2000s >> 2001 >> no-1158-january-2001

What is this money thing?

Below is a report of how members of a society which had evolved beyond primitive communism but still retained some of its features and attitudes reacted to their first contact with the money economy.

The Treatment and Customs of the Governor’s House at Botany Bay as told by Tongan Chief Páloo Máta Moinga and his Wife, Fataféhi to Finow King of Tonga and Chief Filimóëátoo. Recorded by William Mariner Resident of the Islands for 4 years, to John Martin M.D. Author of “The Natives of Tongan Islands”. Published 1818:

“The first thing he and his wife had to do, when they arrived at the Governor’s House, where they went to reside, was to sweep out a large court yard, and clean down a great pair of stairs; in vain they endeavoured to explain, that in their own country they were chiefs, and, being accustomed to be waited on, were quite unused to such employments: their expostulations were taken no notice of, and work they must, at first their life was so uncomfortable, that they wished to die; no one seemed to protect them; all the houses were shut against them; if they saw anybody eating, they were not invited to partake: nothing was to be got without money, of which they could not comprehend the value, nor how this same money was to be obtained in any quantity; if they asked for it nobody would give them any, unless they worked for it, and then it was so small in quantity, that they could not get one-tenth part of what they wanted with it.

One day, whilst sauntering about, the chief fixed his eyes upon the cook’s shop, and, seeing several people enter, and others again, coming out with victuals, he made sure they were sharing out food, according to the old Tongan fashion, and in he went, glad enough of the occasion, expecting to get some pork; after waiting sometime, with anxiety to be helped to his share, the master of the shop asked him what he wanted, and, being answered in an unknown language straightaway kicked him out taking him for a thief, that only wanted an opportunity to steal.

Thus, he said even being a chief did not prevent him being used ill for when he told them he was a chief, they gave him to understand, that money made a man a chief, after a time, however, he acknowledged that he got better used in proportion as he became acquainted with the customs and language, he expressed his astonishment at the perseverance with which white people worked from morning till night, to get money: he could not conceive how they were able to endure so much labour.

After having heard this account, Finow asked several questions regarding the nature of money: what is it made of?—is it like iron? can it be fashioned like iron into various useful instruments? If not why cannot people procure what they want in the way of barter?—but where is money to be got?—if it be made, then every man ought to spend his time in making money; that when he got plenty, he may be able afterwards to obtain whatever else he wants.

In answer to the last observation, Mr Mariner replied that the material of which money was made was very scarce and difficult to be got, and that only chiefs and great men could procure readily a large quantity of it; and this either by being inheritors of plantations or houses, which they allowed others to have, for paying so much tribute in money every year; or by their public services; or by paying small sums of money for things when they were in plenty, and afterwards letting others have them for larger sums, when they were scarce: and as to the lower classes of people they worked hard, and got paid by their employers in small quantities of money, as the reward for their labour: &c. That the King was the only person that was allowed to make (to coin) money, and that he put his mark upon all that he made, that it might known to be true; that no person could readily procure the material of which it was made, without paying money for it; and if contrary to the taboo of the King, he turned this material into money, he would scarcely have made as much as he had given for it.

Mr Mariner was then going on to shew the conveniences of money as a medium of exchange, when Filimóëátoo interrupted him, saying to Finow, I understand how it is:- money is less cumbersome than goods, and it is very convenient for a man to exchange away his goods for money; which, at any other time he can exchange again for the same or other goods that he may want; whereas the goods themselves may perhaps spoil by keeping (particularly if provisions) but the money he supposed would not spoil; and although it was of no true value itself, yet being scarce and difficult to be got without giving something useful and really valuable for it, it was imagined to be of value; and if everybody considered it so, and would readily give their goods for it, he did not see but what it was a sort of real value to all who possessed it, as long as their neighbours chose to take it in the same way. Mr Mariner found he could not give a better explanation, he therefore told Filimóëátoo that his notion of the nature of money was a just one.

After a pause of some length, Finow replied that the explanation did not satisfy him. He still thought it a foolish thing that people should place a value on money, when they either could not or would not apply it to any useful (physical) purpose: if, said he it were made of iron, and could be converted into knives, axes, and chisels, there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is I see none: if man he added, has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork or gnatoo (cloth); certainly money is much handier, and more convenient, but then as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up, instead of sharing it out, as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish; whereas, if provision were the principal property of a man, and it ought to be, as being both the most useful and the most necessary, he could not store it up, for it would spoil, and so he would be obliged to either exchange it away for something else useful, or share it out with his neighbours, and inferior chiefs and dependants for nothing. He concluded by saying ‘I understand now very well what it is that makes the Papalangis (Europeans) so selfish; it is the money!’ When Mr Mariner informed Finow that dollars were money, he was greatly surprised, having always taken them for Páänga (a kind of bear used in one of their games, they supposed dollars to be used among us for a similar purpose), and things of little value; and he was exceedingly sorry he had not secured all the dollars out of the ship Port au Prince before he had ordered her to be burnt: I had always thought said he, that your ship belonged to some poor fellow, perhaps King George’s cook (at these islands a cook is considered one of the lowest of mankind in point of rank); for Captain Cook’s ship which belonged to the King, had plenty of beads, axes, and looking glasses on board, whilst yours had nothing but iron hoops, oil, skins and twelve thousand Páänga as I thought: but if every one of these was money, your ship must have belonged to a very great chief indeed.”

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