Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 145–158 | Cite as

The resurgence of rivalry: Politics in post-colonial Rotuma

  • Alan Howard


When he wrote about status rivalry as the driving force behind the development of hierarchical Polynesian societies, Goldman was referring to pre-contact conditions. The logic of his argument was essentially that the overwhelming concern for social worth based on the concept ofmana inevitably led chiefs to challenge one another. He specifically considered utilitarian interests as subordinate to the concern for honor and indeed made a good case for his viewpoint. The question I wish to raise here is whether the resurgence of rivalry in contemporary Rotuma derives from such dynamics or whether it must be explained in different terms. In other words, is the status rivalry that marks Rotuma today the same phenomenon as that which marked the pre-colonial system, or is it different?

One could make a case for continuity. Despite the changes Rotuman society has undergone in the past 150 years, the chiefly system remains essentially intact. As in the traditional system, the chiefs are still held responsible for the prosperity of the island and are targets of dissatisfaction if people's expectations go unmet. There is still a premium placed on ceremonial precedence. And allegiance to one's home district remains strong.

But to ignore the changes would be folly. To begin with, the entire ideological superstructure that fueled traditional rivalries has all but disappeared. The key to the traditional system was the logic ofmana, which derived from the Polynesian deities.Mana was signalled by the outcomes of a chief's challenges to other chiefs, by success in warfare, and the fruitfulness of the land. Successful challenges and abundance indicated the favor of the gods; failure and scarcity indicated disfavor. For a chief to be highly regarded — to be seen as a person ofmana —required successful challenges. Status rivalry was thus an inevitable result. The substitution of Christianity for the traditional religious ideology has undermined this dynamic. If anything, Christianity tends to mute rivalry by emphasizing humility and the equal worth of individual souls.

Even more important is the change in economic infrastructure. Prior to European contact, the economic system of Rotuma was relatively closed to the outside world. Although evidence exists for the importation of some prestigious trade goods from other islands, the possibilities for accumulating wealth were extremely limited. Fine mats, shells and whale's teeth ornaments, carved eating bowls and a few other special artifacts were the only prestige goods. Their importance rested entirely on their symbolic value. Chiefs could command labor for the production of food, to be consumed at feasts, as a means of enhancing their prestige (but everyone generally partook of the bounty). Perhaps closest to contemporary circumstances was the prestige value of an impressive chiefly dwelling.

The introduction of a commercial economy has changed the relationship between goods, power and prestige. The only prestige good that remains in circulation from the traditional repertoire is fine mats, over which chiefs have no special control. The traditional symbols of prestige have thus all but disappeared (or like the kava ceremony, are confined to specific contexts). The new symbols of status are motor vehicles, household appliances and, most of all, elaborate housing. They are available to anyone who has the money to afford them. Like everyone else, chiefs need money if they are to secure these symbols of status.

Chiefs no longer enjoy the prerogative of conscripting labor to build their personal dwellings, but even if they did, the cost of building materials still requires large sums of money. Houses built of “native” materials (e.g., thatching), will no longer do. In order to successfully compete for prestige goods, therefore, contemporary Rotumans must attain a position which commands the disposition of money and other resources. Some are fortunate enough to have well-paying jobs. Others have relatives abroad who supply them with remittances and valued commodities. But chieftainship now provides an additional channel for the acquisition of money and goods. Although the resources commanded by the Council of Rotuma are still rather limited, they are enticing enough to warrant intense rivalry among competitors for chiefly titles, especially among those who have no other options. Thus, whereas in the traditional system prestige was prerequisite to the power to command resources, in the contemporary system, control over resources is a means of gaining prestige.

This is not to say that the intrinsic prestige of chiefly titles has been eliminated. The fact that the present Maraf gave up a well-paid position as school teacher, and that his rival, Charlie Yee, was prepared to give up a lucrative position as a computer programmer to take the title, testifies to the opposite. But as the influence of the commercial economics on Rotuma's sociopolitical system continues to increase, one might expect Rotumans to compete vigorously for positions of leadership, whether titles accompany them or not. In his 1970 book, Goldman convincingly demonstrated that in ancient Polynesian societies status rivalry led to warfare of a particularly brutal kind in the pursuit of honor. It remains to be seen what consequences will follow from the transformed kind of rivalry that is emerging in post-colonial Polynesian societies, like Rotuma.


Traditional System Status Rivalry Religious Ideology Prestige Good Successful Challenge 
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

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  • Alan Howard

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