Tag Archives: Trobriand Islands

Island Living in Papua New Guinea

I found this short documentary made by Planet Doc and presented in Spanish. I tried to watch it and work out what the narrator is saying (without the sub-titles). Don’t worry, for you, there are English sub-titles. There is a sequel to this film which I can post later. I believe a cultural heritage of a person can influence what they value is important and how they present that value in a story. There were certain practices of intangible cultures from Papua New Guinea island tribes presented in this film. It stretched from the Trobriand Islands to the islands of New Britain. I don’t understand what the language (Spanish) the narrator is speaking, but watching the pictures, and knowing the culture, I can see what he is trying to show. Perhaps some Spanish speakers here can figure it out what the narrator is trying to say about the shell money he is showing , from both island traditions.  

This is the magic of story-telling. Simply, what you can show your readers. As good writers, we need every possible word that can draw a picture well in our reader’s mind.

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]


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.

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


[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.

Sopikarin’s New Journey


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



Harry Beran (Dr)
6 The Square

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

76-82 Paradise Vol. 5, 2013