The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folklore/Chapter 4



In the character of property and in the laws of succession to property, there is hardly any difference to be found in the Melanesian islands with which we are concerned; in all it may be said that property is in land and in personal possessions; that there is a certain distinction between land which has been inherited and that which has been reclaimed from the waste; that there is no strictly communal property in land; and that with landed and personal property alike, the original right of succession is with the sister's children, except where, besides the very exceptional case of Saa, there comes in the succession of children to the property which their father has acquired for himself.

The land may be considered everywhere to be divided into three parts: (1) the Town lots; (2) the Garden ground; (3) the Bush. In Florida, (1) Na Komu, (2) Na Matanga, (3) Na Leiao; in Santa Cruz, (1) Matalia, (2) Nabalo, (3) Nabanogabo; in Mota, (1) O Vanua, (2) O Utag, (3) O Mot; in Lepers' Island, (1) A Vanue, (2) A Labute, (3) A Labute virogi, which in Araga are (1) Vanua, (2) Lolgae, (3) Ute vono; and these correspond to the Yavu, the Qele, the Veikau of Fiji[1]. Of these three divisions of the land, the bush, the uncleared forest, is not property; nor, as far as I am aware, do the natives fix any limit up to which they consider the bush to belong to the particular district or group of villages in which they live, although probably they would resent the felling of trees too near their own grounds. The gardens and the sites of the villages are all held in property, and pass by inheritance; so that every part has its owner for the time, who possesses it as his share of the family property, but who can by no means alienate it as if it were simply his own. The chiefs, however powerful in some places they may be, have no more property in the land or more right over it in any of the islands than other men; they often use their power tyrannically to drive away the owners of gardens which they covet, and they are very willing to meet the common European belief that a chief is the owner of the soil, by taking a price for land which is not theirs to sell; but the ownership of every piece is remembered and will be asserted when occasion offers. The remarkable case of the landless chiefs at Saa (page 50) shews how fixed is the right of property in land. Before the coming of Europeans the sale of land was, at least at Saa, not unknown, but was at any rate uncommon; of late, especially in the New Hebrides, much land has been sold to Europeans, some honestly and effectively, some by transactions in which the title of the vendor has been nothing but his willingness to receive some calico and guns. In a true sale the consent of all who have an interest in the property must be had, and the exact boundary of each parcel of land defined; then the value of each piece and of each fruit-tree has to be ascertained, and the claim of every single individual discussed and satisfied. A fruit-tree planted on another's land, with his consent, remains the property of the planter and of his heirs[2]. It is important also to observe that the property, whether in the villages or in the gardens, does not lie in large divisions corresponding to the divisions of the people for marriage purposes into two or more kins or clans, the kema of Florida, the veve of Mota, the wai vung of Lepers' Island; but all are intermixed. It is probable enough that in the original formation of each settlement the several divisions of the people worked together to make their gardens; as it is, families have formed themselves within the divisions, the land is held by families, sons work in their fathers' gardens who are not their kin; there cannot be a family, or married couple, in which two kindreds at least have not a share.

It is remarkable indeed how precisely alike in the Solomon Islands, the Banks' Islands, and the New Hebrides, the character of property in land reclaimed from the bush asserts itself to be; and how the same effect has been produced of introducing or strengthening the tendency towards the succession of the son to his father's property, in place of the right of succession through the mother. This will be shewn, together with the very general agreement in the whole character of landed property and succession to it, as the subject is treated in some detail with examples taken from the several groups, beginning with Florida in the Solomon Islands, and passing eastwards through Santa Cruz and the Banks' Islands to the New Hebrides.

In Florida the house sites in the komu, like the gardens of the matanga, are hereditary property; and, though there do not appear to be any ancient village sites now occupied, the old sites are well remembered and their proprietors known. Members of the various kema dwelling intermixed on their property in the village have their gardens intermixed in the matanga. It happens naturally, as a village is not inhabited by a local tribe, that some of the villagers have no property of their own in the village or in the neighbouring garden grounds, in which case their neighbours accommodate them with what they want. The matanga property is never absolutely in the individual but in the kema, being looked upon as having been cleared originally by the kema; portions are occupied in hereditary succession by families within the kema, by an original agreement which now has come to be a right. These ancient family lands pass of right to members of the same kema, ordinarily the sister's children. The whole matanga near a town is seldom under cultivation at the same time; some may pass, if the place is deserted, entirely into bush again, but is never strictly leiao, for its character is remembered. In the neighbourhood of a prosperous village a man, and his sons working with him, will often clear a piece of bush land and make it matanga. This then passes to his sons without question, being held to be his own, and so long as it is clearly remembered how the land was acquired it passes from father to son; but after a time the character of the property may be forgotten, and the nephews of a deceased proprietor will claim it from his sons and be supported by their kema; serious quarrels arise in this way. A chief, vunagi, differs in no way from another man in his right to property in komu and matanga[3]. If a man plants a cocoa-nut-tree, an areca palm-tree, or other useful tree on a friend's ground, the tree goes to the planter's son, and if the land-owner continues friendly will pass on without dispute. A man also can plant in his own matanga fruit-trees expressly declared to be the property of his sons; at his death the ground will pass to his nephews, his own kin, but his sons will own the trees. Florida people are very reckless however about destroying fruit-trees.

The succession to personal property in Florida is known to be originally with the members of the kema, the kin of the deceased. These will assemble after a death, and if the deceased be not very rich, will eat up his pigs and his food. A chief will sometimes take what he likes, but has no right to do it. A man before his death will direct that his canoe is to go to his son, and he will receive it; otherwise son and nephew will each claim, and the stronger will get it. A rich man's money is divided among brothers, nephews, and, if they can get any, his sons, a fruitful source of quarrels; but a man's wife, in prospect of his death, would hide a good deal of his money, and when the crowd assembled for the division of the inheritance had dispersed, would bring it out for herself and her sons. Chiefs used to hide their money and valuable property and tambu, taboo, the place; now, when the fear of the tambu is gone, the young people search for these hoards and take what they find. These Florida customs may be taken as representing those of the surrounding islands of the Solomon group. In Saa and its neighbourhood property of course descends entirely in the patriarchal line. In Santa Cruz a man's nephews regularly succeed to his property, in land, pigs, money and other things; but the sons also in some cases succeed. A man there also has property in trees which are not on his own ground.

In the Banks' Islands also the town land, the vanua, and the garden grounds, the utag, are so far private property that the owner can be found for each piece; the owner being the one who has for his life the possession of the portion of the family land which he has inherited; the lands and houses of the two veve are intermingled; the succession to the land is rightly with the sister's children. Here also the utag is distinguished into the ancient hereditary cultivated ground, and that which has been reclaimed from the mot, the uncleared forest, by the present owner or his recent predecessors. In the first case the nephews on their mother's side of the previous proprietor occupy the ground, each taking the piece he wishes for his own garden, and all having collectively a property in the whole. The land of the other character passes to the children of the man who has cleared the forest from it; his kin have no claim to it. The children divide it into separate lots, and do not in any way hold the property in common; the eldest son will take the oldest plantation, and the youngest will have the latest which has not yet borne its crop[4]. Here the patriarchal succession is fixed; in the other case it is coming in and has a recognized footing. It is common to make arrangements by which a man's children succeed him with the consent of the heirs at law. For example, when Woser's father died, who had held an utag at Motlav in common inheritance with his brother, Woser gave a pig to his uncle, and he thereupon relinquished his claim to half the property in the garden ground, which he did not use. The heir of the deceased, and the heir also in prospect of the deceased's brother, was the son of their sister; and to him Woser gave money to quiet his claim. Upon this Woser, with his two brothers and two sisters, entered upon the utag as if they had inherited it; that is, they occupied it by a common property in the whole and with a particular occupation of separate gardens. If a similar transaction were to follow upon the death of these present owners, who are not of their father's kin, the land would go to their children who will be not of their kin but of their mother's; the property will thus revert to the veve to which it belongs. Sometimes a man before his death begs his brother not to disturb his son in his garden; he agrees, and the son takes his father's place; but the father was there of right, and the son has strictly no right; he therefore gives money to the natural heirs, his father's sister's children. In order to make a transaction of this kind secure, the son will put the money for the redemption of the garden upon his father's corpse when he is laid out for burial; the nephews and heirs of the deceased take the money from their dead maraui in the presence of the assembled people, and never can deny that they have given up their right[5]. If a man's children at his death are not rich enough to redeem the whole utag they redeem a part. It is a part of the acknowledgment of the right of the sister's children, and a part of the satisfaction for it, that fruits and other produce are allowed them for a time out of the garden; for these are the labour of the deceased, whose heirs his nephews and nieces of his own kin are; the products of the new owner's work will not be claimed. Property in trees is distinct from that in land, and goes to the planter's children. In case therefore of a sale of land there is much variety in the title to the parcels of ground and in the ownership of the fruit-trees, the knowledge of which is most minute and accurate. The exact limits of each bit of property are known, and the value of the right to be extinguished is discussed and settled by common consent[6].

The town lots in the vanua, the house sites, tano ima, are held in the same way. When a young man makes his own home he builds on the property of his kin, his mother's or his maternal uncle's. It happens naturally that the elder sons have left their father's house on marriage before his death, or do so successively after his death; the youngest son then remains with his mother and keeps the house. In a village which is nourishing a new house is built on an old site, which therefore rises in time into something of a mound; but villages are seldom permanent. When a new village is begun it may occupy an ancient site of late unused, in which case the property in the town lots is well remembered, or it may be a new occupation of ground for building. The vanua at Losalav in Motlav has been formed round a house built by the great-uncle of Woser, who gave two rawe pigs to the owner of the utag for the ground, and thus became the landlord; his daughter afterwards, though she received nothing in the way of rent, was treated with respect by the householders because they were not on property of their own.

Personal property—the pigs which are so much valued, the money, canoes, ornaments, weapons, and the various implements used in native life—goes to the children generally; but the right of the sister's children is still maintained. When a man dies his brothers and kinsmen, sogoi, will come and carry off his pigs unless the children buy them off; but if a man before his death makes a sort of testament, vatavata varvarnanau, declaring that he gives his property to his children and distributing it, they will not be disturbed in their inheritance. A great man often buried quantities of money, which was never found. In Lakona, part of Santa Maria, 'a man will hide some of his money; then if he have a good son who helps him well in his garden or always gives him food, the father will make his hoard known to him, that it may be his; if not it is gone for ever.' In that place a man's money at his death is carefully distributed in short lengths among his children and his kinsmen, and his pigs are distributed in the same way; the children give money and pigs to the kinsmen that they may keep his personal belongings, and his land and fruit-trees, which are then completely given up. In the case of the death of a native in some place in which he has settled as a stranger, or where he has been on a visit, his kinsmen, and especially his sister's son, have a right to go and take what he may have left behind him; but this is generally compounded for by a sum of money, tulag, after receiving which no further claim can be made. There is no doubt very often in such a case a suspicion or accusation of poisoning or witchcraft as the cause of death, for which compensation is demanded[7].

In the New Hebrides the ancient succession of the sister's son to his uncle's property appears to be strongly maintained in Araga, Pentecost Island, where the nephew succeeds to the house, the garden, and the pigs of his uncle, and the son takes nothing except what his father has given him in his lifetime; and even if a man makes a garden for himself out of the bush it must go to his sister's son. It is very different, however, in Lepers' Island, where the right of the sister's son seems to be barely recognized, and the property in the villages and in the gardens is held by individuals as their own, not as belonging to the waivung. The town lots are fenced round, so that the houses stand in enclosures. A man's son succeeds to his house property, but will not live in the house so long as his mother and sisters are there, on account of those restrictions upon intercourse which have been already mentioned. Houses are renewed in the same place, but not always on the same site, and villages are often shifted, the property in the ground being borne in mind. A man's garden-ground, labute, goes to his sons, who arrange the division of it among themselves, unless their father has expressed his will about it before his death. Women do not succeed to land, but have a right to a share in the produce of their father's gardens, which indeed their brothers are considered to hold partly for them. A man can make himself a new garden out of the unappropriated ground fit for gardens, the labute virogi,—loose, not tied up,— and there cannot be any difference between this and his hereditary property. Gardens are all fenced. Fruit-trees planted on another man's land remain the property of the planter and his heirs. It is in the succession to a man's personal property that the rights of kinship assert themselves. On a man's death his sons distribute his pigs, money, and other possessions, among those of his waivung, a choice pig and a larger share of other things being given to the sister's son, because his special relationship is much regarded. A man, however, will make his will, expressing his wishes as to the disposition of his property before his death. The succession to property is a fruitful source of quarrels, and it is natural that opportunity should prevail over acknowledged right when the heirs are out of the way.

There appears upon the whole a remarkable tendency throughout these islands of Melanesia towards the substitution of a man's own children for his sister's children, and others of his kin, in succession to his property; and this appears to begin where the property is the produce of the man's own industry, with the assistance in most cases of his sons, as in gardens newly cleared from the forest, in his money, his pigs, and his canoes. The original right of a man's own kin, and especially his sister's sons, to be his heirs not only to the hereditary lands which have come down in the kin but to personal property, is yet strongly maintained, even at Lepers' Island, where the advance towards the patriarchal system has been so considerable. It is probable that even at Saa something still survives of what must have been the original custom of the ancestors of that people, as well as of the rest of the Melanesians. It is evident that the newer form of succession depends upon the assertion of paternity; and as it arises sometimes on the occupation of new ground, it may be thought to be strengthened by the formation of new settlements after the family has established itself within the kin.

  1. Land tenure in Fiji has been described by the Rev. Lorimer Fison in a Paper printed in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, February, 1881, and briefly as follows: 'The tenure of land is distinctly tribal, and the title is vested in all the full-born members of the tribe. The land is of three kinds: the yavu or town lot, the qele (nggele) or arable land, and the veikau or forest. The veikau is common to all members of a community, but the yavu and the qele are divided and subdivided. Each owner, however, holds for the household to which he belongs, the household holds for the clan, the clan for the tribe, the tribe for the community, and the community for posterity. Each generation has the usufruct only, and cannot alienate the land. The chiefs have overridden this rule, but most unjustly.' This will stand for the islands west of Fiji, with the important difference made by the absence of tribes.
  2. In Fiji, 'Fruit-trees are often held by persons who do not own the land; but there is a curious distinction here. The property in this case is rather in the fruit than in the tree, and is therefore not considered to be in the land. You may take the fruit, but you must not cut down the tree without the landowner's permission. A remarkable distinction was made by one of my Fijian informants. He who has a tree on another man's land may cut it down and take it away; his axe does not touch the soil; but he may not dig the tree up by the roots, for his digging-stick would turn up the soil.'—Rev. L. Fison.
  3. Dikea the chief at Ravu drove away Logana and his family from that place on the pretext that Logana's brother-in-law had set fire to his canoe-house, but really to get possession of Logana's matanga, which was large and good. The dispossessed family at Olevuga keep their eyes on the property, waiting for Dikea's death to claim it.
  4. There is no right of primogeniture. Daughters inherit of right equally with sons, but in fact they rather transmit the inheritance to their children. So in Fiji, 'Daughters can scarcely be said to inherit land. Land is given with them at their marriage, but it is not given to them. If they hold it at all it is only a means of transmitting the land to their children.'—Rev. L. Fison.
  5. A pig has been seen delivered from the hand of a dead man at his funeral, probably with the same intention.
  6. Many years ago I completed the purchase of a piece of ground for a school at Navqoe in Mota, and found the rights, and the limits and value of the rights, of every man and woman concerned acknowledged and defined in a surprising manner. Each parcel of the land was known by boundaries drawn from tree to tree. The year before the purchase of another piece of ground for a similar purpose had been supposed to be completed, but when payment was being made at Navqoe the owner of a fruit-tree on the other ground put in his claim, which he had before omitted to make. He was accompanied by the owner of the ground on which the tree stood, who testified that the claim was good, for the claimant's grandfather had planted it.
  7. For example, Wete's son had gone over from Merlav to Merig, and there he died, having been charmed by means of a fragment of his food at the instigation of a man whose wife is Wete's sister. So on the return of the party, when the cause of death comes out, Wete shoots his sister with his gun, because her husband had been the cause of the death of his son. The whole transaction is looked upon as a matter of course (the woman not being much hurt); Wete is on the best of terms with his neighbours and relations.