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Identification. Lau is a chain of about 100 small islands and reefs spread over an area of about 1,400 square kilometers in the South Pacific. Geographically and culturally, Lau is intermediate between Melanesian Fiji and Polynesian Tonga. Lau is made up of three major divisions: the islands of southern and central Lau including Lakemba, Oneata, Mothe, the Kambara group, the Fulanga group, and the Ono group; the Exploring Islands; and the Moala group. While the British colonial government considered all three divisions to be part of the Lau group, native Lauans considered only the central and southern islands that formed the chiefdom of Lakemba to be Lau.

Location. The Lau islands are located between 16° 43 and 21° V S and 178° 15 and 180° 17 W. Three types of islands are found in the chain. Volcanic high islands are well watered with rich soil and support intensive horticulture. Limestone islands have little water and poor soil, though they do have heavily forested basins and lagoons rich with fish and shellfish. Islands composed of both volcanic rock and limestone display a combination of the above features. Lau has a tropical climate with a dry season from April to October and rainy, warm weather the rest of the year.

Demography. Reliable population figures for early Contact times are unavailable. In 1920, the population was estimated at 7,402. An estimate in 1981 reported 16,000 Lau speakers.

linguistic Affiliation. The indigenous language of Lau is a member of the Eastern Fijian Subgroup of Central Pacific: Austronesian languages. The modern Lau dialect is evidently a mixture of the now-extinct traditional dialect, the dialect of Bau Fiji, and the Tongan language.

History and Cultural Relations

Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer, came upon the Fiji Islands in 1643. Little is known about Lau prior to the early nineteenth century, although the islands were visited by Cook, Bligh, Wilson, and other European explorers and traders. The culture of Lau reflects the influence of the western Fiji Islands, Tonga, and British colonialism. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Lau was under the control of the Mbau chiefdom located on east Viti Levu. At the same time, However, contact with Tonga was increasing and Tongan villages developed on some Lau islands. The Tongan chief, Maafu, was sent to Lau to rule the Tongans and by 1864 had successfully taken control of some Lau islands and threatened Mbau supremacy. In 1874, Fiji became a British colony, thus effectively ending both Mbau rule and preventing Tongan rule. Under British influence before and following annexation, Lauans were subject to intensive missionization and involvement as plantation workers in the copra industry. With the post-World War I decline in the copra market, Lau became something of an economic and cultural backwater in comparison to western Fiji. In 1970, Fiji achieved political Independence and Lauans have been active participants in national economic and political matters.


About 30 of the 100 Lau islands are inhabited. Villages are located along the coast and are often surrounded by coconut palm and breadfruit tree groves. Village land is owned by clans, with each clan controlling a strip of land running from the shore inland to the mountain slopes. Villages often contain dwellings of various sizes, men's houses for each clan, kitchen huts, oven shelters, a garden shed, canoe shelters, ceremonial ground, and a burial ground. Houses are often similar to those on Tonga, raised on an earth mound with substantial wooden posts, walled, and constructed with thatched roofs. Some villages also have a store, reservoir, a mission church, and a temple. On the hills of some islands there are the remains of stone fortresses that have fallen into disuse with the cessation of interisland warfare.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Little, if any, horticulture was practiced before the introduction of manioc and sweet potatoes. It is believed that the gathering of plant foods supplemented by fishing, pig and chicken raising, and hunting sea turtles and crabs provided subsistence prior to the introduction of horticulture. Horticulture led to the development of a diversified subsistence economy based on yams, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, bananas, fish, and fowl. Pigs and sea turtles are now feast foods. Copra is the main Commercial crop. Lauans, because of their relatively small population and isolated location, have not been drawn into the national economy to the same extent as Fijians in the western islands.

Industrial Arts. Woodworking is highly developed. Much of the raw material comes from the heavy forests on the limestone islands. Buildings of various types and sizes are constructed, both sailing and paddling canoes are made, and men carve wooden bowls, headrests, slit gongs, cups, and weapons. Women make bark cloth and mats from pandanus leaves.

Trade. Interisland trade was active in traditional times and involved raw materials (timber, bark, vegetable oils), food (breadfruit, yams, taro, kava, shellfish, turtles), and manufactured items (canoes, bowls, mats, bark cloth). External trade with Europeans centered on the exporting of copra in exchange for manufactured items such as metal tools, matches, tobacco, cloth, and fuel. Trade with Tonga involved the exporting of timber and providing military training for Tongan nobles.

Division of Labor, The division of labor by sex relegates to men the tasks of house building, canoe making and sailing, woodworking, and sennit manufacture. Women make and decorate bark cloth, make mats, refine coconut oil, roll fish lines, and make nets. Both men and women make baskets from pandanus leaves. Carpenters often build or assist in the building of houses and are compensated for their services. In traditional times, priests and two types of curers (diagnosticians and healers) were prominent members of the community.

Land Tenure. In the past, clans owned the hamlets located in the interior. With the establishment of villages along the coast, clans became the owners of plots of land running inland from the coast as well as the gardens. Rights to bush lands and lagoons are controlled by the villages. Through a system called kerekere unused land is rented to others.


Kin Groups and Descent. At the highest level of kinship organization are five ranked phratries. The lowest-ranking phratry is that of the "land people." The land people are Commoners and comprise 80 percent of the Lau population. The upper class is made up of the 20 percent of the population in the other four phratries. The chiefs phratry (the Nakauvandra people) ranks the highest and forms the nobility. The three other phratries consist of two carpenter phratries and the phratry composed of the Tongans or "sea people." Phratries are composed of exogamous, patrilocal, patrilineal clans. Clans are localized economic and Ceremonial units. Each clan is made up of subclans or of nuclear Family households.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are classificatory, with a clear distinction made between cross and parallel cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Modern Lauan society is completely Monogamous, although before the advent of Christianity polygny was practiced by high-ranking men, especially by chiefs. Cross-cousin marriage was preferred, though not all marriages were of this ideal type. Marriages were clan- and sometimes subclan-exogamous, with a pattern of preference for some pairs of clans and subclans. Postmarital residence was patrilocal, although matrilocal residence and matrilineal Descent did occur in special circumstances, such as when there was a need to keep a clan from dying out. Separation and Divorce are not common.

Domestic Unit. The typical household unit (vuvale ) consists of a man, his wife, their children, and often additional relatives. Each household owns a dwelling house, a kitchen hut, an oven shelter, and sometimes a men's house. The household is the basic unit of food production and consumption.

Inheritance. Property, status, and specialized knowledge such as that of medicines and spells is passed from parents to children. Most valuable property is passed from fathers to sons. Mothers pass bark-cloth designs to their daughters.

Socialization. Relations between parents and children are governed by the same principles of status and respect that govern the relations between adults and between social groups. Children respect and obey their fathers and various material possessions of the latter are taboo. Relations with one's mother, who is not a member of one's clan, are freer and easier. Grandparents play a major role in child care and have especially close ties to their grandchildren. In traditional times, boys between the ages of 7 and 13 underwent a group superincision operation followed by four days of seclusion and a feast. There was no comparable ceremony for girls. Since British colonial times, formal education has been available on most inhabitated islands.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lauan society is characterized by an autocratic, stratified type of social organization with a close integration of the political, stratification, and kinship Systems. Notions of status and rank pervade all aspects of Lauan society and govern relations between individuals and social groups. In understanding Lauan society, it is important to bear in mind that Lauan culture reflects a fusion of three cultural traditions: early Polynesian, Melanesian, and Western Polynesian. Today, these traditions are reflected in the tripartite division among the land people, Nakauvandra people, and the Tongans or sea people. The land people were the earliest inhabitants of Lau. About ten generations ago, the ancestors of the Nakauvandra people immigrated to Lau and brought with them a highly organized and complicated System of social ranking that was reflected in their hierarchy of gods. The height of Tongan influence was in the mid-nineteenth century.

Political Organization. The chiefdom is the largest Political unit in Lau. It is made up of groups of islands or minor chiefdoms that are united in tributary relationships to the high chief at Lakemba. The minor chiefdoms are composed of villages, which were made up of hamlets in traditional times. The minor chiefdoms are ranked according to their Relationship to each other and to the high chief, and the Villages that make up the minor chiefdoms are ranked according to the status of the clans of which they are composed. Under British administration, village headmen were appointed by the colonial government. Today, Lauans participate in national politics, which are marked by ethnic-based rivalry Between native Fijians and Asian Indians and rivalries between different chiefdoms.

Social Control. The concepts of status and rank and associated behaviors, especially taboos on the objects and behaviors of the chiefs, were important ordering mechanisms in traditional times. At various times, the missionaries, Tongan chiefs, British officials, and clan alliances based on marriage have served as social-order mechanisms.

Conflict. Internal warfare evidently increased in frequency after the arrival of the Nakauvandra people and often Concerned intervillage and interclan competition for status and competition between nobles for power. Warfare generally took the form of surprise raids and ambushes with an emphasis on keeping one's own casualties to a minimum.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The settlers from Melanesia who founded the chiefs phratry (the Nakauvandra people) introduced an ancestor cult to Lau. In this cult, the hierarchy of the clans is reflected in the hierarchy of the ancestor gods. Offerings are presented to the gods by hereditary priests for the purpose of obtaining mana. According to Laura Thompson, the Lau are totemic in two senses. First, there is a form of totemism associated with the land people who believe that they descended from some local natural phenomena. These groups practice island endogamy. The second form of totemism is associated with the clans, many of whom possess as many as three totems, although there was no belief in Descent from the totems. Most Lauans had converted to Christianity by the close of the nineteenth century, with Methodism being the most popular denomination.

Religious Practitioners. Each island chief had a hereditary priest who acted as a seer and sanctified the chiefs status and authority. The priest was responsible for worshipping the ancestor god, an activity carried out through possession trance. There is some evidence that in the past the priest was as powerful as the chief. Today, the position of priest is essentially an honorary one.

Ceremonies. Ceremonialism involves the presentation and reception of gifts (formerly to the ancestor god by the priest, but since the advent of Christianity, to the chief), kava drinking, a feast, and dancing accompanied by a form of rhythmic chanting called meke. The most important traditional ceremony was the first fruit of the land ceremony (sevu ni vanua ). Life-cycle events were also marked by ceremonies, as were activities of the chief such as his installation and payment of tribute to him. The elaborateness of a ceremony reflected the status of the host or of the object of the ceremony.

Arts. Artistic expression was manifested mainly through the preparation, stenciling, and painting of bark cloth by women, the weaving and decoration of mats, and dancing. Dancing was a major component of all ceremonies and often involved much preparation and practice beforehand. The rhythmic chanting (meke) was accompanied by dancing, gesturing, and drumming.

Medicine. Illness and death were attributed to supernatural forces including sorcery and possession by an evil spirit. Illness was often viewed as supernatural punishment for a taboo violation. The cause of an illness was first identified by a diagnostician who then referred the person to the appropriate curer who specialized on the basis of the cause. Curers used talking, massage, vegetable medicines, surgery, and purification ceremonies.

Death and Afterlife. Persons near death are prepared for death by close relatives. Death is marked by wailing, a Ceremony, the giving of gifts, numerous taboos, burial, and a mourning period. The elaborateness of all of these is directly related to the status of the deceased. Lauans believe that all people have a good soul and a bad soul. Ideas about the destiny of the soul after death are unclear.

See alsoBau, Tonga


Bunge, Frederica M., and Melinda W. Cooke, eds. (1984). Oceania: A Regional Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hocart, Arthur M. (1929). Lau Islands, Fiji. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Thompson, Laura (1940). Southern Lau, Fij: An Ethnography. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.