Note on shell money: Solomon Islands and New Britain

Figure 1: Detail of old, finely cut, tafuliae' shell money with turtle shell spacer from the Solomon Islands. Each of the ten strands is about 30 inches long (76 cm). Cultural groups have different configurations and names for these types of shell strings.

[ten fine old strings of cut shell heishe: 36k]

Shell money and other traditional valuables are still required for ceremonial payments across the South Pacific. Strings of shell disks or beads (called heishe in the U.S.) are often valued by the fathom which equals 6 feet or slightly less than 2 metres.

Strands are also accepted as currency outside of ceremonies in the Solomon Islands, and in New Ireland, New Britain and other parts of PNG. In these areas, shell money has held its value where government currencies have not.

Edited excerpts from the Papua New Guinea Post Courier On-line News, November, 1999:

East New Britain Province may soon start using the traditional shell money, tabu, alongside the kina as legal tender in the province. Deputy Governor Leo Dion said the use of tabu in the last century has expanded and it is accepted tender in churches, Local Level Governments, village courts, local markets and Tolai tradestores.
There is an estimated K6 million worth of tabu available among the Tolais. (note: K1 = approx. $.35 USDollar at the time) The total is expected to increase with every purchase of tabu brought into the province. Only one quarter of the K6 million worth of tabu is in circulation while the other three quarters of it is stored away in rolls or wheels by the elder clansman in their storage houses.
The administration plans a study of tabu, particularly the spacing between the tabu shells plus the length of a fathom. Officials will travel to Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands to see the operational structure and policies of the customary wealth banks there. They will also visit Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu to study how the credit union league is mobilizing the customary wealth economy.

Figure 2: One fathom of shell money purchased in Busu Village, Malaita, Solomon Islands in 1999 for 50 Solomon Island dollars (about $11 USDollars). The shell disks were heated to deepen their color and increase their value. The villagers in Langa Langa Lagoon make most of their income from producing shell money and jewelry. Families sell their shell products in the Honiara city market.

[cut shell fathom: 63k]

more from the Post Courier: JACK METTA looks at traditional money or tabu in East New Britain:

Waking up, you hear rustling in the storeroom. You peep through the partly open door, the missus is rummaging through the coconut leaf basket and lining out long strings of beads, counting the strings of beads five at a time.
"You've gone and made me lose count of these tabu," she says, looking up with a smile. She points to a small row of beads, neatly piled on the other side of the basket, ready for the sing sing. "That's yours over there."
All relatives are required to get up at the bride price ceremony and make a contribution of several fathoms of shell money to the young wife's parents. At birth, marriage or death and any event in between such as the opening of a new house, shell money or tabu as it is popularly known among the Tolais, plays a big part. Tabu, kakal and mis are commonly used by the Tolais, Mengens (Pomio) and Bainings respectively.
The East New Britain government has noted that:
Three private tabu traders in the province trade tabu for cash or vice versa at reasonable exchange rates. Other traditional currencies in the province have a very limited purchasing power and are used mainly for traditional activities.
On that note, if you're a "Waira" in East New Britain and your local friends invite you along to a big function at the village, make it a point to go prepared with some shell money. Take it from me, first impressions always count.


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Figure 3: Art areas of Melanesia (map of New Guinea and adjacent islands), link to the article for explanation of the numbered areas.

[map of Melanesia: 10k]

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Photographs, text and maps copyright Carolyn Leigh, 1996-2001. All rights reserved. Last modified: Monday, November 19, 2001
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