A Different Perspective on the Kula Trade


One of my earlier posts was about Sopikarin, a Kula Trading canoe from the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea. This canoe was acquired by the South Australian Museum. In this story I gave some insight into the Kula Trade and what it means. While researching other work tonight, I found this article which I thought some of you may find interesting as it offers a different perspective on the reasons behind the Kula Trade.

The article was written by Anthropologist Mike Reid on Mises Daily.

Kula canoe

Anticapitalists like to use examples of supposedly selfless gift exchanges in “primitive” societies to contrast with the greedy behavior of modern markets. But a closer look at one famous exotic gift exchange, the Trobriand Islanders’ Kula, actually reinforces libertarians’ claims about the universal power of the profit motive.

In the elaborate Kula trade among the islands off the eastern tip of New Guinea, men sailed for many miles to receive ceremonial gifts of shell jewellery, apparently for the sole purpose of giving those gifts away again within a year or two.

Such a journey was both costly and dangerous. Men hired craftsmen to build special seagoing canoes sturdy and swift enough for the task. And the Trobrianders’ Kula journeys took them as far as the home of the Dobuans, who lived on an island 60 miles away, spoke a different language, and were regarded as cannibals.

When the visitors arrived, if all went well, their hosts greeted them with ceremonial gifts, “dirty, greasy, and insignificant looking native trinkets,” as one anthropologist jokingly called them.[1] The most coveted of these were shell necklaces and armbands, which belonged to the special category of valuables called vaygu’a.

But despite having come all that way to acquire these trinkets, the visitors did not plan to keep them for very long. Instead, the Trobrianders intended to give all the vaygu’a away within a year or two when they acted as hosts in turn to their own visitors from other islands.

In fact, men who held on to vaygu’a for much longer than that were “universally recognised as reprehensible and discreditable,” and called “slow” or “hard in the Kula.”[2]

Can all that risk and effort really have been undertaken just for the joy of giving the grimy baubles away again?

“Obvious Pointlessness”?

The socialist economist Karl Polanyi seems to have believed just that. And he admired the islanders for it. Polanyi praised the Kula exchange as “a gain-less and market-less economy … one of the most elaborate trading transactions known to man,” in which “no profit is involved, either in money or in kind.”[3]

In an informal memo, Murray Rothbard ridiculed the Kula and Polanyi’s love of it:

He is apparently enchanted by the “Kula trade.” … What Polanyi especially likes about this is its lack of true mutual gain — or is it its obvious pointlessness?[4]

“Gainless”? “Marketless”? Obviously pointless? What was really happening in the Kula trade?

When anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski travelled to the Trobriands in the 1910s, he found that the Kula was the consuming passion of men’s everyday life. Gaining vaygu’a was proof of a man’s “luck, daring, and enterprise.”[5]

Indeed,

the temporary ownership allows him to draw a great deal of renown, to exhibit his article, to tell how he obtained it, and to plan to whom he is going to give it. And all this forms one of the favorite subjects of tribal conversation and gossip, in which the feats and the glory in Kula of chiefs or commoners are constantly discussed.

These “dirty, greasy” bits of shell were in fact prestige goods, just as valuable and just as arbitrary as Rolex watches, luxury cars, and sports trophies. Such goods attract attention and advertise your achievements. They say, “I am powerful enough to have this.”

In North America, when a team in the National Hockey League wins the Stanley Cup, it brings the team members enormous fame (at least in Canada). But instead of making a new cup each year, the NHL uses the same trophy over and over; so the winning team holds the Stanley Cup only until the next team wins it away. The cup is a storied artifact that brings fame to any man who possesses it, even though no man can possess it forever.

The vaygu’a were the same. The point was not to have them permanently, but to get them for a time.

Giving to Receive

Within the Kula, each act of generosity was in fact a careful investment. Whomever you gave a vaygu’a to was obligated to repay you later with a “counter-gift” of a different artifact he owned. So a man planned out whom to give things to in order to control whom he would get things from. In this way, a patient and clever giver of vaygu’a could maneuver the most famous artifacts into his own hands.

The Kula was not pointless (contra Rothbard) and definitely not gainless (contra Polanyi). It was an organized search for personal profit. True, the profit was reputational, not strictly material. But ultimately, every “profit” — whether in fiat dollars, or NHL trophies, or shell necklaces — is a mental phenomenon, a fulfillment of our subjective whims greater than the costs we paid to achieve it. The remarkable thing about free exchanges like the Kula is that in every exchange both parties make a profit.

But what about Polanyi’s claim that the Kula was “marketless”? In one sense, he is right: the Kula itself was just an elaborate gift exchange, not a market.

Yet the Kula also protected and encouraged extensive barter between the Trobrianders, the Dobuans, the Amphlett Islanders, and the several other cultures who took part in it. In each Kula journey, the visitors’ canoes came packed full of food, or pottery, or artwork — whatever goods their community made best. And after the initial gift-giving ceremony on the hosts’ beach, the visitors remained for several days of bartering over this stuff with their hosts.

As in much of Melanesia, the islands off the east coast of New Guinea were rife with the danger of warfare, which certainly threatened to disrupt trade and force each village into economic isolation. But the Kula mitigated this threat by providing a kind of “peace-making ceremony” between men of different communities and cultures.[6]

A good Kula partnership between two men could provide a steady flow of vaygu’a through numerous gifts and counter-gifts over decades; the relationship could even be passed down as an inheritance to a son. Each man thus had good reason to protect his partners against theft or violence when they came to visit his island.

In short, the decentralized network of Kula gift exchanges provided the social scaffolding for international trade protected from robbery and warfare. No state required.

The Power of Profits

Western socialists like Polanyi are often eager to use a romantic interpretation of traditional cultures to attack markets or profits as unnecessary or unnatural. The rhetorical strategy is to cast the “primitives” in the role of generous, uncalculating tropical pixies, and then compare us very real, selfish, scheming apes unfavorably to them.

Caught in this rhetorical battle, Rothbard can hardly be blamed for hastily dismissing the Kula as “obvious pointlessness.” Indeed, if Polanyi’s nonsensical account of a profitless Kula were accurate, Rothbard’s characterization would be perfectly correct.

But the truth is this: every human in every culture chooses the best means he can imagine to achieve the ends he desires. Each participant in the Kula carried it on because he expected to make some kind of profit. And the net result of the Kula, like that of all systems of truly voluntary exchange, was mutual gain and international peace through private profit.

Comment on this article.

Mike Reid is primus inter pares at Invisible Order, a libertarian publishing-solutions company. He also teaches anthropology at the University of Winnipeg. Send him mail. Follow him on Twitter. See Mike Reid’s article archives.

You can subscribe to future articles by Mike Reid via this RSS feed.

Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Notes

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge, 1922) p. 351.

[2] Malinowski, pp. 360, 94.

[3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001) p. 52.

[4] Murray N. Rothbard, “Down with Primitivism: A Thorough Critique of Polanyi,” 1961. Republished in 2004 onMises Daily.

[5] Malinowski, p. 352.

[6] Reo Fortune, Sorcerors of Dobu (London: Routledge, 1932) p. 209.

Mucga’s Song


When you are a child, things can seem simple and beautiful. You may know something more and you can sense it, but you are afraid to ask. You pretend to only understand what you could because you knew –  you were told only what you needed to know. As you grow and your mind opens more, you lose that innocence and protection of your thoughts. Your older mind sees the ugly side to those things such as people and how they treated others or bad places and bad things.

This story is about a friend of mine. Many that knew our small village, Wagang, on the Coast of Lae, Papua New Guinea may remember Mucga. She was a distant aunt. We had a special relationship which no-one really understood but sometimes, friendship and love do not need any explanation- they can just exist. My story is for Mucga.

Mucga’s Song

It was a crispy morning about 9 o’clock. The blue sky threw dancing crystals on the Budac River. The river had a lazy flow today. My eyes could see through the water to the other side of the bank and the river was full of fish feeding on the mud and shell fish on the beds and mangrove roots. A slight breeze rustled the pandanus and swept the long green leaves over the golden ripe seeds. Already the seeds were attracting insects and birds with its sweetness. The breeze gathered sand and dried leaves bounced quickly along the hardened sandy bank to the river then floated back gently.

I had to be first to get to Budac before all the other children so I can catch enough dinner. The fish did not tolerate crowds nor noise. It was the main river used by Wagang villagers, just along the coast of  Huon Gulf in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.

I set up my trap, an empty 500g Nescafe coffee jar and waded into the water. I had filled it with a quarter cooked rice and water. With the labels and lid removed, it was one tall glass cylinder. The rice grains were twirling around in the clear bottle as I filled it to the brim to let out the bubbles, holding it under water. I took a deep breath and just as I went under water, I heard singing;

‘Musawa ke se leng geleng gwec, oh geleng gwec ngademu geo sasa, geo kesuc

Oh geoc ke soc o Bukawa.

(The giant easterly was drenching in the ocean as she swept and stirred the sea dirty and rough – outwards and then inwards and finally she arrived at the shores of Bukawac).

Bukawac is a coastal sub-district down the coast. It would take more than three school lunch breaks to get there by a motor boat. On foot, it takes nearly a day.

Muc ga! I yelled out loud.

She was startled and stopped on her next deep breath before her second verse. Mucga looked over the water at me. In our culture, we would sing while we worked. With the corners of her lips turned downwards quickly, I upset her because she wanted to sing to help me catch fish. Then suddenly, she gave me a very big grin and stood up.  I had seen this grin too often and knew what it was for.

‘Are you catching OUR fish?’ she asked coyly as she walked up to the bank near me. Quickly my annoyance turned into a smile.  Mucga had mental illness at a very early age. She was a grown up now, but I would not know for sure how old she was. The children in the village called her ‘longlong’ in pidgin. She would act funny and talk funny. Most times she was like a child. Mucga can go from a normal conversation to an extremely angry or sad mood and say very bad words like “Satan” and the  “K” word which is really the “C” word.

When I was growing up, I would hear her cry and scream and an ambulance would come and take her to the Angau Hospital. I heard the adults say she was in Ward 9. I didn’t like it went she was beaten. I knew she was mis-treated. She would be gone for weeks so I would fish alone at Budac. In her good days, Mucga would tag along.  My mother told me not to fish with other children because they used many bad words. Often the children would torment me and call me names. A couple of those words were “bastard”, “white bastard” and “sting” which was a pidgin word for stinky. I often wondered if they meant that I smelt funny because I look different or that I was lighter.

My cousin Elsie Joseph who was younger then I would fish with me sometimes. I loved her. We always had fun. She was often sick with head Malaria. My other two friends did not like fishing.

When I asked grandma about Mucga, grandma said Mucga’s spirit was not at rest. If Mucga’s spirit was rested, it would stay calmly inside her and Mucga would be herself. The restless spirit was something Mucga was born with and we have to accept her.

Mucga’s walk was up and down and sometimes sideways with her bad foot dragging behind her. This foot would draw a line on the sand as she went. Mother said it was because leprosy ate her leg. I always wandered how leprosy chose to eat Mucga’s leg and not everybody’s leg. Mother said that when you wear another person’s shoe and they have leprosy, that leprosy would eat your feet too, then your leg. That always worried me because in my head,  I had pictures of people trying to walk without their feet and legs.

Mucga stood in front of me. Her sore feet pointing at me and every now and then she marched quickly to chase the flies off.

I can catch OUR fish, I stressed, but only if you stop singing. You know the fish don’t like singing or noise and if you keep singing to the big easterly wind, that wind will come, I said.

Mucga’s usual troubled eyes were reflecting the dancing happy crystals from the water. She was happy, thinking she was helping me. Mucga looked straight at me again with her 20 year-old eyes and then nodded. She had a slight smile and I saw her teeth – never been touched by beetlenut stain.

At seven, I had never felt any animosity from this woman. I felt like hugging her.  Mucga had always frightened children and adults alike in my village. She would scream and launch at them when they abused her. I was glad she did. They all deserved it.

Mucga tried to smile, showing just a handful of teeth this time and I knew she would wait there for me – the whole day. I also knew, there was no guarantee the singing had stopped.

I waded further into the river and eight metres from the sandy bank, water quickly came up to my neck. My feet stirring up mud and the softness indicated that I was deep enough. I let myself into the water and with two kicks I steadied into position and placed my coffee bottle ‘trap’ on the river floor. The bottle’s mouth faced the bank. With a gentle wave of my right hand underwater at the mouth of the jar while holding the jar with my left, I encouraged the rice grains out in a trail along the body to the mouth of the coffee jar. It is the bait.

If I placed too much rice outside the jar, the fish will fill their stomachs outside the jar and then leave. This is a routine I have expertly mastered in my many years of fishing with coffee and jam jars.

Now the fish would innocently come for the rice and follow the trail to the back of the bottle. When the fish discovers it is a trap and starts to panic and struggle to turn to get out of the bottle, I dive in, close the jar mouth with my hand and swim to the shore to empty my catch on the bank. The whole process is repeated until I had enough fish. Sometimes my cousins or aunts would give me an extra bottle but rarely do the fish get trapped simultaneously.

When I returned to the bank, Mucga started singing again and the wind picked up.

MucGa – nem we tom. I called to her – don’t sing, you will make the wind come, the water rough and scare the fish.

She nodded and looked down; peeling at her sore toes. Her very faded floral cotton dress hung loosely and her skin was palely dry. I looked at her contrasted wet black tight curly hair; a rough cut closely to her ears. It was not fetching. That haircut would have been forced and she would have fought her barber, I thought.

Lost in five minutes of thoughts, I suddenly caught glimpse of scales flashing and ran and dived into the river to my coffee jar. When I got out to catch my breath and held up the fish in the jar, Mucga was jumping up and down making strange noises. She was in already dancing in my waiting spot. I came up to her; water running down my shorts and T shirt and emptied the fish onto the wet sand.  As the fish jumped, she jumped and started singing out of tune.

I told Mucga – Ok you can have the first one, but please, be quiet. I refilled the bottle and walked back into the water. This routine went on for a few years. At the end of each day, we split the fish.

Just before I reached ten, my aunt told me Mucga had died in the Angau Hospital, in Lae. I took my fishing tackle that morning and made my way to the river. The Easterly blew hard and I sang her song loudly. I wanted to frighten the fish, rustle the leaves and scare the birds in memory of my friend.

 

 

The Hillside Find


Port Moresby. PNG. The Ranuguri Hill is in far background. Picture: UK Telegraph.

 

A short background about “The Hillside Find“.

My work as a journalist in PNG took me to police work as the Public Relations Deputy. I was based in the Police Headquarters, Papua New Guinea (PNG). My job was to handle media, write press releases, write speeches for the Police Minister and Commissioner and handle all public relations for the Police Force. There I rose through the ranks to become the deputy of the Community Relations Directorate. The late Commissioner David Tasion pushed for me to become the head of the Community Relations. He set up a rigorous training committee and programme that ensured all my training was packed into 12 months. During this time, the crime rate in PNG was very high and the Police PR was not good. My main role would be to improve this negative image.

Among all my training, I completed an inspector training course at Bomana Police College to earn an inspector’s ranking; I spent time in various sections of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and worked in many squatter settlements throughout Port Moresby in community relations programmes. I also had an attachment with the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1986, whilst Hong Kong was under British rule.

I became the Director at the age of 21 and took over a staff of 400 civilians and trained policemen (mostly male and much older than I).   People like Beth Harding, an Australian, a very strong woman and a dedicated teacher in PNG for over 30 years was working in the constabulary training. Beth also pushed me to become a strong managerial contender in one of PNG’s most fragile disciplinary forces and we did it! We set up many community programmes that linked police and the public and they joined hands to fight crime together.

My years in PNG Police were very interesting, exciting and sometimes dangerous and challenging. Because my role was multi-faceted and complex, my friends often joked at parties, rather than giving a long explanation, that I was a police dog trainer.

We established very good networks with the people on the streets and we had police living amongst squatter settlement communities. I had the best, teach me and I pay my respects to many that have passed away. I will always remember that time in my life from 1985 – 1989.

It was one of those days that I went out on detective work with head of the Investigating Unit, Supt Roy Tiden that left permanent imagery in my mind. I wrote this short story, “The Hillside Find” mid year, in my Creative Writing Class. The story is part of my memoir that I am writing. If you like this true story, look out for my memoir next year. With my teacher, Isabel D’ Avila Winter guiding me, I hope to complete most of the writing for the memoir this year.

Please click on the link below to read The Hillside Find – by Joycelin K Leahy

The Hillside Find – Wk 2

Nature – Feeling The Heat


DSCN1430        Lorikeets in the Gym          Joycelin Leahy Pictures 363                                 

A few days ago, the temperature in Brisbane was a blistering 44 degrees.  Our average is about 27 degrees but summer averages are about 35.

Seeing my sons had gone down south to see their father, and boyfriend gone to Papua New Guinea, I was on my own with our pet lorikeets, Kaz and Nisha and in the backyard were our six chickens and a rooster.

We have a tin roof so imagine how hot the house was. Fortunately the house is two stories and brick in lower level kept the bottom half of the house cool. I moved quickly downstairs with the lorikeets. Not one to watch TV and being in the middle of the morning, I switched the TV on to see what was happening around Brisbane and Queensland with the very high temperature. I was also concerned about bushfire.

Within hours that morning, the heat was cruel. The ever so proud looking greenery and tropical plants and flowers in our surroundings slowly weakened and started browning and shrivelling right before my eyes. I made sure the chickens had a lot of water and the lorikeets and I settled into the cool comfort of downstairs and before I knew it, I felt drowsy and then had fallen asleep. The heat had taken its toll.

It must have been at least an hour before I heard loud shrieking and flapping of wings and woke up to the two piercing bird cries. I had thought the two lorikeets were fighting initially. Then I left the couch and moved to the window and there was the head of a metre long green tree snake trying to squeeze through the closed door.  It must have been desperate to get off the burning concrete floor it was on. Its long green back and yellow belly slithered very quickly as it glided over the glass door and falling off at all attempt. I felt sad but afraid at the same time. They were harmless, but what about the birds? There was a small gap which only the snake’s head could fit. It tried a few times to enter. I guess in this heat, all living things feel the temperature.

Quickly and out of my sleep, I jumped up and down and made a lot of banging noise against the glass door, my turn as by this time, the lorikeets were quiet and starring at me. The snake turned and quickly slithered away. I praised the two birds and returned to the couch and drifted off again. Half an hour later, the same thing happened. The snake had come back. This time, I closed the gap with tape and went outside and with a stick, chased the snake into the bush. I was running as the ground and grass was so hot, it burnt my feet. The interesting thing about the situation was, while I was outside; I spotted another scale-breasted male lorikeet bopping up and down in our swimming pool, almost on its last breath.

I ran across the yard to the pool and gave the drowning bird a stick to climb on. Not far from him were six dead ducklings floating in a small group in the pool. I felt sad. By the look on the lorikeet’s face, the wild bird seemed so relieved and did not make a single sound. I took him with me downstairs and fed him some food and water. Within minutes, the new bird met and became acquainted with Kaz and Nisha (our two lorikeets) and we stayed in the cool room for nearly three hours. The three lorikeets shared the food and water. With its beak, Kaz tried to comb and groom the new lorikeet’s feathers but he did not like that. Nisha being the scale breasted lorikeet and still a baby was excited and became very chirpy with the ‘visitor’. By the end of the day, the ‘visitor’ started getting restless so I opened the taped door and the “visitor” flew away. I re-taped the door and went outside to inspect the sun’s damage and bury the ducklings.

Pictured above Kaz and Nisha and later with the “Visitor”. A similar Green Tree snake tried to get into my art gallery last year and when I disturbed it, it tried to hide in the bricks. As in the Google Image photo, they are very common in our area, Bellbowrie, Western Suburbs and Queensland.

Sopikarin’s New Journey


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA massimap

It is going up to 5pm here in Brisbane and I am almost feeling better after my old girl (computer) crashed this morning. Thank you Gary Hall for having the “puri puri”, (magic) of conducting a tech recovery process without being present. I still don;t get it Gary, but anyway, my old girl is up and running and groaning less so I am grateful. I had promised an article I wrote about the Kula canoe, Sopikarin. South Australia Museum has now purchased this canoe which sat in their museum lobby for a few years. Pictured above, it is an exquisite piece of history, all kept in one piece. It represents the amazing Kula Ring as shown in the map, a trading area and a highly organised system that lasted for many generations and the Milne Bay people in Papua New Guinea should be very very proud of this canoe and their rich heritage. Sopikarin carries with it, all it’s ornaments and markings of your ancestors and many stories, many untold can only be imagined by many people from many cultures and tribes around the world.

I have always loved the stories behind canoes and in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific Island countries, it was our only transportation for many centuries – for trade and as a means of getting from one place to another. Each canoe is build from a unique tree and often there are several rituals associated with the preparation and launching to ensure that our ancestors protect us while we travel. We have always been seafarers long before the western ships and boats came.

I wrote the article about Sopikarin, the last Kula trading canoe as part of my research for my Masters in Museum studies at University of Queensland. There may be other ‘last ones’ out there and I hope I can here from you, the Masawa people. This article has been published in the Paradise Magazine (Air Niugini In-flight Magazine) and I would like to thank Dr Barry Craig and SAM – the South Australia Museum for the contribution to my research and the story.

Following the ppublication in Paradise Dr Harry Beran wrote this email to Dr Craig about the name of the canoe. I would be grateful for any Masawa people in Milne Bay Province to contribute to the discussion on what is the true meaning of the name “Sopikarin.

Email from Dr Beran: 
I’ve just seen the article on the masawa canoe on display at the SAM. Nice piece.

I have a copy of a typescript by Kiriwinans and ralph lawton which gives the terminology of the components of a masawa canoe. I can send you a copy if you don’t have one already.

I find the reason for its name implausible. Would Trobrianders use a wood that doesn’t float for the hull? I do know that the wood called meku in Kiriwina and kwila in tok pisin doesn’t float but would they use this for canoes? (I think it’s used for the tables made for sale) Nor can I see why the log the hull is carved from would end up in the water before it was carved into the hull. Nor why the water near the land would be so deep that divers bled from ears and nose. Anyhow Peter Hallinans’ notes on Sopikarin make it clear that the explanation of the canoe’s name is part of a legend and legends don’t have to make sense.

If you look at Hallinan’s notes, at the end of the explanation of the name, there is a much more plausible explanation. apprentice carvers drink water over which magic has been performed. sopi = water. One could ask ralph whether he knows what karin(a) means; it’s not in his dictionary of 2002

cheers

harry

Harry Beran (Dr)
6 The Square
Horningsea
CAMBS CB25 9JJ
UK

Please click on the link below to read my  story about Sopikarin’s new journey – to Australia.

76-82 Paradise Vol. 5, 2013

Tribalmystic is storytelling about people, places, and things that have extraordinary stories. Author: Joycelin Leahy

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