Sally Merry and Donald Brenneis . Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaii

Sally Merry and Donald Brenneis . Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaii

Robert Norton

Sally Merry and Donald Brenneis (eds). Law and Empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaii. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press and Oxford: James Currey. 2003. Pp. ix + 313, figures and tables. US$24.95 (Pb.), ISBN 1-9306-1825-5; US$60.00 (Hc.) 1-9306-6182-7.

The impacts of foreign settlement and colonial rule in Hawaii and Fiji have been starkly different. While in Hawaii there are difficult efforts to rebuild indigenous cultural identity and power in the face of American dominance and globalising modernity, in Fiji an indigenous super power is eroding gains of modernity by driving out much of the Indian settler population, and creating among Fijians a deepening mire of pork-barrel politics.

Law and Empire addresses the question of how colonial law-making contributed to the contemporary patterns of identity, conflict and crisis, especially by legal constructions of subject peoples as ‘racial’ groups, separated and opposed by privileges and disadvantages.

In their Introduction, Sally Merry and Donald Brenneis summarise some of the similarities and differences. Both Hawaii and Fiji were organised in chiefdoms, both experienced comparable European intrusions, both developed economies based primarily on sugar, and both experienced mass settlement by workers from Asia (Indians to Fiji, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos to Hawaii). Yet very different social and political structures were formed: the conservation of indigenous Fijian land, culture, and social organisation (with colonial modifications), in contrast to the dispossession of Hawaiians of their lands, attempts to obliterate their culture, and their marginalisation in economic and political life.

Jane Collier contrasts the ‘cultural logics’ of chiefdoms and liberal capitalism in an attempt to illuminate the early interactions between islanders and Europeans. Her analysis is sophisticated and elegant, but so inadequately reformed about Oceanic variations that she misses the major contrast between Hawaii and Fiji. Contrary to her ideal type, Hawaiian chiefs ruled over both land and people at the time European intrusions began, whereas in Fiji, rule merely over people was more the pattern. An appreciation of this difference might have enabled an innovative account of contrasting trajectories of contact and change.

After her excellent review of changing patterns of ethnic inequalities, conflicts and alliances in Hawaii over 150 years, Sally Merry ponders on why the native sovereignty movement has relied on legal strategy, unlike the Fijians’ readiness to usurp law (by coup) in pursuit of political paramountcy. Her focus on values and attitudes seems naive in view of the huge differences of indigenous power and demography.

In the most interesting of the Hawaii chapters, Jonathan Osorio explains how the sovereignty movement has split into two variants. One wants Hawaiian ancestry to be made the criterion for full citizenship. The other rejects this insistence on ‘blood and culture’, arguing instead for the resurrection of the old Kingdom of Hawaii established by Hawaiians and settlers in the mid-nineteenth century and overthrown by the United States in the 1890s. This second variant invokes old legal institutions and advocates citizenship for all descendants of subjects of the Kingdom, irrespective of ethnicity.

Noenoe Silva examines missionary attempts to suppress Hawaiian culture. Prohibition of hula dancing provoked a ‘discursive insurrection’ against colonial law in the form of traditional stories of the dance in Hawaiian language newspapers. Missionaries had protested especially against a form of hula encouraged by some Europeans for their own amusement. Silva suggests, however, that the major concern was that in its celebration of female power the hula might impede the missionary endeavour to encourage patriarchy.

In stark contrast to Hawaii, colonial law in Fiji enforced a distinctive Fijian way of life. Yet legal rules and records concerning indigenous lands have often been at odds with local claims. An illustrative case is the struggle by the people of Suvavou village to redress perceived injustice in compensation paid by government for the appropriation of their original land over a century ago. Hirokazu Miyazaki examines a strategy of ‘indeterminacy’ in which by arguments about problematic contingencies of proof, they keep their struggle going, sustaining hope despite repeated rebuttals from bureaucratic guardians of an ‘over-determined regime of truth’ who insist on the finality of their records.

Annalise Riles formulates an analytical distinction between expressive and instrumental genres of law making. The former creates meanings that delimit peoples’ lives and opportunities; for example, the legal constitution of ‘racial’ groups such as ‘Fijians’, Indians’, ‘ Europeans’, ‘Part-Europeans’ etc. The instrumental genre creates not meanings, but manipulable ‘objects in the world’ such as titles in land. Riles shows how people of part-Fijian and part-European ancestry have sometimes countered their marginalisation in expressive law, by registering inherited lands in Torrens title, thereby securing individualised identities of ownership and escaping some of the constraints of ‘racial group’ identity. Riles maintains that anthropology has focused excessively on meanings created by the expressive genre of law, and should now give more attention to legal documents that are objects for use in the world, a focus that would challenge the discipline’s interpretive paradigm.

John Kelly argues that Fiji’s first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, in his zeal to protect the Fijians, flouted a legal requirement for assessing settler land claims implied in the Fijian chiefs’ Deed of Cession. In fact, the Deed was a charter for protective British rule, not a blueprint for law making, and Gordon was authorised to lead in an indeterminate situation of legal innovation. Kelly’s allegation that Gordon set a dangerous precedent for Fijian leaders to violate law today is therefore very puzzling. More substantial is his claim that J. Money’s writings on ‘race’ and government in colonial Java inspired Gordon to privilege the Fijians and marginalise the Indians. But it is simplistic to argue this without weighing intellectual influences against the pragmatics of political economy which entailed a de facto divide between the British colonial state preoccupied with Fijian affairs, and an Australian industrial monopoly supervising Indian labourers and farmers.

Martha Kaplan traces the roots of Fijian ‘takeovers’ of lands and governments to deeply-held convictions of indigenous entitlement encouraged by colonial laws and by Fijian Christianity’s reinforcement of beliefs in God-given ownership of the land. Although this analysis is a valuable corrective to the preoccupation of some Fiji scholars with legal values and institutions of Western democracy, cultural logics will not suffice to account for the coups d’etat. As in many parts of the world, they also reflect escalating stakes of struggle to possess the state in order to access material resources in conditions of market scarcities.

Law and Empire closes with historian Brij Lal’s pessimistic review of the damage done to Fiji by the coups d’etat. He discusses the impasses of political life, including rivalries among indigenous Fijians for power and patronage, which exacerbate the insecurity of Indo-Fijians. Especially illuminating is his account of how cultural differences determining conflicting styles of public leadership and debate have contributed to antagonism and crisis.

A central aim of the Law and Empire project was ‘to recenter law in social theory’ (p.24). However, most chapters are valuable for their insights into historical dynamics of collective identities and conflicts in the particular cases, rather than for theoretical understanding of the relation between law and social realities. The discussions of Hawaii are useful accounts of ethnic relations in colonial history. But the chapters on Fiji are the most provocative, with Riles’ innovative conceptual analysis being the strongest in the volume.

Robert Norton

Anthropology, Macquarie University

COPYRIGHT 2005 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group