115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Seeing" Ownership in the Marshall Islands: From Oral Traditions to Deeds of Sale

Monica LaBriola, University of Hawaii, West Oahu

This presentation contends that an 1877 deed of sale signed by a Marshallese chief and a Portuguese copra trader unleashed the gradual usurpation of oral traditions including stories, genealogies, and proverbs with written documentation as proof of landownership, sovereignty, and history in the Marshall Islands.


On 14 August 1877, two distinct ways of knowing came together on Ṃaḷoeḷap Atoll in the Marshall Islands when Paramount Chief Jortōkā of the of the Ratak-eañ region and Anton deBrum of the Azores in Portugal met to sign a deed of sale that would transform land tenure, socio-cultural relations, and sovereignty on Likiep Atoll for generations. Written in Jortōkā’s voice but not by his hand, surviving English- and Marshallese-language copies of the document detail the chief’s transfer of all estates, rights, titles, and interests in and to Likiep Atollto deBrum and any “heirs and assigns forever absolutely free from all claims[,] [e]ncufmbrances and demands whatsoever.” In exchange for the land, Jortōkā received “merchandise consisting of cloth, hardware, cannon, muskets, ammunition, tobacco, etc., etc., to the value of twelve hundred and fifty dollars.” This presentation contends that Jortōkā understood the deal as a culturally sanctioned kaat-eḷap replanting that would afford prosperity and help him secure sovereignty on Likiep and across Ratak-eañ. Although there were no written documents to corroborate his position, thousands of years of accumulated cultural knowledge and oral traditions confirmed that Jortōkā had the authority to transfer the land to deBrum without undermining his own sovereignty. On his side, deBrum regarded the purchase as a total transfer of ownership of and authority over Likiep Atoll, and he had written documentation to certify his interpretation of the sale. As a result, Jortōkā and deBrum each came away from the events of 14 August with a true conception of who “owned” Likiep Atoll and by what authority. The difference was that one could certify his claim through a form of written knowledge that was increasingly prevalent in the Pacific Islands. In addition to confirming the first sale of a Marshallese atoll by a chief to an outsider, Jortōkā’s “mark” on the agreement thus also signaled a fundamental shift in how landownership and sovereignty are validated in the Marshall Islands. Significantly, it unleashed the gradual usurpation of oral traditions such as stories, genealogies, and proverbs with written documentation as the proof required to authenticate landownership, sovereignty, and history. The advent of German imperialism in the region a decade later would codify this shift through formalized land registration and other written and legal means, which continue to be used to validate land ownership in the Marshall Islands today.