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Numonu/moahau: red feather coils from the Santa Cruz islands, Temotu province, Solomon islands

Peter I. Crawford
p. 125-132

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I would like to thank Ulrich Høj Johnsen, PhD and curator at the Ethnographic Collections of MOMU Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, for his help in localising and providing the relevant information about the collection of the artefact covered in this article.

Red feather coil. From the collection held at Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark. One of three coils collected by Jens Pinholt on the island of Nifiloli in 1974

Red feather coil. From the collection held at Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark. One of three coils collected by Jens Pinholt on the island of Nifiloli in 1974

Source: Photo from Moesgaard Museum

1In the amazing building constructed in the early 19th century to house the Bank of Scotland, in the centre of Edinburgh, you will find the Museum of the Mound, a museum basically dedicated to anything to do with “money”. Its collection contains marvellous pieces of what we may call traditional forms of money from various cultures all over the world. What I would say is arguably the most spectacular and iconic of these objects is what frequently is referred to as “red feather money” from the Solomon islands. It is certainly often used because of this in the museum’s PR material, such as posters and the website, and this object is what this article is about.

2In 1994 I was invited by my friend and fellow Danish anthropologist, Jens Pinholt, to the Reef islands, a number of islands approximately 25 nautical miles north of Ndeni or Nendö, the main island of the Santa Cruz islands in the eastern Temotu province of the Solomon islands. He had asked me to bring a video camera so that we could film everyday life and also traditional ceremonies and culture, forming part of what in Solomon Pijin is known as the kastom or tradition of the isles, and their two neighbouring, separate but intermarried, ethnic groups, marking the beginning of the long-term Reef Island Ethnographic Film Project. The larger islands are inhabited by the Aiwoo-speaking Melanesian group of the Reef islands. We have stayed and worked with this group many times since my initial visit, staying in several of the string of villages of the oblong island of Fenualoa or Ngasinue. The Pileni-speaking Polynesian group lives on small coral atolls, only one of which, Nifiloli, lies within the lagoon encircled and protected by a barrier reef. While the Aiwoo-speaking group makes its living mainly from horticulture, the larger and higher-lying islands having sufficient topsoil to support this and enabling garden production of staple root crops such as sweet potatoes and cassava, the smaller low-lying coral islands make it difficult to grow anything but coconuts and plantains, people relying therefore on what the vast sea may provide, inside and outside the lagoon. I sometimes refer to a general distinction one may use to describe the two groups as “people of the land” and “people of the sea”, respectively. Until after the Second World War, perhaps up until the 1960’s, both groups relied on a traditional triangular trade system (see diagramme/map) for their survival, which also involved communities on the north coast of Nendö and in Graciosa Bay. The red feather “money”, which as explained below I prefer to describe as “coils”, played a crucial role in this system.

Figure 2 – The traditional triadic trade system in the northern Santa Cruz islands

Figure 2 – The traditional triadic trade system in the northern Santa Cruz islands

Source: Adapted from drawing made by Elsebeth Morville, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark

3The red feather coils, called numonu on Fenualoa, and moahau or mangahau on Nifiloli and Pileni, and teau on the north coast of Nendö, where they were traditionally made, when uncoiled are more than nine metres long. According to Pinholt, they were no longer being made when he did his first fieldwork for several years there in the early 1970’s. However, we have a very good understanding of how they were made from the studies of the German anthropologist, Gerd Koch, who carried out field and film work in the Reef islands from November 1966 to February 1967, during which he made 17 films for the Institute for Scientific Film in Göttingen. One of these films, The Making of Feather Money (Herstellen von Federgeld, 1972), is a precise and comprehensive 11-minute documentation of the making, shot in the village of Nemboi on Nendö, showing in detail the work of the two craftsmen it took to make it.

4Apart for the astounding length of the coil, the most striking feature is undoubtedly the bright crimson colour. The red colour stems from the breast feathers of the cardinal myzolema (Myzolema cardinalis) honeyeater, a common but elusive bird in the rainforests of Nendö and found also in the Reef islands. The birds are normally caught by trapping them with glue on the branch of a tree. A few feathers are picked from their breast before the bird is released. Thousands of feathers are needed for a full coil, which are made by gluing and binding hundreds of basic elements or plates on to a base made of plant fibres, approximately five centimetres wide. Each plate, around 3  5 cm, consists of a bottom layer of feathers from the white Pacific dove (Ducula pacifica) onto which dozens of overlapping bright red feathers from the honeyeater are glued, the glue made from the sap of the paper mulberry plant (Broussonetia papyrifera). Each plate has at least 30 red feathers and the total number of plates is around 1800. One of the craftsmen, using a small wooden spatula as a tool, makes the individual plates, which are then fastened to the coil by the other craftsman.

5I was told by one craftsman along Graciosa Bay in 2005, who was trying to revitalise the making of the coils, and two of my friends on Reef, who started in 2015, that it takes up to three months’ work to make a full coil, not counting the time and effort required to collect the feathers of both birds, often done by people who sell them to the coil-makers. Needless to say, this is a clear indication of the value of the coil by any standard. I have recently been offered a new numonu at a “friend’s price” of 60.000 SBD (approximately 7500 EUR), the friends I know trying to sell them to collectors for twice that amount. This also tells us that today, the main interest in the coil is commercial, as a way of making money, turning what traditionally definitely had something to do with value but not in a purely monetary sense. Actually this is one of the points I am trying to make, that traditionally the coils were not “money” or, rather, they were also in some specific senses money, rendering the term red feather money if not invalid then at least simplistic and inadequate to understand the traditional meaning of the coils, a point raised in anthropology more generally about the so-called “traditional money” phenomena, for example by the British anthropologist Raymond Firth in the context of the Solomon islands, and the French anthropologist Maurice Godelier, based on his work among the Baruya in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Different forms of traditional money may have been used in exchange, but that doesn’t in itself make them “money” in a Western or Marxian sense.

6Numonu, while still in traditional use in the Reef islands, were normally stored after being carefully wrapped in several layers of cloth and leaves, above the fireplace in the leaf kitchen hut, the smoke keeping away insects that might damage them, while at the same time almost being monitored round the clock by members of the family, not that I have ever heard of any being stolen, one explanation being that they were tabu, and protected by ornaments tied to the coils (see main figure), until the church prohibited that, claiming it was superstition. The smoke, and wear and tear, would gradually change the appearance and colour of the coils, the older they got almost losing the bright red colour entirely, and rendering them less valuable than a brand-new crimson coil. Using the money metaphor, which people would often do, especially after the advent of Western money, in the days of being a British protectorate, i.e. until independence in 1975, being Australian dollars, the different values of the coils would be the equivalent of different money denominations. A very old and almost black coil would thus be said to be only worth 1 dollar while a new would perhaps be 100 dollars. They were even divided into ten different denominations, a set of ten often being the required number for the payment of a bride price, one of the most well-known traditional uses, and probably the main reason why the money metaphor emerged in the first place. But the use and significance of the coils was much more complex and varied.

Figure 3 – A set of ten different ‘denominations’ of numonu, a typical bride price payment, on display in the village of Tenge, Fenualoa, in the early 1970s

Figure 3 – A set of ten different ‘denominations’ of numonu, a typical bride price payment, on display in the village of Tenge, Fenualoa, in the early 1970s

Source: Photo by Jens Pinholt

7While payment of bride prices undoubtedly was one of the most common and significant uses of red feather coils, and could be considered the equivalent of a monetary payment, there were several other important uses. Firstly, they could be used in the settling of conflicts and payment of compensation between conflicting groups. A curious old case dating back to the 1910’s, recounted to Pinholt during his early fieldwork, was about a man who committed “creep”, a euphemism still used all over the Solomon islands when a man creeps into a house at night and has sexual intercourse with a woman, who in this case was married. This caused a fight with bows and arrows between the creeper and the husband, both supported by their respective male friends from their so-called men’s house (sapolau), then existing in all villages. One man on either side was wounded as a result. The conflict was resolved when the husband, with help from his sapolau, paid the offender ten feather coils as compensation and this was reciprocated by the offender paying ten other feather coils to the husband, assisted by his sapolau. Financially speaking, this evidently does not make sense, but symbolically the use of coils had restored peace.

8A second important use, which we have filmed on several occasions, is the use of the coils in various ceremonies, typically age-set rituals, such as a ceremony in which children are given their first loincloth, the big men (pesalik), i.e. the owners of the red feather coils, performing an instrumental symbolic role, take a numonu and circle it around the body and between the legs of the children or youth. This signified both the status of the big men involved and the new adult status of the young boys and girls going through the ritual

9A third use, which is where it became closest perhaps to “money”, is when they were used to pay for something big and important, because other payments in kind would be difficult due to the high “price”. A typical classical example would be to cover the payment of a large te puke canoe, used in the trading exchange system (see figure 2), which is why the Duff islands, or Taumako, lying another 60 nautical miles north of Reef, formed part of the system, making it a triangle. This is where the master Polynesian boat builders lived.

Figure 4 – The paramount chief of the Aiwoo-speaking community, Alfred Melotu, displaying his six out of a total of seven numonu during our shoot in 1994, footage from which was included in the film Alfred Melotu – The Funeral of a Paramount Chief (2002, remastered 2022)

Figure 4 – The paramount chief of the Aiwoo-speaking community, Alfred Melotu, displaying his six out of a total of seven numonu during our shoot in 1994, footage from which was included in the film Alfred Melotu – The Funeral of a Paramount Chief (2002, remastered 2022)

Source: Photo by Jens Pinholt

10The final example of the noteworthiness of the coils has to do with how they simply denote the status and importance of their owners, traditionally the Melanesian big men and the Polynesian chiefs, indicating the powerful mana they possessed, as well as their wealth. In a film we made about a paramount chief (see figure 4), Alfred Melotu, this became obvious, both when he was alive, when he insisted on us filming him with them, and when he had died, the coils being displayed throughout his funeral. It serves as an indicator of why this particular object has meant so much to my research and film work in the Reef islands. The spectacular coil, unknown to me prior to my first visit, and allegedly no longer being made or even existing in the local communities, turned out to be one of the most central elements to understand the traditional trading system, ceremonies, conflict resolution, rank, political leadership and power in the two neighbouring communities. During my more recent periods of field work, I have also witnessed the attempts to revitalise the tradition of making the coils, now increasingly, one could argue, really trying to turn them into red feather money.

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Índice das ilustrações

Título Red feather coil. From the collection held at Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark. One of three coils collected by Jens Pinholt on the island of Nifiloli in 1974
Créditos Source: Photo from Moesgaard Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12737/img-1.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 62k
Título Figure 2 – The traditional triadic trade system in the northern Santa Cruz islands
Créditos Source: Adapted from drawing made by Elsebeth Morville, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12737/img-2.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 86k
Título Figure 3 – A set of ten different ‘denominations’ of numonu, a typical bride price payment, on display in the village of Tenge, Fenualoa, in the early 1970s
Créditos Source: Photo by Jens Pinholt
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12737/img-3.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 140k
Título Figure 4 – The paramount chief of the Aiwoo-speaking community, Alfred Melotu, displaying his six out of a total of seven numonu during our shoot in 1994, footage from which was included in the film Alfred Melotu – The Funeral of a Paramount Chief (2002, remastered 2022)
Créditos Source: Photo by Jens Pinholt
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12737/img-4.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 141k
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Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso

Peter I. Crawford, «Numonu/moahau: red feather coils from the Santa Cruz islands, Temotu province, Solomon islands»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 125-132.

Referência eletrónica

Peter I. Crawford, «Numonu/moahau: red feather coils from the Santa Cruz islands, Temotu province, Solomon islands»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 29 janeiro 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/12737; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/etnografica.12737

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Autor

Peter I. Crawford

UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Norway

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