Paradise - - Living -

Through­out most of the his­tory of what is now Pa­pua New Guinea, its in­hab­i­tants lit­er­ally shelled out money dur­ing trans­ac­tions. The first cur­ren­cies were – in com­mon with many so­ci­eties around the world – seashells, used to set­tle dowries, dis­putes and land ac­qui­si­tions, and for gen­eral barter.

Such cur­ren­cies went un­der var­i­ous names such as di­wara, tambu or tabu and var­ied from place to place. In the Duke of York Is­lands, for ex­am­ple, di­wara was made from sea-snail shells, each threaded onto a cane a fin­ger’s width apart. A length about two me­tres long (the width of out­spread arms) con­tained 320 shells and formed the ba­sic unit called a param. Ten param was an arip, and to cre­ate a tu­tana or money wheel the canes of 100 arip were rolled into huge hoops con­tain­ing an im­pres­sive 320,000 shells.

Shell money is par­tic­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with the To­lai peo­ple of East New Bri­tain and New Ire­land. Men started ac­cu­mu­lat­ing shells from their first ini­ti­a­tion rites as the foun­da­tion of a money wheel with which to at­tract a bride. Shell money may still oc­ca­sion­ally be used in re­mote com­mu­nity mar­kets, and is cer­e­mo­ni­ously ex­changed dur­ing spe­cial events such as wed­dings. A de­ceased To­lai chief’s tu­tana is cut up and dis­trib­uted to guests at a funeral.

Shell cur­ren­cies weren’t of­fi­cially abol­ished un­til 1933, although tabu was re­cently rein­tro­duced as semi-le­gal ten­der in East New Bri­tain as an al­ter­na­tive to the kina, with which it can be ex­changed or used to pay taxes or court set­tle­ments.

Shell money started to de­cline with the ar­rival of Euro­pean pow­ers, how­ever. The mark be­came the of­fi­cial cur­rency of Ger­man New Guinea in 1884. Be­tween 1894 and 1911 cop­per, sil­ver and gold coins were is­sued specif­i­cally for New Guinea, de­pict­ing birds of par­adise. Few sur­vive, although fakes are com­mon. A gen­uine sil­ver five-mark coin can now fetch up­wards of $US7000, while a mod­est one- pfen­nig piece (one-hun­dredth of a mark) might fetch sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars.

Be­tween 1894 and 1911 cop­per, sil­ver and gold coins were is­sued for New Guinea, de­pict­ing birds of par­adise. Few sur­vive. A gen­uine sil­ver five­mark coin can now fetch up­wards of $US7000.

World War 1 saw the Ger­mans de­part. In 1914 the Aus­tralian oc­cu­py­ing forces is­sued poorly printed notes (com­monly called Rabaul Trea­sury notes) for five, 10, 20, 50 and 100 marks. Only 29 are known to sur­vive, and there’s just a sin­gle 100-mark note re­main­ing, now in a Ger­man mu­seum.

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