However, Dillon (1829:95), who visited the island in 1827, wrote that the district chiefs "meet in congress every six months, when they elect a president (sau) and deliberate upon state affairs," and Bennett (1831:473) wrote that "The royal office is held for six months, but by the consent of the other chiefs, it may be retained by the same chief for two or three years."

The consensus among the early reports is that the sau exercised no secular power and that his main tasks were to eat gluttonously, drink kava, and take part in the six-month ritual cycle. There is less agreement on several other points, however. For example, it is unclear who was eligible to be selected as sau, although those who commented generally agreed that eligibility was limited to individuals of chiefly lineage. Whether a person was actually supposed to hold a title in order to be eligible is unstated. The length of the sau's reign is also unclear. Gardiner (1898:461) states that although the term of office was for six months (one Rotuman ritual cycle), an incumbent sau could continue in office as long as he could accumulate the great masses of food that he was required to provide. Since he did not provide food by working, this may mean either that he was allowed to remain in office as long as the island prospered, or that his reign was extended as long as the people in the district where he stayed were prepared to bear the burden of providing the surplus food needed to maintain feasting at an appropriate level. Historical data summarised by Howard (1985:70) indicates that the average length of a sau's reign diminished from 2.5 years (5 ritual cycles) between 1797 and 1820, to 1.0 years between 1820 and 1850, and then to .6 years between 1850 and 1870. One might hypothesise that this decline resulted from acculturative factors that increased the burden of caring for the sau at the same time that it was becoming increasingly difficult for fakpure to exert secular power to enforce compliance. A second possibility is that the diseases and other misfortunes brought by Europeans, which resulted in depopulation, led Rotumans to question more intensely the effectiveness of individuals who occupied the office of sau.

A further puzzle concerns the rules of residence for sau. Allen (1895) reported that the district whose turn it was to select a sau would go to a neighbouring district, choose someone, and bring him to their own district to live, and in one narrative recorded by Titifanue and Churchward (1995:33-35), the story-teller stated that if it was one district's turn to provide the sau, it would be another's turn to look after him. Indeed, Trouillet's oral history records numerous movements of the sau from one district to another although no regularities appear. Perhaps all that can be said is that Rotumans characterised sauship in terms of interdistrict residence, possibly as a way of emphasising that the role was pan-Rotuman in scope.

In a recent analysis, Ladefoged (1993, 1995), using archaeological and environmental evidence in addition to information on sau obtained by MacGregor in 1932, argues that during the early (pre-European) period, the sau came mostly from the eastern districts of Noa'tau and Oinafa, where the soils were poorest and of relatively low productive potential. The institution of sauship could then be seen as a means for these districts to integrate the more productive districts into a single loosely defined polity.

The position of mua was not extensively documented by the early observers but has generally been referred to as the head priest of the island (Histoire de la Station...). The main task of the mua was to bring prosperity to the island by incorporating the power of supernatural beings. One of the mua's duties was to preside over a ritual procession for the relief of drought or famine. The mua also held special prayers for a good harvest three times a year (MacGregor 1932).

Allardyce (1895-1896:142) was told that the position of mua rotated between districts. He reports that the fakpure appointed the mua for indefinite periods, although it was customary to resign after a year (most likely a Rotuman year, or six lunar months). Wood (1875) claimed that the mua was elected by capture and therefore always resided in the most powerful district of the island. Consultants to MacGregor (1932) indicated that the mua and sau were rarely housed in the same district as the expense was too great for a single district to bear.

The positions of sau and mua were abandoned in the early 1870s, largely as a result of missionary pressure; the missionaries perceived the rituals associated with these offices as pagan rites.


Some fuag ri 'house foundations' carry with them chiefly titles to which kainaga 'kin group' members can lay claim. Titleholders are known as as togi 'successor to the name' and are entitled to the privileges, and burdened by the responsibilities, that go with the title. The assumption of a title requires a ceremony (hül 'umefe) in which the symbol of chiefly status, a short-legged eating table ('umefe) is turned upright, kava is partaken, the candidate is anointed with oil by another titleholder, and a feast is eaten.

In 1951 H.S. Evans identified 121 titled men in a population of 2780; he estimated that 17 percent of adult males held a title (Evans 1951). At any given time only a portion of all known titles are taken; some remain dormant for indefinite periods. Men who hold titles may or may not assume secular leadership positions, of which there are two levels: gagaj 'es itu'u 'district chiefs' and fa 'es ho'aga 'hamlet or village chiefs.' While district headmen are always titled, ho'aga leaders may or may not be. This suggests a conceptual separation between ceremonial and secular leadership roles.

It is the responsibility of fa 'es ho'aga to organise the labor of households under their direction on ceremonial occasions and when district work needs to be done. They are also responsible for organising collections of food and valuables for distribution when called for by the district chief, or when required by events involving their group.

At ceremonies titled men have special rights and responsibilities not afforded untitled men. They are honored in kava ceremonies at which their titles are called out in rank order, and are expected to give speeches on behalf of their group. Titled men are also expected to be more generous when presentations of food and valuables are required.

Titles "belong" to the descendants of previous title holders. In most districts three or four kainaga claim rights to a title suitable for the district chief. Collectively these groups are referred to as mosega 'a bed,' the implication being that the claimants are descendant from the same original source. Eligible kainaga are thus related to each other through (often unspecified) ancestral siblings. Ideally, the gagaj 'es itu'u should be chosen successively from each branch of the mosega in turn, but in practice the process is highly politicised. The second ranking title in each district is that of faufisi, whose holder serves as the district chief's "right hand." He customarily acts as head of the district when the gagaj 'es itu'u is away. Lesser titles are bestowed on those occupying other special roles (such as head fisherman and messenger), ho'aga headmen, and title holders who play no role in district administration.

Titles are ordinarily held throughout one's lifetime, but if a man is particularly remiss in his role or otherwise earns the enmity of his fellow kainaga members, he may be pressured to give up his title. Rotuman custom requires a man who spends even one night in jail to forfeit his title. Whether the mosega has a right to take back titles once given is currently a matter of debate, although such a prerogative seems consistent with other aspects of Rotuman custom.

Colonial Administration and the Rotuma District Council

The overall impact of European contact on chiefly powers prior to British administration is difficult to estimate, since some changes increased the chiefs' authority while others reduced it. Thus commercialisation of the economy initially enhanced the status of chiefs, for they acted as intermediaries between their people and ships' captains; but commercialisation also contributed to individual control of land, diminishing chiefly authority in that area. Likewise, while the missionaries worked through the chiefs and strengthened their hands in some nontraditional ways, they also undermined chiefly authority by institutionalising a new religious order over which the chiefs had little control (Howard 1966:63-78).

The colonial administration, having successfully instituted a system of indirect rule in Fiji, expected to do the same in Rotuma. They failed to take into consideration the differences in chiefly systems, however. In Fiji, where patrilineal primogeniture reinforced a hierarchical system of chiefly authority, obedience was institutionalised. In Rotuma, with its bilateral kinship emphasis, the contenders for a title were often numerous, with any ancestral link to a previous chief making a man eligible. The number of male children who might eventually succeed to chieftainship was therefore likely to be extensive, and no one was apt to receive the special privileges normally given a Fijian chief's elder sons. As a result respect for chiefly authority was far more conditional in Rotuma.

Under colonial rule the Rotuman chiefs apparently expected to be granted privileges commensurate with those enjoyed by their Fijian counterparts (Howard 1966:69), but the new administration resisted increasing their powers beyond what was allowed by Rotuman custom. The people objected neither to the imposition of English law nor to the authority invested in the resident commissioner. They accepted English laws and officials as a price for the material benefits they foresaw, but they were unwilling to enhance the power of their chiefs. A letter from one of the first resident commissioners to the Governor of Fiji, shortly after Cession, reports: "I have repeatedly heard the people say we do not wish our chiefs to be placed in authority over us. We will obey the regulations made by the government but not the rules made by the chiefs."

A Council composed of the seven district chiefs was set up to advise the resident commissioners, but it had no policy-making or administrative powers of its own. Politically chiefs became little more than messengers between the resident commissioner and the people in the districts. The chiefs were criticised by their constituents for making unpopular demands on behalf of the commissioners, and by the commissioners for failing to gain the compliance of their subjects. As a consequence, the traditional rules governing succession, flexible as they were, gave way to a lax toleration allowing almost any adult male to fill a vacancy. It became commonplace for the people in a district to nominate several candidates and permit the commissioner to make the final selection. Not only did the commissioners participate actively in choosing chiefs, they showed little hesitation in deposing men who failed to meet their expectations.

The problem for the resident commissioners, it seems, was that they saw Rotuman political institutions as neither fish nor fowl. The gagaj 'es itu'u did not have the kind of authority they associated with chiefdoms such as Fiji, but the system also lacked elements crucial to their understanding of democracy. They were determined to resolve the issue one way or the other. Whereas some opted to reinforce the status of chiefs (without, of course, giving up any real power themselves), others instituted moves toward democratic representation on the Council. In 1939, with the approval of the Governor of Fiji, Commissioner Cornish introduced a reform whereby chiefs would be elected for a period of three years, after which the kainaga who had elected him would elect a new chief, or re-elect the old one. The first chief appointed under this procedure failed to get re-elected. He complained to the Government against his dismissal on the grounds that the new procedures were not in accordance with Rotuman custom. By this time Cornish had died, and following an investigation the traditional custom was re-instated (Sykes 1948).

A few years later, J.W. Sykes, who was sent to Rotuma for the purpose of investigating the administration of the island, proposed that the Council of Chiefs be abolished and replaced by an elected council (Sykes 1948). Sykes' recommendation was not implemented, in large measure because it was opposed by H.S. Evans, the district officer appointed to Rotuma the year after the report was issued.

However, in 1958 a compromise was reached and the Council was reconstituted to include one representative from each district, elected by secret ballot, in addition to the chiefs. Its name was changed from the Rotuma Council of Chiefs to the Council of Rotuma. Its role, to advise the district officer and communicate his rulings to the people in the districts, remained the same.

The Post-colonial Period

Soon after Fiji gained independence in 1970 a confrontation took place between the district officer and the Rotuma Council. Under the colonial administration the D.O. had been the gagaj pure--the boss. His authority had come from the Governor, whom he represented, and ultimately from the British Crown. With independence the basis of his authority became ambiguous. The district officer at the time of independence was an educated Rotuman who had strong ideas about how Rotuma should be governed. According to reports, he intruded into the process of chiefly selection on several occasions and picked the person he favored, without regard to custom. When the chiefs complained to the newly formed government about his high-handedness, they met with immediate success. The Prime Minister himself came to the island and personally ordered the district officer's removal, replacing him with an experienced clerk.

This action on the government's part completely reversed previous responses to Rotuman requests that district officers (or district commissioners before them) be disciplined or removed. It signaled the beginning of an entirely different relationship between district officer and Council. Whereas prior to Fijian independence the Council had been merely an advisory body, it was now empowered as a policy-making organization. The district officer was relegated to the role of advisor and administrative assistant to the Council. This meant that Council members--chiefs and district representatives alike--were in a position to exercise real power for the first time since Cession. However, ambiguity remains concerning the respective rights, responsibilities and prerogatives of the Council and district officer. If conflict is to be avoided in future these must be more clearly defined.

The Status of Chiefs Today

One result of these changes is that Rotuma has become a much more political community than it was in the past. During the colonial period people rarely discussed political issues, and were reluctant to express viewpoints concerning the directions future change should take. Dissatisfaction with the district officer's policies was usually expressed by grumbling and passive resistance. Now many people not only hold a definite point of view but are prepared to speak openly, to debate issues, and to criticise those in authority directly.

Rotumans today are also far more committed to progress and development than they were in the past; they evaluate leaders more by what they accomplish (or do not accomplish) than by what they say or how they act. People want well-constructed modern houses, refrigerators, modern appliances, cars and stereos. But while economic development has progressed slowly on the island, Rotumans elsewhere have continued to make their mark, not only in Fiji but abroad as well. Many Rotumans have risen to positions of responsibility and leadership in government, the military, and private industry. They have not only demonstrated an ability to lead, but have accumulated political power far beyond that in the hands of the chiefs. They also enjoy a standard of living to which people on the home island only aspire.

These circumstances have created a dilemma for chiefs on Rotuma. They are expected to formulate policy for development, to take fiscal responsibility for managing the budget, and to administer programs. But they are neither well educated nor trained for these tasks of modern government, and from the people's standpoint, often botch the job. Furthermore, they are finding that the real power to do good for Rotuma lies not with them, but with Rotumans who have powerful positions in Fiji and abroad. In order to get things done they have to maneuver through bureaucratic channels they do not fully understand, and they sometimes become irritated with Rotumans in Fiji who try to educate them about the realities of modern government and industry. They express resentment when their kinsmen in Fiji do not bow to their authority and respond to their beck-and-call. This has sometimes led to rather strained relationships between the chiefs and Rotuman leaders in Fiji.

No one currently presumes that chiefs from the home island can exercise authority over Rotumans in Fiji or elsewhere. In fact, the chiefs formally abrogated that possibility in 1946, when they refused a request from Rotumans in Fiji that the Council of Chiefs appoint someone to be their "headman." The Fiji Rotumans at that time expressed the view that someone appointed by the Council of Chiefs would be more respected, but the chiefs opted out and suggested that the people choose their own headman. As the financial and political power of Rotumans in Fiji has grown, they have exercised increasing influence on their home island, a circumstance that arouses apprehension among the chiefs and some others who express concern that control of the island's destiny is passing, or has passed, outside the local community. The chiefs seem to feel, with good reason, that they are losing sovereignty over Rotuma itself.

The chiefs' moral authority has been undermined in the eyes of many as a result of their handling of money. They are often criticised for using the limited monies available to the Council for doubtful purposes, such as trips to Fiji. Some chiefs have been accused of skimming funds from development projects in their districts, from ships' landing fees, and from cooperative and church accounts. As a result people are often reluctant to support local projects, and may refuse to give either money or labor to communal efforts managed by a chief.

That the chiefs should be tempted to use public monies for their own benefit should not be surprising. In the past, chiefs were expected to live in a manner befitting their status, and to represent the dignity of the their district. A chief's house was used for receiving guests to the district, and was expected to be imposing. But now chiefs see people around them without titles, and from ordinary families, building expensive, elaborate residences, buying cars and videos, and enjoying a standard of living they cannot match. Furthermore, this comes at a time when people are less willing to provide support in labor and materials to maintain chiefly prerogatives. It is therefore understandable that the chiefs feel insecure, that they feel they are entitled to use the community's monies for enhancing their status.

Leadership on Rotuma today is therefore in a state of crisis. The chiefs are at a great disadvantage. As members of the Rotuman Council they are supposed to formulate policies and guide the development of the island, but they are not well-equipped to do so. They lack the education and experience required to manage an expanding economy and to make informed choices concerning development opportunities. They are uncomfortable with bureaucratic procedures and with bureaucrats who control resources. Internally, they are perceived by most Rotumans as self-interested and ineffective, lacking in moral authority.

But for the people on Rotuma, and for many Rotumans abroad, chieftainship remains an institution of vital importance. Indeed, it is considered to be at the heart of Rotuman custom, and hence Rotuman identity. Chiefly titles provide continuity with the past; embedded in them are family and district histories. Without chiefs ceremonies of all kinds--births, marriages, welcomings, village and district fetes--would lose their significance, for it is the presence of chiefs that lends dignity and cultural meaning to such occasions. Virtually all formal ritual at ceremonies involves chiefs; without them nearly everything that is distinctly Rotuman would disappear.

So despite the heavily criticised behaviour of the present chiefs, the idea of chieftainship is something few Rotumans are prepared to abandon. While they freely complain about chiefs, singly and collectively, most people remain committed to the institution as a whole. A common suggestion is that chiefs be removed from positions of public administration, and that the Council of Rotuma be reconstituted to exclude chiefs. That way, it is argued, the chiefs could concentrate on Rotuman custom and would be freed from involvement in secular politics and economic management. Such matters should be in the hands of Rotumans who have been educated and trained to deal with them, the argument goes. When chiefs take on such responsibilities, especially if they are inept, their moral authority is undermined, subverting the dignity of Rotuman custom.

For some Rotumans chieftainship is central to their sense of identity. They see themselves as special because of their chiefly affiliations, either as descendants of prior chiefs, as close kinsmen of contemporary titleholders or as titleholders themselves. They see titles as embodying the Rotuman notion of ideal personhood, and feel themselves to be elevated as a result. Thus it appears that chieftainship in modern Rotuma will continue to play a role for some time to come. But whether it will be transformed into an institution of secular power, or will be perpetuated as an institution of solely ritual significance, remains to be determined.


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Wood, C. F. (1875). A Yachting Cruise in the South Seas. London: Henry King.

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