Images de page
PDF
ePub

CHAP. V.

Power of the chiefs and proprietors of land-Banishment and confiscation-The king's messenger-The niau, an emblem of authority-Ancient usages in reference to crime, &c.-Fatal effects of jealousy-Seizure of property-Punishment of theft-Public works-Supplies for the king-Despotic rapacity-Extortion of the king's servants-Unorganized state of civil polity-Desire a code of Christian laws--Advice and conduct of the Missionaries-Preparation of the laws-Public enactment by the king in a national assembly at TahitiCapital punishments-Manner of conducting public trials--Establishment of laws in Raiatea-Preparation of those for Huahine.

EVERY chief was the sovereign of his own district, though all acknowledged the supremacy of the king. Each island was divided into a number of large portions, or districts, called Maataina, a term also applied to the inhabitants of a district. These maataina had distinct names, and were under the government of a chieftain of rank or dignity belonging to the reigning family, or to the raatiras. This individual was the baron of the domain, or the lord of the manor, and was succeeded in his possessions and office by his son, or the nearest of his kindred, with a fresh appointment from the

For treason, rebellion, or withholding supplies, individuals were liable to banishment, and confiscation of property. The king had the prerogative of nominating his successor, but could not appropriate the lands of the exile to his own use. The removal of a chief of high rank, or of extensive influence, was seldom attempted, unless the measure was approved by the other chiefs. The sovereign was, therefore, more desirous to conciliate their esteem, and engage their co-operation, than to prejudice them against his person or measures. As he had no permanent armed force at his disposal, he could not, on every occasion, accomplish his wishes; and, at times, when he has issued his mandate for the banishment of a raatira, if the other raatiras deemed his expulsion unwarrantable, they have desired him to keep possession of his lands, and then, remonstrating with the king, have declared their determination to maintain the cause of the injured party, even by force of arms. extent of power possessed by the raatiras, in the number of their tenantry and dependants, was one of the greatest sources of embarrassment to the government, whose measures were only regulated by the will of the ruler, or the exigencies of the state.

The

In the division of their country, the natives appear to have had a remarkable predilection for the number eight. Almost every island, whatever its size, is divided into eight districts, and the inhabitants into an equal number of maataina, or divisions. In each district the power of the chief was supreme, and greater than that which the king exercised over the whole. This power extended to the persons and lives, as well as the property, of the people.

The inferior chiefs also exercised the same authority over their dependants. The father was magistrate in his own family; the chief in his own district; and the king nominally dispensed law and justice to the whole. The final appeal, in all matters of dispute, was made to the chief ruler; and the parties who resorted to his decision usually regarded it as binding. There was no regular police, for the maintenance of public order. The chief of each district was accountable for the conduct of the people under his own jurisdiction. The chieftains who were in attendance on the king, with the servants of his establishment, were the agents usually employed to carry his measures into effect. The servants of the raatiras performed the same duty in their respective localities, and the king often sent his order to the district chief, who employed his own men in its execution.

Notwithstanding the many acts of homage paid to the head and other branches of the reigning family, and their imagined connexion with the gods, the actual influence of the king over the haughty and despotic district chieftains, was neither powerful nor permanent, and he could seldom confide in their fidelity in any project which would not advance their interests as well as

his own. Every measure was therefore planned with the most cautious deliberation, the approval and aid of a number of these nobility of the country being essential to carry it into effect; but when the interests of the reigning family and those of the chieftains were opposed, it produced no small embarrassment. These raatiras, who resembled the barons of the feudal system, kept the people under them in a state of the greatest subjection, and received from them not only military

service, but a portion of the produce of their lands, and personal labour whenever required.

Whenever a measure affecting the whole of the inhabitants was adopted, the king's vea, or messenger, was despatched with a bundle of niaus, or leaflets. On entering a district, he repaired to the habitation of the principal chiefs, and, presenting a cocoa-nut leaf, delivered the orders of the king. The acceptance of the leaf was a declaration of their compliance with the requisition, and to decline taking it was regarded as an intimation of hostility to the measure proposed.Hence the messenger or herald, when he had travelled round the island, reported to the king, who had received and who had refused the niau. When the chiefs approved of the message, they sent their own messengers to their respective tenants and dependants, with a cocoa-nut leaf for each, and the orders of the king.

The niau, or leaflet of the cocoa-nut tree, was the emblem of authority throughout the whole of the Georgian and Society Islands; and requisitions for property or labour, preparations for war, or the convocation of a national assembly, were formerly made by sending the cocoa-nut leaf to those whose service or attendance was required. To return or refuse the niau was to offer an insult to the king, and to resist his authority.

If the king felt himself strong enough, he would instantly banish such an individual, and send another to take possession of his lands, and occupy his station as chief of the district. Should the offender have been guilty of disobedience to the just demands of the king, though the lands might be his hereditary property, he must leave them, and become, as the people expressed it, a

wanderer " upon the road;" but if the king's conduct was considered arbitrary, and the individual justified in his refusal by the other chiefs, they would tapea, or detain him, and protest to the king against his removal. The parties generally knew each other's strength and influence, and those who had little hopes of succeeding by an appeal to arms, usually conceded whatever was required. Personal security, and the rights of private property, were unknown; and the administration of justice by the chiefs in the several districts, and the king over the whole, was regulated more by the relative power than by the merits of their cause.

They had no regular code of laws, nor any public courts of justice, and, excepting in offences against the king and chiefs, the rulers were seldom appealed to. The people in general avenged their own injuries. Death or banishment was the punishment usually inflicted by the chiefs, and frequently the objects of their displeasure were marked out as victims for sacrifice.

Destitute, however, as they were of even oral laws or institutes, there were many acts, which, by general consent, were considered criminal, and deserving punishment. These were orure hau, rebellion, or shaking the government, withholding supplies, or even speaking contemptuously of the king or his administration. So heinous was this offence, that the criminal was not only liable to banishment, or the forfeiture of his life, but a human sacrifice must be offered, to atone for the guilt, and appease the displeasure of the gods against the people of the land in which it had been committed. Lewdness was not regarded as a crime, but adultery was sometimes punished

« PrécédentContinuer »