Wed. Jun 26th, 2019

Colonial Governance system in the Pacific Islands: Indirect or Direct

Fiji as a Pacific island nation is about to witness a 2018 plebiscite that signifies the concept of liberty, equality and fraternity, but the colonial governance system in Pacific Islands is a debatable theme due to its outcomes in respective colonies.

Pacific Islands have noticed the conflicts under colonial administration between the colonizers and colonized. In order to govern, the colonizers introduced different ways of governance i.e. direct and indirect means of governing their respective colonies. Both these means are different modes of governance which are discussed in this article from diverse academic writings.

Stewart Firth’s article ‘Colonial Administration and the Invention of the Native’ from the book “The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islands” stated that in “broad terms, colonial rule could be indirect or direct, though these concepts should be understood as two ends of a continuum”.

Direct rule is defined to be administrating process of colonies in which colonial appointed or delegated representatives came directly to colonies to govern in different forms i.e. colonial officers, managers, policemen, official, etc; whereas Indirect rule had mediatory officials i.e. chiefs, magistrates, big men, etc. and delegate powers to work on behalf of colonial powers. Usually under indirect method, the preexisting traditional of leadership is integrated into their colonial governance system.

Indirect system of governance

In the indirect rule, as seen in Fiji, Firth stated “the administration ruled through existing forms of government and depended on traditional elites who received the backing of the government. The Kingdom of Tonga preserved an indigenous government under British supervision. The Privy Council had a Tongan majority and Tongans elected their own parliament under their own constitution. The Samoans’ elaborate system of government not only survived the coming of the New Zealanders but successfully competed with them. The Chiefs of the Cook Islands played an influential role in the Island Councils. In the Gilbert and Ellice Islands the Native Government- a blend of traditional and mission governments- became the enforcers of British regulations”.

In Tonga, Britain practiced an informal control through the treaty of protection whereas Tongan chiefs had the control over land and labour. In an indirect method, mostly the traditional authorities acted as intermediaries for the colonial power and colonial government collaborated with indigenous system/officials in order to control the entire colony. This system allows the natives to govern their own governance under colonial rule. Britain and Germany preferred indirect control.

Direct Rule

Direct rule was another foreign rule to govern Islands societies. As per Firth, “it was the colonial response to weaker indigenous governments, sometimes hierarchical but typically not.  It was characteristic of Japanese rule in Micronesia and of all colonial rule in Melanesia.

Colonial authorities appointed agents but gave them little or no responsibility to act on their own initiative. The administration of justice typically extended metropolitan laws and court procedures for cases involving settlers, but subjected Islanders to arbitrary ‘Native Regulations’ administered brusquely by administrative officers”. Kanaks were of subject rather than citizens of France.Colonising authorities appointed governors and ministers for each colony from the local population. French direct rule was not much intended to share power with indigenous authorities. Governors and administrators are mostly chosen on the basis of merit rather than background. French and American colonies aimed to ‘absorb’ the colonised people as their own population. Broadly, the local culture, education and language was to be replaced by colonisers.

Differences between direct and indirect governance system

David Stanley work South Pacific Handbook indicated “there were fundamental differences in approach between the British and French colonial administrations in the South pacific. French system installed ‘direct rule’ whereas Britain implied indirect method with the customary chiefs (Fiji) or royalty (Tonga) retaining most of their traditional powers. Indirect governance is comparatively cheaper and fostered stability. British colonial officials had more decision making authority than their French counterparts who had to adhere to instructions received from Paris. French sought to undermine local traditions in the name of assimilation, the British defended the native land tenure on which traditional life was based”. These styles laid the foundations for later colonial rule in the colonizes.

Similarly, Brij V. Lal and Kate Fortune (eds.) The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopaedia, showed Germans practiced different kind of colonial rule under their empire as based on different state, i.e. German Samoa [indirect], German New Guinea [direct]and in Pohnpei German rule suffered revolts from natives. Therefore, governance “relied on the active collaboration of officials, business interests, missionaries and local agents negotiating passive acceptance from the colonized populations”. Whereas French practicing direct method of governance in New Caledonia and British adopting indirect way in Fiji. This work stated Colonizers were determined the organization of the empire, “not only through guns and troops and ships, but also through the powerful belief that they possessed the right to rule ‘inferior peoples’. A racial syndrome of rule coloured Pacific empires; force, intimidation and legislated discrimination went hand in hand with social distance and paternalistic attitudes”.


Every colonizer adopted different means to colonize as per their choice and indigenous conditions of the colonized state. I shall conclude with the words of John Gerring et al, “an Institutional Theory of Direct and indirect rule” stated that “direct” style of rule features highly centralized decision making while an “indirect” style of rule features a more decentralized framework in which important decision-making powers are delegated to the weaker entity. Finally, I conclude that despite the long period of colonization with direct and indirect means, Pacific Islands successfully managed to stand regionally united in post-colonization era.

Disclaimer: Dr. SakulKundra is Assistant Professor in History, College of humanities and Education, Fiji National University. The views expressed are his own and not of this newspaper or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email.







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