Volume 102 1993 > Volume 102, No. 3 > After the vanilla harvest: Stains in the Tongan land tenure system, by Paul Van Der Grijp, p 233-254
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Land tenure is a perennial and important topic in the literature on Tonga. However, most publications on land law and land use practices in Tonga remain extraordinarily normative. They simply state the written law, rather than talking about what people in Tonga actually do with land, which is, in fact, quite different. After a summary of historical and contemporary backgrounds, and a brief review of the land legislation, this paper deals with a detailed case study of the inheritance of land within a kin group. This group was chosen as an example because it displays a number of tendencies which can be viewed as representative of the stage of development which Tongan society as a whole is undergoing at the moment. A transition is taking place from shifting slash-and-burn cultivation to intensive agriculture (permanent use of the same plot of land, mechanical traction, artificial fertiliser, chemical pesticides, etc.); from self-sufficient production and gift exchange in which money plays a marginal role to commercial agricultural production in which money and the banking system occupy a central place; from a society in which it goes without saying that everyone has a place of one's own to a situation in which part of the working population is forced to sell its labour power elsewhere by engaging in wage labour in the capital or abroad. In short, we are dealing with a structural change in the relations of Tongans to nature, and in their relations to one another.

The Kingdom of Tonga in Western Polynesia encompasses 150 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by some 100,000 persons. The Tongan islands, situated between Fiji, Samoa and — at a larger distance — New Zealand, have a total surface area of 699 km2. Between 1900 and 1970 Tonga was a British protectorate. At present, Tonga is the only lasting Polynesian kingdom. This island kingdom is divided into three parts for administrative purposes: the Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vava'u groups. The Tongatapu Group is in the south and is named after its main island, Tongatapu. Nowadays two-thirds of the population of Tonga live on this island, which also contains the capital, Nuku'alofa. The Ha'apai Group is 150 km and the Vava'u Group is 300 km to the north of Tongatapu, respectively. My case study relates to the main island of the Vava'u Group, to 'Uta Vava'u. 1


The right to dispose of all land, the most important means of production in this - 234 predominantly agrarian society, used to be vested in theory in the Tu'i Tonga, the sacred sovereign who personified the whole of Tongan society through his divine origin. In fact, however, the land was controlled by a large number of chiefs. These chiefs ('eiki) derived their status and power, which varied considerably from one chief to another, from their collateral genealogical distance from the Tu'i Tonga and/or their war service (Gifford 1929:174-5). Each chief controlled a large area of land, including the people who lived and worked on it. In terms of the ideology, these people were related to one another (kāinga). It was the prerogative of the chief to distribute the land among his followers. In the first instance he did so among the heads of the extended families ('ulumotu'a) who, in turn, distributed it further. Nowadays people live together in villages, and the unit of production and consumption is the household, usually consisting of a nuclear family plus one or two additional members. In former times, however, people lived in extended families scattered over the land that they worked (Lapérouse 1797:387; Orlebar 1833:49). Nowadays, at least officially, property rights to land are inherited on a strictly individual basis, but that was not always the case. In earlier times, these rights passed gradually from the entire group of adult males in one generation to the entire group in the following generation within the predominantly patrilineal and virilocal extended family, which was the unit of production and consumption. However, the chief retained ultimate control of the land and the people. This meant not only that he could arbitrarily dispossess people of their property rights, but also that he appropriated a portion of their produce, fatongia, a levy on goods and labour, in return for his military protection and arbitration in conflicts. The concept of fatongia (in the sense of a levy on goods and labour) is here used in a specific historical sense. As such, it is a special application of the general concept of fatongia, which still occupies an important place in Tongan ideology: fatongia as a moral and social obligation towards other individuals and towards society as a whole. The Tongan historian, Sione Lātūkefu, sums up the historical relations between commoners and chiefs as follows:

They worked his lands for him, helped to build his houses or canoes and gave him their services in times of war. In addition, the first fruits of every crop were taken to him, a custom known as polopolo. He received the best of everything…The commoners had to produce enough surplus to provide the fatongia as well as their own subsistence needs by working the land, fishing the sea and caring for domestic animals. Manual work was for commoners, not for chiefs (Lātūkefu 1975:9).

In turn, the chiefs had fatongia obligations towards the Tu'i Tonga and other high-ranking chiefs — though it was the commoners (tu'a) who paid this levy in the last instance. 2

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This feudal-like system was terminated by Siaosi Tāufaā'hau Tupou I and his 1875 Constitution, which was drawn up with the assistance of the Wesleyan missionary Shirley Baker. 3 As the first modern king of Tonga, Tāufa'āhau was faced with the (historical) necessity of depriving the chiefs of their traditional privileged position without losing their loyalty. To this end, he gave certain chiefs an aristocratic title, nōpele (based on the English “noble”), and the supervision of an inalienable domain (tofi'a) which was tied to the title and was to be inherited in accordance with the principles of patrilineality and primogeniture. He appointed 20 chiefs in 1875, another 10 in 1880, and later a further three to the landed aristocracy. The largest area of the cultivable land passed into their hands. Other tofi'a were granted to members of the royal family and to the Government, while all urban and village territory and all the land which was not suitable for cultivation, such as beaches and steep hills, also passed into the hands of the Government. Most adult males (in 1875 the total population amounted to some 20,000 persons) were given the formal status of independent, small-scale farmers. Each man above the age of 16 (the age from which taxes had to be paid) had the right to a plot of agricultural land comprising 8.25 acres and to a smaller plot of land in the village or town where he could build a house. The right of usufruct to both plots of land was to be transmitted in its entirety from father to eldest son and was inalienable without the mediation of a judge. The landed aristocracy was bound to distribute the largest part of its domain to those who could lay legal claim to it. In return, the aristocracy could demand an annual rent on the land. The remaining part of its domain, their “own” land, could be distributed among whomsoever the gentry themselves thought fit, although a more definitive transfer to the latter also required Government approval.

Those who were selected for aristocratic titles from the old class of chiefs were, in fact, those who, despite their previous hostility towards Tāufa'āhau, already owned the largest territories and had the most people in their grip, including the pretenders to the Tu'i Tonga and the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua titles. The king also gave the aristocracy a privileged position within the new form of government laid down in the Constitution. The fatongia of the commoners were to be abolished in exchange for the new privileges. This meant that the chiefs could no longer compel them to perform unpaid labour, or to provide services or goods. The chiefs who were not elevated to aristocratic status — most of whom were minor chiefs — received an annual salary. However, the planned changes were implemented only at a slow pace and it was certainly true of the early years after the Constitution that the “chiefs cum nobles were permitted to continue their exercise of authority over areas with which they had traditionally been associated or that they had acquired in the disruption of Tupou's rise to power” (Marcus 1978:517). But, even after 1882, when the rights and obligations of the landed aristocracy and the small farmers were defined more precisely, the old relations - 236 had not disappeared totally and the proclaimed emancipation of most of the population had still not been put into practice. 4

The chiefs who did not receive an aristocratic title and the corresponding tofi'a after 1875 became petty chiefs ('eiki si'i). These petty chiefs had even less power over the commoners than they had before (by comparison with the high-ranking chiefs) because they no longer had any land to distribute. In practice, the 'eiki si'i funtioned, and still function, as agents for the aristocratic titleholders, most of whom have gone to live in or near the capital, Nuku'alofa, and have become absentee landlords of the islands where their tofi'a are located (Marcus 1980, 1981, 1989; Wood-Ellem 1981). The 'eiki si'i were thus, still able to play an important part in the granting of land to the male commoners who were not the eldest sons. With the growing land shortage of recent decennia, this function of the 'eiki si'i has become progressively less effective. All the same, they still enjoy considerable prestige and symbolic power as specialists and guarantors of Tongan tradition (faka-Tonga). As such, the 'eiki si'i often act as ceremonial spokesmen (matāpule) to the aristocratic titleholders and members of the royal family. The function of matāpule, “serviteurs des chefferies” as Guiart calls them (1963:671), is a time-hallowed Tongan practice.


On 'Uta Vava'u today, where I conducted my main field research, vanilla is the main cash crop. Vanilla cultivation is one way of getting rich (by Tongan standards). The average annual vanilla harvest for men in the village of Taoa who have been growing vanilla for some time yields T$5,000, but differs greatly from one individual to another. By comparison, a hardworking Tongan can expect to earn about T$800 a year from copra, the second most important cash crop. A female producer can earn between T$50 and T$100 per visiting tourist cruiser from the sale of tapa, baskets, mats, etc. The raw materials they use — the bark of the paper mulberry tree (hiapo), pandanus leaves and the veins of the coconut palm leaf — are also agricultural products. Women, therefore, also have rights of usufruct to the land, but they are derived from the property rights of their fathers, brothers or husbands (Van der Grijp 1987, 1991).

The Bank of Tonga (Pangike 'o Tonga) and the Tongan Development Bank, the only other bank in Tonga, are usually prepared to make loans to men who want to start up in vanilla production. Besides the cash “gift” to nōpele which some people now have to find in order to obtain the land they need — they are only a few isolated cases in Taoa, but their number is growing rapidly in Tonga as a whole — the initial problem for all vanilla planters and their households is that there is no vanilla harvest for the first three years. On the other hand, setting up a lucrative vanilla field demands so much energy and is so labour intensive - 237 (partly because of the need to pollinate all the plants by hand) that it is impossible to grow other crops at the same time. As a result, the planters are dependent on the market during this period for their daily food and for the raw materials for the handicrafts which the women produce. After three years of labour investment without any returns, the following 10 years are harvest years, and there is a lot of money in vanilla cultivation, by Tongan standards. However, by this time, debts have mounted up as a result of three years of buying food and other necessities on account. Banks correctly work on the assumption that it is impossible to pay off this debt in a couple of years.

One cultural factor in this context is the fact that Tongans are traditionally accustomed to immediately consume and/or give away all the money and goods that they have, especially if they have accumulated at a certain moment. In the words of an informant:

Taoa used to be a poor village, but thanks to the vanilla it's improved. The vanilla brings in a lot of money, but a large number of people are still poor because they don't use the money properly. A few weeks after the harvest or after the sale of the dried vanilla pods, their money is all gone and, if you ask what they have spent it on, they often don't even know what to reply. After the vanilla harvest you can see groups of men in the village going from one kava circle to another in the evening and spending right, left and centre.

The informant is referring not only to the admission charge to the kava clubs, which has now been raised from T80¢ to T$2, but also to fund-raising parties which are commonly held during this period. Sometimes these are events to raise money for the development of the village, such as sanitary facilities; at other times they are to raise money for the church or for the missionaries. But the men from Taoa also go to other villages to spend their money and to show off what they have earned. At the kava parties (faikava) there are often unmarried young women who serve the kava to the men and who take their turns at dancing. The men try to impress the women as well as one another with their gifts of money. Moreover, a large part of the money earned from the vanilla harvest is donated direct to the church. Some people invest their earnings in making improvements to their house, or they buy a truck for transport to the bush and to Neiafu, the capital of Vava'u. However, these are exceptions. The debt to the bank usually remains the same as it was before, according to this informant, a resident of Taoa.


The French anthropologist Maurice Godelier defines property (propriété) as “a set of abstract rules governing access to and control, use, transfer and transmission of any and every social reality which can be the object of a dispute” - 238 (1984:104; transl. 1986:75-6). He adds that the following points should be borne in mind:

  • 1) the concept of property can be applied arbitrarily to any material or immaterial reality;
  • 2) the rules of property are always presented as normative rules which prescribe certain forms of behaviour and prohibit others under threat of sanctions;
  • 3) the rules of property of a society form systems based on a plurality of divergent, and even contradictory, principles which are combined;
  • 4) qualities are distinguished in these systems with a greater or lesser degree of precision, determining the number of those who own rights and exactly what those rights entail;
  • 5) a specific form of property does not just exist as a system of abstract rules, but in order to be applied to and implemented in and by a process of concrete appropriation of the reality concerned (Godelier 1984:104-19; see also Godelier 1991).

Finally, it should be noted that many languages possess different terms to indicate the various legal aspects of property. Tongan society contains both a traditional system of rights to land and legislation based on Western models, which leads to problems and contradictions in this respect, as we shall see.

Land inheritance is regulated by Tongan law as follows: On the death of a registered male cultivator of a plot of ground who thus has rights to it, his widow inherits it until her death, unless she remarries or commits adultery or wantonness (which has to be established by a court of law). If there is no widow, or when she herself dies, the rights are transferred to the eldest son. If he has no male heirs, the rights are transferred to the second eldest son or to his male heirs, and so on. A daughter can inherit only if there are no male heirs at all; she holds the rights until her death, unless she marries or has committed wantonness as established by a court of law. The Tongan legislation on land is evidently viricentric by nature. Women do not have rights unless there are no men. 5 Moreover, the legislation does not allude to adultery or acts of wantonness by males.

If there are no sons, grandsons or daughters — and only legitimate children count — the rights are transferred to the brothers of the deceased. If this is not feasible, the rights are transferred to the brothers of the father of the deceased and their descendants. A person who already possesses land or is the legal heir to a plot of land cannot inherit a second plot but, in certain cases, he may choose between two different plots. If there are no heirs at all, the plot of land is returned to the noble titleholder (the nōpele) or to the Government. The law lays down that a plot may be divided among different heirs only in exceptional cases and under strictly defined conditions. 6 It was laid down that, in the last instance, the monarch disposes of all territory. Nevertheless, no one is permitted to sell land — neither the direct users, the aristocracy, nor the - 239 sovereign himself. The first article from the Constitution dealing with land, Article 109, begins as follows: “It is hereby solemnly declared by this Constitution that it shall not be lawful for ever for any one of this country, whether he be the King or any one of the Chiefs or any one of the people of this land to sell one part of a foot of the ground of the Kingdom of Tonga […]” (cited in Lātūkefu 1974:278). The message is clear enough: Tongan soil is not for sale. The legal prohibition on the sale of land is equally binding on the commoners as on the aristocracy and the king.

In 1927 a law was enacted which fixed the maximum surface area of a plot of land at eight acres. Plots of land registered before 1927 could be maintained but, from 1969, large holdings of this kind have come under increasing pressure. Those who did own a larger plot, usually varying between 16 and 20 acres, were nevertheless able to find ways of ensuring that the land remained the preserve of their own descendants. For example, the father of a man called Ta'ofitu'a in the village of Taoa had a 16-acre plot. Before he died he registered eight acres in the name of his only son, Ta'ofitu'a, and eight acres in the name of the second son of Ta'ofitu'a. Since the eldest son of Ta'ofitu'a will automatically inherit his father's land, both his sons will now have a plot of land of their own in the future.

The new users have to pay registration and survey fees to the State on all official land transactions. This applies when a person receives land from a noble (nōpele) or when a son inherits from his father. The survey fee for a yard is T$17.50 and the registration fee is T$1.75. The survey fee for a four-acre plot of agricultural land is T$17.50 and for an eight-acre plot it is T$28. The registration fee for agricultural plots is a fixed sum of T$3.5. Since the end of the 19th century it has been compulsory to pay the nōpele an annual rent of T$0.8 on all agricultural plots. This sum has never been raised, to the great annoyance of the aristocracy, and for years it has borne no relation to the real value of money: T$0.8 is not enough to buy a packet of cigarettes! For example, Tupouto'a, the estateholder of Taoa, does not even bother to collect it. On the other hand, he does regularly receive large gifts of food from this village, which costs the villagers much more in the long term. 7

The next section contains a case study. First, however, I shall define another concept, borrowed from Claude Lévi-Strauss. This specialist in kinship studies has introduced the concept of maison to the ethnological terminology. He defines a maison as a “…personne morale détentrice d'un domaine, qui se perpétue par transmission de son nom, de sa fortune et de ses titres en ligne réelle ou fictive, tenue pour légitime à la seule condition que cette continuité puisse s'exprimer dans le langage de la parenté ou de l'alliance, et, le plus souvent, des deux ensemble” (Lévi-Strauss 1984:190). This is a form of social organisation which was previously supposed to occur only in so-called complex societies (compare the notions of “noble house” and “royal house”), but which, Lévi- - 240 Strauss claims, can be found universally, even in nonliterate societies. The maison is not synonymous with the nuclear family or the household, nor with the clan or the lineage, but, as the definition quoted shows, it is connected with them. This is also evident from an additional feature: “Pour se perpétuer, les maisons font largement appel à la parenté fictive, qu'il s'agisse de l'alliance ou de l'adoption” (Lévi-Strauss 1984:190).

I shall use this maison concept in my following analysis as an “etic” concept to replace the many terms Tongans use to indicate this local kinship group (fāmili, fāmili lahi, fa'ahinga, matakali, and sometimes even kāinga). This group is (ideally) headed by the oldest male member, the 'ulumotu'a, and does not have a proper name. To avoid confusion with the term “household” and with “house” in the sense of a building, the French term maison has been retained throughout. The Tongan maison is a local group of both biological and classificatory kin. It originates as a number of brothers and their descendants but, at times, it may originate from a number of brothers and a sister, a cousin and/or a friend together with their descendants. The distance between the core of ancestors within the maison and the younger heads of the actual households is usually three generations (Decktor Korn 1977; Van der Grijp 1988).


This section is a demonstration of family strategies for acquiring land; it deals with how land is transmitted within a maison. The data are taken from discussions with the present-day heads of the households and go no further back than four generations (about a century). Figure 1 indicates those members of a maison who are eligible for a plot of agricultural land in accordance with the 1875 Constitution, as well as the genealogical relations between these members.

In two cases [numbers 11 and 14], it was necessary to include noneligible persons in the figure for purposes of clarity. The genealogical knowledge is clearly pyramidal in structure and is probably selective in that respect, for it is possible that the first two individuals in Figure 1 had brothers, although none of the informants was able to provide more information on this point.

The name of the first individual [1] is unknown. He was born in, the village of Makave in the eastern Hahake district of the island of 'Uta Vava'u, and had a plot of agricultural land ('api 'uta) nearby. This distant ancestor must have died near the time of the 1875 Constitution. His son, Tu'itupou [2], inherited his father's plot near Makave and later also received a plot near Taoa after the death of a friend who had no sons. Tu 'itupou continued to live in Makave. His two sons, Vili and Metu 'i [3 and 4], inherited his plots near Taoa and Makave, respectively. Vili moved to Taoa, while Metu' i continued to live in Makave. Vili' s plot of land near Taoa was inherited by his son Siua [5]. Metu'i' to sons, Kelepi and

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Figure 1: Members of a maison with the right to land.

'Otunuku [6 and 7], married women from Taoa. They both went to live there after each had received a plot of land from the Taoan chief, Maka. After his uxorilocal marriage, Kelepi gave the land he had inherited from his father in Makave to a relative by marriage, his wife's brother's son. Over a period of four generations all the male descendants of the ancestor [1] about whom we have information thus moved from Makave to Taoa, a distance of about 15 kilometres.

Siua [5] wanted to keep his three sons together, so he gave each of them an equal share in his plot near Taoa. The ages of these three sons are now 61 (Mosese Langi [8]), 56 (Filimone Tu' itupou [9]) and 54 (Tevita Tu' itupou [10]). Mosese, the head ('ulumotu'a) of the maison, is married and has 10 children living at home, including an adopted son. His oldest son, Lolohea Tu'itupou [17], who is 28 years old, is married and has two children. In 1968 he obtained a plot of land from Taoa's absentee landlord, the crown prince Tupouto'a, through chief Maka. Mosese's second son, Isilele [18], who is 26 years old, was adopted seven years ago by his father's sister (his mehekitanga), Mosese's wife, and therefore by Mosese himself. Isilele's biological father, Tevita Taufa'ao, who belongs to a different maison, was appointed chief's attendant (matāpule) to Maka at the age of 30. On this occasion Tupouto'a gave him the matāpule name Ngana and a second plot of land, which he later gave to Isilele. Isilele was thus 19 years old - 242 and in possession of a plot of land when he was adopted. Mosese's third son, Viliami [19], who is 25 years old, still lives with his parents. He will later inherit his father's plot, since Viliami's oldest brother Lolohea already has land of his own. Mosese's four youngest sons [20, 21, 22 and 23] are between the ages of 16 and 23 years. They all still attend school but, in the future, they may help Viliami on his land and share in the harvest.

The two youngest sons of Siua, Filimone [9] and Tevita [10], are both married. They each have six children in their household (Figure 1 shows only the children eligible for a plot of land). Filimone's oldest son, Akuila Tu'itupou [24], is 30 years old. He is married and has adopted his younger brother's son, who lives in his house. Akuila does not have any land of his own. He and his father work on the father's land. Filimone's second son [25] lives with Akuila. He is 28 years old and teaches in Taoa at the primary school. In 1982 he received a plot of land from the nōpele of a neighbouring village, after he had given him a “gift” in the form of a large sum of money. Filimone's two youngest sons, Loveke and Penifonua [26 and 27], are 20 and 18 years old, respectively. They live with their parents and work on their father's land. Taofa [28], the only son of Tevita Tu'itupou [10], still lives with his parents and works with his father on the latter's land. He will inherit it later.

Atunaisa Malama [12], who is 52 years old, originally came from Neiafu. He joined his wife, Salome [11], a sister of the three Tu'itupou brothers [8, 9 and 10], in Taoa. The marriage of Atunaisa and Salome is the third instance of uxorilocality in this maison, at least as far as the genealogical knowledge goes. The land which Atunaisa inherited from his father in Neiafu is now used by Atunaisa's son-in-law. Atunaisa, his stepson Sale Tonga [29] and Sale's three sons [36, 37 and 38] all work on Sale's land. Atunaisa's household consists of three individuals: besides himself and his wife, Salome, his mother-in-law, Mele Laumanu, the-83-year old widow of Siua [5], lives with them. Atunaisa's stepson, Sale Tonga [29], is 43 years old. He is married and has four children, one of whom is adopted. Filimone [9] gave Sale part of his land. The two oldest sons of Sale Tonga, Sekeni and Konai, [36 and 37] are both 19 years old and their younger brother Atunaisa [38] is 17. They still live with their parents and work on their father's land. The oldest son, Sekeni, will later inherit his father's land, the plot which Filimone gave to Sale.

Siale Vailea [13], a 70-year-old widower, lives with four of his children and three grandchildren. He inherited half of the land of his father, Kelepi [6], near Taoa. He now works this land together with his youngest son, Hina [31], who is 27 years old. Through the intervention of chief Maka, Siale received a second plot of land for Hina from Tupouto'a in 1987. Uepi Tonga Vailea [30], Siale's oldest son, is 43 years old. He is married and has one child. His wife's younger sister lives with them. After his father's death, Uepi will inherit the land which - 243 his father and Hina work, while Hina will receive the land which Uepi now uses.

Siale's brother Sione [14] inherited the other half of the land of their father, Kelepi [6]. After Sione's death in 1975, his widow, Losana [15], who is now 53 years old, inherited the rights of usufruct to the land. At present it is worked by the only one of her children who still lives with her, Tuanitoni [34], her 22-year-old son. Losana's oldest son, Kelepi II [32], named after his grandfather, is married and has two children. He used to live in Taoa, but in 1980 he moved with his family to the capital, Nuku'alofa, where he got a job playing in the police brass band, a reasonably paid and prestigious job by Tongan standards. After the death of his mother, Losana, Kelepi II will inherit her land. Uatisoni [33], Losana's second son, is unmarried. He emigrated in 1982 from Taoa to Australia, where he has found work as a casual labourer.

Sioeli Fonise [16], who is 57 years old, inherited the plot of land of his father 'Otunuku [7]. Sioeli is married and has one adopted son, Vilimanu [35], who is 23 years old. Vilimanu lives with him and they work on the land together. Vilimanu's biological father, Moala, lives in the village of Longomapu a few kilometres away. Moala is a younger cousin of Sioeli.

Figure 2 is intended to bring some order into this clutter of empirical data. It should be read in the light of the kinship relations indicated in Figure 1. In fact, Figure 2 can be superimposed on the genealogy of Figure 1. The arrows indicate the direction in which the various plots of land have travelled or will travel socially as a means of labour (see Meillassoux 1977:323), as an object of rights of usufruct and therefore also as an object of contradictions. All the arrows in Figure 2 represent the transference of land. The arrows differ in the drawing (dotted lines, continuous lines, etc.) to trace the origin and transmission of the different plots of land. The double lines indicate the social boundaries of the maison.


As in the rest of Tonga, the commonest form of inheritance of land within the maison was, and still is, from father to son. Cases in the genealogy illustrated in the diagrams are [l] to [2], [4] and [6]; [2] to [3], [5], [8] and [19]; and so on. There was apparently no shortage of land in the first four generations of this genealogy. The same applies to the fifth generation, the oldest surviving generation, with the exception of Atunaisa Malama [12], the third case of uxorilocality within the maison, who did not inherit land from the Taoa chief Maka, as in the previous two cases. The two other men who married uxorilocally, Kelepi and 'Otunuku [6 and 7], were distant relatives of Maka, who came from the village of Makave himself. Their uxorilocal marriages are probably connected with with this local, genealogical link with the chief of Taoa, although it is difficult to confirm that

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Figure 2: Land inheritance in the same maison.

now. At the time they moved there, Maka still had many plots of land to distribute on behalf of the large landowner of Taoa. His present-day descendant and successor to the title of Maka has only a modest plot of land to meet his own needs. 8 If Atunaisa [12] is to gain access to agricultural land, he has to appeal to his stepson, Sale Tonga [29], who himself has three sons who are almost grown up.

In 1978 Siale Vailea [13] was able to obtain a plot of land for his youngest son Hina [31] from Tupouto'a through Maka, but this was the last occasion on which Maka distributed Tupouto'a's land. In the same year, the 65-year-old half-brother of Sioeli Fonise [16], Kaseli Kaifahina, obtained a plot of land of his own. Until then he had always “borrowed” land from his relatives. Both Siale and Kaseli are related to Maka through his kāinga. 9 The third person to receive land in 1978 was Samuela Asikia. Both Samuela and Kaseli belong to a different maison.

As a result of the increase in population there has been no land near Taoa available for distribution since 1978. This raises evident problems for the youngest generation of adult males. Numbers 20-3, 25-7, 33, 34, 37 and 38 need - 245 not expect to receive land of their own, since they are not the oldest sons. In this respect, Viliami Langi [19] was lucky, for his older brother Lolohea [17] had already obtained a plot of land in 1968 because his father had asked Tupouto'a for it in time. Vilimanu [35], the adopted and only son of Sioeli Fonise [16], has no claim to the land of his biological father, Moala, because he is his youngest son. However, it is not certain that Vilimanu will inherit the land of his adoptive father, Sioeli [16], either, although it is not entirely ruled out. This is because it may be inherited by one of the youngest sons of Sioeli's half-brother (who belongs to a different maison) or by one of the relatives of Sioeli's wife. Vilimanu's future is, thus, an uncertain one. The only members of the youngest generation of adult males who can be sure of receiving land are the two sons [30 and 31] of Siale Vailea [13]. They each have a full plot, or will have one (after the death of Siale Vailea, in Hina's case), and there are no younger brothers to claim the traditional right to share in using the land. Figures 1 and 2 may suggest that Taofa [28] is in an equally fortunate position, but the genealogy indicates only individuals above the age of 16, in other words, men and women who have rights at this moment. Taofa, however, has a 5-year-old brother (who was adopted by his parents) who will also be needing land.

What often happens in practice is that younger brothers work on the land of their older brothers and share in the produce. The original plot belonging to Siua [5] was divided into three plots for his three sons [8, 9 and 10]. There is, thus, not much left over for his grandsons, especially if numbers 19-23 all have to share a single plot of land and have plans to set up individual households. A solution to the problems of this large family may be offered by the adoption of Isilele [18]. He has a plot of land of his own, and Tongan tradition expects older brothers, including adopted ones, to help their younger brothers and to share their possessions.

Men are also expected to help their sisters and their children. Though not laid down in written law, a Tongan also has the right to demand items from the mother's brother, such as pigs, a share of the harvest, handicraft articles, and so on. The relation ship between [2] and [22] provides an example concerning land. Filimone [9] had inherited a third of this father's land and now has four sons. All the same, he could not refuse Sale Tonga [29] the right to share in the use of his land because of his genealogical position (sister's son). Since Sale's mother is the father's sister (mehekitanga) of Filimone's children, Sale can allow himself a degree of freedom in using Filimone's possessions. However, the pressure on the small parcel of land is becoming too much now that Sale has three sons and he allows his stepfather, Atunaisa Malama [12], to use the land as well.

There was only a single plot of land for the three sons of Sione and Losana Kiokata [14 and 15]. In this case, two of the three sons have left Taoa: one took a Government job in Nuku'alofa and the other went to work as a migrant labourer - 246 in Australia. The youngest son, Tuanitoni [34], now works the land. When his mother, the widow Losana, dies, his oldest brother, Kelepi II [32], will inherit the land and Tuanitoni will lose his means of subsistence. However, since Kelepi has a good job with the police brass band, it is likely that he will stay in Nuku'alofa for the time being and that Tuanitoni will be able to continue using the land, though without having a legal right to it. This might prove awkward if Kelepi were to lose his job or if the brothers were to argue.

The examples of reactions to the growing shortage of land outlined above indicate a partial return to the pre-Constitution system, when all the males in the maison had access to (the use of) land. Land is now officially transferred from father to oldest son but, in practice, the use of the land, and in some cases even the inheritance rights, are shared between younger brothers and other relatives. However, a growing number of young men emigrate to the capital or abroad in the search for an income for themselves and their households.


A recent development in the transfer of land in Tonga is the intervention of money on a large scale. As the law cited earlier shows, the sale of land in Tonga is formally prohibited. Even the king is not allowed to sell land. An increasingly common practice nowadays, however, is that people who want land make a gift (me'a'ofa) of cash to a noble titleholder, a nōpele. He returns the favour by making a gift of land, by giving his permission for the plot of land concerned to be officially registered in the name of the direct user. This is the only guarantee of legal security today. 10 The parties involved do not view the transaction as a sale, and there is no contract. Despite the large sum of money (by local standards) which the “donor” has to hand over discreetly or not — in order to be eligible for a plot of land, he has no formal right to the land concerned. If the nōpeledoes not reciprocate with a gift (the plot of land), the donor simply loses his money.

The following fragments of a parliamentary debate illustrate how nobles deal with the land question in public. The speakers are T. Fuko, representing the common people, and Fusitu'a and the Acting Minister of Lands, both representing the nōpele.

T. Fuko:

spoke of how land has been sold even though it was illegal to do so, and because land could be sold it was only people with money and foreigners bought land.


told the Member [of Parliament] that he was giving nobles a bad name.

T. Fuko:

apologised and said that most of the people who were selling land were people with tax allotments (i.e., agricultural land).


reminded the Member of the traditional way of acquiring land, that is, that you take a kava and a gift to the noble.

T. Fuko:

agreed, but he said that only foreigners grow the particular kind of kava that - 247 was required. According to the Constitution, land could be attained without even kava. He commented on how a certain amount of money was required before one could get a piece of land in some areas.

Acting Minister of Lands:

proposed the deletion from the record of a reference made by the Member regarding the sales of land, and replace it with the traditional means of presenting kava and a gift.

T. Fuko:

said that whatever term was used it still meant the same thing.

Acting Minister of Lands:

told the House [of Parliament)]that matters relating to the breaking of laws should be taken to the court but should not be presented to the House.


explained how the word “sale” could be used on a number of occasions including the sale of land, but then on the other hand on each of these occasions there was a more appropriate word for the presenting of kava and gifts.

T. Fuko:

commented that there were a lot of remarks that now were required to be deleted from the record of the House. He queried where else he would be allowed to speak. He stressed that people have lost their rights because of the sales of land.


said that it was virtually impossible for anybody to get any land for nothing. He said that he had given a woman T$3,800 in exchange for a piece of land in town.

(Source:Tonga Parliamentary Bulletin III: 189-90; September 25, 1986)

A few days later the minister had the last word in the debate.

Acting Minister of Lands: regarding the selling of land, he stressed that it was illegal and, if he knew of anybody selling land, he would take him to court, (p. 195; September 30, 1986).

This fragmented parliamentary debate points to the basic flaws in the system as traditional stratification and privilege has become intertwined with achievement-based possibilities for mobility. It is a fascinating ideological excercise with a lot of potential for fruitful interpretation. However, let us take a look at what happens on Vava'u. The “price”(the size of the donation) for a plot of land belonging to the nōpelein Taoa's closest neighbouring village (the estateholder of Taoa does not engage in this trade) 11 was hit by inflation over the years. In 1980 Halani (a pseudonym) paid T$600 for a six-acre plot; in 1981 he paid T$4,000 for an eight-acre plot; and in 1982 Peni (a pseudonym) paid T$6,000 for a plot of the same size.

Halani, who is 39 years old and has three sons, aged 19,14 and 1, already had one plot of land. Peni does not have any right to inherit the land of his father because he is the second son. He was able to save a large part of the money for - 248 the “gift” thanks to his job as village teacher and the fact that, as a bachelor living with his parents, his expenses are low. Like Halani, however, he obtained most of the money as a bank loan, to be repaid from the profits derived from cash crops. All three gifts were handed over to the nōpele of the neighbouring village where the donors received their plots of land. The price seems to have stabilised since 1982. During my third period of field work, in 1989, I learned of instances of land transactions on Vava'u which had taken place in the last three years for the same price: T$6,000. The equivalent on Tongatapu is T$8,000. Prices are different for transactions involving yards ('api kolo), and they vary more widely depending on place and region. The standard size of a yard is 30 poles. In 1988 the price for an 'api kolo on Vava'u was T$300; in the regional capital, Neiafu, it was T$2,000; in the villages near Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa (such as Ma'ofanga), it was T$3,000; and in Nuku'alofa itself the price was T$4,000.

In Tonga, payoffs to nobles to get registered land are not a new invention. The phenomenon goes back at least to the pre-Second World War years (Bollard 1974, 1976, 1977; Wood Ellem 1981). But the intensity is rapidly increasing, and the prices are rising quickly. The movements of resources due to international migration apparently affect the local informal land market in a decisive way.


The relations of property with respect to land, the most important means of production in the agricultural society which the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga still is, were discussed in this article. The recent phenomenon of land shortage was demonstrated in a case study of a group of relatives in one of the many villages. One of the contemporary reactions to land shortage is the sale of land. Although Tongan law explicitly prohibits the sale of land, there is still an increasing tendency for plots of land to be sold. However, both parties treat the transaction as the gift of a plot of land in return for the gift of a sum of money, instead of the economic exchange of land for money. By presenting it in this way, the transaction appears as a traditional social exchange of gifts. In this context, see the discussion of the issue in the Tongan Parliament.

The contemporary socio-economic situation in this society, characterised by the convergence of an original mode of production and thinking with a capitalist mode, is incomprehensible and inexplicable unless explicit attention is paid to the way in which modes of production and modes of thinking are combined. In this respect, there is a basic difference between the original mode on the one hand, and a capitalist mode on the other. In the original mode, one (traditional) gift never completely repays the other, or the debt which the other creates. The most it can do is redress the balance for the time being. In the case of a capitalist transaction of buying and selling, on the other hand, payment is, in principle, the termination of the debt.

- 249

Despite the fact that the legislation on land is more than a century old and is still in force, in practice land is often still transferred by means of traditional structures: failure to register the land, distribution of a single plot among different heirs, privileging of certain individuals because of their special relation to the chief, appealing to special (fahu)) rights through their father's sister (the mehekitanga), and manipulating land holdings by means of adoption. The intervention of money on a large scale is a special case. This contemporary phenomenon is the product of the transition to (semi-)capitalist relations but, in the light of the existing legislation, it is legitimised in its current form by reference to the traditional gift economy. This historical transition has its contradictions, both within the social relations of production and in the asymmetrical ideology of the various social groups.

This should not be taken to mean that the law is entirely disregarded. To borrow the paraphrase of Godelier on the concept of property, the Tongan Constitution does not just exist as a system of abstract rules, but in order to be implemented in, and by, the process of concrete appropriation of the social reality concerned. 12 Nevertheless, there are also contradictions at this level. For instance, it is not the case that commoners cannot win in disputes with noble titleholders, as a number of legal cases show, but most commoners will not dream of prosecuting their noble because it would conflict with deep-rooted, culturally determined feelings connected with the asymmetrical ideology of the original mode of thinking: the tu 'a/'eiki dichotomy. However, noble extortion is just one of the forms that money-intervention in land transactions take. More intensive research has to be done to develop a comprehensive sense of this variety of transactions in the informal land market. Much of this market is outside noble estates, and involves only commoners of varied standing.

In view of the growing land shortage and the rise in the price (the monetary “gift”) of a plot of land, not everyone will be able to take advantage of this relatively new method of acquiring land (i.e., new in terms of frequency). At any rate, those who have not yet absorbed the Western attitude to money will miss the boat. In the past, Tongans who did not have any land could always appeal to relatives for permission to use a part of their land and/or to take part in the harvest. 13 Nowadays, however, the social pressure on the land is growing for everyone. Traditional ideas are changing under the Western impact of the monetarisation of the economy and the reduction of the extended household to the nuclear family. With the rise of individualism and a nuclear family exclusiveness, the limits of the original methods of coping with not having any land have been evident for some time. Moreover, the Tongan labour market is just as much affected by the conjunctural crisis of capitalism as the Western societies which serve as its model: many are condemned to unemployment.

- 250 Page of endnotes

- 251
  • Aoyagi, Machiko, 1964. Land Tenure in a Tongan village. Japanese Journal of Ethnography, 29:124-40.
  • Bell, Francis, 1953. Land Tenure in Tonga. Oceania, 24:28-57.
  • Bollard, Alan, 1974. The Impact of Monetization in Tonga. Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Auckland.
  • —— 1976. Dualism in Tongan Commerce. Pacific Viewpoint, 17:75-81.
  • —— 1977. Role of Money in Development: The Tongan Experience. New Zealand Economic Papers, 11:122-34.
  • Bott, Elizabeth, 1982. Tongan Society at the Time of Captain Cook's Visits. Memoir 44. Wellington: Polynesian Society.
  • Decktor Korn, 1977. To Please Oneself; Local Organization in the Tonga Islands Unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Washington.
  • Ferdon, Edwin N., 1987. Early Tonga as the Explorers Saw It; 1616-1810. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Firth, Raymond, 1936. We, the Tikopia; A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia London: Allen and Unwin.
  • France, Peter, 1969. The Charter of the Land; Custom and Colonization in Fiji. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  • Gailey, Christine W., 1987. Kinship to Kingship; Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tonga Islands. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Gifford, Edward, 1929. Tongan Society. Bulletin 61. Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
  • Godelier, Maurice, 1984. L'idéel et le matériel; Pensée, économies, sociétés. Paris: Fayard. (English translation: The Mental and the Material; Thought, Economy and Society. London and New York: Verso. 1986.)
  • —— (réd.), 1991. Transitions et subordinations au capitalisme. Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.
  • Guiart, Jean, 1963. La chefferie en Mélanésie. Paris: Musée de l'Homme.
  • Hau'ofa, 'Epeli, 1977. Our Crowded Islands. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies.
  • Howard, Alan, 1964. Land Tenure and Social Change in Rotuma. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 73:26-52.
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  • Hunter, David (ed.), 1961. Tongan Law Reports I; Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of Tonga 1908-1959. Nuku'alofa: Tongan Government.
  • —— 1963. Tongan Law Reports II; Reports of Land Court Cases 1923-1962 and Privy Council Decisions 1924-1961. Nuku'alofa: Tongan Government.
  • James, Kerry E., 1991. Migration and Remittances: A Tongan Village Perspective. Pacific Viewpoint, 32:1-23.
  • Kalauni, Solomona, et al., 1977. Land Tenure in Niue. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies.
  • Lapérouse, Jean-Francois de, 1797. Voyage autour du monde sur I'Astrolabe et la Boussole (1785-1788). 4 Volumes. Paris: Plassan. [Used here: abbreviated edition. Paris: Maspéro. 1980.]
  • Lātūkefu, Sione, 1974. Church and State in Tonga; The Wesleyan Methodist Missionaries and Political Development 1822-1875. Canberra: Australian National University Press.
  • —— 1975. The Tongan Constitution. Nuku'alofa: Tongan Government.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1984. Paroles données. Paris: Plon.
  • Marcus, George, 1978. Land Tenure and Elite Formation in the Neotraditional Monarchies of Tonga and Buganda. American Ethnologist, 5:509-34.
  • —— 1980. The Mobility and the Chiefly Tradition in the Modern Kingdom of Tonga. Memoir 42. Wellington: Polynesian Society.
  • —— 1981. Power on the Extreme Periphery: The Perspective of Tongan Elites in the Modern World System. Pacific Viewpoint, 22:48-65.
  • —— 1989. Chieftainship, in Alan Howard and Robert Borofsky (eds.), Developments in Polynesian Ethnology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, pp. 175-209.
  • Maude, Alaric, 1970. Shifting Cultivation and Population Growth in Tonga. Journal of Tropical Geography, 31:57-64.
  • —— 1971. Tonga: Equality Overtaking Privilege, in Ron Crocombe (ed.), Land Tenure in the Pacific. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, pp. 106-28.
  • —— 1973. Land Shortage and Population Pressure in Tonga, in H. Brookfield (ed.), The Pacific in Transition. London: E. Arnold, pp. 163-86.
  • Meillassoux, Claude, 1977. Terrains et Théories. Paris: Edition Anthropos.
  • Monfat, A., 1893. Les Tonga ou Archipel des Amis et le R. P. Joseph Chevron. Lyon: Emmanuel Vitte.
  • Morton, Keith L., 1972. Kinship, Economics and Exchange in a Tongan Village. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Oregon.
  • —— 1987, The Atomization of Tongan Society. Pacific Studies, 10:47-72.
  • Nayacakalou, Rusiate, 1959. Land Tenure and Social Organisation in Tonga. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 68:93-114.
  • Noricks, Jay, 1989. The Ethnographer as Detective: Solving the Puzzle of Niutao Land Tenure Rules, in Mac Marshall and John L. Caughey (eds.), Culture, Kin, and Cognition in Oceania: Essays in Honor of Ward H. Goodenough. Washington: The American Anthropological Association, [Special Publication No. 25], pp.43-54.
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  • the South Sea. London: Whittaker, Treacher. [Used here: facsimile edition, Tofua Press, Nuku'alofa, 1976.]
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1   Field work in Tonga occurred between 1982 and 1991. The 1982-5 field work was made possible by the University of Nijmegen, the 1988-9 and 1991 field work by Utrecht University and by a senior research fellowship of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
2   Compare Bott 1982; Ferdon 1987; Gailey 1987; Wernhart 1977; Urbanowicz 1972; Van der Grijp 1988.
3   On this transition, see: Rutherford 1971 and Lātūkefu 1974. One of those who stresses the feudal-like character of the previous situation is Monfat, who speaks of a “féodalité de chefs semblable à celle des Samoa” (1893:14), while Gifford draws a comparison with Japanese feudalism in the conclusion to his monograph on Tonga (1929:350).
4   Lātūkefu comments in this connection: “The new constitution, in fact, gave the nobles a form of indirect power over their people. The fact that the commoners received their leases of land from the nobles made them feel obliged to give polopolo (or first fruits) of their crops, the best of anything produced or acquired, or their services to the nobles. Observance of these obligations was regarded as evidence of one's loyalty and as a sign of good citizenship. Applicants and would-be applicants for land had to be particularly generous with their gifts if they were to win favour with their landlord […]. Economically the nobles continued to amass wealth at the expense of the common people” (1974: 211-3). Compare, for the situation in Rotuma: Howard 1964; Niue: Kalauni et al. 1977; French Polynesia and Futuna: Panoff 1970; Tuvalu: Noricks 1989; Tikopia: Firth 1936:330-6; Fiji: France 1969:165-75. Powles 1979 compares the situation in Tonga and Samoa.
5   This situation is not confined to the past. In 1984 a proposal was accepted by 10 votes to four that, if a man dies leaving behind a daughter but no son, the daughter' s oldest son is to inherit the land (Tonga Parliamentary Bulletin I:74, September 12, 1984).
6   This summary is based on Articles 125, 126 and 127 of the 1875 Tongan Constitution. The full text is printed in Lātūkefu 1974:281-2.
7   Nōpele Veikune submitted a motion to Parliament in 1985 proposing to increase the lease from T80¢ to T$3. This motion followed on naturally from the plans of the Royal Land Commission, in which the nōpele had an important position. The ensuing discussion revealed that, in the current situation, only a few estate owners actually collect their rent. There were doubts whether an increase to T$3 would alter this situation. One of the opponents wondered whether the nōpele were not satisfied with their present salary. The withering reply was that their salary was not even visible with the aid of a microscope. Another objection was that an increase would mean an increase in the taxes which the nōpele had to pay. It seems that Veikune was discouraged and withdrew his motion (Tonga Parliamentary Bulletin II:391-2, October 30, 1985).
8   Maka's lineage belongs to the class of chiefs who were not raised to the status of landed aristocracy at the time of the Constitution and who have, thus, witnessed a historical deterioration in their status and power.
9   The fathers of Maka and Siale were cousins, and Siale is thus Maka's classificatory xFaBrSo. Both Maka and Siale are now dead.
10   Maude already reported in 1971 that, “in some cases even money has been demanded, and paid, before registration was approved” (1971:114), but apparently he did not have any empirical data, for, unlike in the rest of his article, he fails to come up with a single example in this case (see also Nayacakalou 1959; Decktor Korn 1977; James 1991; Morton 1972, 1987; Rogers 1975).
11   The estateholder of Taoa, Tonga's crown prince Tupouto'a, has a salary as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence. In addition, the royal family has a reputation for being extremely wealthy, and people in Taoa say that Tupouto'a “is lucky enough not to need that kind of money”.
12   This is also demonstrated by the three volumes of reports on court cases which have been published so far: Hunter (ed.), 1961 and 1963; Roberts (ed.), 1974.
13   See Aoyagi 1964; Bell 1953; Maude 1970 and 1973; Hau'ofa 1977.