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Identification. Rotuma lies approximately 480 kilometers north of Fiji, on the western fringe of Polynesia. The island is very near the intersection of the conventional boundaries of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, and traces of influence from each of these areas can be found in the physical composition, language, and culture of the island's inhabitants. Although Rotuma has been politically associated with Fiji since 1881, when the chiefs ceded the island to Great Britain, the Rotuman people are unique, forming a distinctive enclave within the Republic.

Location. Rotuma is located at 12°30 S and 177°40 E. The island is of volcanic origin, with the highest craters rising to heights of 260 meters. It is divided into two main parts joined by an isthmus of sand, forming a total configuration about 13 kilometers long and, at its widest, nearly 5 kilometers wide. The land area is approximately 44 square kilometers. April through November the prevailing winds are from east to south, December through March from north to west. Rainfall averages about 350 centimeters per year.

Demography. The first census of Rotuma was taken in 1881, the year of its cession to Great Britain. The population was reported as 2,452. Following a devastating measles epidemic in 1911, it declined to under 2,000, then began to increase gradually. As the total approached 3,000 in the late 1930s, out-migration to Fiji became an important means of alleviating population pressure. According to Fiji census records, in 1936 91.3 percent of Rotumans were living on their home island. By 1956 the percentage had decreased to 67.7 percent, and by 1976 it had declined to 37.1 percent. In Recent years out-migration has accelerated, not only to Fiji but to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. As a result, the population of the island has declined to around 2,500, representing less than 25 percent of the total number of Rotumans.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguistic evidence suggests that Rotuman belongs in a subgrouping (Central Pacific) that includes Fijian and the Polynesian languages; within this group there appears to be a special relationship between Rotuman and the languages of western Fiji. The vocabulary shows a considerable degree of borrowing from Tongan and Samoan.

History and Cultural Relations

Until the archaeology of Rotuma is done, the origins of its population will remain clouded. There is, however, solid Evidence that migrations from Samoa and Tonga occurred after initial settlement, and other data suggest Rotumans were in contact with Tuvalu (Ellice Islands) to the north, Kiribati (Gilbert Islands) to the northwest, Futuna and Uvea to the east, and Fiji to the south. The first recorded European Contact was in 1791 with Captain Edwards in H.M.S. Pandora, while he was searching for the mutineers of the Bounty. The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of increasing contact, as Rotuma became a favorite place for whalers to replenish their provisions. A substantial number of sailors jumped ship there, and the beachcomber population was estimated at times to be more than 100. In addition to whalers were labor recruiters, who found Rotumans quite willing to sign on. By the mid-nineteenth century many Rotuman men had been abroad, and some had visited the centers of European civilization before returning home. In the 1860s European missionaries from the Wesleyan and Roman Catholic churches established themselves on Rotuma, and the island was divided between them. Antagonisms between converts to each faith mounted until 1878, when they culminated in a war won by the numerically superior Wesleyans. The unrest that followed led the chiefs of Rotuma's seven districts to petition Queen Victoria for annexation, and in 1881 the island was officially ceded to Great Britain. Rotuma was governed as part of the Colony of Fiji until 1970, when Fiji gained its independence. Since then it has been an integral part of that Island nation.


A packed-sand road encircles the perimeter of the eastern part of the island and extends to the northern and southern sides of the western part. Since colonial times, at least, almost all settlement has been on the coastal areas along this road. Although the island is divided into districts and the districts into villages, settlement along the road is nearly continuous, and it is often difficult to determine boundaries. In recent years bush paths have been widened, and though still quite rough, they make it possible to traverse the interior of the Island by motor vehicle. Traditional Rotuman houses were made of thatch, but over time limestone, cut lumber, and corrugated iron replaced much of the thatching. In 1972 Hurricane Bebe destroyed most of the remaining native-style houses. A relief team from New Zealand organized the Construction of over 300 cement and iron structures. Most households also maintain a thatched cooking house, and some have separate toilets and wash houses. There are no freshwater streams on Rotuma, and until recently rainwater stored in cement or iron tanks was the main source of water for drinking and bathing. During the 1970s, however, a freshwater underground lens was tapped and now most Households have access to piped water. Income from salaries and remittances are often used to improve houses, and a number of two-story structures have been built over the past few years.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The vast majority of households in Rotuma maintain gardens that supply their staples (taro, yams, tapioca, breadfruit, and bananas). Pineapples, papayas, mangoes, watermelons, and oranges are also grown in abundance to supplement the diet. Soil type varies from sandy to loam, and the soil is quite deep. While the entire island is exceptionally fertile, the eastern side is covered with stones and boulders, making it more difficult to work. The main implements in gardening are the bush knife, for clearing land, and the dibble stick, which is used to make holes in the earth for planting root crops. Rotation of crops is the common pattern; typically yams are planted the first season, followed by taro and then by tapioca and banana trees. Although only a few men engage in deep-sea fishing, the fringing reef that surrounds the island is widely exploited for a variety of fish, octopuses, crustaceans, and edible seaweed. Chicken, canned corned beef, and canned mackerel supplement the daily diet, while cattle, goats, and pigs are consumed on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and welcoming ceremonies. The main export product is copra. It is Marketed by the Rotuma Cooperative Association, which dominates the commercial life of the island.

Industrial Arts. The main Rotuman handicrafts are Pandanus mats and baskets. Mats, particularly fine white ones, are central to Rotuman ceremonies, and they were Traditionally considered to be the main form of wealth. Canoe making still occurs on a small scale, but aside from foods made in two bakeries, Rotumans do not produce any goods for commercial markets.

Trade. An airstrip was opened on Rotuma in 1981, but few goods are transported by air. Shipping by sea is irregular, aggravating the problem of Rotuma's isolation from potential markets. This isolation has especially inhibited the development of agricultural exports. Rotuman oranges, for example, are famous for their quality and are extremely abundant, but as yet they have not been commercially exploited because of difficulties with storage and transportation.

Division of Labor. In general, Rotumans follow the general Polynesian pattern of women's work being close to home while men's labor takes them farther afield. Women are exclusively responsible for mat making, and they take major responsibility for child care, washing clothes, cleaning the household compound, and the preparation and serving of family meals. They also harvest marine resources on the reef. Men take primary responsibility for gardening, animal husbandry, cooking in earthen ovens, and house construction. The division of labor is not rigid, however, and couples Generally help each other when required.

Land Tenure. Land is important to Rotumans for its symbolic significance as well as for its subsistence value. The main landholding unit is the kainaga, a bilateral group based upon common descent from ancestors who resided at, and held rights in, a named house site (fuaq ri ). Each person is considered to have rights in the fuaq ri of his eight greatgrandparents, although typically rights are exercised selectively. Associated with each fuaq ri are sections of bush land, and membership in a given kainaga entitles one to rights in this land. The person who lives on the fuaq ri acts as steward of the land and controls access. He, or she, is obligated to grant usufructuary rights to kainaga members for any reasonable request. At times land has been sold or given for services to specific individuals, but over generations it becomes kainaga land again. When the population of the island approached its highest levels, during the 1950s and 1960s, land disputes intensified and access was generally restricted to close relatives. In recent years, however, out-migration has relieved tensions and the main problem now is often to determine which of a set of siblings will remain behind to steward the land and care for aging parents.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral. The term kainaga, in its most general sense, denotes common Membership in a class. It is used to describe animal and plant species as well as human kinship, and it applies to personal kin who function during life-crisis ceremonies (e.g., the bride's relatives), as well as to descent-based landholding units (see section on land tenure).

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are essentially of the Hawaiian type. Within ego's generation, cross-sex siblings are distinguished from those of the same sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, Rotuman marriages were arranged by parents, although generally with the prior consent of the partners. Public courtship displays were frowned upon, so liaisons had to be formed surreptitiously. Courtship rules have been relaxed in recent years, but a strong concern remains for the decorum of unmarried youths. Marriages with second cousins are allowed. Postmarital residence with the wife's family is preferred, although movement between husband's and wife's natal homes is common over the span of a lifetime. Marriages are quite stable; the great majority are terminated only by the death of a spouse. Divorce is under the jurisdiction of Fijian courts, which are modeled on British law. Property is rarely involved, and young children are distributed by mutual agreement.

Domestic Unit. Households are defined in terms of sharing a common hearth and eating together. Household size has declined in response to out-migration, from an average of about 7.5 in 1960 to about 4.5 in 1988. Most consist of a Nuclear family, extended by relatives of either the husband or wife. Children are often left with grandparents when married couples emigrate, so three-and four-generation households are common. Since maintaining a household requires the labor of both men and women, single persons are often invited to become de facto members of a neighbor's household.

Inheritance. Each surviving child inherits an equal share in rights over family landholdings, although traditionally the senior male is favored in succession to stewardship. Today, however, it is often one of the younger siblings who remains behind to look after the family estate while elder siblings emigrate.

Socialization. Infants and children are cared for by both parents, by grandparents, and by elder siblings. Physical punishment is rare, and children's autonomy is respected. Children circulate freely between households in the vicinity of their household, and they are never excluded from adult-centered events. Value emphases are placed on sharing, Cooperation, and respecting the autonomy of others.

Sociopolitical Organization

Rotuma was governed as an integral part of the Colony of Fiji after cession to Great Britain in 1881. Following Fiji's independence in 1970 and the military coups of 1987, Rotuma remained with Fiji.

Social Organization. Rotuma is divided into seven autonomous districts, each with its own headman (gagaj 'es itu'u). The districts are divided into subgroupings of households (ho'aga ) that function as work groups under the leadership of a subchief (gagaj 'es ho'aga). All district headmen and the majority of ho'aga headmen are titled. In addition, some men hold titles without headship, although they are expected to exercise leadership roles in support of the district headman. Titles, which are held for life, belong to specified house sites (fuaq ri). All the descendente of previous occupants of a fuaq ri have a right to participate in the selection of successors to titles. On formal occasions titled men and dignitaries such as ministers and priests, government officials, and distinguished visitors occupy a place of honor. They are ceremonially served food from special baskets and kava. In the daily routine of Village life, however, they are not especially privileged. As yet no significant class distinctions based on wealth or control of resources have emerged, but investments in elaborate housing and motor vehicles by a few families have led to visible differences in standard of living.

Political Organization. At the time of discovery by Europeans there were three pan-Rotuman political positions: the fakpure, the sau, and the mua. The fakpure acted as convener and presiding officer over the council of district headmen and was responsible for appointing the sau and ensuring that he was cared for properly. The fakpure was headman of the District that headed the alliance that had won the last war. The sau's role was to take part in the ritual cycle, oriented toward ensuring prosperity, as an object of veneration. Early European visitors referred to the sau as "king," but he actually had no secular power. The position of sau was supposed to rotate between districts, and a breach of this custom was considered to be incitement to war. The role of mua is more obscure, but like the sau, he was an active participant in the ritual cycle. According to some accounts the mua acted as a kind of high priest. Following Christianization in the 1860s, the offices of sau and mua were terminated. Colonial administration involved the appointment by the governor of Fiji of a Resident Commissioner (after 1935, a District Officer) to Rotuma. He was advised by a council composed of the district headmen. In 1940 the council was expanded to include an elected representative from each district and the Assistant Medical Practitioner. Following Fiji's independence in 1970, the council assumed responsibility for the internal governance of Rotuma, with the District Officer assigned to an advisory role. Up until the first coup, Rotuma was represented in the Fiji legislature by a single senator.

Social Control. The basis for social control is a strong Socialization emphasis on social responsibility and a sensitivity to shaming. Gossip serves as a mechanism for sanctioning deviation, but the most powerful deterrent to antisocial behavior is an abiding belief in immanent justice, that supernatural forces will punish wrongdoing. Rotumans are a gentle people; violence is extremely rare and serious crimes nearly nonexistent.

Conflict. Prior to cession, warfare, though conducted on a modest scale, was endemic in Rotuma. During the colonial era political rivalries were muted, since power was concentrated in the offices of Resident Commissioner and District Officer. Following Fiji's independence, however, interdistrict rivalries were again given expression, now in the form of Political contention. Following the second coup, when Fiji left the British Commonwealth of Nations, a segment of the Rotuman population rejected the council's decision to remain with the newly declared republic. Arguing that Rotuma had been ceded to Great Britain and not to Fiji, these rebels declared Rotuma independent and were charged with sedition. Majority opinion appears to favor remaining with Fiji, but rumblings of discontent remain.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The precontact religion involved a combination of animism, ancestor worship, and pantheism. The pre-Christian religion of Rotuma included several types of Supernatural beings, including high gods, ancestral ghosts, and local spirits. The high gods, of whom Tagaroa was the most noteworthy, were the source of sustenance. They were prayed to for rain, for fruitful land, and for success in islandwide efforts. Tagaroa was the god of human fertility and the deity of the sau and mua. His son, Tairagoni, was personified by a turtle and was considered to be able to render the sea fruitful and safe. Ancestral ghosts were presumed to occupy the localities where they lived and to require propitiation. The good or bad fortune of individuals, families, and local groups were attributed to them. In addition, a number of free-roaming, largely malevolent spirits, who sometimes appeared in the form of anomalous creatures, were believed to inhabit the land.

Rotuma was converted to Christianity in the 1860s by English Wesleyans and French Catholics. The Catholics, who compose approximately one-third of the population, are concentrated on the south side of the island. In recent years a Seventh-Day Adventist church has been built and serves a number of families, and a small group of Jehovah's Witnesses meet together regularly. The churches play a vital role in the lives of most people and are centers for many communal activities.

Religious Practitioners. The sau and mua were Traditionally responsible for attending to ritual activities propitiating the high gods to ensure the prosperity of the island. At the local level, certain individuals were designated to channel the powers of the spirits to ensure success and to heal sickness. Following missionization these activities were curtailed and now are viewed by most Rotumans as examples of devil worship. Today a significant number of Rotumans hold offices in the Christian churches as ministers, lay preachers, stewards, and the like.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial events play a major role in the social life of the island. Key elements in every ceremony are formal presentations of kava and food to the chiefs by men, the giving of mats by women, a feast, and formal speeches. Group dances are also often performed as entertainment. Ceremonial occasions include: life-crisis events, such as Weddings, firstborn children's first birthdays, funerals, and the unveiling of headstones a year after death; welcoming Ceremonies for Rotumans who have been away or for first visits of outside dignitaries; the anniversaries of historic occasions such as cession and the coming of the missionaries; and rious church events.

Arts. At the time of contact the main forms of artistic expression included tattooing, personal ornaments such as breastplates and necklaces, and the manufacture of fine mats and tapa. Dancing and oratory were also well developed. Today, singing, dancing, and oratory (including preaching) are the dominant art forms. Fine mats are still produced by women, along with such handicrafts as fans, purses, and crocheted items. Although such items are sold on occasion at Island events, they are not marketed overseas.

Medicine. Traditionally, therapeutic practices included cutting and burning and massage. Coconut oil, cold water, and purgatives were important items in purification rituals. Poultices were made with various leaves, mixed with turmeric, and applied to sores and inflammations. Healers derived their curative efficacy from ancestral spirits who guided their actions during possession episodes. The ability to heal was thought to be transmitted within families or directly from a practitioner to a chosen apprentice. Western medicine has largely replaced these folk practices, although massage remains popular as an alternative form of treatment.

Death and Afterlife. A person's soul was believed to wander during sleep, and if it did not return to the body before wakening or if it was carried off by a spirit, the person would sicken and die. When a person was seriously ill and apparently dying, it was presumed that his or her soul was wandering, and efforts were made to coax it to return. The ghost of a recently deceased relative was often implored to assist in such circumstances. At death the soul migrated to "the unseen world," said to be under the sea. This realm was divided into regions corresponding to places on the island. The final resting place of souls was off the western end of the island, where the sun sets. The ancient Rotumans buried their dignitaries under large basaltic stones, which sometimes weighed several tons and were transported over considerable distances. Following contact, cannons obtained from European vessels were sometimes used as grave markers. Cemeteries are usually on hills or promontories, and they are well cared for by the communities that use them.

See alsoFutuna, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Uvea


Howard, Alan (1970). Learning to Be Rotuman. New York: Columbia Teachers College Press.

Gardiner, J. Stanley (1898). The Natives of Rotuma." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:396-435, 457-524.

Plant, Chris, ed. (1977). Rotuma: Split Island. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies.