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  • Mouria Ngati-Au

What is Taonga Ariki?

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

This was a response to Thomas Wynne's Letter to the Editor of the Cook Islands News, "In Sickness and in Health", published Saturday July 13th, 2019. Mr. Wynne has on other occasions asked whether the ariki are relevant in today's world. In this publication, Mr. Wynne states "… one cannot look at our history from 1915 to 1965 and dismiss the critical role… our Ariki and Mataiapo have played in where we are today". My contention is that if we are to truly examine their relevance today, we must understand who they were within the system which created them, i.e. Peu Maori–ancient custom.

(Note: I have made a few edits from the original: spelling, citation, and removal of redundancies. However, the bulk and message of the response remains true)

Today, ariki is synonymous with royalty; "palaces", "royal" koutu and marae - nothing could be further from the truth. The ariki have been afforded a position in our "traditional" community incongruent with our true ancient custom, a natural consequence of unquestionable acceptance of the revisionist models of our society created by the LMS and colonial officials of latter year.

Let us not ignore the fact that the power and influence of ariki had been greatly exaggerated by the turn of the 19th century. It was with the ariki that the LMS and colonial officials had any meaningful and constant exchange; both entities preferring to deal with centralized power rather than a segmented social structure, which led to the synthesis of a system not unlike monarchical feudalism. Indeed, the supremacy of Makea as Rarotonga's "paramount chief" was in no small measure influenced by the LMS interpretation as "King of Rarotonga". Col. Gudgeon noted that the ariki "has been taught to regard himself as king by divine right and they have all seen clearly enough that to make themselves absolute they must assert a right to all the land" (Gudgeon 1908:5). The acceptance of this synthetic, over-simplified social structure in Rarotonga , i.e. three "tribes" and their respective ariki (Makea, Pa, Kainuku, Tinomana) as feudal over-lords, is grossly misleading and ignores the nuanced relationship between ariki and the rest of the people, particularly with the mataiapo.

The introduction of commercial trade and the direct control of the market houses by the ariki (through which all trade flowed) gave them unprecedented economic power; "once produce acquired a cash value... the land on which it grew acquired a capital value" (Crocombe 1964:92) . The gulf created between the ariki and mataipo in consequence has only widened exponentially since. The mataiapo (who by definition as the titular heads of the land owning corporations, i.e. ngati) as the customary landowners, would be systematically supplanted by the desire to encourage economic growth and more importantly the redefining of pre-contact social order.

In conjunction with the importance of a system which regarded genealogical enumeration, akapapaanga, synonymous with customary law, the ariki were by no means averse to promoting their interests at the expense of the people they were supposed to be leading. Col. Gudgeon noted in 1908:

"... for the last seventy-five years the chiefs and Arikis of Avarua and Arorangi have lost no opportunity of depriving the people of all knowledge of their genealogy and family history, even fining those old men who, by means of their grandchildren, attempted to write a record of the family history, and confiscating the books for their own use" (Gudgeon 1908:5).

Consistently, the ariki were favoured by the LMS and colonial administration as having any real political value. It was the ariki, not the mataiapo, that were given judicial authority over areas which were traditionally independent therefrom. Despite the creation of a "House of Chiefs" at Rarotonga by Moss which was to include all the mataiapo and ariki, in reality it was composed of the ariki and a select few of the island's mataiapo. The elevation of the ariki during the LMS period in conjunction with the power ascribed to them cannot be ignored as merely a consequence of their pre-contact high social standing. To do so is to disregard both history and ancient custom.

It may seem that I am laboring unnecessarily to highlight the importance of historical/customary context. But as I hope to illustrate by contrasting the ariki with the mataiapo anciently, you may make informed decisions and opinions about the role not only the ariki have in our future, but that of our mataiapo and Peu Maori. Of the mataiapo and taonga, F. J. Moss observed three things:

- "The Mataiapos are the most powerful class. Their families have held the land from time immemorial, on conditions of public service well understood. If, for any reason, one be displaced, a successor must immediately be appointed from the members of the family. The title and the tenure of the land are perpetual and cannot be disturbed or interrupted" (Moss 1894:24).

- "The 'komana' [sic. - properly: komono] stands next, the only difference being that his services must be rendered through one of the nobles [mataiapo] to whom it is credited, and never directly by himself. After him come the rangatira, a tenant at will of the ariki of the chief from whom he holds the land, but irremovable, by time-honored custom, so long as the due services are performed" (1893:78).

- "The Ariki is supreme, but largely controlled by the Mataiapo (or nobles) A new Ariki is named by the Arikis of the other tribes from the Ariki family of the deceased's tribe. But the confirmation depends on the mataiapos as the installation rests with them. They regard the Ariki as only the first among equals" (ibid).

[The ambiguity of the statement regarding the confirmation and installation of ariki is something I addressed in a previous comment: to be clear, the confirmation and installation is conducted by a select group, namely the kau-ta'unga TAKO ARIKI, TAKAIA, AU aka AU PURU ARIKI, and TAURUA, something which I hope to elaborate upon in the future]

Moss' observations are a stark contrast to the current accepted narrative of our "traditional" custom. Understanding his observation in context of ancient custom is the key stone - the understanding of which is inherent in the definition of ngati: a descent based corporation which traditionally controlled the land. A ngati represented a corporate "unity of interests, binding obligations of kinship to each other and to the chief" (Baltaxe 1975:108).

Ngati, by definition, presupposes boundaries which in turn includes the reserved right to admit or deny participation therein. It was this body corporate, not the individual, which traditionally controlled land and by its very nature mitigated issues we see with the current tenure system. In short, ngati precludes the concept of individual ownership of land; territorial, not property, rights are what this term represents given the fact ngati were traditionally organized upon what was the basic unit of land division, i.e. tapere: a division of land consisting “of a single radial valley, from ridge to ridge, and the land fronting it” (ibid:51).

This is what the mataiapo represented. This is why the majority were independent. The mataiapo were heads of a "discrete" social group whose interests in land were concerned with territory rather than property. No upright member of a ngati need fear being alienated from the land because that was his customary right.

The supremacy of the ariki was anciently contingent on the loyalty of his allies, i.e. the mataiapo. Considering the customary definition of tapere, one wonders how the ariki have come to possess interests in land beyond their customarily prescribed limits. This is in no small part due to the fall of the mataiapo and the redefining of the word ngati. The rise of the ariki = the fall of the mataiapo, just as the establishment of the Native Land Court and the implementation of the Register of (land) Titles (ROT) = the collapse of the ngati; the collapse of the ngati was the nail in the coffin for Peu Maori and sovereignty.

It is a well documented fact that Gudgeon believed individual ownership trumped corporate [ngati] ownership, personified in the chief. However, Gudgeon's motivation for social reorganization particularly with respect to land tenure was economical:

"... the Titikaveka lands have for years been lying waste and unoccupied, and, worse still, unimproved. It is this latter fact that has induced me to select the coast-line from Papua to Titikaveka as the scene of the first regular and continuous survey of the island; it being obvious that unoccupied lands would be more easily acquired under lease from the Native owners than the occupied lands nearer the shipping port [Avarua]... 273 acres, have been leased to the Europeans" (Gudgeon 1904:69).

In 1908, Gudgeon reported to Wellington that "all the land of Rarotonga of economic value or capable of occupation has been surveyed and awarded to the owners as far as they can be ascertained" (1908:5). Herein lies the issue - who were the owners? Gudgeon saw the corruptible influence power had on the ariki, noting:

"On the death of any leading mataiapo or rangatira, an excuse has been found for placing the family title and lands in charge of some creature of the Ariki... the pretence was that the young heir was wanting in ability or too young to govern his people and therefore until he had reached the age of reason he was to be governed by a mentor appointed by the Ariki during his minority or alleged incompetence... the rightful heirs have never been reinstated. The usurper became the humble servant of the Ariki and paid atinga for the land which had never paid this tribute while in the hands of the rightful owners, and the Ariki... asserted that the land had always been Ariki land" (ibid).

The corporate group, ngati, whose interest in land was vested in the title was concerned with the tapere as a whole "as their own, more or less sovereign, [territory]" (Baltaxe 1975:161). However, Gudgeon's solution to counter the corruption of the ariki was to survey parcels of land, ranging in size of <1 acre to sections exceeding 100. Ownership was limited to those who were registered by the Native Land Court - to which an ariki was appointed as judge (Pa). Individual, not corporate, claims were determined by the Native Land Court beginning in 1903.

No actual attempt to examine pre-contact land tenure, Gudgeon's economic ambition, coupled with the ariki's over-exertion of power and the prevailing theory concerning social organisation and hierarchy effectively nullified the ngati and the mataiapo; "... the groups originally represented [by those terms] were reduced to simple, ancestor focused bilateral kindred; in short they ceased to be corporate groups. The Land Court effectively removed the boundary-forming criteria of participation and acceptance by the group itself, which had allowed the ngati to operate as discrete groups in the first place" (ibid:123).

The effect is unprecedented. Jock MacCauley, former judge of the Cook Islands High Court commented:

"Many chiefs claimed large areas for themselves solely, and in most cases the occupiers were too ashamed (and afraid) to raise a voice in protest... The end result was that many people had a freehold interest in land that they had never occupied and in many cases had never seen..." (MacCauley 1969:5).

The Land Court's ROT has replaced ancient custom and usurped the mana of the mataiapo and ngati. Our country is operating under the false pretense of upholding Maori custom codified by the Cook Islands Act 1915. Gudgeon no doubt died a happy man, confident that he brought civilization to the Cook Islands. His entire tenure can be summed up in two words: Subjugate and Replace. It is ironic to consider the ariki's displeasure at the suggestion that F. J. Moss be named head of the new court, to petition for his for his removal, only to be replaced by a man who used the threat of force to persuade the ariki to submit. "They had been told they were royalty for something like 80 years and it was a rude awakening for them to see the real value the Europeans placed in that expression of their importance" (Baltaxe 1975:116-17).

And yet, the greatest irony is the fact that our people appeal to "ancient custom", citing ngati, taonga, and marae in an effort to legitimize their land and title claims. However, just as Jock MacCauley pointed out, a significant portion of claims to land and title today would fail when examined through the lens of Peu Maori.

When we celebrate "Ui Ariki Day", what are we really doing?

Indeed, ariki have been a pivot on the path to 2019 - but I hazard to take the unpopular opinion that it has not been a pivot for good.

Mouria Ngati Au.

Literature Cited:

Baltaxe, J. B. 1975. The Transformation of the Rangatira: A Case of the European Reinterpretation of Rarotongan Social Organization. University of Illinois, USA.

Crocombe, R. G. 1964. Land Tenure in the Cook islands. Melbourne: Oxford university Press.

Gudgeon, W. E. 1904. Report on the Trade of the Cook and Other Islands for the year 1903. AJHR A-3, Item 85:47-55. Wellington, New Zealand.

Gudgeon, W. E. 1908. Cook and Northern Islands Report for the year ending 31 March 1908. AJHR A-3. Wellington, New Zealand.

MacCauley, J. J. 1969. Land Tenure in the Cook Islands. Paper delivered to the South Pacific Commission Symposium on Land Tenure in Relation to Economic Development. Suva, Fiji.

Moss, F. J. 1893. A South Sea Island and Its People. Fortnightly Review, New Series Volume 54:775-786.

Moss, F. J. 1894. The Maori Polity of Rarotonga. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 3:20-36.

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