We take a look at a very strange type of money: money made from bird feathers. This “feather money” was used on the Santa Cruz archipelago, a remote group forming part of the Solomon Islands for a very long time. This archipelago comprises the islands of Ndende, Vanikoro, Utupua, Tinakula and a number of reef islands.
The feather money consisted of a 9 metre strip of plant fibres covered with the red feathers of the small scarlet honeyeater (Myzomela Cardinalis) and often took the form of a double coil. One double coil was a trading unit which could not be subdivided and consisted of around 50 to 60 thousand red feathers. Where the idea of feather money came from is unclear, but the red colour certainly points to a Polynesian influence. Red is the colour of the gods, and is rare in nature.
Production of the feather money was largely confined to the south-west of the main island, Ndende, and was a 3-stage process. Each stage was carried out by a specialist who had received the magic skills from the spirits. The technique was passed on from father to son. In the first stage, the scarlet honeyeaters were caught by a bird catcher, who painted a branch with mulberry tree sap to act as glue. He then lured the birds by using a real tethered bird, a decoy bird or he could imitate the creature’s call. Once the bird was stuck in the glue its feathers were plucked.
A second specialist was responsible for making the platelets (called lendu) composing the coils using stiff pigeon feathers. The pigeons were first shot with a bow and arrow, and the feathers were then glued together with the sap of the mulberry tree. The red feathers of the scarlet honeyeater were then attached to each platelet. Altogether, it took 1500 to 1800 of these platelets to form 1 coil. Each coil took around 700 hours to make.
The platelets were then taken to the coil-maker who bound them all together to form a 9 metre long coil. This involved stretching 2 strips of bark parallel to one another between 2 trees. They were held apart by a horizontal stick made from the wing bone of a flying fox. The specialist then began binding the platelets between these 2 cords, working from the centre towards the outer edges. The platelets overlapped like roof tiles.
The end result was a bright red coil of feathers. The brighter the colour and the better the condition of the coil, the greater the value. Altogether, there were 10 grades of feather money. The lowest grade coils were almost entirely black and were often in poor condition. A coil in a particular grade was worth twice as much as one in the next grade down. For storage, the coils were packed in leaves and cloths together with amulets and hung about 2 metres above the fireplace. If they were kept dry they suffered less damage from fungus and insects.
When considering traditional money, we have to set aside our western definition of money. The various forms of money, such as feather money, shells or stones, were used not only for trade but also for ritual payments such as fines and compensation. One of the most notable uses of feather money was in payment of the bride price. A bride price was a transfer of goods and services from the man’s family to that of the woman. When a daughter married, it meant a loss for her family, not only in the emotional sense, but also in terms of labour. This led to the idea of women being bought and sold as commodities. However, the bride price was seen as compensation for the loss of a daughter and her children. The usual price for a bride was 10 feather coils. In the western islands the number of coils could be higher because the women there were particularly skilled: they were good at fishing, paddling canoes and climbing fruit trees. The women of the western islands thus became one of the principal “export products”. They were also sold at a higher price as concubines.
In addition, feather money was used in everyday transactions. An entire trading network was set up between the various islands in the archipelago. Payments in feather money existed alongside barter trade. The small reef islands were unsuitable for agriculture because of their sandy, infertile soil. The large population lived mainly from fishing and pig farming. Ndende was a large but sparsely populated island with fertile soil. The people of the reef islands therefore often exported women to Ndende, in return for feather money was used to buy timber, boats or pigs.
Nowadays, feather money has fallen into disuse. Since the beginning of the 20th century, and certainly since the Second World War, western coins and banknotes have been used for payments in the Santa Cruz archipelago. The last man skilled in making the coils of feather money, died in the 1980s. Collectors and museums still have some examples. The rest of the surviving coils are often damaged or in a poor condition. The people of the archipelago cast many of the feather coils into the sea because they are part of their national heritage and must not be sold outside the islands.
- “Federgeld und Muschelketten: Traditionelle Zahlungsmittel aus Melanesien”, in Das Fenster, Keulen, 142, January 1992.
- Houston D.C., The impact of the Santa Cruz red feather currency on the population of the scarlet honey eater Myzomela cardinalis, not published, Glasgow, 2010.
- Kloos P., Culturele antropologie: een inleiding, Assen, 2002.
- Koch G., Materielle kultur der Santa Cruz-inseln, Berlin, 1971.
- Lautz Thomas, Federgeld und muschelketten, Keulen, 1992.
- Lautz Thomas, “Traditional Money and Cultural Diversity: Continuity and Change in the Pacific Region”, in Lane P. & Sharples J. (ed.), Proceedings of the ICOMON meetings, held in conjunction with the ICOM Conference, Melbourne, 2000. Available here .
- Pycroft A.T., “Santa Cruz red feather-money – Its manufacture and use”, in The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 44, 1935, p. 173-183.