The Effects of Limited Anthropological Theory on Problems of Fijian Administration

[NOTE: In my “humble” opinion the issues raised here have a great deal to do with recent political events in the country. But the lesson is that, as  anthropologists, we (including me) are not always right]

IN DEALING WITH FIJIAN MATERIALS, it is apparent to any serious research worker that for a colony of its size Fiji has not only been richly endowed with natural resources, but that it has been unusually fortunate in the research interests of its administrative and technical staff. The natural fauna and flora are well known and have been described in considerable scientific detail. Mapping has reached an advanced stage, and exhaustive material has been recorded on such matters as soil types, land tenure, and forest resources. When the Burns Commission on Population and Natural Resources took up its task, it could use as data voluminous studies dealing with a wide range of agricultural material. The census data at its disposal went back to the early years of the colony and reached a high standard of effectiveness in the portrayal of demographic trends.

The interest in systematic gathering of data began early and extended into several social fields. It is not my intention to present a highly documented historical account of the ways in which administrators and others assembled social data, and of the development of the ideas which formed the framework for research, although strictly speaking my thesis would demand such a study. It is my hope, however, that there can be tentative agreement on the main outlines of these developments, sufficient at least to demonstrate that there is a significant hypothesis to be tested by a future social historian.

It is indeed remarkable that the accepted knowledge of Fijian anthropology and society has been obtained largely through the work of long‑term professional residents, notably administrators and missionaries. One of the most perceptive accounts of land ownership was published by Fison (1880), a missionary, and this itself was largely a protest against interpretations current in the administration of that early time. Men like Henry Balfour (1904), A. B.


64                               Induced Political Change in the Pacific

Brewster (1922), R. H. Lester (1940), G. K. Roth (1953), Basil H. Thom­son (1908) – administrators all – published scholarly works which provided a more or less consistent view of Fijian society. This view was also reflected in official minutes, surveys, and policy documents. Indeed, one might say that the view began with observations made during official work, which became extended through additional contacts and refined by scholarly ambitions. In­terestingly enough, many of these men were not averse to counting, crude though some of their methods of assessing affinal relationships may seem to present‑day theorists.

It would be interesting to know the influence of Hocart (1929, 1931, 1952) in all this. Some of the enquiries, of course, preceded him, and it is at least possible that his interest in anthropology (he was a schoolteacher) was encouraged by his contact with missionaries and administrators of similar broad interests. There is also little doubt that his view of anthropology, and of the nature of societies such as the Fijian, was very similar to that of his colleagues. It was part of the Cambridge tradition of the early century, reinforced by contact between like‑minded persons, by formal training during periods of leave, and by discussions with members of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

The first nonresident professional anthropologists to spend lengthy periods in Fiji were American. Laura Thompson (1940) and Dorothy Spencer (1941) made important contributions, but they were young, the significance of new approaches to field work were still only in the making, and they had to contend with an image of Fijian society which had already become firmly established in the minds of administrators, missionaries, and even Fijians. Only Buell Quain (1948) broke through the limitations the image imposed, but he was fortunate enough to be dealing with a clearly distinct variant of Fijian society and to have a theoretical perspective which forced him to ask new questions.’

It is a little difficult to be sure which came first as a factor influencing the formation of the image of Fiji, the “chicken” of administrative convenience or the “egg” of anthropological theory. The data were certainly scrambled, and many of the questions were posed in ways which could lead only to unsatisfactory answers. Yet it is important to realize ‑ and central to my thesis ‑ that whatever the motivations, the questions and answers were consistent with a respectable body of anthropological theory. What is more, when they were related to practice, they worked and could be seen to work. Anthropological ideas and administrative policies were meshed together. Both were posited on the notion that a society described in ideal theoretical terms could and should work in practice; that variations from the ideal represented social impurities which administrative practice should treat with suspicion. Where anthropology

1 See also a later work, Sahlins, 1962.

Belshaw‑Anthropological Theory and Fiji                                        65

recognized social movement, as it did by implication when it recorded the distribution of variants of custom, it thought of movement toward or away from some stated ideal. Fijian society, in theory as well as by administrative reference, became the society of Bau. If the administrators had succeeded in making Bau the model for all Fijian society, as in effect they tried to do, there would have been little protest from the anthropologists. (As a matter of fact Fison did protest vigorously, which is perhaps why he is little quoted in the later literature.) Even before the advent of formal functionalism, stability was the theoretical norm of society and the ideal of administration. Unfortunately, stability became confused to some degree with stasis.

I shall now set out some of the typical formulations of the static viewpoint, contrasted with a point of view which incorporates my own personal bias.

There was, for example, the use of myth as social evidence. The relevant myths in this context were those which bore upon the exploits and migrations of social groups.

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The Burns Commission on the economic future of fiji

[NOTE:  This is the text of a broadcast recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Commission for airing by the Fiji Broadcasting Commission in August 1961.  Since that time Fiji has become an exporter of many new products, some of which involve small industry. The reform of land is inhibited still by Fijian vested interests.]

The report of the Burns Commission is an outspoken and timely document. It contains a great deal of considerable value to the colony and any intelligent observer must be in general agreement with the main outlines, Of course, any informed person must have his own opinion about policy and direction of policy in Fiji, and the facts and interpretation of the facts upon which policy is based. The report attempts to be very wide in its scope and this is to be welcomed. But any such report, based as it is upon the work of busy people, must be patchy in some matters, and in my opinion, in this case the report does not go nearly far enough in others. It poses some very serious problems concerned with the rapid growth of population in the colony and the limitation of resources in the colony. And after having posed these questions and suggested some technical means of increasing production, and after having considered a number of the institutions of Fijian political life, it seems to me that the report does not answer the questions it has itself posed. 

My commentary is not that of a technician, not that of an agricultural officer, or of a political administrator, but of an informed observer of social behaviour and of social institutions. My work in Fiji ended about a year ago and therefore may be somewhat out of date in certain respects, And it is concerned mainly with the Fijian viewpoint, the viewpoint of the Fijian people, and is based upon fairly widespread contact with village Fijians in a limited area of the colony, namely Nadroga and Navosa. Nevertheless, from this low level viewpoint it is possible to see some of the wider implications of Fijian policy and some of the directions and tendencies that are built into the processes of Fijian society.

I must say that there are a large number of fundamental points and recommendations in the Commission’s report with which I am considerably in agreement. The agricultural section in particular is technologically sound and has been most outstanding in the way that it has concerned itself with the preparation and analysis of highly complex data. Of course, the Burns Commission was heralded well before it arrived and this data has been prepared over a considerable number of years. It is now  available to agricultural officers in the colony itself who, I am sure, will be able to draw the same conclusions in due time.

But it seems to me that this is not the most important section of the report in the long run. It’s something that competent agricultural officers could handle at any time. 

A number of the worth while minor points include the attack on the suggestion that there should be a produce tax for Fijians, the idea that the standards of low-cost housing are perhaps sighted a little too high, the notion that tax concessions should be the main point in supporting industry as it comes to the colony, and the emphasis upon roads as the means of communication, without which any sound economic development cannot take place. These points, of course, are obviously sound and useful, even though they seem to have been d down-played to a certain extent in the colony heretofor. 

The major points are ones which will, without doubt, cause considerable controversy and some difficulty in their application and these are the ones that are of most interest to us, and I am sure which are receiving a great deal of attention in the colony at the moment. The most important of these perhaps is concerned with land and I must say that I felt very refreshed after having read the report, and very encouraged by its head-on tackling of this very, very complex problem. The major innovation suggested in this connection is that Fijian lands should be subjected to a form of taxation which would possibly be extended to cover all the lands of the colony eventually. This taxation should be related to land use and it should be based upon the notion that the mataqali is, in essence, a corporate entity, responsible for the economic administration of the land. Now this I must say, is an important suggestion and one which is bound to cause  considerable heart searching, but to my way of thinking, it is absolutely  fundamental and is bound to have far reaching consequences in the  economic usage of Fijian lands. Now, having said that, I feel that perhaps the report could have gone just a little further in this  direction. It refers to the mataqali as the most practical ownership unit at the present time, for political reasons as much as for any other.  It suggests that the mataqali should be in a position of using its land as sound security for credit of one kind or another, provided it is not lost to the Fijian people. I feel that eventually the mataqali is going to be a kind of incorporated unit, a kind of firm in which the members will be, as it were, shareholders and will be able to deal with their property more or less as any commercial  firm does at the present time, provided that the land is not alienated without certain controls. 

Now, fairly close to Fiji is a country which  has had a good deal of experience with regard to this kind of matter and has developed a number of very interesting innovations to deal with the question of land tenure among indigenous peoples whose society is based upon kinship units, such as the mataqali. I refer, of course, to the situation among the Maori of New Zealand and I feel that it would pay Fijian officials, Fijian leaders, to make a very close study of what has happened in New Zealand in this regard.   Read the rest