The Maori Polity In The Island Of Rarotonga



ON the 19th of August, 1893, died Mana-Rangi, Chief of the Vakatini branch of the Makea family. He was the son of the great chief Te-Pou, whose portrait forms the frontispiece to the Rev. John William's “Missionary Enterprise,” and who protected the Tahitian teacher “Papeiha,” when he landed under great difficulties in 1823, to open the first Christian Mission in Rarotonga. Mana-Rangi was then a young man, and took an active part in the protection of the teacher. He must, therefore, have been between 85 and 90 when he died. His memory was clear to the last, and I had frequent opportunities of obtaining from him, through a skilled Interpreter, much interesting information as to the past and gaining a more clear idea of the present which has sprung from it. Mana-Rangi was the last intelligent living link connecting the old times with the new, and his death seems a fitting occasion to put on record as complete a sketch of the Maori polity as my imperfect knowledge will permit.

In 1823, when the Mission was begun, Rarotonga was, as now, divided among three tribes, each with an independent Ariki at its head. Frequent and sanguinary wars, cannibalism, and the most cruel punishments and practices were the prevailing characteristics. The destruction of life and of food was continual. Polygamy was the rule, with much intermarrying of near blood relations. Conjugal fidelity was enforced among the women, but girls before marriage—though not till of full age—were allowed the greatest liberty. Men approaching them before full age were punished with extreme severity and very often with death. Marriage was usually with a view to promote the aggrandisement of the family or tribe and often against the feeling of the parties most concerned. There was no divorce, but the husband might put away his wife for adultery and administer club law to the male offender.

The family—a group of Agnates and adopted children—was then, as now, the unit in the State. The authority of the head of the family over the lands and possessions was absolute and carried with it as absolute a control over the whole of the members. Community of property was the family rule, though a member might cultivate for himself any particular portion and keep the produce for his own use—if he could.

The gradations of rank were definite. Authority was strictly maintained but intercourse between persons of all classes was, and still is, marked by the most perfect freedom. Every one knew and kept his own position, but to outward appearance or to the casual observer, the Ariki in a mixed assembly was scarcely to be distinguished from the humblest of the people. None took permanent service in any capacity and domestic service, in our sense of the term, was unknown.

Land was the great object of ambition. Other forms of property were few. The land carried with it the obligation to support the family and could not be diverted from that object.

The various families were united with kindred families under a Chief of the Ngati which was known by that chief's ancestral name. The Ngatis in their turn were united under the Ariki of the Vaka (or whole tribe). The Vaka (canoe), consisted in fact of the Ariki and his or her “Kiatos,” a name derived from the spars which connected the canoe with the outrigger (or Ama). The “Kiatos” thus consisted of all the tribe excepting the Ariki where the tribe was referred to; of all the Ngati excepting the chief, and of all the family excepting the head, when the term was applied to either of them respectively.

The whole tribe or Vaka was known by the name of the Ariki who first led its ancestors to Rarotonga: Mataipos (or great chiefs), Rangatiras, Komonos, and lastly the Ungas, constituted the tribe. Each of these will be referred to hereafter.

The heathen Church and State were practically one. Sometimes the Ariki himself would be the priest and the awful power of Tapu was acknowledged and felt by all. The Tapu itself often did good service in the absence of positive public law, and was the most formidable weapon which Church and State could wield.

In a community so organised and with property so limited, the rule of the father of the family sufficied for all ordinary needs. Public laws scarcely existed, and the few relating to land and its incidents were well understood. There were no judges and no police. Councils, of greater or less importance and scope, were convened in accordance with the subject to be considered. The person calling the council would be expected to provide a suitable feast. No one presided at the meeting. No records were attempted, and the opposition of any powerful chief would prevent a decision, which could only be, with such opposition, impracticable or lead to trouble.

Contracts were unknown. If land were given or any other event of importance occurred, a feast gave the stamp and due publicity. The installation of an Ariki was marked with great ceremony and certain families officiated, by hereditary right, on such occasions. In the case of a Mataiapo (or great Noble), the funeral feast was followed by another in which the head of the best and largest pig was set aside for the successor. If taken without dispute the succession was thereby publicly made known, and disputes, if any, were generally arranged before hand. This practice is still observed and in nothing is more scrupulous care shown than in the distribution of food among the guests at all feasts in due order of rank and precedence. The pig's head goes invariably to the person of highest rank among them.

In 1827 or 1828 the Rev. Mr. Pitman became resident Missionary in Rarotonga and was visited by the Rev. John Williams from Raiatea. They formed a code of laws, but did not attempt to embody in- 22 them any of the Maori usages with reference to land or inheritance. The new code related to persons, and chiefly to moral offences or breaches of the Church law. A Judge was appointed for each division of the Island and trial by Jury decreed, but, so far as I can learn, never carried out. The Judges were assisted by a numerous body of Police, appointed by the Ariki, enrolled in the records of the Church, and consisting only of Church members. This police, irresponsible and under no direct control, incessantly spied upon and harrassed the people. The fines that they could extract from delinquents formed their sole pay and were divided at stated intervals between the Ariki, the Judge, and the Police. As an episode of that time, Mana-Rangi, one of the most respected and staunch supporters of the Church throughout his life, assured me that the revolt of the people of which we read, the repeated burnings of the house of Tupe the Judge, and the determined attempts to revert to heathenism, were only caused by the brutality with which the new laws were enforced by the Judge and police. The most severe public floggings and confinement in wells dug in the ground were common punishments for offences which the new law had created, but which public sentiment had long regarded as no offences at all. Mana-Rangi afterwards took office as Judge, at the request of a new Ariki, for the express purpose of putting an end to this state of things. He held that office with the love and respect of his own people and of the foreign residents till age compelled him to retire. I have referred to this at some length, because it seems to me that this terrible police, with its constant espionage, has done much in Rarotonga and in all the islands to counteract the good which the Missionaries themselves achieved. They kept the place in perpetual hot water and childish strife, and in many obvious ways lowered the tone and demoralised the people. In Avarua there were six sections, and some of these sections numbered as many as 50 police each, while the whole population of the district, men, women, and children, could not at any time during the last 70 years, have exceeded 2000. It is now probably about 750 or 800, and the police, through failure of fines, have happily fallen to three for the whole district.

The circumstances of the island induced the Mission to establish three separate stations—one with each Ariki. This was probably unavoidable, but crystallised the old divisions and they exist still in all their pristine vigour.

The sovereignty of an Ariki was not and is not territorial. It is claimed over all his or her people whether in the district or beyond. Thus, only last year, a crowd of 250 Mangaian's came on a visit from their island (120 miles distant) to the people of Rarotonga. While in Rarotonga the Mangaian Judge, who was one of the visitors, held court and fined Mangaians long resident in Rarotonga, for offences of drinking, concubinage, &c., and took the fines with him for division among the police and judges of Mangaia.

The population of Rarotonga in 1827 must have been at the least 6000. John Williams speaks then of a congregation of 4000 and of schools with 3000 on the rolls. To-day the population of the whole island is probably under 2000. Why they should hold their own under war and cannibalism and fade away under the blessings of peace and civilisation has never been made clear. Some of the reasons alleged would apply equally to the Negro races of the world- 23 who yet increase and flourish. But that some undiscovered cause has sapped the vitality of the Polynesian race is too evident. Rum, in their case, and especially in Rarotonga, most assuredly is not the cause whatever other there may be.

Turning now to the Present Time.

The Constitutional Unit is still the family (the kopu tangata), which flourishes in the old vigour, though causes incidental to extended production and trade are quietly sapping its influence, and must lead to ultimate decay. The family system gives a refuge to all, and prevents pauperism, which is an inestimable gain. But this family communism also kills energy and enterprise in a people naturally clever and adventurous, and while it lasts no adequate material progress can be expected.

Within the family—with often two or three generations living closely together or under the same roof—quarrels and jealousies are frequent. But no member wronged by any other member, would think of seeking legal redress, even where the family land has been fraudulently alienated.

Between separate families bitter feuds will arise and be sometimes extended to the Ngati and the tribe. Pride of place and power are among the strongest passions but find vent in a corporate instead of an individual form.

The adopted members are numerous in every family and are not distinguished from the rest. They have the same rights and are under the same obligations. The child adopted is sometimes given in charge to a foster-mother as soon as born. At others the child is left with the parent till weaned. In the latter case the adoptive parent has to provide the mother with the best of food and to find all necessaries for the child till taken away. The adoption is marked by the usual feast, all the family and friends being present on the occasion. This system of adoption is so old and constant that mothers part with their babies apparently without a pang, but its tendency must be to weaken very materially all family affection.

The child adopted must belong to kindred families in order to enter at once into the family. If from other tribes or people, he does not become a member till formally admitted and may at any future time be cast out. Children in this position are known as Tama ?? (children of the thigh).

If a daughter marry, she enters her husband's family if of the same island. If the husband be of a different island, he may be taken into the wife's family during her life. If she die before him, she may by oral will have declared that he is not to be disturbed in his relationship and her will is religiously respected. The head of the family is known to and recognised by all. The family is designated by his name with the prefix of Ngati applied in this case, as in those of larger aggregations.

The first aggregation is under the Chief on whose land the families have been settled. The sub-tribe thus formed takes its name from the Chief, and has almost invariably a common ancestor. The power and influence of the Chief thus depend on the extent of his land and on the number of the families settled upon it.

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Lastly comes the Ariki, under whom are many Ngatis. The Ariki's own landed possessions may or may not be extensive. That depends chiefly on whether the ancestor may have freely divided his conquests among his followers or retained them.

Rank And Power.

The Ariki is supreme, but largely controlled by the Mataiapos (or Nobles). A new Ariki is named by the Arikis of the other tribes from the Ariki family of the deceased's tribe. But the confirmation depends on the Mataiapos as the installation rests with them. They regard the Ariki as only the first among equals. The Ariki of one district may, through land tenure, be a Mataiapo in some other.

The Mataiapos are the most powerful class. Their families have held the land from time immemorial, on conditions of public service well understood. If, for any reason, one be displaced, a successor must immediately be appointed from the members of the family. The title and the tenure of the land are perpetual and cannot be disturbed or interrupted. The heir is the eldest son unless the holder of the title name another son before his death. The will so declared is obeyed or contested according to the circumstances of the eldest son, and has sometimes been the cause of serious quarrel.

Rangatiras hold under the Mataiapos, under the Ariki, or other independent land owner. Their services are public and honorable, but rendered at the call of the owner of their land and given to the public in his name.

Komonos are the second sons of Rangatiras, by a second wife—half brothers of the eldest, who is the rightful successor. The Komono is of right one of the family.

Ungas are the lowest. They hold their land by sufferance, and their services are personal and menial. Their origin is obscure. Mana-Rangi held that they were the descendants of the Maori people found by the first colonists, with whom they quarrelled and by whom they were conquered and made slaves. Others believe them descended from discarded Tama ?? and other offending members of families whose lands have been taken from them. The name itself is attributed by some to that of the hermit crab which lives in the shells of other fish. Others attribute it to the practice of giving them the smallest tuber (the Unga) from the tubers of the arrow-root when divided for food. Certain it is that in every division of food at a public feast, the Ungas have their share, however small and poor. As slaves, this would hardly have been the case. They would have been served apart and not with the rest.1


Very little rural land has been alienated by lease for a definite term and at a definite rent. That held by foreign residents is almost entirely on the Maori tenure, and carries with it the Maori obligations. The chief of these is being overrun by the numerous relations of the Native wife, who treat the Europeans as quite one of the family and- 25 it must be admitted are perfectly ready to be treated by him in the same way. But in the townships a peculiar state of things has arisen. To bring the people nearer to Church and School, a considerable area was set apart in each settlement and given in trust to the mission. Any one was entitled to build his house and have a plot of land in the settlement free of charge, to be held by him and his family so long as they remained in occupation. Many built on these terms, and the system lasted for half a century. But about twenty years ago traders began to desire better premses. Pressure was then brought to bear upon the Mission by the great chiefs who had originally given the land in trust. After considerable resistance the pressure was successful. The chiefs resumed possession of such land as remained unoccupied, leased it to traders, drew the rent for themselves and their families, and do so to this day. The leases are for periods extending to thirty years and many are renewable, but few of them are yet registered and their exact condition is unknown.

Present Political Arrangements.

The Council for Rarotonga still largely retains its old characteristics. Lately it has acted under an Elected Chairman and a record is kept of its proceedings, but the Arikis are always present and debate or deliberate consideration of any measure is impracticable. The feast, as a preliminary, has been discarded. This in itself is a great gain.

The chief drawback is that Chairman, Clerk, and others must be appointed as men of rank, and without regard to fitness.

Public opinion has outgrown the early laws so far that the Police found the fines fall off materially. This has led to their gradually quitting office, till the number has fallen to three in Avarua—amply sufficent, as little or no legal crime is ever heard of. In the two other districts, with fewer foreign residents, the growth of public opinion in this respect is slower but none the less sure.

In order to organise a proper Government and Legislature, to pay those intrusted with the administration of justice, and to advance the community generally, a staple revenue is required. In order to raise that fairly, it must be levied somewhat in proportion to the ability to bear the burden, and the Council must be reorganised before this can be effected. I have suggested to the Arikis that they should confine themselves to the right of revision and veto, and leave the Council to be elected by the heads of households without distinction. The Mataipos insist, however, on a separate representation. This would involve a separate representation for the foreign residents who could not for a moment be placed with the Rikirikis or common people. If the objection of the Mataiapos can be overcome—and I hope that with patience it can be—the Council could be selected by all without distinction, and including the foreign residents, one or two of whom might expect election by the Natives whose confidence they have obtained. A Council so formed would be a very great advance but so far I have not been able to obtain its acceptance. An attempt to properly regulate the election of the Council at Aitutake has also so far failed, owing to the opposition of the Arikis and old chiefs who consider that it is “cutting off their heads” to establish such a system. There are, however, many of the more intelligent and the younger- 26 men who strongly desire the change. The contest will do good in preparing the people better to use the power when obtained.

The Federal Parliament stands out as an example and its influence is being silently felt. Each island sends three representatives, chosen as the people of that island may decide. It meets in a house built for the purpose out of the revenue of the Federation. The meeting is held on a day fixed by law and without being called by any chief in particular. The members are mixed and many of them of the younger and more advanced generation. The proceedings are in perfect order and controlled by the elected Chairman. A record is properly kept, and questions are decided by the majority, so that the meetings are not as of old without practical result. There is an Executive, with Queen Makea as its elected chief. Its operations, in a financial point of view, have been successful, and a revenue—modest enough in amount—has been raised by import duties, sufficient to meet all legitimate demands. The authority of the Government has been shown by the recent extradition of a fugitive charged with a criminal offence from Tahiti, and by payment of the fine levied on the Ariki by whom he was sheltered and protected in Atiu.

The example offered by the Federal Parliament, the extension of trade, the increasing wants of the people, the division of labour and its varied power of earning according to the skill of the workman, are all tending to promote corporate government, to destroy the communism of the family and to substitute a system having greater regard to the individual. Rashly or hastily effected, this great change may destroy what is good in the old system and create evils. The mental capacity of the Maori of Rarotonga and of the islands of the Cook group is undoubted. The vessel they are now completing in Rarotonga—a schooner of about 100 tons—planned and built entirely by themselves, is of itself a sufficient demonstration. If changes are not too suddenly forced upon them, and free play is given to their faculties by the teaching of English—which the London Missionary Society, I am glad to say, have determined on making part of their Mission work without delay—I entertain the strongest hope that the Native people of the Cook Islands, able to read English books and trained to self-government, will exercise an important influence in the future over the multitude of islands to which they already have contributed so many Missionaries and Teachers. The spread of that influence must carry with it the influence of New Zealand with which the Cook Islands are in such close intercourse, and to which they will be so largely indebted for the help they now receive.

Source JPS
1  Unga is, no doubt, connected in root with the New Zealand word hunga, which means “folk,” “people.”—Editors.


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March 2017

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