From Chiefdoms to States: Construction of Imagined Communities

April 6, 2008

Chiefdoms are groups of people, either having the same ancestor or from different origins, who are led by a chief. Chiefdoms are between the tribe and the state, and more close to archaic states where leadership was hereditary. Chiefdoms often have Military and defined borders like a State, and a sedentary agrarian economy like the Tribe, with a linear inherited leadership powers. Kinship is very important in chiefdoms, even class distinctions are based on the kinship system, as the closer you are to the living chief, the more access to resources you have. Citizenship within the chiefdom is defined by the kinship (Senior/Junior) system, which allows integrating different newcomers and ensuring their complete assimilation.

In this paper we will study two examples of chiefdoms, the Swazi chiefdom of Swaziland and the Rapa Nui chiefdom of Easter Island. We will be examining why the Swazi chiefdom developed into a state, while Rapa Nui chiefdom collapsed into numerous small and warring clans, by explaining the dissimilarity between the two cases in terms of political, economic, religious and geographical differences. To explain the Swazi chiefdom model, we will refer to dependency theory of the Marxist thinker Andre Gunderfrunk and to imagined communities’ theory by Benedict Anderson. Where, we will explain Rapa Nui chiefdom model, by focusing on two of its major aspects: isolation, and ceremonial domination.

The Swazi Chiefdom

The Swazi are Bantu speaking people, who call themselves Khwi Khwi and who are situated in North East and central South Africa. The Swazi fled across the river from the paranoid authoritarian Zulu leader Shaka. “They carried with them the heritage of all immigrants – the knowledge, memories and experiences of the past from societies they had left behind. With this they were able to shape their lives anew, adapting as they forgot.” (Kuper 2002, p: 3). The Swazi uses Shaka’s system to protect themselves from the Zulu, while adapting to the new conditions of life and organisation. Mswati, who is a Zulu from the Dlamini clan, is the founder of the Swazi. Swaziland became a 6704 squares miles state during the 1830s. It didn’t achieve its independence until 1968 after a long struggle.

Politically, “the Swazi developed their particular system, a dual monarchy that was unique in some respects but which fits into the general category of centralized chiefdoms. At the head was a hereditary king, titled by his people Ngwenyama (Lion), and a queen mother, Ndlovukazi (Lady Elephant).” (Kuper 2002, p: 3). The Swazi chiefdom is organized following a complex chiefs hierarchy, going from the Paramount chief, who is the king, to principle chiefs, district chiefs and area chiefs. This chiefdom hierarchy is organised in parallel with the kinship system of Senior/Juniors, where the power is divided according to the closeness to the paramount chief. The socio-political system of the Swazi is an inclusive one, as they invent fictive kinship to construct the state and include all kinds of different people. This phenomena inclusion can be explained by Benedict Anderson’s theory about imagined communities. Anderson claims that heterogynous groups can all be united in one state by a procedure of imagining a common ancestor of common focal points in a fictive past, which can give birth to nationalist feelings (Anderson 1991). According to the same thinker “A state has elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (Anderson 1991, p: 65), this elasticity of symbolic boundaries was well used by the Swazi to include many people in junior lineages and assimilate their cultures in the big melting pot. Yet, the white people living in Swaziland are still somehow seen as an anomaly inside the fictive kinship system because they belong to a totally different race and culture. Another political reason about why the Swazi chiefdom turned to a state is the need to build an organised state in terms of military and taxes to protect themselves from outside treat. In addition, contrary to the Zulu, the Swazi king was very friendly with the British authorities and allowed them to bay land in Swaziland. This friendship made the British welcome the idea of the creation of a State for the Swazi people. We can conclude that the Swazi chiefdom, have two major socio-political qualities which enabled them to turn to a State, which are: inclusiveness and adaptation to change.

The Swazi land is a diverse place and has an abundance of water. “The mountains slope into the undulating plains of more fertile and warmer midlands, which in turn, gradually give place to bush country where cattle thrive throughout the year on green foliage.” (Kuper 2002). This tropical climate and diversity of land allows intensive agriculture and having livestock. Yet, this kind of economy suffers from many problems like limited agricultural lands and erosion because of massive water falls. Moreover, the kinship system gives more access to recourses to Senior lineages. However, the Swazi can always adapt to new situation by making the Juniors Seniors in case of revolts. A major aspect of the Swazi economy is the possibility to go to South Africa to work in mining in case, so they have the chance to expend to neighbouring countries not like the Rapa Nui people who are limited in an island.

Religion and ceremonies are very important for the Swazi, but not as important as for the Rapa Nui chiefdom. The Swazi cosmology “does not … place a value on suffering as a mean to happiness or salvation” (Kuper 2002, p: 61), not like the Rapa Nui chiefdom which impose on its people hard ceremonies to please the ancestors. Swazi people have specialists in rituals and believe in witchcraft, but it’s mostly utilitarian practices for daily needs of to legitimize the kinship system.

Geography is very revealing, if we analyze why the Swazi turned into a state and the Rapa Nui didn’t. External threat and Geopolitical calculations ultimately was a crucial cause behind the State building, as the Swazi were obliged to get organized to face the Zulu and other neighbours. The fact that Swaziland is situated inside South Africa pushed it to think about foreign policy and economic and political deals to develop it self. We can explain the relationship between Swaziland and South Africa using dependency theory of Gunderfrunk. South Africa plays the role of the Centre and Swaziland the Periphery. South Africa uses Swaziland as a buffer country to protect itself from Mozambican threats, and exploit its workers as cheep labour in mining industry and the military in Swaziland is totally controlled by South Africa.

The Swazi chiefdom succeeded in building a state thanks to its political inclusive and adaptative system, its economic expansion by immigration and its geographic feeling of threat and dependency on South Africa. These reasons allowed the Swazi to start the procedure of imagining its community and construction a state out of a Chiefdom.

The Rapa Nui Chiefdom

Easter Island was called Rapa Nui 300 years ago. Easter Island “is an island in the south Pacific Ocean belonging to Chile. Located 3,600 km west of continental Chile and 2,075 km east of Pitcairn Island, it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. It was given its common name of “Easter” because the first recorded European visit by a Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen was on Easter Sunday, 1722.” (Wikipedia). The people of Rapa Nui lived in a chiefdom system before the arrival of the Europeans. The society was divided between the Long Ears, who were the dominant group, and the Short Ears, who were dominated and marginalized. The unequal division of power and the frustration of the Short Ears led to a big revolt which ended in the fragmentation of the Chiefdom in mini-clans.

Politically, the Rapa Nui chiefdom was divided following the chiefdom leadership system where there is a Paramount chief and other local chiefs. The Paramount chief was called Ariki Mau (Bird Man). Yet, the failure of the paramount chief to rule and to be fair towards his people led to the revolt of the Short Ears (Reynolds 1995). One of the aspects of failure of the political chief is his claim of holding the Mana and communicating with the gods, which made him turn arrogant and imposing draconian works on his subjects to please the Ancestors. The arrogance of the chief was a feature of all the Seniors in the Rapa Nui community, as the Short Ears were treated with discrimination and lived at the margin of the society. Consequently, no intermarriage or social connections were allowed between the Juniors and the Seniors in this locked rigid system. The leadership among the Rapa Nui was not transmitted through heritage but through an ongoing competition, where only Long Ears can participate (Reynolds 1995). This contested leadership created instability in the system, contrary to the Swazi linear leadership system which ensures stability. All these factors ended in a harsh revolt of the Short Ears after the suicide of the work master who felt no gratitude from his superiors (Reynolds 1995).

Economically, Easter Island suffered from an over population growth combined with a shortage of resources, which made the situation very vulnerable. Also, the obstination of the chief to build more and more Moai led to a neglection of agriculture and an over exploitation of trees as to build the statutes (Reynolds 1995). Furthermore, the elite put many taboos to stop the Short Ears from sharing it’s resources like imposing taboos on certain fish and food and don’t allowing them to grow corps. We notice here the prevalence of ceremonial life over economic life and the luck of any measures to save the economy. Thus, hungry and frustrated populations are doomed to revolt in order to survive.

Cosmology for the Rapa Nui chiefdom is Manichean, based on two deity ancestors, one incarnate the good and is called Ho To Ma Tua, and another incarnating the punishing spirit called Maki Maki. Cosmology and religion are more important than anything else in this population’s life, even the chief claims a relationship with the Gods. Ceremonial life is present in all the aspects of life: the purification of a bride, divination through bones and smokes, the bird Man competition (Reynolds 1995). Consequently, the priests class in highly estimated in the community and can use very harsh punishments to punish the ones who disobeyed the rules or violated the taboos. The building of the Moai is the most important activity in the Rapa Nui life as a veneration of their ancestors, but this causes mistrust among working Short Ears about the Gods.

The Rapa Nui people think that the world was submerged by the waters and that they were the only community alive kept by the Gods, so they lived for long in a complete isolation. Rapa Nui people live in a limited island, where they cannot expend of look for outside resources for survival. This isolation can be one explanation of why their chiefdom was fragmented instead of developing into a state like the Swazi, as they experiences no outside pressure of threat which pushed them to evolve.

As we saw the Rapa Nui chiefdom was fragmented into many small clans after the revolt of the frustrated Short Ears, because this community was socio-politically instable because of the ongoing competition over leadership, the neglection of economic work for achieving cosmological ceremonies and the geographical isolation of the Easter Island.

The Swazi chiefdom succeeded in building a state, while the Rapa Nui chiefdom failed and collapsed in mini-clans living in anarchy because of many reasons. Politically, the Swazi adopted a inclusive adaptative system, whereas the Rapa Nui were exclusive and discriminating. The Swazi politics were stable which enable the rise of the state, from their side the Rapa Nui lived in instability due to the competition over leadership. Economically, the Swazi paid attention to the redistribution of goods and to send immigrants in South Africa to work, while the Rapa Nui favoured ceremonial life over economic welfare crippled by their geographical isolation. Furthermore, from one hand the system of the Swazi was ruled by laws and religious habits, from the other hand, the Rapa Nui were ruled by taboos and class distinction in a rigid system. All these reasons, in addition to historical external reasons, made the Swazi turn into a State and drown the Rap Nui chiefdom into anarchy and fragmentation.

Reference list

-Benedict, A.R. (1991). Imagined communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London Print; New York.
-Kuper, H. (2002). The Swazi: A South African Kingdom. Thomson Custom Publishing. Stanford University.
-Reynolds, K. (1995). Rapa Nui. With Jason Scott Lee and Sandrine Holt. Warner Brothers Video.
-Wikipedia. http://www.wikipedia.com


One comment

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