Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea

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The kula is a form of exchange, of extensive, intertribal character; it is carried on by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form a closed circuit. . . . Along this route, articles of two kinds, and these two kinds only, are constantly traveling in opposite directions. In the direction of the hands of a clock, moves constantly one of these kinds —long necklaces of red shell, called soulava. In the opposite direction moves the other kind—bracelets of white shell called mwali. Each of these articles, as it travels in its own direction on the closed circuit, meets on its way articles of the other class, and is constantly being exchanged for them. Every movement of the kula articles, every detail of the transactions is fixed and regulated by a set of traditional rules and conventions, and some acts of the kula are accompanied by an elaborate magical ritual and public ceremonies.

On every island and in every village, a more or less limited number of men take part in the kula—that is to say, receive the goods, hold them for a short time, and then pass them on. Therefore every man who is in the kula, periodically though not regularly, receives one or several mwali (arm shells), or a soulava (necklace of red shell disks), and then has to hand it on to one of his partners, from whom he receives the opposite commodity in exchange. Thus no man ever keeps any of the articles for any length of time in his possession. . . . This partnership is entered upon in a definite manner, under fulfillment of certain formalities, and it constitutes a life-long relationship. The number of partners a man has varies with his rank and importance. A commoner in the Trobriands would have a few partners only, whereas a chief would number hundreds of them. There is no special social mechanism to limit the partnership of some people and extend that of the others, but a man would naturally know to what number of partners he was entitled by his rank and position. And there would be always the example of his immediate ancestors to guide him. In other tribes, where the distinction of rank is not so pronounced, an old man of standing, or a headman of a hamlet or village would also have hundreds of kula associates, whereas a man of minor importance would have but few. . . .

The main principle underlying the regulations of actual exchange is that the kula consists in the bestowing of a ceremonial gift, which has to be repaid by an equivalent countergift after a lapse of time, be it a few hours or even minutes, though sometimes as much as a year or more may elapse between payments. But it can never be exchanged from hand to hand, with the equivalence between the two objects discussed, bargained about, and computed. The decorum of the kula transaction is strictly kept, and highly valued. The natives sharply distinguish it from barter, which they practice extensively, of which they have a clear idea, and for which they have a settled term—in Kiriwinian: gimwali. Often, when criticizing an incorrect, too hasty, or indecorous procedure of kula, they will say: "He conducts his kula as if it were gimwali."

The second very important principle is that the equivalence of the countergift is left to the giver, and it cannot be enforced by any kind of coercion. A partner who has received a kula gift is expected to give back fair and full value, that is, to give as good an arm shell as the necklace he receives, or vice versa. Again, a very fine article must be replaced by one of equivalent value, and not by several minor ones, though intermediate gifts may be given to mark time before the real repayment takes place. If the article given as countergift is not equivalent, the recipient will be disappointed and angry, but he has no direct means of redress, no means of coercing his partner, or of putting an end to the whole transaction. . . .

Although haggling and bargaining are completely ruled out of the kula, there are customary and regulated ways of bidding for a piece of vaygua known to be in the possession of one’s partner. This is done by the offer of what we shall call solicitary gifts, of which there are several types. If I, an inhabitant of Sinaketa, happen to be in possession of a pair of arm shells more than usually good, the fame of it spreads, for it must be remembered that each one of the first-class arm shells and necklaces has a personal name and a history of its own, and as they circulate around the big ring of the kula, they are all well known, and their appearance in a given district always creates a sensation. Now, all my partners—whether from overseas or from within the district—compete for the favor of receiving this particular article of mine, and those who are specially keen try to obtain it by giving me pokala (offerings) and kaributu (solicitary gifts). The former (pokala) consist as a rule of pigs, especially fine bananas, and yams or taro; the latter (kaributu) are of greater value; the valuable, large ax blades (called beku), or lime spoons of whalebone are given. . . .

[Women accompany the expeditions] but they do not carry on overseas kula exchange, neither among themselves, nor with men. In Kiriwina, some women, notably the chief’s wives, are admitted to the honor and privilege of exchanging vaygua, though in such cases the transactions are done en famille To take a concrete case, in October or November, 1915, To’uluwa, the chief of Omarakana, brought a fine haul of mwali from Kitava. The best pair of these he presented to his veteran wife, Bokuyoba, a wife whom he had inherited from his elder brother Numakala. Bokuyoba in turn gave the pair, without much delay, to Kadamwasila, the favorite wife of the chief, the mother of five sons and one daughter. She again gave it to her son, Namwana Guyau, who kula’d it on to some of his southern partners. Next time he receives a soulava necklace, he will give it, not to his father directly, but to his mother, who will hand it over to her senior colleague, and this venerable lady will give it to To’uluwa. The whole transaction is evidently a complimentary interpolation of the two giyovila (chief’s wives) in between the simple transaction of the chief giving the vaygua to his son. This interpolation gives the women much pleasure, and is highly valued by them. In fact, at that time I heard more about that than about all the rest of the exchanges associated with this overseas trip.

In Southern Boyowa, that is, in Sinaketa and Vakuta, the role of women is similar, but they play besides another part. A man would sometimes send his wife with a kula gift to his partner in the neighboring village. On some occasions, when he needs vaygua very badly, as for instance when he is expecting some uvalaku visitors, his wife may help him to obtain the vaygua from that partner. For, though this latter might refuse to give it to his Sinaketan partner, he would not do so to his wife. It must be added that no sexual motives are associated with it, and that it is only a sort of customary compliment paid to the fair sex.

In Dobu, the wife, or the sister of a man, is always credited with a great influence over his kula decisions. Therefore, there is a special form of magic, used by the Sinaketans, in order to act on the minds of the Dobuan women. Although, in matters of sex, a Trobriander would have absolutely to keep aloof from Dobuan women, married or unmarried, he would approach them with nice speeches and gifts in matters of kula. He would reproach an unmarried girl with her brother’s conduct towards him. She would then ask for a piece of betel nut. This would be given with some magic spoken over it, and the girl, it is believed, would then influence her brother to kula with his partner.1

1Malinowski, B., n/an/an/an/an/a , 81–99, 280–281, passim (London: George Routledge and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. By permission).

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Chicago: Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from