Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,]

Date: 1888

Show Summary




The shell-money of New Britain is a very important factor in the life of a New Britain savage. Any account of the New Britain people, their lives and their customs, will fall short of what it should be if this important currency is not discussed.

The name of this money on the Duke of York group and New Ireland is Diwára. On New Britain it is called Tambu. . . .

The shell of which Tambu is made is very small. It is procured from the people who live on the N. W. coast of New Britain. I have not been able to ascertain the exact part of the coast. In company with the Rev. G. Brown and others I went to the place where the people from the Gazelle Peninsula purchase it. When we asked the people where it was obtained they pointed us still further west. I have seen ornaments from the east coast of New Guinea, and from that fact think that possibly the shell may be found on Brooks Island between New Britain and New Guinea. When purchased at Nakanai the shells are just as they are found upon the beach or dug from the earth. They are done up in packets varying in size, and consequently in value also. The secret as to where they are obtained is very jealously kept by the Nakanai people. I have never found one man in the Gazelle Peninsula who had the faintest idea as to its whereabouts. It is evidently a trade secret, kept close by the Nakanai people in order to prevent the Pelt and other trade from passing their country.

When brought from Nakanai, each man sits down and threads his shells on long strips of cane. A hole is first punched through the back of the shells. The strips of cane, which arc about two feet six inches in length, are scraped or pared down to the required size, and the shells are then strung. To join these pieces of cane one end of one piece is made wedge-shape. One end of another piece is split a little down the center. The wedge end of the one piece is put between the two halves of the split end of the other piece, and a few shells are drawn over the splice, binding the two sides of the one piece on the wedge of the other. This process is repeated until all the shells are strung into one long length, which is then rolled up into coils ranging from sixty to four and five hundred fathoms. The coil is then carefully and neatly wrapped up in banana leaves and suspended in the treasure-house until required.

The money thus prepared is the national currency. By it trade is carried on and it enters largely into every custom and ceremony of the land. It can be, and is, divided as easily as we divide our pounds into shillings and shillings into pence. For the sake of illustration let their fathom of Tambu be represented by our £. Then half fathom = 10s. Quarter fathom = 5s, and lowest of all two shells may represent our farthing. The length we have called a fathom is the distance between the two hands, when they are stretched out straight in opposite directions. A man is praised according to the good full measure he gives, and execrated according to the short measure he may give. The word for purchasing a thing is kul. The word for barter, i.e., exchange of produce, is buapa, thus showing that the two ideas are as distinct in the minds of the natives as they are in our own.

There are fixed prices for some things. Prices for other things differ, as with us, according to the law of supply and demand. All articles of food remain at much about the same price. The following is a list of prices obtaining in New Britain:—

Husband and wife possess this money quite independently of each other. The children also, almost as soon as they can understand anything, are taught that the acquisition and retention of wealth is an important, if not the most important, duty of life. To let money go for nothing in return or to pay a shell more than is necessary for an article is considered the height of folly. Consequently little boys and girls have their little store and bank, and are keen traders. A wife, however, is often despoiled of her money by her husband. Not indeed by force. That would be an invasion of the rights of property, and an offence against the public conscience. The husband perhaps gets up a charge of adultery against his wife, he becomes very angry and threatens to do her bodily harm unless she pays him so much money. Often she is charged with saying something derogatory to him. She is then made to pay for "defamation of character." She pays in order to escape bodily harm at the hands of husband. Often enough the charge is true, but often it is not. In either case he gets money from her.

Money is lent at the uniform rate of ten per cent. It is the custom on Duke of York, that when a person wishes to borrow money he must return eleven fathoms for ten fathoms borrowed. The word for interest there is wawaturu, thus showing that the idea of usury is Perfectly understood. On New Britain the idea is not so fully developed. I have not found on New Britain a word equal to the Duke of York word wawaturu. Kumbika is the New Britain word which most resembles the Duke of York word. Its literal meaning is either a present, or to present, to give, to pay. When money is borrowed, however, it is never returned without a fathom for every ten fathoms borrowed, but the idea in the native mind does not seem to be so much interest, as an expression of thanks for the favour. It amounts practically to the same thing, but there is a difference in the native mind.

A New Britain native has an aversion to breaking in upon his capital. If a man has a coil of money but no "change," and requiring for his present need only a few fathoms, he will take his coil and pawn it for as many fathoms as he requires. The coil is kept by the lender until the sum is repaid with interest, upon which the coil is returned to its owner. This custom is called the vuvuring.

The people greatly deplore the loss of this wealth from the community and will do much to avert it. If a rich man is offended and threatens to remove to another town, his friends and sometimes many of the leading men of the place will pay him something to remain with them.

One man often becomes a banker for a number of men. He is generally a man who is feared and who has a reputation for valour and a good following. His house then forms a rallying point in times of trouble for all those who have lodged money there. He thus becomes a person of influence and power, because, no matter what villany he may perpetrate, the depositors rally round their money to defend it, and in so doing defend him. I do not know that he is held responsible for anything which may be missing. I have known cases where the banker has been offended by one of the depositors, and he has refused to give back the deposit, claiming it as compensation for the offence. Being feared by the offender, nothing has been done. I have also known young men deposit money with their uncle, i.e., their mother’s brother, and the uncle has used the money as his own. There seems to be no redress in that case. I have never heard of any banker using or making away with or retaining money belonging to others except in the above cases.

A borrower comes more or less under the influence and power of the lender. If the borrower is a young man and has borrowed money to purchase a wife, or if a person has purchased a wife for him, he is then more or less at the bidding of the lender until the loan is repaid. All initiation fees into various clubs or societies are, as a rule, paid by the elders or chiefs, thus bringing the boys and young men under their influence. If a borrower shows a disposition to be restive, he is at once reminded of his obligation to pay, and the "screw" is as powerfully applied as with us. If a man refuses to repay a loan, he is thenceforth a marked man. His character is gone. He is called a "watukum," meaning an embezzler. None will lend him money in the future. Some young men cannot marry for the simple reason they cannot purchase a wife, and no one will lend them money because they are lazy, or have not been able to make money in the past, and there is a doubt as to whether they will be able to make it in the future.

Partnerships are entered into by the people. Two or three will own a fishtrap or a number of them, or perhaps a large fishing net. The proceeds of the sale of the produce are carefully counted at the conclusion of the day’s work and equally divided, or it may be the profits are divided at the end of a season. Trading and other ventures are jointly carried on and Strict accounts kept, each partner being a check on the others. The strength of their memory in money matters is astonishing. Large plantations are made by a number of people and the produce sold. The greatest source of wealth to the coast tribes lies in their trading for the shell of the Tambu, and in the products of their fishtraps and plantations.

Atonement of Wrong is made by the payment of Tambu, the amount fixed being according to the wrong done. This fact has a great restraining influence upon New Britain society. Thus:

When war has been carried on for any length of time, and persons have been killed or injured, no peace can be made until the friends of the killed and wounded, in the latter case the wounded themselves, have received compensation from the enemy. Each side must pay the other for damage inflicted. This reciprocal payment, if I may so call it, is shown in the word used to express both the act and the action. On Duke of York it is wekul. On New Britain it is warakul. Kul=buy, pay: the we on Duke of York, and the wara on New Britain denotes reciprocal action. Thus, wekul and warakul literally mean paying each other. The side which was originally wronged receives any sum mutually agreed upon in satisfaction of the original wrong out of which the war sprang, in addition to payment for whatever injury may have been inflicted during the fighting. This money is paid, not out of any public fund, but by the parties principally concerned. While so much as a single wound is not atoned for, peace cannot be considered likely.

Because of the lack of all constituted authority among the people, simple and ordinary quarrels lead to serious ones. There is no one man vested with power or authority who can say "cease," when any quarrel has reached a certain stage. All peace is arranged by common agreement, mutual consent, not by personal authority. Take the following example:—

To Meli and To Delu were two boys. To Meli put an iron ramrod into the fire, and when it was hot he drew it across To Delu’s bare back. To Delu was incensed at this, and at once ran to the beach and cut down some crotons belonging to To Rumu. To Rumu was angry at the loss of his crotons, and he went along the beach and smashed a canoe belonging to another man. The owner of the canoe went and broke two canoes belonging to another man. The owner of the two canoes burnt down another man’s house, and even more mischief still sprang out of To Meli’s practical joking. All now thought that the matter should be settled. To Meli had to pay To Rumu for the crotons which To Delu had cut down, because by burning To Delu he had been the cause of the crotons being cut down. To Delu who had been burnt, had to pay for the broken canoe, because he, by cutting down the crotons, had caused the canoe to be broken. To Rumu by breaking the one canoe had caused the two canoes to be broken, and so he had to pay for them. The man who smashed the two canoes caused the house to be burnt down so he had to pay for that. So every account had to be settled until they found a man whose property had been injured, but who had injured none in return. His claim would then be paid and the matter ends. It will be seen that the boy who was burnt got nothing for the injury done to him. However, by cutting down the crotons he had forced To Meli to pay for them, and in causing him to lose money by such payment he found a little satisfaction; he had also involved others in loss of property which caused them to be angry with To Meli, whose position was an unenviable one for some time after. . . .

All claims are adjusted by the popular voice, i.e., all have a voice in the settlement. A violent man however, may frighten an offender into paying an extravagant price. As a rule, when atonement is made, the price of an article destroyed is fairly met. It sometimes happens that the injured suffer considerable loss. Women and young people who are not well backed by their friends will nearly always lose. Apart from force, there is little or no justice. Public opinion is a great factor in the adjustment of all disputes, but, as already shown, a violent man may over-ride all public opinion.

The manner in which public opinion is appealed to is as follows:—

The people live in families, i.e., father and mother with their children, and as many of their kinsmen who may wish to live with them; each family or kinsmen having separate houses of their own, and all the houses may be enclosed by one fence, or each house may have its own fence, but erected very close to each other. Hence if one member is injured, all the family know it at once. If kinsmen are living at a distance they are informed as soon as possible of the occurrence. A man’s own kin are bound to stand by him even though he be altogether in the wrong. They gather together and make a great noise, shouting and threatening the wrong-doer. This attracts the attention of the neighbors who run together to see what is the matter. The injured man and his kinsmen, together with their following, which may include as many as like to see a row, go near the place where the offender lives, and send one of their number to him and his friends (who have gathered together, on the first sign of a disturbance) with terms of settlement. It may take hours to arrange the terms, two or three messengers continually going to and fro between the parties, until the affair is settled. There is no lack of communication. All the townsfolk, not personally concerned in the quarrel, are ready for the office of go-between, and seem very happy in being so employed. One, or perhaps two or three of them, may be selected, but these are recognized by both parties as fully accredited; but they have no power to dictate terms of peace. They are simply messengers from one party to the other, and the parties themselves must decide whether the terms proposed are to be accepted or rejected. The initiative is always taken by the injured person if he is able, if not then by the nearest kinsman who may be present. In the case of a woman or a child being injured, the husband, uncle (i.e., mother’s brother), father, or nearest kinsman or kinsmen present, take the matter up on their behalf.

The principal parties on either side are, of course, the injured person and the wrong-doer, but they are considerably influenced by their friends and following, though if the offended man chooses to accept the compensation offered, he may do so even against the advice of his friends. The affair generally takes the form of a haggling bargain. A is injured by B. He sends a go-between to B with the message that he will be satisfied with, say, ten fathoms of Tambu. B gives the messenger five fathoms. This is rejected and the money goes back. B adds a little more, and this is repeated until he sends his ultimatum, that he will not give another shell. This is generally accepted, but if not, any of the methods of redress already mentioned may be resorted to.

If the quarrel cannot be settled without a fight, either party can obtain the help of a number of men by paying them for it, while the neutrality of any influential man, who is supposed to be likely to favour the other side, may be secured by a sufficient bribe. This is called vitar ia="tying or binding him.". . .

The possession of Tambu has a very important influence on the lives of the New Britain people. Thus:—

It establishes personal right to property, and the right to alienate that property by sale or gift independent of anyone else. The whole town or family may be against the sale or gift, but has only the power to protest and cannot prevent it if the person is determined to sell. This right extends even to women and children. The writer has purchased land (for mission purposes) from women who insisted upon selling even against the wish of their friends. The sale completed, its validity has been recognized. I have known persons who have objected to the sale of a thing make a present to the owner of a fathom, and sometimes more, of Tambu to induce the owner not to sell. A native generally listens to that argument.

It makes the people frugal and industrious. No man is held in greater contempt than a spendthrift. In point of fact such a person is scarcely known. Nothing is wasted. In purchasing, a man will only buy just as much of anything as he requires for the time being. Hence we see no wholesale business done. One venture at a time is the business maxim of the New Britain people. Plantation produce is the one source of wealth for the inland people. A bunch of bananas will bring, according to size, from a quarter to a whole fathom of Tambu. Cocoa-nuts from sixty to one hundred per fathom. Hence the inland people are nearly always at work at their plantations. They are either in them, or preparing something in connection with them, or selling the produce. Market is held on the coast every third day in a large number of places. Those who live very far back inland have their inland markets where they sell to those nearer the beach, who in turn sell what they buy to the coast people. These markets are so arranged that two are seldom held near each other on the same day. A man taking his produce to one market to-day, may take more to another to-morrow if he is so disposed, and it is safe for him to do so. The coast people meet the inland people at these markets with their fish and articles of European manufacture, and either sell them for Tambu or barter for food and other things only obtainable in the country.

On the coast, fishing, in addition to plantations, is a source of income. The fishtrap is unique, and takes two or three weeks to make, and when finished it is quite a work of art. It costs in all, including the cost of food and wages for those who assist, and the cable to anchor it by— often 500 fathoms long—about six or seven fathoms. Men work from early morning till late at night making these traps. By the time the traps are made plantations require attention. Only those who know nothing about the New Britain people will call them lazy. After a residence of nearly eight years among them the writer has arrived at the conclusion that, comparatively speaking, they are as busy as Europeans are. There are and have been parts of Duke of York, New Ireland, and New Britain where enforced idleness and therefore want and wretchedness existed in the most debasing degree. But when Christianity has stepped in and made peace where peace was scarcely ever known, idleness gave place to industry and wretchedness to comparative comfort and wealth. The innate industry of the people shone forth the moment property and life became in any degree safe. I have known a man make fifty fathoms of Tambu during the fishing season, and ten or twelve fathoms from his plantations.

It makes them a commercial people. By the aid of intermediaries their commercial transactions extend to places they have never visited. But they never, or very seldom, trust their money with the intermediary. He buys the article with his own money and sells it to them for theirs, making what profit he can by the transaction. In the old heathen days Kinawanua people, a town on Duke of York Island, could go to one town on New Ireland and there trade for goods from that place and sell their own. Waira, another town, had it place also. Nakukuru people could cross over to three places on New Britain and do their trading. It is needless to say that through the establishment of mission stations in each town, trade is now carried on between New Britain and other parts of the group with almost perfect freedom. A bargain once made and concluded is seldom or never disputed. All disputation and haggling is done previous to the conclusion of the bargain.

While Tambu has brought some benefit to the New Britain people it has not been an unmixed blessing. To it, or rather to love for it, may be attributed in no small degree their intense selfishness and their glaring ingratitude. The expression of gratitude often leads to a little expense. Hence gratitude is too expensive a luxury for a New Britain man to be acquainted with. A spirit and life which is unselfish must often suffer loss. A New Britain man cannot afford that. A people whose greatest love is reserved for money, and whose highest aim is to get money, is an exceedingly hard-hearted and an intensely selfish people.

There are other matters closely connected with this shell-money. Its influence is supposed to extend even to the next life. There is not a custom connected with life or death in which this money does not play a great and a leading part.


2 In purchasing vegetable food, it often happens that a man will buy the whole of a neighbour’s crop before it is dug, for a greater or smaller sum according to the size of the plantation and yield. I have purchased crops thus at from ten fathoms to twenty and twenty-five fathoms of Tambu.

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,]

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,]

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,] in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,], Vol. 17, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Journal of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute [Of Great Britain and Ireland,]. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from