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Polynesia - Polynesia Chiefs

Rulers and Ruled

During Captain Cook's first visit to Tahiti in 1769, a curious group came walking up to his camp one day. Most of them were men, but one was the woman that Wallis' crew had thought was a queen. She was walking beside a man carrying a little boy on his shoulders. Actually the woman, Oborea, was the boy's mother. He was being carried not because he was tired but because he was a great chief and therefore too sacred to touch the ground.

At this time, European kings had far less power than in earlier days. What they had was decreasing all the time under the impact of democratic ideas. but in these islands it seemed like a world Europe was forgetting. At first sight it looked as if the Polynesian chief had complete control over the lives of their subjects. They seemed very often to use this power brutally and unreasonably. Actually, even the strangest of their actions was based on ancient beliefs and customs. Since the Polynesians thought of themselves as families descended from the same ancestors, the people who were closest related to those first parents were the most important. They therefore became the chiefs. The rest were graded into ranks according to their closeness or distance from the chiefs. The lowest of all were conquered people.

As a rule, chiefs were descended from many other chiefs and their wives, and they cherished the memories of these great ancestors with fierce pride. After all, they could name them for twenty or thirty generations back. Not that these lines of descent were always remembered strictly accurately. It was always possible for a chief to slip in the names and titles of a few other important relatives, or even of chiefs whom his family had defeated in war. They all added to the glory of his name and to the number of spirits who would be on hand in the land of the dead to give him help and protection on earth. A chief was an awe-inspiring figure because he was so close to the mysterious power the Polynesians called mana. While everything had mana, more or less, chiefs had more mana than anyone or anything. They were born with it, but they could also lose it. If they showed themselves wise, clever at adding new land to their own, or good leaders in war, then their mana was at work, flourishing and increasing. On the other hand, if they ruled unwisely and unjustly, or if they were defeated in battle, then clearly their mana had somehow decreased. 

Sometimes mana did not show itself at first, but had to be discovered. For instance, if a fisherman noticed he was particularly successful with a certain hook, it was a sure sign the hook had great mana. Then the mana could be strenghen4ed by magic. Magic was also useful in bringing out hidden reserves of mana in things which had not shown it before. The same thing could happen with a man. A member of a poor family might show energy, craftiness, and courage, so that he eventually rose by his own efforts and good luck to be a chief. That meant he too had had mana all along. He joined the ranks of the chiefs and like them passed on his mana to his children. It did not become less with time, or stay the same. It increased from generation to generation, so that a son had more mana than his father or any of his ancestors. This was why a chief often handed over power to his son while he himself was still quite a young man.

This wealth of mana was one of the things which made a chief sacred. Polynesians thought of sacred things as dangerous to people they did not actually belong to. One might say that they were like an infection which could not hurt anyone vaccinated with them, but fatal to anyone who was not. There was a special word for this - tapu - which we have adopted as "tabu" or "taboo." The tapu of a chief and his wife filled everything connected with them. Even the sounds making up their names became tapu, and people had to avoid speaking them in other words. this dangerous influence hung about indefinitely. There is an old leg3end that the people of a Maori village once gathered and ate a crop of wild cabbages they found growing on a deserted plot. Soon after they all died. The plot had once been the site of a chief's house, and his tapu was still active.

Because of his tapu, a chief could not avoid all kinds of discomforts and inconveniences for himself. Evan as simple a matter as eating was difficult for him. He had to sit in the open air, no matter what the weather was like, so as not to tapu a house. If anyone else was likely to use a dish, he could not eat from it - that was the reason why, when Wallis' crew saw her, Oborea was being hand-fed by her servants. The chief had to have water pour3ed into his mouth when he wanted to drink so as not to contaminate the container. He could not blow on a dying fire to revive it because that would make it tapu and useless - no one would use it to cook on, or to warm himself. The chief's inferiors had to pay attention to the tapus because if they broke them the chief would suffer. After all, it was the gods who had made the chief sacred. So, the reasoning went, if the chief allowed this sacredness to the offended, the gods would revenge themselves on him. They would not bother with his inferiors. It seemed only just that if the chief was running this terrible risk he should be allowe4d to revenge himself on those who put him in danger. That was one reason why chiefs were allowed the right to kill such offenders immediately.

What a good chief could do to avoid giving his people trouble, he did. Many chiefs went out only at night, as by doing this they avoided casting shadows which might make what they touched tapu. Food and food storehouses in particular had to be destroyed if a chief's shadow fell over them. Chiefs travelled only special paths, to avoid putting a tapu on the public roads. In fact, in Tahiti, they never touched the ground in going from place to place. Like the little boy Cook saw, they were carried piggyback on the shoulders of burly runners. These men could go, royal burdens and all, at about six miles an hour! When they tired, the chief clambered from one man's back to the shoulders of the next without getting down to the ground. It was a way to prevent the chief from putting the road out of commission, of course; but it is also perfectly true that many chiefs enjoyed it as a sign of power. The chief Pomare of Tahiti once asked an Englishman what King George rode on, if not a man? The Englishman explained about horses. Pomare beamed with self-satisfaction. "The King of England only rides horses; I ride men," he said. "Which of us is greater?"  

Alongside the chief's bearers ran his court. Most of his servants were foreigners since there was a good chance the chief's men were sometimes close relatives. There was his high prie4st, usually his younger brother, his speechmaker, his general, his admiral, his messenger, and his court jester. It quite often happened that a chief was a so sacred that he was far beyond ordinary men. The Hawaiians were particularly well known for this kind of thinking. One Hawaiian chief was famous for his exalted family line, which had been kept pure by its members not marrying any outsiders for several generations. He went to war, was defeated, and captured alive. Whatever might have happened in the heat of battle, none of his enemies dared kill him knowingly. The anger of the gods he equalled in rank would have been too fearful. So they formed a ring around him, holding him at the full length of their long spears. And there they stayed and there he stayed until in the end he died of starvation without anyone having touched him. In practice a chief as sacred as that was too sacred for ordinary interests, and a second chief was set up. Sometimes he was a relative of the sacred chief, sometimes a member of q quite different family. In any case, he took over the actual work of government. 

However powerful the chief was, ruling was never completely a one-man job. The high-chief met with the chiefs of districts to discuss policy. The talk could be outspoken and the opinions given freely. In the end, decisions were taken according to the ideas of the majority. The chiefs were loyal to their high chief, but he never found it very sensible to go against their wishes. If he did, they were always capable of deposing him and setting up another high chief in his place. Not only the lower chiefs but the people themselves had to be satisfied too. The fact that on his own land a chief was the leading man among people who were mostly his own relatives did not always work for him. It could work against him. Some might be very distant relatives, but all of them were originally descended from the same ancestors, and they did not forget it. They had a right to make their opinions felt, and were quite capable of doing so. Even in Tahiti, if a war was being considered, special priests were sent out to look for possible signs from the gods. If the people mocked the priests, as they sometimes did, the chiefs accepted their displeasure as good a sign as any, and called the whole thing off.

The councils were at their busiest in Samoa. The Samoans were never conquered, and they never conquered anyone else. As a result, the chief did not have to inspire awe in his subject people by not mingling with them. Although he was treated with great respect there was no need in Samoa for chief to pretend that he was very near to the gods. What counted were the titles a man could acquire in his lifetime. If he was a chief's son, he got them from his father. If not, he worked for them by impressing his group with his talents. He was rewarded with a seat in the village fono, the council. He had a seat in a particular place in the council house. As time went on, if he was earnest about his career, he could gain higher and higher titles. With each, his seat moved to a new and more important place in the council house. The highest seats of all belonged to the two chiefs. One always was a man of noble birth. The other could be a man who had spent his life working upward. He was the "talking chief," and acted as the village's official host to notable visitors.

The system did not end there, as the top men of the village fono had seats in the fono of the whole district. The district fonos contributed members to the Great Fono of all Samoa - at least they did in theory; in practice the Great Fono never met. But the order of rank which would have existed if it ever had met governed men's places in their world. At solemn gatherings an important part of the proceedings was the making of the Polynesians' famous drink, kava. It still is, in many islands. Like the Japanese tea ceremony, each move of it is fixed by tradition. The chief sits in state with his councillors while a great wooden bowl is brought out, with its handle turned toward him. Kava is actually the root of the pepper plant, and the first step is the preparation of little pieces of it. In the old days these were chewed by young men with strong jaws. This custom disgusted many of the earliest explorers who had to drink it, and they would be glad to hear that nowadays the bits of kava root are more often pounded. They are then put in a bowl and covered with water. The mixture is stirred and strained with a bunch of fiber, and the result is a thin liquid which tastes like weak soapsuds. It is served to the members of the meeting in strict order of rank, and for one of them to be offered the drink out of turn would be a deadly insult. In the past, wars were started over such mistakes. Kava drinking was a solemn, almost religious action. In Fiji a new chief's election was announced to him not with words, but by turning the bowl's handle in his direction.

Once decisions were agreed upon, the chief was able to put his power to make things tapu to some use. It was the equivalent of making laws. If he chose, a chief could declare a whole district tapu, and prevent anyone from either entering it or leaving for as long as he wished. He could make particular kinds of food - meat, fish, fruits, anything - tapu for anyone but himself. This kind of tapu benefited only the chief, but he could also set tapus which were useful to everybody. Growing trees were made tapu by hanging on them small figures of sharks, meaning that theft from them would lead to punishment by the shark god. A village's finances could be regulated in the same way. If one had contracted to buy a new canoe, the chief might declare a tapu on some crops so that each family could pay their share with produce. There were important matters. Day-to-day quarrels and crimes were often left for the gods to settle. They punished undiscovered thieves or liars with illness. Murderers, thieves, liars, and other evildoers who were caught were brought in front of the village council for punishment. Speeches were made, for and against, on an oath taken on a coconut. The guilty party was fined if the crime was not very serious, or banished it it was. sometimes a criminal was killed, but this was not a punishment anyone liked to carry out. It was likely to start feuds with the surviving relatives, except in the Marquesas when there was actually a legally appointed public executioner.

Private rows were not anyone else's concern, and a man and his family were expected to take the law into their own hands to settle such matters. They could not do anything too violent for fear of public opinion, but they could roughhouse a little. And they could also perform a little magic against each other in the hope that it would do some harm.

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