Getting rich

How to get rich in the Trobriands


Preparing for one of the great feasts in the Trobriands. The pigs have been slaughtered and are laid out and the yams are piled up in the great conical display cases.

How do you become rich in Trobriand society? Well, first of all you must be born a chief in a high lineage. This means you can then have lots and lots of wives – up to 40 in the olden days, though by the time Malinowski had arrived in the Trobiands, the influence of the missionaries had reduced this to a mere 16. However, when you realise that each chief received somewhere between 30 and 50% of all the produce of all his wives’ brothers, it is possible to understand how a well-married chief could become very wealthy indeed. Not that the wealth remained for long, for the chief also had his obligations: he had to organise tribal festivities and enterprises, furnish the food for big feasts, and tribal gatherings and distant expeditions; and he had to pay, according to custom, for the many services to which he is entitled.

The various forms of gift exchange are rooted in tradition, and Malinowski reckoned that there were at least five major types of exchange that took place. By far the most important – at least in amount – were what he called the ‘customary payments’ – the gifts payable partly to the chiefs but by far the majority to your in-laws, to your kinswomen and their families: for unmarried men, payments were paid to their mothers and sisters, but once they were married they would go to their wife’s family. Of course it all evened out in the long run. Your wife would receive regular payments from her brothers, but the chief was expected to pay for lavish feasts and up to three quarters of your annual income could go in this way.

And then there was a second category of pure gifts. Foremost among these were gifts made from fathers to sons. Of course a father couldn’t give real property to his sons because it all had to go to his in-laws but there were certain non-real property one could pass on such as knowledge of magic and dances. It was also possible to pass on say a tree or the rights to a plot of ground but only in one’s life time. On your death it reverted to your wife’s brothers’ sons. or your sister’s sons.

Trobriand canoe

Putting a canoe into its hangar. The canoes on the east shores are seldom used,  and when idle are housed in shelters built very much like ordinary houses, only much larger.

A third category is perhaps the most interesting of all because it consists of payments made to specialists such as magicians or boat builders. When a boat builder was first engaged he would be given valuable ‘initial’ gifts of food. Then while he was working on the boat he would be fed by the chief with extra special food with coconuts and betel nuts, pigs flesh, fish and fruits – not just the usual yams. But the really big gifts came when the boat was completed. There would be a couple of hundred baskets of yams, some pigs, a good supply of the ‘sweeties’ of the Trobriand world – betel nuts and coco nuts; and finally there were what he called ‘native valuables’ – armlets, bracelets and feather headdresses, and, most interesting to the archaeologist, polished stone axes. This is a category that comes closest to payment, but it was always given as gifts and was never bargained for.

One of the chiefs, seen standing in front of one of his decorated yam houses, his own dwelling in the background.

And then there was a very interesting system of regular gifts made to your ‘exchange partners’. There was for example a regular arrangement for exchanging goods between the fishing communities on the coast and the yam growers on land. Each had a regular partner and the yams would be neatly packed up in baskets and left outside the house of your trading partner in the fishing village. Similarly when the fisherman returned laden with fish they would pack them up and lay them respectfully in front of the door of the yam growers. Often the amounts were far too much and the fish rotted before they could be consumed. But it was important to show generosity in your exchange, and the two sides vied with each other in their generosity, to see who could give the most generous gifts.

Compared with this was outright barter, which existed, and was known as gimwale, but it was considered a very miserable and degrading form of transaction. Thus when bartering was to take place, the yam growers would come down to the beach and barter yams for fish with clear intention of haggling and getting the better part of the exchange and with complete lack of ceremony. The most important barter took place with the tribes from the interior where the ground was too poor for gardening and so they specialised in manufactured goods – pots, necklaces, and stone axes. These were brought down regularly and bartered for yams with tribes of the most fertile areas, and for fish with the fishing villages. However this was something very much looked down upon: you did not do it yourself but sent your servant to do it on your behalf. Indeed when criticising bad behaviour, you say that it was done ‘like a gimwali’ -‘gimwali walla!’


On to the Kula ring