What remote islanders don't use traditional money

Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

We scrutinize a very special kind of money, money made from bird feathers. This so-called feather money was used for a long time in the Santa Cruz Archipelago, a remote group of islands in the Solomon Islands. This archipelago consists of the islands of Ndende, Vanikoro, Utupua, Tinakula and a number of reef islands.

Myzomela Cardinalis, www.usa.gov

The feather money consisted of a 9m long band of plant fibers, which was covered with red feathers of the cardinal honey eater (Myzomela cardinalis) and often had the shape of a double roll. A dual role was an indivisible trading unit that consisted of around 50 to 60,000 red feathers. Exactly where the idea of ​​feather money came from is not clear, but the red color definitely suggests a Polynesian influence. Red is the color of the gods and is rare in nature.

The feather money was mainly produced in the southwestern part of the main island of Ndende, in three phases. Each phase was carried out by a specialist who had received the magical knowledge of the handles. The technology was passed on from father to son. In the first phase, the cardinal honey-eaters were caught by a bird catcher. For this purpose, a branch was smeared with the sap of the mulberry tree, which served as glue. Then the birds were attracted. This was done with a tethered live bird, a stuffed decoy, or one mimicked the bird's call. If a bird was trapped, it was plucked.

a roll tie

A second specialist was responsible for making the platelets (also called Lendu) that made up the ribbons. He used the stiff feathers of a pigeon for this. The pigeons were first shot with a bow and arrow, then the feathers were glued together with the mulberry tree sap. The red feathers of the cardinal honey eater were then glued onto each plate. A total of 1,500 to 1,800 such plates were required for one roll. One role meant around 700 hours of work.

The platelets were then taken to the roll binder. This tied all the plates together to form a ribbon up to 9 meters long. For this purpose, two cords made of bark were stretched parallel to each other between two trees. They were held apart using a tension rod made from the wing bone of a fruit bat. The specialist then began tying the platelets between these two strings. In doing so, he worked his way out from the middle. The tiles overlapped one another like roof tiles.

The end result was a bright red feather scroll. The brighter the color and the better the condition of the reel, the more it was worth. In total there were 10 grades in feather money. The ribbons of the first degree were of the brightest colors and were very valuable. The lowest-grade ligaments were almost black and often in poor condition. A band of a certain grade was worth twice as much as a band of the grade below it. For storage, the ribbons and amulets were wrapped in leaves and rags and hung around two meters above the fire. When they were dry, they were less likely to be attacked by mold and insects.

a spring roll

When looking at traditional money, we have to put our Western definition of money aside a little. The various forms of money such as feather money, shells or stones were not only used for trade, but were also used for ritual payments such as penalties and compensation. One of the most striking uses of feather money was the payment of the bride price. At such a bride price, goods and services were transferred from the husband's family to the wife's family. The marriage of a daughter means a loss for the family. It was not just about an emotional loss but also the loss of a workforce. This gave rise to the image that women were sold and bought as commodities. The bride price was actually seen more as compensation for a daughter and her children. A bride was usually worth 10 feather ribbons, although the number of ribbons for a woman from the western islands could be much higher. These women were especially skilled, they were good at fishing, paddling and climbing fruit trees. Thus the women of the western islands became one of the most important "export products". They were also sold as concubines for an additional charge.

Feather money was also used in daily payment transactions. A trade network was established between the various islands of the archipelago, in which payments were made with feather money and exchanges were made. The small reef islands were unsuitable for agriculture due to their barren sandy bottom, but they had a large population that lived mainly from fishing and pig breeding. Ndende, on the other hand, was sparsely populated, but large and had fertile soil. The population of the reef islands therefore often exported women to Ndende for feather money. This feather money was then often used again to buy wood, boats or piglets.

Today the feather money is hardly used any more. Western coins and banknotes have been used in the Santa Cruz Archipelago since the beginning of the 20th century and certainly since the Second World War. The last man who could still make feather money rolls died in the 1980s. You can still find them at collectors or in museums. The remaining ligaments are often damaged or in poor condition. Many ribbons were sunk in the sea by the islanders because the spring ribbons were not allowed to be sold outside the islands. They belonged to the national wealth.

Katrien Costermans
Museum guide

  • “Feather Money and Shell Necklaces: Traditional Means of Payment from Melanesia”, in The window, Keulen, 142, January 1992.
  • Houston D.C., The impact of the Santa Cruz red feather currency on the population of the scarlet honey eater Myzomela cardinalis, not published, Glasgow, 2010.
  • Kloos P., Culturele anthropology: een inleiding, Assen, 2002.
  • Koch G., Material culture of the Santa Cruz Islands, Berlin, 1971.
  • Lautz Thomas, Feather money and shell necklaces, Clubs, 1992.
  • Lautz Thomas, “Traditional Money and Cultural Diversity: Continuity and Change in the Pacific Region”, in Lane P. & Sharples J. (ed.),Proceedings of the ICOMON meetings, held in conjunction with the ICOM Conference, Melbourne, 2000. Available here.
  • Pycroft A.T., "Santa Cruz red feather-money - Its manufacture and use," inThe Journal of the Polynesian Society, 44, 1935, p. 173-183.