Faces of Melanesia

The Trobriand Islands and the Art of Kula

Shirley Campbell|June 2, 2015|Blog Post

Shirley Campbell is a social anthropologist with a special interest in the indigenous peoples of Australia, Melanesia, and the Pacific. After growing up in California, she has widely traveled and experienced firsthand the ways in which communities form and develop distinct, yet interrelated cultures. 

“The islands of love,” as they were known by whalers visiting the Trobriand Islands in the mid-19th century, experienced the worst of Western civilization in their very first encounters! The Trobriand Islands were a favored port of call for reprovisioning ships because of their fairly relaxed view on sexual activity. In the past, sexual exploration was positively encouraged for young, unmarried people. Trobrianders recognized that marriage severely restricted one’s sexual ‘fun’ and so encouraged premarital sexual freedom. Unfortunately, the whalers gave the girls more than western trinkets for their favors—by the time the first missionary arrived at the end of the 19th century, sexually transmitted diseases were found to be widespread among the population, severely affecting Trobriand fertility rates. Fortunately, new treatments were available and the Trobriand population not only recovered, they have continued to thrive physically and culturally.

Despite the doom and gloom prognosis at the beginning of the 20th century for Trobriand culture and its inevitable demise, the islanders continue to participate in traditions practiced by their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Living in a modern age connected by global communications beyond their beach-borders, people rely on outboard motors to move between islands and receive monetary support from those living and working abroad. However, people continue to build earth mounds for their seed yams at the beginning of the planting season and, at harvest, construct yam pinnacles to display individual gardening prowess. Women prepare materials for making banana-leaf skirts to display and exchange at mourning ceremonies, while men continue to craft large sea-going outrigger canoes, masawa, to visit distant islands for the exchange of shell valuables.

Perhaps the next most well-known aspect of Trobriand culture, Kula is the exchange of two classes of shell valuables—armshells, made of conus shell, and necklaces, made of spondylus shell. Each class of shell valuable travels in opposite directions. Armshells travel in an anticlockwise direction between the island groups in the Milne Bay Province, while the necklaces travel only in a clockwise direction. A Kula man from Kitava, for example, goes to the eastern islands of Iwa and Gawa in an effort to attract armshells from men on these islands. If successful he returns to Kitava with the armshell. Word of his success reaches people on the southwestern islands of Vakuta and Dobu who, when the winds are blowing in the right direction, sail to Kitava to attract the armshell from him with the promise of famous necklaces in return at a later date. (Protocol forbids an immediate exchange of armshell for necklace, nor would any self-respecting kula man carry the valuable to his partner on another island!) The practice of Kula is fraught with magic and intrigue, successes committed to legend, the stories circulating with the shells throughout the centuries.

A fleet of masawa returning to Kitava after a kula trip to Vakuta Island was a thrilling sight on my last trip to Kitava with Zegrahm Expeditions in 2013. Although I had reports from other Western observers that no one is participating in Kula, let alone making the kula canoes, my experience over the last five years has suggested otherwise.

While living on Vakuta Island for two years towards the end of the 20th century, I had the opportunity to travel on a masawa to Kitava for the purpose of conducting Kula on behalf of my adopted father. I was studying the art produced for Kula as part of my doctoral research and welcomed the opportunity to actually participate! At that time Kula men bemoaned the declining interest in the trade, siting the use of the outboard dingy to travel between islands instead of the outrigger canoes as a sign. However, last year on Dobu Island people proudly displayed their Kula shell valuables. On Iwa and Gawa Islands, nagega, their larger outrigger canoes, were safely stored in sheds along the beach, ready for launching on the next Kula voyage. There was even a canoe being carved at the time! Up in the villages men were showing off their shell valuables and telling stories of how they managed to convince their partners on Woodlark Island to give them up. The islands of the Milne Bay, and the Trobriand Islands in particular, are a unique example of how tradition clings to the avalanche of modernity. While we may see signs of decreased activity, the tenacity of these traditions continues to astound.

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