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Howard-Rensel Papers

1. Introduction

Alan Howard

The inspiration to republish our papers on this website came during a visit with Rotuman migrants in Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. We discovered a hunger for information about Rotuman history and customs, a hunger often fueled by an enhanced concern for cultural roots. Many Rotumans abroad face issues associated with mixed marriages, problematic ethnic classification, the possible loss of the Rotuman language amongst their children, and other migration-related concerns. In the process they have thought about their culture and are eager to learn about it. But books about Rotuma are rare and not easily accessible, while scholarly articles are buried in scattered journals found only in major libraries. Publishing these papers electronically is a way of making many of our writings about Rotuma readily available. We hope it will also prove useful to scholars with an interest in cultural change among Pacific Island populations as well.

I first went to Rotuma in 1959 as a twenty-five year old Stanford University graduate student to do dissertation research for a doctorate in anthropology. The choice of Rotuma as a field site was more a happy accident than a well formulated plan. I had obtained a grant from the United States' National Institute of Mental Health to do research on bereavement on the island of Ponape (Pohnpei) in the Caroline Islands. However, the Trust Territory administration refused permission on the grounds that a government anthropologist was already resident on the island, and as far as they were concerned one anthropologist per island was enough. I was left with a grant and no place to go. My advisor, Felix Keesing, suggested Samoa (where he had worked) and Fiji as possibilities, so I immediately wrote letters of inquiry. From the colonial government in Fiji I received a rather prompt reply informing me that enough anthropological research had already been done among the Fijians and suggesting I go to New Guinea. If I insisted on doing research in Fiji, they offered the possibilities of working with Fiji Indians or going to the island of Rotuma.

In truth, I had never heard of Rotuma and rushed to the Stanford Library to look it up. In the Pacific Island Handbook I found a one-page article. It began with something like, "Rotuma is one of the most beautiful and romantic islands in the South Seas." I didn't have to read any further to make up my mind, but I did. The article gave some basic information about the island's size and population, which suited my research plans to a tee. It also mentioned a nine-hole golf course, and noted that several of the chiefs were adept at the game! Fortunately I did not bring my golf clubs along, for as I later discovered, the golf course, which had been laid out by a British Resident Commissioner in the 1930s, had long since been replaced by copra sheds.

I made all the necessary arrangements by mail and left California in early October, 1959. My first stop was in Honolulu, where I spent several days at Bishop Museum trying to find out as much as I could about Rotuma. I also met with the Director of Bishop Museum, Dr. Alex Spoehr, who warmly encouraged my research and offered his support. I arrived in Fiji on October 12th and on Dr. Spoehr's advice booked into the Korolevu Beach Hotel on the road between Nadi and Suva. It was there I met my first Rotuman, Alex Rae--an incredibly impressive man in his 60s. Mr. Rae was well read in several fields, and knew more about the history of boxing than anyone I had ever met. He was gracious and supportive of my intentions, suggesting I contact his sister, Faga, when I got to Suva. Only later did I discover that he was the grandson of Maraf Mamatuki, the fabled paramount chief of Rotuma in the late 19th century. I have written about my encounter with Mr. Rae, his sister and nephew in an article entitled "The First Rotumans," published in The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific (DeVita 1990).

When I got to Suva I received a rude shock: the colonial administration had sent a telegram to Stanford rescinding their permission for me to do research on Rotuma as the result of an ill-fated land commission. The land commission, headed by a Mr. Hammond, had been charged with surveying Rotuman lands, but because of a provision in the regulation establishing the commission--a provision which effectively converted Rotuman land tenure from one based on bilineal inheritence to one of patrilineality--the Rotuman people rebelled and forced commission personnel to leave the island. A great deal of anger and hostility had been aroused and the Governor of Fiji, Sir Kenneth Maddocks, had decided that an anthropologist arriving in the aftermath of the fiasco might be identified as a government agent, further aggravating an already tense situation.

The governor was away attending a meeting of the South Pacific Commission in Noumea, New Caldonia, but his Assistant Secretary, Mr. Hill, was encouraging. He made it clear that he thought an anthropologist could play a constructive role in resolving Rotuma's land problems, so I did not lose hope. Mr. Hill suggested that I make an appointment to see the governor following his return to present my case. I agreed, and feeling buoyed by the rapport I had already established with Rotumans I had met, decided to persevere. I knew that Alex Spoehr was one of the U.S. representatives to the South Pacific Commission and sent him an express letter in Noumea, explaining my situation and asking him to speak to the governor on my behalf. I felt reassured by his return note, offering encouragement and informing me he had talked with Sir Kenneth.

My interview with Governor Maddocks went well. He asked about my plans for research on Rotuma and listened patiently. His only concern, he explained, was that nothing happen to further unsettle the people there. He said that he would send a cable to the district officer on Rotuma, Fred Ieli, and have him let the Rotuma Council decide whether or not to let me come. This was a wise, practical solution, and suited me very well. Rather than being "sent" to the island by the colonial administration, I would be "invited" by representatives of the Rotuman people--if they agreed. When I informed Alex Rae and Faga about my meeting with the governor, they immediately offered to contact the district officer, a close kinsman, attesting to my good character and asking that he seek approval for my request. I was grateful, and delighted when permission was finally granted, on November 13th, a month after my arrival in Fiji. The only stipulation was that I avoid inquiring into land matters or politics while on the island.

Excited about the prospect of going to Rotuma I tried to get reservations on the next boat, the Kurimarau, but was told that would be impossible because the few cabins aboard had already been booked. I insisted that I cared not, that I would happily travel aboard deck, like most other passengers. "No," I was told emphatically, "Europeans are not allowed to travel on deck. It would set a bad example." Since I had already become aware of ethnic segregation in its many colonial forms, I was not surprised, but found it extremely frustrating. The next boat on which I was able to book a cabin was the Yanawai, scheduled to leave early in December. I decided to be philisophical about the delay and ended up using it to advantage by immersing myself in government archives, learning what I could of the Rotuman language, and various activities with my new-found Rotuman friends.

As it turned out, the Yanawai's departure was anything but routine. The day before it was scheduled to leave, Fiji's workers staged a strike that grew violent, causing much damage to downtown Suva and shutting down transportation. The city was tense, and getting to the ship meant navigating through dangerous territory. It was with great relief that I got on board on December 11th, and watched the troubled city fade into the horizon.

The trip to Rotuma took five days, with stops at Levuka, Savu Savu, Taveuni and Rabi. We reached Rotuma at midnight, December 16th, and anchored outside the reef at Motusa Bay, but did not go ashore by launch until shortly after dawn. Then I met for the first time the family that would host me for the following year.

There were no public accommodations on Rotuma. Visitors were required to make arrangements in advance to stay with a host family. While in Fiji I was given the option of having the district officer arrange something for me, but declined in favour of an offer by Lisi, one of my Rotuman friends. She suggested that I stay with her uncle and aunt, Sakimi and Seferosa, in the district of Itu'muta. They had a large house, she said, and only one daughter, Akeneta. Lisi said she would talk to her uncle, who was visiting Suva at the time, and that since I would be going to Rotuma on the same boat, would meet him before my arrival on the island. As it turned out, Sakimi went on the Kurimarau and assumed, since I was not aboard, that I was not going to Rotuma after all. He had therefore made no arrangements to accommodate me and was not present when I disembarked. I did not know this until many months later, however. What I experienced was an initial sense of confusion in which people asked with whom I would be staying, followed by a period of waiting around while being assured that a lorry was coming to take me and my luggage "home." Akeneta showed up after a little while and without hesitation welcomed me warmly. I cannot say enough about how wonderful this family was to me during my time on Rotuma, how much they made me feel at home.

As I imagine to be the case with all field work in isolated communities, I experienced intense highs, accompanied by periods of great productivity, and depressing lows, when all I wanted to do was get away from everyone. When I watched the Yanawai depart, realizing the next boat would not likely come for three or four months, I was truly apprehensive and full of doubt. But it did not take long to feel at home, which in retrospect is quite a testament to the tolerance and patience of my host family, and to Rotumans in general. On balance my experience during that year was overwhelmingly positive, almost magical at times, as I gained new insights into cultural values and human relationships.

I tried to abide by the restriction placed on my research by the colonial administration, that I not inquire about land matters, but since the recent visit of the land commission was uppermost on people's minds they kept initiating the topic in their conversations with me. To my knowledge, few people thought I was a government agent, perhaps because more exotic rumours circulated--that I was a communist spy, or that I was a descendant of Charlie Howard, a renegade sailor who married and made his home on Rotuma in the mid-19th century. One of Charlie Howard's grandsons reputedly had left for America in the 1920s and had not been heard from. "Was it true that Charlie Howard's grandson is my father?" I was asked several times; "Had I come to Rotuma to find my roots?" It was a temptation at least to leave the answer ambiguous--Charlie Howard had sired many children and being his descendant would relate me to half the population or more--but I did my best to squelch both rumours.

People wanted to express their views about the land commission fiasco, wanted me to know why they were incensed, and in the process taught me a good deal about the dynamics of land tenure. I was therefore gratified when, several months later, Christopher Legge, the Commissioner Eastern (under whose jurisdiction Rotuma fell), asked me to please include land tenure in my research and to write a report suggesting ways to deal with the problems caused by the commission. I was happy to oblige, and ended up doing my dissertation on land tenure. I also turned in a report to government pointing out the practical benefits of the current system, which was remarkably flexible. My recommendation to government was that they avoid tampering with the rules of succession and encourage Rotumans to work out disputes informally as much as possible.

My research on Rotuma was aided tremendously by two hard-working research assistants, Amai Sakimi and Rejieli Mejieli. They conducted a comprehensive census of the island, recorded migration and marital histories, took life histories, and collected data for a number of special surveys. The information they provided appears in almost all my publications on Rotuma and my debt to them is very great indeed. In 1998 Amai was awarded an M.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth for his service aboard cable ships. I am also indebted to my brother, Irwin, who assisted me in numerous ways, particularly by tabulating data from land court cases. Irwin was an undergraduate student at Reed College (Oregon) at the time, and joined me on Rotuma during his summer vacation; he enjoyed the experience so much he decided to take a semester off and act as my research assistant.

My field trip on Rotuma lasted almost exactly one year, but with Irwin's assistance, I spent another 6 months collecting survey data among Rotumans in Fiji. The first twelve papers in this set (2-13) were all based on this early field work.

My return to Rotuma after a hiatus of 27 years was a dramatic and emotional experience. I had mixed feelings about going back, inclined on the one hand to preserve idylic memories, on the other hand curious about changes that had taken place in the interim. The desire to see old friends, and to introduce my new wife, Jan Rensel, to the culture that had so definitively shaped my professional life, proved decisive. It was also much easier to get to Rotuma since an airstrip opened in 1981. We stayed for two weeks, hosted in the district of Oinafa by a nephew of Josefa Rigamoto, a dear friend who had visited me in Hawaii some years before. Despite the changes, Rotuma had retained its charm; the people radiated the same warmth and generosity of spirit I remembered, and to my delight, Jan was as taken with the island as I was. She had recently completed her master's degree in anthropology at the University of Hawaii and was in a quandry about whether to continue toward a PhD or to seek other outlets for her many talents. Her experience on Rotuma was decisive. We mutually decided to return to the island the following year during school break (May-August) so she could begin dissertation research. It would also give me an opportunity to study changes that had occurred since my first visit and were currently taking place at an accelerating rate.

We spent three months on Rotuma in 1988 and returned for each of the next three years--for six months in 1989 when Jan received a Fulbright Grant to support her research, for two months in 1990 and for a week in 1991. We went again for two weeks in 1994. The 1994 visit was part of a three month excursion to Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, where we visited Rotuman migrant communities. Jan received her PhD from the University of Hawaii in May 1994 for a dissertation entitled, "For Love or Money: Interhousehold Exchange and the Economy of Rotuma." We have continued to visit Rotuma on a regular basis: in 1996 to attend the 150th anniversary of the Catholic Mission on Rotuma; in 1998 when we again visited Rotuman communities in Australia and New Zealand; in 2001; 2003; and 2004, when we accompanied Vilsoni and Jeannette Hereniko to show their film, The Land Has Eyes.

Going back to Rotuma on a regular basis has given us a completely altered perspective. Whereas previously I was aware of historical changes to the culture, my understanding of those changes was limited to reflecting my 1960 field experience against historical documentation. Our return visits not only afforded a perspective over four decades, it allowed us to witness changes from year to year, greatly enriching our sense of culture as a dynamic process.

We continue to write about Rotuma and as new articles are published we will add them to the website. Some of our articles may prove controversial, and we beg forgiveness if anything we have written proves embarrassing or offensive to anyone. We have tried to be honest and truthful in reporting our experiences, but we realize that our points of view are limited and perhaps biased in some ways. Our hope is that Rotumans who read what we have written will be stimulated to reflect on their own understandings of Rotuman culture and history, and will write their own accounts. Only when multiple voices have been heard will the true richness and complexity of Rotuman culture be fully appreciated.

Finally, we wish to thank everyone who has befriended us over the years. Becoming part of the global Rotuman community has truly enriched our lives and we are eternally grateful.

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