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.