Rotuman people

Rotuman people

ethnic group
group=Rotuman people

poptime= c. 10,000
popplace=Rotuma, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, United States
rels=Methodism, Roman Catholicism
langs=Rotuman, English
related=Samoans, Tongans, Fijians, other Pacific peoples

Rotuma is a small island group forming part of the Republic of Fiji. The island itself is a cultural melting pot at the crossroads of the Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian divisions of the Pacific Ocean, and thus it’s quite unsurprising, considering the seafaring nature of traditional Pacific cultures, that the indigenous Rotuman have adopted or share many aspects of its multifaceted culture with its Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian neighbours.


It is believed by many academics that the first inhabitants of the island were probably Micronesians, followed by waves of Polynesians and finally by the Lapita people of Melanesia, giving Rotumans a similar but thoroughly distinct language, cultural heritage and metaphysical understanding to that of their preceding parent cultures.

Rotuman mythology typically points to Samoans as the first people to inhabit the island of Rotuma. The most prominent creation myth speaks of Raho, a Samoan prince who, shamed by his family, sought a new home with his daughters. He travelled across the Pacific in his canoe, and when he came to a spot with two protruding rocks, poured baskets of sand from Samoa over the rocks, forming the islands of Rotuma.

Physical Appearance

By most accounts, Rotumans are said to resemble most closely their Polynesian neighbours from Samoa and Tonga. Rotumans are generally noted as being of a light olive to medium brown complexion, with generally wavy black hair, although some individuals have naturally copper-ginger colouring to their hair. Traditionally men kept their hair shoulder length or longer, however post-colonial Rotumans consider such as an uncouth appearance. They are on average shorter than their Tongic or Samoic neighbours, and equally less prone to obesity.

The appearance of some individuals more clearly indicates Micronesian (particularly Gilbertese or Futunan) heritage evidenced by darker skin and curlier hair, and some people show decidedly Asian facial characteristics, such as long, oval-shaped eyes and straighter hair. These can be interpreted as throw-back from immigrant ancestors.

Rotuman appearance is further difficult to categorise as many Rotuman people can point to at least one white ancestor (usually from England or the United States) since the discovery of the island by Europeans. This can be attributed to the high ratio of Caucasians to Rotumans in the early days of exposure to white people, when Rotuma became a haven to mutineers and stow-aways who appreciated the beauty of the island and found prosperity as the trading advisers to local chiefs when dealing with Occidental ships.

Rotuman society

Rotuman society is one based more on democracy than most other Pacific cultures. While somewhat stratified, Rotuman culture maintains no class distinctions such as in Fijian or Tongan systems, no noble caste, and no sense of primogeniture. The strength of Rotuman society is the high communal nature of activities. Every Rotuman person maintains a strong affinity for their community, and this is evidenced through participation in large-scale projects (kato'aga) and communal property, such as for agriculture. Rotuman society can be divided into levels, as follows.

Rotuman society is divided, in the broadest sense into seven itu’u, or districts, each of which is headed up by a male chief, referred to as “gagaj ‘es itu’u”. It is his role to guide the community's communal works, and represent his constituents as a member of the Rotuma Island Council (RIC).

Rotumans as a Pacific people

On account of their location, the Rotuman people are often left uncategorised in terms of which Pacific ethnic group they belong to. While mythological heritage and physical appearance would suggest that Rotumans are Polynesian, their language decidedly does not.

Rotumans, by most accounts, physically most resemble the Polynesian people of Samoa and Tonga, the two races commonly attributed in Rotuman mythology as the true parent civilisations. But Rotuman musical tradition prior to European and Central Polynesian influence consisted primarily of chanting similar to traditional Tahitian or Maori styles (see Tautoga and Himene), both very distant cultures. In addition, many of characteristics of the Rotuman language distance it from Polynesian neighbours and align it more closely with Melanesian (particularly Western Fijian) languages.

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