PAPUA - NEW GUINEA
A country’s name has more than one word in it you kind of expect
that it is made of more than one place, but you go look for the “Papua”
part on the map and it’s a little hard to find. You have to look
very carefully, and maybe you’ll see the faint dotted line that divides
the two parts. You must not get distracted by the thick solid line
that just about cuts the big island of New Guinea in half down the middle
from north to south. The solid line separates the independent east
from the Indonesian west. The dotted line marks the border of old
British (actually Australian) New Guinea, renamed Papua, and old German
New Guinea, renamed “New Guinea.” Got that?
It’s even more complicated, or at least the nomenclature is. Over on the Indonesian side, which they call Irian Jaya, the “natives” are called “Papuans.” There is an scheme in the independent east to group the population into four artificial “ethnic groups” based on regions. Thus there are Papuans, Highlanders, New Guineans, etc. But the reality on the ground is that there are about 800 languages spoken on the big island, and others on the couple of hundred small islands that are part of the country. And with all those differences, the news is that a strong national identity has emerged since independence.
Meanwhile, on the Indonesian side, there has been a decades long attempt to change the ethnic balance from Melanesian to Indonesian by the encouragement of migration to Irian Jaya from other Indonesian islands like Java. The immigrants get privileges and subsidies, the locals feel that their land is being stolen, there is a “Papuan” independence movement being repressed by the Indonesian army, a familiar story if you pay any attention to Indonesia. Naturally, under those circumstances, there is a bit of tension between the two halves of the island.
Maybe you wanted to know how big the island of New Guinea is? About 340,000 square miles. That’s about 30% larger than Texas. Much of it is tropical forest, what we used to call “jungle.” There are also mountains. Lots of them, including volcanos and peaks up to 15,000 feet high. It is very difficult to get around by any means other than air. This has fostered the development of lots of isolated cultures. They were so isolated that they literally did not know about each other. In the 1930s people living in the interior did not know that they were living on an island, and the coastal people did not know that the
The scientific orthodoxy of the 20th century held that humans came to New Guinea about 30,000 years ago from Indonesia. The official PNG website pushes the early migrations back to about 50,000 years ago, and it seems that the scientists are beginning to modify their opinions in the direction of that enhanced antiquity. That is a long time, time enough to develop languages that “have nothing to do with each other.”
There do seem to be some transcultural norms prevalent more or less throughout the island, and into the outer islands; the Trobriands, the Louisiades, the Bismarck archepelago. The anthropologists have long differentiated Melanesia, which is what New Guinea is part of, from Indonesia and Polynesia. Of the many distinctions of physiognomy and culture, a few stand out as
quintessentially Melanesian: the dark skin and kinky hair, the keen appreciation of the pig, and the concept of buying and selling as vehicles for economic exchange.
This last may seem self evident to us, since we live in an exchange economy too. But it was not the case in old Polynesia, for instance, where the norm was that everything including your life was the property of the chief, disposable at his whim. Though they lacked the standard tokens and chits that we call “money” the Melanesian norm was very much that of a market.
There was until relatively recently a tiny but active market in so-called “primitive money,” and a core of collectors who sustained tiny clubs and occasional dealer and auction activity in the “standard trade items” of various far flung parts of the world like, for example, pre-modern New Guinea. These things were written up in books such as “A Survey of Primitive Money,” by A. Hingston Quiggin, and more recently “An Ethnographic Study of Traditional Money,” by Charles Opitz. In the last few years however, the numismatic zone of collector activity has been eclipsed by the explosive growth of the “Ethnographic Art” business. There is an amazing plethora of stuff in that category on ebay, and many high class boutiques and emporia, especially in Europe and Australia. Prices are such as to leave the numismatists poking around in the dust for crumbs. Its kind of like the cob situation, where most of the stuff goes for jewelry.
New Guinea was known as a veritable cornucopia of primitive money items. I suppose this was because there were all these separate places with their own special products: canoes here, cassowary feathers there, pottery from some place, this or that kind of shell from some place else, pig tusks, whatever.
I reread the New Guinea section of Quiggin in preparation for this writing and I came away with one overarching observation: there was no system, only a large bunch of local relationships all subject to the laws of supply and demand. This was presented as a series of snapshots, just as described above: this thing from here, that from there.
Well, Mrs. Quiggin is not present to discuss the subject, but Mr. Opitz is. I called him and he agreed to talk New Guinea with me.
I asked some generic question, I don’t remember what it was. He talked for about a half an hour without stopping. And it was very similar to my Quiggin experience. A plethora of fascinating details adding up to... a plethora of details.
Some “themes” came from the Opitz conversation. He said, more or less categorically, that a lot of the standard items were related to bride price, and that some of them are still used in marriage transactions today. I asked him if there was a “value added component” to all of the New Guinea “primitive money,” and he replied “mostly,” reminding me that such “raw materials” as cowrie shells and whole bird of paradise mummies derived their value from their local rarity, not from any work done on them, but that the arduous act of obtaining them did indeed substitute for value added manufacturing work. He noted that things like boar tusks and kina (pearl) shells and toea arm rings, the names of the latter adapted to the modern currency units, were still in trade-cum-ceremonial use in the 1970s, but that now the old ones are (theoretically) protected national patrimony, and modern versions are made to sell to the tourists - old style kinas for new as it were.
And a conversation with Colin Bruce not long ago about the possible inclusion of some funny shaped monetary objects in the Standard Catalogs. He stated a preference for “coins” that declared a value on them, while admitting that such a standard was impossibly tight. Still, he was not ready to include the 19th century Malaysian “tin hat” money or the Laotian “canoe” money, in which case forget about New Guinea billum bags or dog teeth.
It is too complicated to delve deeply into. Buy the Opitz book (http://www.traditionalmoney.bizhosting.com/). We must move on.
A Portuguese guy, Jorge de Meneses, dropped by the New Guinea coast in 1527, naming it “Ilha dos Papuas,” which is said to refer to frizzy hair. In 1545 a Spaniard, Ynigo Ortiz de Retez, visited and called it Nueva Guinea because it reminded him of the eponymous African region. Europeans continued to drop by over the next couple of centuries without serious impact until 1828, when the Dutch established a settlement on the western coast, attempting to perform the usual colonial activities of converting the natives, cutting trees, growing tropical crops, and keeping an eye out for gold, of which there seemed to be a little. The terrain of the interior was so difficult that no serious attempt was made to explore it.
The island of New Guinea is the second largest in the world after Greenland (Australia doesn’t count, being officially defined as a “continent”). There was no way at the time to administer even the entire coast, and the Dutch did nothing more than a bit of complaining in 1883, when the government of Queensland in Australia annexed the southeastern sector of the island (the
British resident advised against the move but was ignored).
Not to be outdone, the Germans set up on the northeastern coast and the Bismark archipelago in 1884, working through a chartered “German New Guinea Company.” Colonial administrations were established, which had small zones of effective control and which ignored the interior. The Germans tried to do business in copra, which we call “coconut” when flakes of it are sprinkled on coconut cream pies. Most copra is pressed for its oil, which is mostly used for cooking in the tropics, some also for soap, and it used to be used for lamp oil. There was money in copra, but not serious money, and the “Compagnie” neither prospered nor administered effectively. The German government bailed it out in 1899 and thereafter the German people as a whole lost money on the colonial enterprise, not just the shareholders.
The German New Guinea coinage of 1894 is well known and popular with collectors, though it saw very little use in the colony. If you are going to collect a “coin of every country” you need one of them, and you’re going to want one of the coppers, which are much easier to find than the silvers (forget about the gold unless you have deep pockets). I’ve had a few 1 and 2 pfennig coins in my time, and a mark. High grades are normal, but it seem that a lot of these coins have been cleaned. More than once a GNG coin has come to me described as “uncirculated” that was only AU and cleaned to boot. I argued in vain for a reduction in the consideration I was supposed to give. The owner knew, as did I, that even a compromised GNG coin will sell at a high price. People would “need” it. They will complain, then they will get out their checkbook.
Until World War I nothing much happened in the Australian territory, though it was noted by some that gold was in the sediment of certain rivers. Neither coins nor notes were issued. Immediately after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 Australia sent troops to occupy the German settlements, where they quickly and briefly circulated a few emergency notes, now rare. The formerly German lands were mandated to Australia after the war.
The Australians wanted to get something going in New Guinea. Explorations of the interior followed the gold bearing rivers. In the 1930s it became obvious to the colonial authorities that the highlands, thought to be almost uninhabited, actually contained hundreds of thousands of people, many of them bellicose cannibals. They also found the goldfields. A gold rush followed, and a jolt to the economy of the territory.
It’s interesting to note that the coinage of Australian New Guinea was sparse and the paper money nonexistent. The 1929 coins are in the nature of experiments, and are almost impossible to obtain. There are plenty of 1935 and 1936 shillings and pennies dated 1936 and 1938. 3 and 6 pence of 1935 are a bit harder to find, especially in uncirculated. All of these coins were issued with holes in the hope that natives would take to them, maybe use them in jewelry. But that does not seem to have happened to any great extent. Instead, a lot of them were picked up as souvenirs by soldiers who passed through during World
The Japanese occupied part of New Guinea early in the War. Some severe fighting occurred as the British and Australians took it back. A lot of American troops transited through, a big shot in the arm to the economy. A lot of natives got their first contact with the outside world.
As the Japanese were expelled a few more coins were issued: a 6 pence in 1943, pennies and threepence in 1944, and a shilling in 1945. All are fairly easy to find.
So then, after the War the eastern half of the island and its dependencies was given to Australia as a “Trust Territory, which was more or less the same situation as before, except that there was an expectation that there would eventually be an independent state. In 1949 the name of the territory was changed to “Papua and New Guinea.” Administrative and governing institutions were developed. An elected parliament was established in 1964. Independence was achieved in 1975.
The modern money is standard decimal coinage. The major and minor denominations are named after famous traditional money items, shell products as it happens. The major denomination, the kina, used to be worth more than an American dollar, but it has been falling steadily in recent years and now goes about three to the dollar. This fall in value has made the 1 and 2 toea coins almost valueless, and I found a story on the web about how no one uses them anymore.
In common with many small countries PNG made a deal with the Franklin Mint in the 1970s to market numismatic products. Franklin put out various sets of coins with its mintmark as well as large non-circulating pieces in base metal, silver, and gold. PNG is one of those countries for which Franklin made some very low mintage items, but such are the vagaries of collector interest that some of these pieces with mintages of only a few hundred get relatively low prices. Perhaps some of the quotes in the Standard Catalog are a bit off. The 1983FM 1 toea in uncirculated and a mintage of 360 pieces is priced at $0.45. This
seems rather low, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you expect such a coin would be able to get, say, $10.00?
I did have the 1978 kina coin in matte, mintage 829, catalog value $8.50. I got about $30.00 for it. If it had been a Canadian coin with that mintage it would have been a couple of hundred dollars, right?
Anyway, the partnership with Franklin Mint ended around 1984, the mintage duties taken over primarily by Australia I believe. The Bank of PNG website does not list any of the collector coins issued after 1992, I don’t know why. I wrote to the Bank of PNG, but they did not respond.
There are two items from PNG that are round, flat, and made of metal, and are collected by some numismatists. I refer to the “head tax” tokens of the 1930s and 40s, which are receipts for taxes paid, and the “chief badges” which were given to district leaders in roughly the same time period. The former are scarce, the latter are rare, but neither circulated, and they are not in any way monetary.