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Property And Inheritance

QUEENSLAND law has not affected native land tenure which is upheld in the court of the island. In a few instances it is not impossible that English ideas- especially of inheritance- are making themselves felt. There is no common land, and each makes his own garden on his own land at his own Convenience.

In most, if not all, cases the children or heirs of the deceased have been acquainted with his intentions regarding them during his lifetime. The father usually went over his gardens with his children, pointing out to each child the portions that are to be his or hers. -Suppose brother he stop, girl he no get 'im garden belong 'im- was the remark of a native. Mr Bruce says - The eldest son gets the lion's share- girls get very little, just enough for a marriage portion.- Besides his share of the family land a son inherits any property left to his mother during her life. An only daughter inherits the property of both parents, but if her paternal uncle- her father's eldest brother- is alive he acts as guardian both to her and to her mother, on whom however the real responsibility rests. On the death of a wife the husband must give back her portion to her relatives - at least so soon as he contemplates remarriage. Ulai (11), for instance, should have returned, firstly, the property of his wife Veet and, secondly, of his wife Kabur, but he has not done so, and as he has a reputation for sorcery the real claimants do not come forward. For this occupation in usufruct of their land he pays nothing. If there is no family and no surviving relative the neighbours divide deceased's land among themselves. Women often own land specially given to them by their mothers. On their marriage such land is handed over, to be equally divided, among their brothers. - Formerly,- says Mr Bruce, -a man could leave his land to any one he liked of his family, or even alienate it, during his lifetime; but even so the family were not left without provision.- Such cases only occurred when the father had many and scattered gardens. Pasi of Dauar says that he was thus left sole heir to the property of two old men- brothers- whom he had befriended, but he was involved in litigation in spite of their well-known intentions towards himself (probably this is the property mentioned in connection with the zogo Le of the Lag zogo).

If a father is very angry with his children he is competent to disinherit them. Such action is very uncommon, is generally richly deserved, and is usually taken with regard to an unnatural son. If there are no children, the father's brothers and sisters divide the land among themselves. An adopted son, if there be no children, takes precedence over blood relations. A child adopted out of his or her own family does not inherit land from the real father (see account of the zogo le of the lag zogo). The distribution of personal belongings has been referred to on p 135, and the destruction of property on pp 136, 159.

The wife can scarcely be said to own land in an individual capacity. What is hers is also the family's and what is the family's is hers- in usufruct. The widow and her children are in an unenviable position [1], especially if the latter are young and incapable of attending to their own interests. The eldest brother of the late father can take charge not only of the land and gardens, but of the house, the personality of the occupants, and may even demand of the widow the bodies of her children. That in former times he generally married his deceased brother's wife there can be no doubt- so extravagant are the claims now put forward by him of guardianship and supervision. In fact, says Mr Bruce, -he fills the father's place.- See also Wardship.

UNMARRIED DAUGHTERS. Girls have little land if they have many brothers, but it must be remembered that their chances of marriage are much increased by the system of exchanging sisters. A large family of girls would be a misfortune that is not allowed to occur. As we have seen, women whether unmarried or married are in possession of land given them by their mothers which they lose when they marry.

MARRIAGE PORTIONS. These are generally all the land a girl owns, unless she be an only or favourite child. However at marriage friends often make presents of land and property of different kinds. In 1897 a girl on getting married was given two house sites-one by her brother-a garden by the same brother and a second garden by another friend. This was done when the ceremony was over, so the wife shared her new possessions with her husband at once. Should there be no issue such presents (some of which are previously paid for) revert to their donors or donors' families. Rich husbands often return their wives' marriage portions.

We have seen something of the position of the eldest brother-in-law aud the widow, Not only can the eldest surviving brother of the deceased claim the widow, children and property, but even any acquaintance of the late head of the family, who is prepared to swear that so the dead man willed it. Such self-appointed guardians are the source of much trouble, especially when the boys grow up and demand their own, which they usually do at about the age of seventeen. The guardian is supposed to apportion to each child its share of land, but he often contrives by adopting them into his own family to acquire their property. Out of it he distributes to them as little as he dare, keeping the rest for his own heirs. Under ordinary circumstances-when the guardian does not marry his sister-in-law or at least the widow and has not adopted the children as his own- the marriage of the eldest confers upon him or her the headship of the family. Thus the father's guardian is succeeded by the natural guardian- the eldest son or the husband of the eldest daughter. The widow, if there are no children of her marriage, never returns to her family but lives with her husband's brother (or brothers); in this case the brother retains the property, giving only what he chooses to the widow. Should the widow having no children marry out of the husband's family, she forfeited all her husband's property. In the event of a widow remaining single, but forced through bad treatment to return to her own family, she always has her own portion of garden land from her father to fall back upon for her own support. It is obvious that this system of wardship has a profound direct influence on the tenure and distribution of land. Mr Hunt says, -In the event of the death of both the parents the child would be adopted by the father's family- (Jour. Anth. Inst. XXVIII.,12).

Unlike the greater part of British New Guinea the Murray Islands are the scene of exchanges, sales, leases and loans of land and house sites. Exchanges, however, are confined to the working and produce of gardens belonging to two friends. No idea of convenience has ever prompted an exchange of two gardens or two house-sites. The sale, too, of such landed property is unusual and is probably due to European or at least alien influences. Some land is bought more or less under compulsion by Government and Mission, and the principle is admitted. Strangers are said, however, to have been always permitted to buy land. It is difficult to distinguish between leases and loans in Mer. Perhaps the loans give rise to more disputes than the leases, but both are very fertile sources of trouble. -Natives,- says Mr Bruce, -lend each other land and most of their difficulties arise from this custom.- Especially was this true in former times, when every property that adjoined the shore was bounded by the edge of the reef. The land was lent and endless disputes ensued over turtle and fish and whatever else tempted the cupidity of the lender. The custom of lending their gardens to others is called kebe le tonar or gelar tonar (taboo custom) or imeri. The owner of the land is called su le or so le, that is, "the man who goes away"; .the man who takes charge of the land is the kebe le and his assistants are called berer kebe le. The appointment of a kebe le is made by voting. When a man makes a request to be kebe le of some one- or rather of several people, for usually several gardens are taken by one man- all the people interested would meet to talk it over and to determine if he were a fit and proper person for the undertaking. Perhaps someone else would make an offer. Each man present picks a midrib from a leaflet of a coconut leaf and the headman of the land names a candidate and asks if the others are favourable and, if so, they stick the midribs into a piece of banana stem. The decision is made by a majority of votes, and the successful candidate is informed that the land is his for a year and no one will go near it, even secretly. The kebe le informs the su le when the harvest is ready, and the food is collected and distributed.

Mr J. Bruce saw a distribution about 1895; it was a very large affair and nearly half of the people on the island were implicated. The food was exhibited on a Friday and Saturday; the two Mamooses Arei and Pasi kept watch over the food all day Sunday, and on Monday it was distributed, the Su le getting the first share. No trouble arose. There is an idea that the gardens will produce more food by this custom than by the ordinary method, and probably it is so, as the kebe le take a pride to do their best in tending the borrowed gardens, even to the neglect of their own gardens. This custom has been stopped by Finau, the Samoan teacher.

House-sites (metara uteb) were and are often lent. A sort of rent is, however, paid, generally by the performance of certain repairs, or simply by the maintenance in good order at his own expense as the tenant of property, which the owner could not personally undertake. The terms were generally for the four or five years during which a house was weather-proof. The house went to pieces, the old tenant went out, a new house was built and a new tenant found, to keep it in order. Had this not been done there was always a risk of neighbours trespassing upon little visited property. No warning of eviction was necessary. In most cases the house was occupied by two or three men, with or without families, who lived together in more or less harmony. This kind of tenure was open to the objection of uncertainty, and it certainly led to bad feeling; it is no longer recognised in the court of the island. At the same time as the house the land was often lent, but the tenant had to pay a share of the produce to the owner. The first application for this kind of rent is now generally met by a gift of calico. A regular system of hiring a man for half the produce to look after a garden has come into being-its origin being evidently due to above custom. In addition to this rough m-tayage, friends are specially paid for assistance in clearing gardens. Only very old and tried associates plant coconuts and bananas on each other's land and share the fruit. This custom, too, may be said to constitute an exchange of rights, if not of gardens; but it is attended by certain dangers.

Formerly every man's shore property extended over the reef [2]. How fruitful a source of dispute this was in a fishing community it is easy to understand. At present things are a little better. Each property is bounded by high-water mark. Even thus, any one who catches turtle or tup on the reef is expected to pay a fine to the adjacent landowner of a portion of his capture. Logs and other - flotsam and jetsam - are of course the property of the owner of the foreshore. A small reef patch between Mer and Dauar used to be the boundary between the islands. The Giar le claimed all fish and turtle for the Dauar side, and the Mamoose of Dauar cut up the latter, giving a fair portion of both to the catchers and distributing the rest. Every district had its landmark- a tree, or rock, or other natural feature. In the interior boundaries between gardens are often marked by ridges of earth. There is no common land on the island. Nowadays fences are substituted for mounds and rocks. Even brothers often fence off their shares of the old family garden with bamboo. These precautions are rendered necessary by the conduct of the Murray Islanders themselves. They are imbued with the idea that the land and the trees, or the crop on it, must belong to the same person. Thus if a man has a banana garden next to a yam patch, and can contrive to put a few banana cuttings among his neighbour's yams, his property will in a short time be so much increased. On one occasion a party of picnickers dropped certain pumpkin seeds on the foreshore which produced a plant and fruit. A preposterous claim was made for the land on the ground that the pumpkin grown from the claimants' seed gave them a right to the land it grew on. Even fences are pulled up and replaced, in the absence of the owner, a few feet or yards, according to circumstances, inside his ground. Murray Islanders own land on Erub- probably in consequence of intermarriage- and they resort thither to - make their gardens- at long intervals, and especially at times when some temporary cause has rendered them unpopular at home. Water holes are in theory the property of the finder, but in reality are common to all.

Dogs, pigs and fowls are private property. The pigs are probably native but the dogs are more European in breed than Papuan. The pigs used to run wild and do considerable damage to gardens. These were destroyed, as were also some goats introduced by the white men, for the same reason. A few pigs occasionally get wild even now, and it is a question to whom they would belong if shot, even though the former ownership is well known. Fowls were introduced from Australia via Erub, and are not therefore of native origin.

The sense of property is very well developed. It is doubtful whether in New Guinea any man can alienate land from his family in the way that has been countenanced at Mer. A few pawpaw trees round the old mission house are said to belong to natives, while the ground belongs to the London Missionary Society. Even if this be true the fruit is not claimed. Fishing parties divided the catch between them. The utmost care is taken in the numerous cases of adoption to keep the children in ignorance of their real parentage. Sooner or later, however, the secret leaks out in most instances, and the complications that ensue- especially with regard to land- have to be dealt with by the court. A whole village helps to dig a new well. This is the only instance of communal labour.

Gardens and houses of Ulai of Sebeg (11).
* =a house. + = a house in disrepair.

A Inherited from his father Masak.
B-ged**, Wageb, Arped, Doped, Soreb, Gagai.
Sebeg*, Wagir, Newar, Ulag.

B From his first wife Weit of Warwe. Eum- now uncultivated.

C From his second wife Kabur of Boged. Bauer+, Zomared*, Karbur, Bodmob, Zole.

D From Sisa of Sebeg (11). Zomar.

B and C should have been surrendered to the wives' relatives, but Ulai holds them in usufruct.

1. A widow was a servant to her eldest brother-in-law, if he had a wife she had to assist her in bringing food from the gardens, keeping the gardens clean, spearing fish aud getting shell-fish on the reef at low water, in cooking and other household work. If she was young she had a jealous wife to contend with, and if old she would have a large share of work to do. If her brother-in-law was single and living with his parents, the widow would reside with them, assisting in the work, until the time came for the relatives to discard mourning, when she might marry, or be forced to go and live with her own friends, by the treatment she might receive from her late husband's relatives, especially if she were not wanted as a wife by any of them; but if a brother (or a cousin on either the male or female side) of her husband's wanted her for a wife she would probably be treated in a better manner to woo her into the family again. There is no evidence that widows or other persons were ever immolated on men's graves.

2. I think there is what may be termed a spatial projection of the idea of proprietorship. As foreshore rights of landed property extend not only over the adjacent reef but to the water over it- as in the case of fish caught within the area- so the inhabitants of certain areas appear to have a pre-emptial right to certain distant fishing stations which lie off their part of the coast. If this be so it would probably account for the k-met le bringing the traders in canoes for the Miriam, since their coast looks out towards New Guinea whence canoes are imported. Just as we were on the point of leaving Mer we discovered that there was a personal or family ownership in certain stars; unfortunately we obtained this information too late to follow it up. There was also a distinct idea of proprietorship in local legends, for a man never liked to tell the story belonging to another man's place. A. c. H.
Keywords: Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, inheritance, land ownership, Meriam culture, property

'Property and Inheritance'.
Source: Wilkin, Anthony