Bridewealth Project

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago lying to the east of Papua New Guinea and to the northwest of Vanuatu. It is a large nation by Pacific Islands standards, with a population of around 550,000 people. The country is comprised of almost a thousand islands including a dozen islands of substantial size. In total, the nation has about 5,300 kilometers of coast line and a land area of 27,549 square kilometers (Moore, Introduction, Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopedia 1893-1978). The Solomon Islands was a British Protectorate from 1893 until its independence in 1978. Honiara is its capital, a town of approximately 65 000 people.

Bridewealth, or braedpraes in Pijin, the local lingua franca, is practiced in the eastern part of the Solomon Islands, especially on the islands of Malaita, Makira and Guadalcanal, and in the south-east, on the island of Santa Cruz. Bridewealth, as a form of marital exchange, is not practiced in the western part of the archipelago. Patrilinearity vs. matrilinearity partially explains this division, but so do prohibitions (and limitations) imposed by some Christian churches. In Honiara, young men may have to give bridewealth if their prospective bride is from an area where the custom is still alive.

Traditionally, shell and feather money, dolphin, porpoise or dog teeth and pigs constituted the bulk of bridewealth in the Solomon Islands. Food was also offered as part of the marriage feast. With colonization and the development of a cash economy, however, cash, rolls of calico and steel tools were added to the mix. Nowadays, bridewealth often also includes large sums of money and consumer goods. Currently, one observes two trends: 1) an overall inflation in the value of bridewealth and 2) the increasing importance of cash in bridewealth payments. For each shell money necklace (made of 10 strings of two fathoms long) that is offered, people often add a cash sum equivalent to the market value of the necklace. The market value of a red shell necklace in Honiara is about SDB 1,000 (approximately 125 USD). Therefore, a bridewealth payment of 8 shell necklaces would also be accompanied by a cash payment of SDB 8,000 (around 1,000 USD). To curb inflation in bridewealth payments, some Christian churches such as the Seventh Day Adventist and the South Seas Evangelical Church capped the bridewealth at 5 (10-strings) shell necklaces and SDB 5,000 (625 USD).

The amount of bridewealth prestations is typically not negotiated between the parties, with the groom's family doing their best to come up with an amount that will be acceptable to the bride's father. In some cases, discrete conversations between members of the extended families help to reach an amount agreeable to both parties. However, this practice is progressively changing: some families do not hesitate to set a price for the bridewealth. Among some urbanites, the value of bridewealth seems to be strongly linked to a set of factors that include church affiliation, standing of both families, pressures from village and urban kin, status and qualities of the bride, her ability to get paid employment, her beauty, and the degree of insertion of the bride's family into the urban mode of life. These considerations clearly involve criteria of female marriageability that are very different from what they are in rural areas, where hard work, modesty, respect of elders and customary ways, and the prospect of reproduction are the main qualities sought in a future bride.

Three phases structure bridewealth exchanges in Solomon Islands, with additional minor gifts that are given throughout the life of the marriage. The three primary phases of bridewealth exchange usually follow an 'engagement' period marked by the offering of one red shell money by the family of the groom to the family of the girl. This gift 'reserves' the girl.

In phase one, which may last as much as a year, the groom's kin gather the necessary goods for the bridewealth payment. In phase two, the bridewealth is transferred to the bride's kin representative, usually the bride's father or a male of high status. In phase three, the bride's kin representative distributes the bridewealth payment to his own kin, according to a set of pre-existing obligations that bind the bride's father. The gathering of bridewealth by the groom's kin and its distribution among the bride's kin trigger a series of debts within their respective lineages and clans that are part of a larger system of obligations, which, in some cases, may be extinguished only a generation later (Pijin: daewan). The mother of the bride usually receives a large shell money necklace in recognition of the good work she did in raising such a nice girl. In Pijin, it is called 'mother's love'.

If the woman leaves the marriage to no fault of her husband, the bridewealth must be reimbursed. If children are born, no reimbursement is needed, because it is expected that the children will stay with the husband's family and, consequently, it is considered that the bride has fulfilled her contract, so to speak. If she leaves the marriage because she has been badly treated by her husband or her in-laws, the bridewealth is not reimbursed.

Participating in bridewealth is a moral and familial obligation. Some people opt not to participate in these exchanges, either because they have no means to do so, or because, for any reason, they no longer want to honor this family obligation. Whatever the motivation, those who choose to 'opt out' of bridewealth exchange are perceived by the community as being selfish and their reputation is badly damaged. Similarly, men who do not share (redistribute) the bridewealth they have received for their daughter, are equally criticized. In all cases, people say that this behavior is shameful and disrespectful of the family.

Christine Jourdan, Fabienne Labbé and Alexis Black