Traditionally, the objects exchanged during bridewealth are valuables that are also used in other realms of formal social exchanges, such as funerals and compensation ceremonies. They include feather money and shell money. Feather money is found only on the Islands of Santa Cruz, in the eastern part of the archipelago. Shell money is found in different forms throughout the Solomon Islands archipelago and has been a traditional form of currency traded for decades. The main types of shell money are cowry shells and beads and rings made out of clamshells. Beads made into necklaces are mainly used on the islands of Malaita, Guadalcanal and Makira. Gifts of food and live pigs are also part of bridewealth.
Elizabeth Bonshek, from the Melanesian Art Project at the British Museum, describes the feather money or tevau in the following way: "Tevau are large coiled bands which, when unrolled, measure some thirty feet in length. They are made of hundreds of small red feathers of the honey eater, Myzomela cardinalis, which are glued onto a woven substrate" (Bonshek 2009: 74). The birds are caught alive, plucked of a few feathers, and then released. Tevau were the main exchange item in bridewealth payment in the Santa Cruz Islands until the 1980s. In the late 1950s-early 1960s, the late anthropologist William Davenport, then professor of anthropology and curator of the Pacific collections at the University of Pennsylvania, estimated a typical bridewealth payment to be 10 tevau (Davenport 2000: 40). These feather rolls have now been replaced by cash and are no longer used in bridewealth exchange. To our knowledge, tevau are longer being produced. The remaining tevau have become national heirlooms and it is prohibited to export them out of the country.
Shell money consists of flat shell beads (the colours include white, black and dark purplish red) that are strung on a plastic string or fiber vine in different combinations, designs and lengths. Typical shell money given for bridewealth are large necklaces made of 10 two-fathom strings of shell disks. Single strings can also be given. Several types of shells are used to produce these beads, the most common being the shells known locally as the romu, a red Spondylus, the ke, a small black mussel (Beguina semiorbiculata), the kakandu (Anadara granosa), a white cockle and the kurila (Atrina vexillum), a large black mussel.
Anthropologist Pei-Yi Guo, from Academia Sinica in Taïpeï, describes the process of making shell money in the following terms: "The process of manufacturing shell beads is tedious, time consuming and labour intensive. It entails breaking shells into rough disks; setting these in a wooden block and grinding them flat; drilling them, formerly with a pump-drill and flint bit, now with a wheel-brace; threading them on vine which is tied to a plank and polishing the whole length with a grooved stone. […] The finished beads are then strung in certain combinations and designs, in lengths nowadays measured in feet, according to the preferences of the prospective purchasers […]" (Guo 2014: 56). While shell money used to be made all over Malaita (and was subsequently exchanged during formal ceremonies), people from the Langa Langa lagoon (a natural lagoon on the West coast of Malaita near the provincial capital, Auki) have now developed a quasi monopoly on the manufacture of shell money. It can be bought in different lengths and colours in the central market in Honiara, at markets in Auki and elsewhere on Malaita.
Ethnographic records show some increase in the amount of bridewealth payments, even in rural areas. For instance, in 1930, the Anglican missionary Walter George Ivens wrote that the average number of strings of shell money exchanged as bridewealth payment among the Lau of Malaita was of three to six, to which were added up to 500 porpoise teeth (Ivens 1930: 101). Approximately forty years later, the average value of bridewealth in this same community had increased to 10 strings of shell money and 1000 dolphin teeth (Maranda 2002: 98).
On the island of Malaita, Guadalcanal and Makira, shell money is the essential valuable exchanged at marriage. However, increasingly, bridewealth also includes large sums of cash - in amounts often equivalent to the value of the shell money offered. Bridewealth also includes consumer items as diverse as plastic buckets, outboard engines, tires, drums of kerosene or cans of paint.
The goods offered during bridewealth ceremonies (money in particular) are dutifully recorded in booklets next to the name of the givers. These records are crucial to the establishment and maintenance of balanced reciprocity between members of lineages or clans: those who have given goods during a bridewealth transaction will be able to claim similar goods of similar value during another bridewealth transaction held years later for their own daughter or the daughter of someone else in the lineage.
Christine Jourdan and Fabienne Labbé
Bonshek, Elizabeth. 2009. "A Personal Narrative of Particular Things: Tevau (Feather Money) from Santa Cruz, Solomon Islands." The Australian Journal of Anthropology 20 (1): 74-92.
Davenport, William. 2000. "A Melanesian Wedding: Santa Cruz Island." Expedition 42 (3): 38-45.
Guo, Pei-Yi. 2014. "Bata: The Adaptable Shell-Money of Langalanga, Malaita." In The Things We Value: Culture and History in Solomon Islands, Ben Burt and Lissant Bolton (eds.):55-61. Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing.
Ivens, Walter George. 1978 [c1930]. The Island Builders of the Pacific: How & Why the People of Mala Construct Their Artificial Islands, the Antiquity & Doubtful Origin of the Practice, with a Description of the Social Organization, Magic & Religion of Their Inhabitants. New York: AMS Press.
Maranda, Pierre. 2002. "Mythe, métaphore, métamorphose et marchés?: l'igname chez les Lau de Malaita, Îles Salomon." Le Journal de la Société des Océanistes, no. 114-115: 91-114. doi:10.4000/jso.1418.