HL Deb 16 July 1907 vol 178 cc473-83

rose to move for any correspondence between the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Governor of Fiji respecting the sale of certain lands in the Provinces of Rewa and Naitasiri. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not often trespass on your Lordships' time, and I hope that may be a plea for indulgence if I now ask your attention for a few moments to matters which have occurred a great distance off, and are, perhaps, not likely to attract very general interest. Yet they are not without some importance, for they affect, as I believe, our national honour on the one hand, and the existence or destruction of the people of the Fijian Islands on the other.

I wish to call attention to two different points. First, I wish to say a few words with regard to the cases specially referred to in my Notice; and, secondly— and this is of far more importance—to ask your attention to the general principles which seem to have guided the action of the local government in this matter and caused their reversal of the policy which it has hitherto been deemed expedient to pursue. Before I enter into any description of the two cases of sale of land mentioned in my Notice, it is necessary that I should give some explanation of the general system of land tenure in Fiji. Taken generally, and allowing for exceptions which occur here and there, the native ownership of all lands in the Fijian Islands is communal. Putting on one side a few exceptional cases, there is nothing like individual property, except as regards the dwelling-house and what in England we should call its curtilage. The fields, which are the property of the village, are portioned out from time to time to cultivators, and the waste belonging to it is common to the whole commune.

When it came to be considered what steps were to be taken to ensure the natives in the full possession of their rights without entirely blocking the progress of settlement by white planters, it was decided, after much consideration, that while the Government should be allowed for public purposes, strictly defined, to take land, no other native land should be sold, but that all transactions involving a change of occupation should bear the character of a lease. It might be a lease for a period sufficiently long to confer all the essentials of proprietorship, but still which would not involve the loss of the actual proprietary right in the natives themselves. If sale were made as against a certain price paid down to those who were then in occupation of the land, nothing would be ensured to future generations. Now the tenure of the land in Fiji, as I have said, is communal; that is to say, those who occupy it at any given time have only a life interest in it. It was thought expedient that by the device of a lease there should always be some money coming to the commune as long as the lease lasted, and that it should not be whittled and made away with by being given in a lump sum once for all to those who really had no right to dispose of the property, and who possessed only a life interest in it.

With that preface I now come to the cases which have induced me to bring the matter before the House on this occasion. In pursuance of the policy I have indicated and of the enactments made in accordance with it, a large tract of land in the Province of Naitasiri was leased to an Australian sugar company for a considerable number of years at a rent of £415 a year. Last year overtures were made to the Government and to the native proprietors to commute the lease and turn it into a sale. It was proposed that a sum amounting to about half the rent which was still accruing should be paid, but this payment was not only to extinguish the future rent, but also to carry with it the proprietorship of the land afterwards. That at the first blush would not seem to be a very equitable settlement. In the first place, there were seven years of the lease to run, the rent for which was worth altogether over £2,800, and that was to be given up for a lump sum of £1,500, thereby losing to the commune for the future a large amount of money and at the same time depriving them of any future interest in the land, apparently without compensation. But when a Fijian or any other person in that particular state of civilisation is deprived of the land he has nothing to look to, there is nothing before him but a life of labour perhaps on the very estates which were once partly his own.

The second case that has aroused my attention is one in the Province of Rewa. Either the same or some other Australian sugar company is desirous of obtaining the greater part of the delta of Rewa for sugar cultivation. It is one of the most populous parts of Fiji. In this case the company did not ask for a sale but for a lease of ninety-nine years, to which in principle there can be no objection; but, in the first place, they offered an exceedingly low rent, and, in the second place, they did not take into account whether or not the inhabitants of these villages and the proprietors of these lands were willing to enter into the lease. Almost unanimously the different villages and and communities concerned absolutely refused to have anything to do with the lease. They were exposed to a great deal of pressure and temptation in the way of bribes — I do not mean bribes in the ordinary sense to individuals, but by the offer of a large sum of money to the present generation —but they stoutly refused, and their refusal was sustained by many persons of European descent in the Colony who had knowledge of the proceedings. The natives being unwilling to lease, other methods were adopted. A new Ordinance was brought into the Legislative Council, which provided that (I am quoting from the official Royal Gazette)— The expression public purposes' shall be deemed to include any undertaking, proposal, or policy which may appear to the Governor in Council desirable as directly or indirectly benefiting the Colony.


Will the noble-Lord give me the date of that Ordinance?


The date, I am sorry to say, has been cut off, but must have been about the close of last year. It is quite clear that under an Ordinance like that the natives might be deprived of the whole of their land at any time. It would only be necessary for the proposal to be thought to be directly or indirectly of benefit to the Colony. There are a vast number of settlers in Fiji who conscientiously enter- tain the opinion that it would be largely for the benefit of the Colony if every native occupation ceased to exist. In the first place, there is a desire to obtain the land for useful purposes—a very fair and legitimate wish, and which, under the leasing system, I have no objection to being carried out to the full; but there is also a wish on the part of a good many people to get rid of native ownership of land, because the natives would then be obliged to sell their labour instead of working on their own land. There are a great many settlers in Fiji who do not hold that view, but nevertheless a very large proportion do so. The late Hon. James Mason, a large planter and a Member of the Legislative Council, met me one day, and, as usual, grumbled at the state of things generally and the state of planting. I said to him, "I have just-been moving about all through the Colony. It seems to me that everywhere there is more prosperity than there was two years ago. In every native village I visit I see there are new houses and better houses and extended cultivation. I see the people looking well fed and happy. There are more pigs and more poultry, and I think the people are much better off than they were." His reply was, "Yes, sir; of course they are better off, and they are much better off, but we do not want them to be better off; we want them to be ill off. When they are ill off they will come and work for us, but when they are well off they will not." I took these words down at the time, and I have often thought of them since. They are an index of the antipathy which is displayed on the part of many settlers to native occupation of land.

There may be very good explanations for both of the transactions referred to in my Notice. I made remarks upon thorn in no hostile spirit either to the Colonial Office or the Governor of the Colony. I know that my noble friend who at present presides over the Colonial Office is a man who has at heart in the truest and fullest sense native interests everywhere, and I have every reason to believe that the Governor, who has had great experience, is also very well disposed to native interests. But, after all, Governors certainly, and perhaps even the Colonial Office, are not altogether infallible, and it is sometimes the case that people with the) very best intentions make grave mistakes. Indeed, I think that in matters of this sort very often as much harm, if not even more harm, is done by well-intentioned but injudicious meddling as is done by actual hostility. As I have said these cases may admit of good explanations, but à priori they do look something like sharp practice.

But what is far more important, and what I specially wish to ask your Lordships' attention to, is the principle by which this action seems to have been directed. It is the substitution of sale for lease. The policy that the land should remain with the natives in perpetuity but might be leased was not a fad of mine. It was certainly my policy, but it was also that of the very able men who have succeeded me in the Government of Fiji, of Sir William Des Vœux, of Sir Charles Mitchell, and of Sir John Murston, and it was gone into carefully and approved by successive Secretaries of State. Lord Kimberley, Lord Carnarvon, Lord St. Aldwyn, and Lord Derby in a most emphatic manner approved that policy—a policy which I believe to be absolutely essential to the very existence of the Fijian, which is bound up with the land. In one of the cases to which I have referred there was a sort of compensation offered. It was that those who were displaced should have two acres of land allotted to them. There is something of the air of "three acres and a cow" about that. It would seem as if this might be a very proper allowance for a poor Fijian, but two acres of land independently is not of the slightest use to him. You might as well give him two acres of white paper; it is of no use to him. The property is communal and so is the cultivation and that on which the cultivation depends, irrigation. In all large Fijian towns there is an elaborate system of irrigation. It is carried on by the commune, who have made the canals and the junctions to the different fields by which the water supply is regulated, and it is impossible for an unfortunate Fijian to cultivate a couple of acres if they are unirrigated nor can he irrigate them himself. Moreover, two acres are not sufficient for the sort of crops they raise. There are no butchers' and bakers' shops in the country districts of Fiji, and each man has to provide entirely for his family. That requires space, especially as the crops which they raise, and on which they are entirely dependent for food, require a lot of ground and being of an exhausting nature render it necessary that the land should from time to time be left fallow.

Then, again, I believe it to be an injustice to take these lands. We have no more right to take communal land in Fiji, except under particular circumstances, than we have to take the lands of any of your Lordships. Public necessity may over-ride that in the one case as in the other, but, failing public necessity, those lands should remain in the possession of those who hold them. All who are acquainted with the Fijian race know perfectly well that if you separate them from the land the race will die out, and that would be a violation of the express conditions on which alone we took possession of the Fijian Islands. We told the natives that we had come to protect them against the lawlessness of the white settlers; we told them that their lands should be kept to them inviolate; we told them that their customs and laws, so far as they were not absolutely objectionable and immoral, should be maintained, and to that we are pledged by despatches without number from successive Secretaries of State, and in speeches, equally without number, of successive Governors; and what is more important than all, by the solemn word of Her late Majesty the Queen. On two separate occasions Her late Majesty did me the honour to convey to me her commands from her own lips that I was to tell the Fijian people that their lands were theirs and should never be taken from them. I told them so on the authority of our Sovereign, and I do trust that that pledge then given will be maintained.

I have no feeling against the authorities in Fiji. I believe the Governor to be well disposed towards the native races, but I do think he somewhat misunderstands the position in which he has only recently been placed. I think so the more from a remarkable utterance which ho made to a large meeting of natives. He told them that he would have no difficulty in governing them for he had had experience for several years of a community just like their own. He meant the wild savages of British Guiana, and I hold that it is an insult to the Fijian people to make such a comparison. There is hardly a Fijian who cannot read and write and who is not comfortably housed, and that cannot be said of the Guiana Indians. My noble friend has been Governor-General of India, and will perfectly understand me when I say that it is much as if a commissioner appointed to some well-to-do district in Bengal were to tell the people he knew all about them because he had served twenty years among the Bheels or Khonds. That makes me think that the Governor has not, or at least had not at that time, gained a full grasp of the work that lay before him. Another reason for thinking so is that in a letter which I have seen from him with regard to complaints which have been made, in which he says he considers that the protection which the natives have received was very much overdone and is not necessary now that they are adolescent, and that if it had not been for all the protection afforded to them they would be entitled now to what he calls the full rights of British subjects. By that he means that they might now be put on exactly the same level with all other folk in the Colony.

I suppose most of your Lordships have read an amusing skit called "Vice versa," in which are portrayed the results of a boy of fourteen and a respectable city merchant of sixty changing identities: what the boy of fourteen does as a city merchant may be imagined better than described. That is exactly what would come to pass by putting the Fijian in a position to deal with his white neighbour without any protection whatever. The Fijian will make any sacrifice, however improvident, to indulge a momentary want, just as children do; and unless the protection of the State which has hitherto been afforded to them is continued I see perfectly clearly what the result will be. It will mean an end of the Fijian race. The passionate clinging of the Fijian to the land is a fact which it would be wrong and indeed dangerous to ignore. My noble friend knows very well what would be the effect of any similar meddlings with the land tenures of India.

I know that in what I have said I have been speaking the senti- ments of others who have governed that Colony. I myself am one of the parties interested, for I am a Fijian landowner. Her late Majesty was graciously pleased, when I left Fiji, to allow me to accept a gift from the Fijian people of two small islands of no commercial value, but the possession of which was sufficient to give me the title of a turaga taukei—a landowning chief in the country. It is, therefore, as one of them, and as their representative, that I come before your Lordships to ask you to give some attention to their rights, and what I fear may be their wrongs.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for any correspondence between the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Governor of Fiji respecting the sale of certain lands in the Provinces of Rewa and Naitasiri. —(The Lord Stanmore.)


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will acknowledge that the noble Lord has every right to speak as the representative of Fiji, and to bring before the House any subject in which he thinks the people of those islands have been wronged; but my difficulty in answering him is that, though I have devoted some time to a study of the subjects involved in the Question, I have had no little difficulty in informing myself accurately on some of the points, in regard to which perhaps the noble Lord will give me some further explanation privately. As to one of the sales—that in Rewa—I cannot speak definitely; and with regard to the Ordinance which was quoted, if it was passed last year, as the noble Lord stated, it ought to have been sent home for sanction, but I cannot find it among my Papers.


I did not say the Ordinance had been passed. What I quoted from was the draft of the Ordinance. I know it was inserted in the Gazette as coming before the Legislative Council, but whether wiser counsels prevailed and it was withdrawn I do not know.


I will inquire into it. With regard to the other case —that in Naitasiri—I can give some particulars. The land, we are told by the noble Lord, was originally let to a sugar company at a rental of £415, and the price for which it was to be sold was £1,500. It is quite true that the land was originally let to a sugar company for £415 a year, but they declined to renew the lease on the ground that the land was exhausted. The land was valued by two competent persons at not more than £200 a year, and in those circumstances the selling price assumes a different aspect. That is the actual state of the matter with regard to that transaction.

As to the principle underlying the sales, there can be no doubt whatever that under the Treaty by which we assumed the protection of Fiji, it was aid down in the fourth clause that the sole proprietary of all lands not shown to be then alienated, or not then in the actual use or occupation of some chief or tribe, or not actually required for the future support and maintenance of some chief or tribe should vest in Her Majesty, her heirs and successors. I have not been able to trace any later enactment altering that state of the law; but the explanation may possibly be found in the custom of communal property. Large tracts may be nominally the property of a tribe and not be in the ordinary sense under cultivation. But even in such cases, in the event of the tribe ceasing to exist, the ownership of the land reverts to the Crown. In 1875 Lord Carnarvon distinctly declared that the whole of the land in Fiji belonged to the Crown, and in 1893 the chiefs met and resolved that the control of the land ought to be with the Government. It is clear that there are powers over the land possessed by the Government which the Governor is bound to exercise, in the interests of the natives of course.

In 1905 an Ordinance was passed which did permit sales to take place, but only under stringent regulations, the Governor being empowered to refuse his consent if the sale seemed improper, if the land were necessary for the maintenance of any person, or if the price to be paid was inequitable. Under the Ordinance of 1905 the responsibility of the Governor remained under the former provisions for securing the welfare of the native population, but in any case in which he thought it necessary to exercise his discretion and to permit sale he was bound by very distinct and definite provisions to see to the interests of the native population in the direction in which the noble Lord desires.

I should like to point out that the provisions for dealing with land in Fiji are entirely different from those in other Colonies of the Empire. In other Colonies we reserve land for the natives necessary to their maintenance, and the Crown is permitted to dispose of the surplus lands to those whom the authorities consider to be most likely to be good settlers and to promote the prosperity of the Colony as a whole. In Fiji there is ample room for the introduction of settlers. The land acreage is 4,800,000 acres and it is estimated that 4,250,000 acres are uncultivated. In addition to that the population of Fiji has decreased from 140,000 in the time of the noble Lord to 86,000 now. There is thus a large amount of land available in Fiji, and the native population is not adequate to cultivate the whole of it. There is, therefore, no danger whatever of the native population being deprived of those acres which the noble Lord thinks are necessary for their existence. It is the duty of the local Government and of the Governor to take what steps they reasonably can to promote the settlement of the Islands, with a view to increasing their population and prosperity. Having said that, I wish to assure the noble Lord that I do not differ from him in a distinct preference for leases rather than sales. I do not think there is any real difference of opinion on that point. I should like to see leases taken in every case in which it is possible, and I may tell the noble Lord that there are several portions of land which have been leased of late on conditions which he would approve. For instance, I find in a recent letter describing some considerable settlements in one district that a condition was imposed by the Governor that no lease should extend beyond ninety-nine years from August, 1906. The Ordinance does provide for the Governor allowing a sale under strict rules limiting his discretion, should occasion render it desirable; and while I would be quite willing to draw the Governor's attention to the necessity for observing very strict rules in exercising his powers under the Ordinance, I think the provision is one that ought to be maintained. I have in preparation some Papers which, I think, will satisfy my noble friend.


I propose to take advantage of the invitation of my noble friend to communicate with him privately on some of the points on which I think ho is mistaken. But I should like to say that the belief among the natives that they are likely to be deprived of their land is creating a great deal of feeling of a serious character, which may, if something is not done to reassure them, lead to very serious consequences.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.