Bridewealth Project

Bridewealth in New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea is structured in three stages preceded by a preliminary phase. In the preliminary phase, the bridegroom and his kin approach the prospective bride and her family with a marriage proposal. If the proposition is accepted, the bridegroom and his kin offer a gift to the bride and her family designed to “reserve” or to “mark” the bride. How one “reserves” a girl varies from region to region. For instance, on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, the reservation of the bride is made through a gift called june hmala, which generally consists of a gift in cash of around 10 000 Fcfp (approximately 90 USD) for the bride and of 100 000 Fcfp (approximately 900 USD) for her parents (Nicolas 2012: 328). Among the Ankave-Enga of Papua New Guinea, the reservation of the bride is made with a gift of pig carcass (Pierre Lemonnier, pers. comm. 2016). 

Bridewealth is typically structured in three distinct stages. In stage one, the groom and his kin assemble the necessary goods for the bridewealth payment. This phase in most communities may last up to a year. The items gathered generally include local valuables such as pigs, pandanus mats and shell money, but also cash, perishable goods such as yams, taros, coconuts, bananas and sugar cane. Payments may also include consumer items such as plastic buckets, pieces of fabric, bags of rice and sugar. The amount or value of bridewealth in these Pacific countries has varied throughout history and according to criteria such as the social status of the bride, her virginity, her residence (urban vs rural area) as well as her reputation, her beauty, her employability, etc. Members of the groom’s kin, lineage or clan must contribute to the payment for the groom’s wife. Similarly, fellow villagers and people from other villages who are connected to the groom and his family by an exchange relationship, or who have debts or obligations towards him or his kin, are expected to contribute to the bridewealth for the groom’s wife. Their contributions, in turn, trigger a series of debts that are part of a larger system of obligations which, in some cases, may be extinguished only a generation later.

The second phase of bridewealth exchange consists in the transfer of the payment to the bride’s kin representative. Before this transfer takes place, contributors bring their gifts to the bridegroom and his kin who note and calculate the total of all the contributions. In Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu communities, the gathered items are then carried to the bride’s village or compound. Upon their arrival, the bridegroom and his kin often simulate an attack on the village, a tradition reminiscent of past intertribal wars and of the practice of marriage by capture. In New Caledonia, bridewealth and wedding ceremonies take place in the bridegroom’s village or on a site chosen by his kin. The bride and her followers join the bridegroom’s party, singing and dancing upon their arrival. Whether ceremonies occur in the bride or groom’s village, the bridewealth items are presented by the groom’s kin representative to the bride’s father or another man of high status.  

In the third phase, the items making up the bridewealth payment are distributed among the bride’s family and kin. In each country, as is also customary in the Solomon Islands, a portion of the bridewealth payment is set aside for the bride’s mother, who carried the bride and took care of her. In Vanuatu, this portion is said to be “for the milk” (Alice Servy 2017). On the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, this portion is called zanethi, literally “juice (zane) of breast (thi)” (Nicolas 2012: 443). The rest of the bridewealth is then distributed by the bride’s father according to the diverse contributions of individuals and families and according to a set of pre-existing obligations that bind him. It is worth specifying that the bride’s kin are not only at the receiving end of the exchanges. They also make prestations, although in smaller proportion, to the bridegroom and his kin, which, in turn, are shared among their family, kin and any other individuals who contributed to the bridewealth payment. 

As in other countries, bridewealth in Melanesia “balance[s] a transfer of rights over the wife’s sexuality, work services, residence, fertility, etc.” (Keesing, 1981: 508). The bridewealth also aims at comforting or appeasing the bride’s parents for the loss of their daughter. Among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, bridewealth (unang kun) is thus said to “buy the anger” of the bride’s father caused by the impending separation from his daughter (Robbins 2003: 253-254). Bridewealth exchange also plays a role in reviving old social and kin relationships and in creating new ones. In New Caledonia, bridewealth payment has an impact on the social status of the bridegroom. Before his marriage, the bridegroom is considered a child. His marriage and the demonstration of his capacity to work hard to assemble the bridewealth for his wife are a rite of passage in which he becomes a man in his community (Nicolas 2012: 183).

In the Pacific, as elsewhere in the world, the practice of bridewealth is the object of much criticism and debate. A predominant criticism of the practice is that cash has distorted bridewealth payments. The anthropologist Sabina Hess, in her work on the island of Vanua Lava in Vanuatu, reports that interlocutors regularly lament that marriage is now effected as if it was a “bisness” (Hess 2009: 91). The Malvatimauri, Vanuatu’s National Council of Chiefs, has attempted two times in recent years to limit the amount of cash in bridewealth or to ban it, without success (Cullwick 2014; Radio Australia March 22 2012). In a similar fashion, criticism of bridewealth in Melanesia draws attention to the excesses that now characterize bridewealth payments. In 2014, on the island of Lifou, New Caledonia, the three great chiefdoms adopted a reform of marriage practices after coming to the conclusion that marriages nowadays represent a hardship for families. They restricted the marriage period from April to August each year, limited the hours of customary practices and presentations (les coutumes, in French) from 7am to 10pm and eliminated the part of bridewealth distributed among the relatives of the bride (pua) (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, December 2 2014).

Another subject of much debate is the impact of bridewealth on women. As a payment that transfers the authority over a woman from her lineage to that of her husband’s, bridewealth renders divorce difficult for women and often necessitates the partial or complete reimbursement of the payment made at marriage. In New Caledonia, divorce is impossible for Kanak women unless both families agree to it, which is exceptional. To escape unhappy or unhealthy relationships, Kanak women thus have no choice but to renounce their customary status (statut civil coutumier) and to adopt French civil status in order to apply for a divorce (Salomon 2002; Salomon and Hamelin 2007). Melanesian women who seek divorce also risk losing the custody of their children as bridewealth payments ensure their husbands and in-laws rights over the couple’s fertility. 

Finally, opponents to bridewealth claim that the practice condones and even encourage domestic violence. Having paid a large amount in cash and goods as bridewealth, some men feel that they “own” their wives and, consequently, may do whatever they please with them, including verbal and physical abuse. In Lihir, in Papua New Guinea, women thus say that “cash changed everything” (Macintyre 2011). Lihirian women see the cash now involved in bridewealth payments “not as a benign substitution for indigenous valuables” (Jolly 2015: 73) but as an economic exchange that results in brides losing “proprietary rights over their bodies, their fertility and their labour” (Macintyre 2011: 108).

Despite these concerns and criticisms, bridewealth endures as a relevant and important practice for many women and men in the Pacific. This is often expressed in their conviction that bridewealth is “part of their culture,” that it is the only way for them to officialize their union in a customary way and to uphold their social responsibilities and obligations. This conviction is held by many in rural areas, but also by urban dwellers and migrants living overseas, as the anthropologist Karen Sykes (2013) has shown in her work on educated Papua New Guinean migrants in Australia. Bridewealth is indeed still practiced, albeit often in modified forms (e.g. mortgage payment), among transnational Papua New Guinea households, which attests to the place that bridewealth continues to hold in the identity of many Melanesian people. 

For further details on the practices, representations and ramifications of bridewealth in these three countries, the readers are invited to consult the specialized bibliography.

Fabienne Labbé


ABC Radio Australia. 2012. “Chiefs Ban Cash in Bride-Price Payments (Interview and Transcript),” March 22 edition.

Cullwick, Jonas. 2014. “Chief: Vt80,000 Bride Price No Longer Obligatory.” Vanuatu Daily Post, June 25 edition.

Jolly, Margaret. 2015. “Braed Praes in Vanuatu: Both Gifts and Commodities?” Oceania 85 (1): 63–78. doi:10.1002/ocea.5074.

Hess, Sabine. 2009. Person and Place: Ideas, Ideals and the Practice of Sociality on Vanua Lava, Vanuatu. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Macintyre, Martha. 2011. “Money Changes Everything: Papua New Guinean Women in the Modern Economy.” In Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific, edited by Mary Patterson and Martha Macintyre, 90–120. St-Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Nicolas, Hélène. 2012. “La fabrique des époux. Approche anthropologique et historique du mariage, de la conjugalité et du genre (Lifou, Nouvelle-Calédonie).” PhD Thesis, Aix-en-Provence, France: Aix-Marseille Université.

Salomon, Christine, and Christine Hamelin. 2007. “Les femmes kanak sont fatiguées de la violence des hommes.” Journal de la société des Océanistes 125: 283–94.

Salomon, Christine. 2002. “«Mettre au tribunal», «?claquer un procès»?: les nouvelles ripostes des femmes kanakes en Nouvelle-Calédonie.” Archives de politique criminelle 24 (1): 161–76.

Sykes, Karen. 2013. “Mortgaging the Bridewealth: Problems with Brothers and Problems with Value.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 97–117. doi:10.14318/hau3.2.007.

Robbins, Joel. 2003. “Given to Anger, Given to Shame: The Psychology of the Gift among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea.” Paideuma 49: 249–61.

Servy, Alice. 2017. “«AIDS is Here». Prévenir les infections sexuellement transmissibles à Port Vila, Vanuatu.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Marseille: École des hautes études en sciences sociales.