The Kula Ring

High on the shores of Boyowa, one of the Trobriand Islands, lies a heavy commemorative bronze plaque. It marks the spot, above a sandy beach, where a European dressed from head to foot in clean cotton whites and boots pitched his tent a respectful distance from the thatched house of the island chief over one hundred years ago. The plaque commemorates the life and writings of Bronisław Malinowski, who thus lived for a few years in stark contrast to the nearly naked islanders who went about, and integrated him into, their lives. Unlike other ethnologists of his time, he sought neither the veranda of the missionary compound nor the government station but proved content to live among the people he studied. His ethnographic methods, later referred to as field work or “participatory observation,” his key to unlocking the secrets of the Kula ring would change the course of anthropology forever.

Bronislaw Malinowski

Born in Poland in 1884, Malinowski studied anthropology at the London School of Economics. In 1914 he was given support by the Australian government to pursue ethnographic work in the Trobriand Islands. During his time there, he became fluent in the native language, transcribed dozens of native chants and brought to light the Melanesian cultural phenomena called the Kula. He published his seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, seven years later, in 1922. In his foreword, Malinowski suggested that within a generation or two, the culture he had studied would likely disappear. Though this prediction was happily inaccurate, history would reveal that he had appeared on the scene to record his observations at the most opportune time. Sixty canoes were still making the voyage to Dobu, and all the Kula magic was still practiced at both ends of the passage.

The Kula Ring

A geographic ring of islands

In his book, Malinowski describes a geographic ring of islands several hundred miles in circumference off the eastern end of New Guinea. In the northwest portion of the circle lie the Trobriand Islands. Clockwise around the ring can be seen the principal islands: Woodlark in the northeast, then Misima in the extreme southeast and finally, Dobu, one of the d’Entrecasteaux Islands, in the southwest. There are intermediate islands along the way.

Within and between these islands, two items of shell jewelry were ceremonially exchanged. Each of these objects of exchange, some having circulated for hundreds of years, had histories and sometimes names. Not owned to be used or even worn, they were gifted because they were imbued with rank and prestige. The essence of such ownership was unusually temporary, and ownership exchange was by no means a purely commercial transaction. It was not based on profit or loss, but rather, it satisfied an emotional or aesthetic need of a higher order. Commercial trade was carried on within the ring, but such transactions were ancillary and subordinate to those of the Kula, whose objects of exchange had no utilitarian purpose whatsoever.

Malinowski compares the Kula ring to Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece

Malinowski does not discuss the book’s title in the foreword or in the text. Perhaps he named the book at publication. He coined the term “Argonauts” after the Greek mythology of Jason and the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were the sailors who accompanied Jason on his ship, the Argo. The comparison to Melanesian seafarers on a Kula expedition fits in many ways. The fleece, the object of Jason’s voyage of fortune was — like the islanders’ Kula objects — virtually worthless outside the Greek myth. In both instances, the voyage itself required a vessel bigger and more unassailable than life itself. Each stop along the way held its own mystique and adventure. Like the Argonauts, the Melanesians carefully prepared their craft, bravely sailed off to several destinations on their Kula expedition and successfully returned to their home island with their prized objects.

The Melanesians made one Kula object, mwali (arm shells), by breaking off the tip of a big, cone-shaped shell (conus millepunctatus) and then polishing it. Over the years, they further adorned the mwali with other objects of lesser value. For cultural reasons, all Papuo-Melanesians of Papua and New Guinea seem to covet these bracelets. They made a second object, soulava (necklace), from red discs made from spondylus, spiny oyster shells. Retrieving, grinding and polishing these two objects became a thriving local industry, with producers rewarded periodically during the process with food items from the person who had requested the object.

The Kula ring partnership

One cardinal rule of the Kula is that such items are not to be held any longer than the time it takes to find a suitable trade partner to gift them to. Thus, while Europeans crowns and jewelry are valued as personal possessions, Kula treasures — though in an individual’s possession from time to time — are owned collectively. Another Kula rule is “once in the Kula, always in the Kula.” A mwali is always traded for a soulava and vice versa. The soulava are traded clockwise around the ring of islands and the mwali in the opposite direction.

According to Malinowski, “Kula transactions can only be done between partners. . . . This partnership is entered upon in a definite manner, under fulfilment of certain formalities, and it constitutes a life-long relationship.” The number of partners a man takes depends partly on his rank and position but is ultimately limited only by his ability to yotile (exchange back) what he is given with articles of perceived equal value.

The return exchange never occurs simultaneously with the vaga (gift). This is what distinguishes it from gimwali,or normal trade. The mwali or soulava is exchanged back after the period of months or years it takes to obtain an article of perceived equal value. Such gifts are to be given in accordance with the rules of the Kula ring. When a Kula member faces the center of the ring, he receives arm shells with his left hand and necklaces with his right. He passes them on accordingly: necklaces to a partner who lives on an island to his right and arm shells to a partner who lives on one to his left. The Kula ring is visualized as two streams of comparable items flowing in opposite directions.

The waga

The adventure always begins with the preparation of the voyaging canoe, or waga. All its lashings must be renewed and retied, all its many parts repaired or replaced. By far the most important aspect of this work is the magic involved. A canoe built without magic would prove unseaworthy because the magic provides stability and swiftness. The magic also supplies the psychological influence to keep the crew feeling confident about the success of their expedition. Magic is an integral aspect of Kula culture.

Each canoe has a single owner, or toliwaga,who has the privilege of acting as spokesman for his community in all matters of sailing or canoe construction. He receives the greatest proportion of Kula valuables and other trade items and selects his companions who will sail in his canoe. Finally, all magic done in connection with sailing and Kula is done or managed by the toliwaga, and much of this has to do with the wayugo, or lashing creeper. Like those of other Pacific canoes, the sail is made from plaited pandanus leaf.

When all is completed, the canoe is painted with locally made pigments and decorated with cowry shells to ready it for its ceremonial launching, or sagali. The sagali is a trial run, and the waga is accompanied by the other canoes of the village. After that a feast is held, whereby the toliwaga rewards the villagers for their participation. Interestingly, this sagali custom, in one form or another, is repeated on a number of islands throughout the Pacific, including the Marshall Islands, sixteen hundred miles to the northeast. There, the word for canoe is wa.

Other similar legends

This is not the only custom these two faraway groups share, not by far. The Trobrianders have a legend about an enormous octopus, a kwita, that would rise from the sea and crawl ashore. At sea it was known to appear and require a boy to be thrown overboard before allowing a vessel to pass. Kweet is the name for “octopus” in the language of the Marshalls, and the islanders there have a somewhat similar legend of a giant octopus rising from the sea and crawling ashore. This octopus, like many characters in Marshall Islands legends, comes from the west.

Another Trobriand legend is about a man called Kasabwaybwayreta, who asks a series of stars for a ride in their canoes. Finally, Kaykiyadiga, the last of three central stars in Orion’s belt, takes the man aboard. This can be compared to the Marshall Islands story of Liktuner, who likewise asks a similar series of stars — all her sons — for a ride in their canoes. The last boy she asks takes her.

The Kula ring — A trade based on the better half of mankind

Malinowski accompanied a Kula expedition, or uvalaku, of some sixty canoes from the Trobriand Islands to the Amphlett Islands and on to Dobu, in the d’Entrecasteaux Islands. The trip’s distance is 85 miles (137 km) as the crow flies but considerably longer due to obstructing reefs and various points of distraction along the way. The Amphletts lie halfway to Dobu, and the islanders are skilled makers of clay pots and part of the Kula ring. They are also avid and successful gimwali traders. An interesting fact about Dobu is that the islanders’ ancestors were savage cannibals and headhunters but that the ancestors of the Trobriand Islanders and the residents of other northern islands in the Kula ring were not. Also, no one in Dobu speaks Trobriand, yet the Trobriand Islanders in the Kula have all learned to speak Dobu.

Malinowski does not explain or even venture a guess as to how the Kula evolved amid such extreme cultural differences, other than to explain a partner’s commitments to his Kula colleague. Protection for the visiting partner is a paramount obligation, and hospitality towards Kula visitors is an essential element of the Kula.

The amazing story of how this intriguing trade practice overcame significant differences in both customs and language and established itself as an institution even to this day is an exciting testament to the better half of mankind. The story of the Kula ring is yet another untold saga of Pacific lore lost beneath the waves.

Malinowski, Bronisław. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons Ltd., 1922.

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