Where are the Trobriand islands?

Map to show the Trobriand islands north of Papua New Guinea

Gardening magic in the Trobriand Islands. These are some of the neat and tidy gardens for growing yams but they need magic to make them grow properly. Crouching bottom right is the magician with a magic flint axe over his shoulder. In front of him is a pile of herbs which he is about to bless.

The Trobriand islands lie 600 miles north-east of the north east corner of Australia, though they can be more accurately defined as being 100 miles north of the North East corner of Papua New Guinea. They are the outermost of a group of small islands, lying 100 to the north of the New Guinea coast. The Trobriands are one of the smaller groups, the largest of which is only 30 miles long by 10 miles wide. To the outsider they can appear at first sight to be idyllic settlements down by the sea shore. Sailing in their long canoes inevitably played a major role in their life connecting up the islands, and this led to chieftains arising, as chiefs were needed to direct the construction and sailing of the canoes.

The basis of the economy was gardening, mostly growing yams. The land was very fertile, so they could grow twice what was needed, so plenty could be left to rot, but they took great pride in their gardening and they vied with each other to have the neatest garden. At harvest time everyone piled up their produce in neat conical heaps under shelters made of yam vines, and everyone admired the heaps: though no one must have a bigger heap than the chief.

However about three quarters of each heap was passed on – and this is where the gift exchange begins to work. Part of it went to the chief in what must I suppose be called ‘tribute’, – but the largest part went to to your sister’s husband and family, – and here we must take a look at the kinship system in the Trobriand islands.

Trobriand bare-breasted girls

Sex was rife among the young girls. These girls with elaborate face make-up are preparing for a katuyousi expedition. In such expeditions they publicly range themselves for inspection and each is chosen by a local boy with whom she spends the night. When a visiting party arrives from another district, food is brought to them by the unmarried girls, who are also expected to satisfy their sexual wants.

It was a matriarchal system, where descent passed through the women. To us it was a very odd system indeed, though in fact it is still found in many parts of the world – as in the West Indies for instance. In this system, when you marry, your wife’s brothers are the heads of the family, and you will have to give them a large part of your produce. You give half your produce to your wife’s brother (the maternal uncle), and nominally at any rate they are in charge of your children.

Trobriand dancing

Dancers in full decoration. Fathers  could not pass on their wealth to their sons – it had to go to their wife’s brother’s children – but they could pass on their knowledge of elaborate ritual dances.

In practice of course it is the father who cares for the children and looks after them and brings them up, but on his death, his belongings will go to his wife’s brother’s children and his children will inherit from their uncles. Thus it is difficult for a father to give a gift to his son. If you give a tree, on the father’s death, the tree will revert to his sister’s family. What you can pass on to your son are the intangibles – especially magic and dances, and thus fathers take great effort in teaching their sons all the most potent magic they know, and all the most intricate dances, for these are an asset that cannot be taken away from them.


These photos are all taken from Malinowski’s classic book, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Malinowski was a very talented photographer, developing all these films in his tent on the island

How to get rich in the Trobriands