A Papuan Plutocracy: Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island

A Papuan Plutocracy: Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island

A Papuan Plutocracy: Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island

A Papuan Plutocracy: Ranked Exchange on Rossel Island

Excerpt

The main focus of my research on Rossel Island was the two kinds of shell money, ndap and (as well as the secondary valuables), and the exchange system in which they are used. Ndap are single flat shells of polished Spondylus, while are strings of ten discs made from Chama shell (Liep 1983c). (Even though a thus consists of ten units, it will be convenient to speak about a as a ‘shell’.) The outstanding feature of the shell-money system is its elaborate hierarchization. There are about twenty classes of ndap shells and nearly as many of kê, ranging from rare and precious objects in the upper classes to common pieces of small value in the lower ones. I found that shell money was used infrequently for casual purchases of small items such as the baskets and lime pots mentioned by Armstrong (1928: 85). People were more likely to use modern money for such things. The shell money was typically amassed for large ceremonial payments that required up to several hundred shells. Such payments were made for parts of pig at pig feasts, for large constructions such as canoes or houses, for bridewealth or for mortuary exchanges. Apart from the latter, which must be organized ad hoc shortly after a death, these payments demand considerable planning by the sponsor of the payment and his associates.

A payment involves the collection of a fund of shell wealth to be transferred on the day of the event to the recipient and his associates. On both sides, payer and payee, there are thus a number of participants involved. Further, shell money must be elicited from a still wider circle of persons by the payer’s side. Shells of both high and low rank are required, and contributions must be collected from many owners of shells. Payments are characteristically scaled, that is, they demand a range of shell classes of different rank of both kinds of shell money, of ndap and kê. The more valuable shells are usually elicited from their owners through ‘loans’ based upon security or pledge. Thus mobilizing a fund for a particular payment involves the sponsor and his contacts in a large number of debt relationships that may last for only a few days or endure for an indefinite period.

One important feature of ceremonial payments makes them more com-

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