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Braed braes in Vanuatu: both gifts and commodities?


In April 2005, in conversation with Sean Dorney of ABC Radio, Selwyn Garu, then General Secretary of the Malvatumauri, Vanuatu's National Council of Chiefs, announced the revocation of a previous policy of a ceiling of 80,000 vatu (c. $AU800) (2) and declared a ban on using cash in bride price payments. Cash, he suggested, had 'distorted' the bride price, raising payments to 'outrageous' levels: 'It becomes difficult for a person to pay that money to be able to go through the ceremony of having a wife'. He alluded to recent reports of bride price payments of 500,000 or even 1,000,000 vatu (c. $AU5000-10,000) and summoned up the spectre of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where bride price payments had already got 'out of hand', exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars. He portrayed the ban as in the interests of young men as prospective husbands, in the interests of culture, 'keeping the customs alive and well', and in the interests of villagers. He stressed how pigs, mats (pandanus textiles), (3) and shell money were locally produced whereas vatu can only be gained by having a paid job or selling things or services. Garu suggested that the ban would cause vatu to flow from towns back into villages as urban dwellers purchased pigs, mats, and shells, so that rural dwellers could use cash to pay school fees and health costs. He envisaged a reversion to traditional currencies for marriage ceremonies, funerals, and other rituals, such as rank-taking in northern Vanuatu (Dorney 2005; see Jolly 1994). This decision was widely reported in local and global media, and news of it rippled through national and international fora.

Yet two years later, a shadow report on the implementation of CEDAW (the Convention on all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) produced by several local non-government organisations (NGOs), including Christian women's associations such as the Anglican Mothers Union and the Church of Christ Women's Fellowship, adjudged that the Malvatumauri's ban was ineffective: 'The discriminatory bride price is still in practice and the State has not legislated against it' (Vanuatu NGO 2007:4). The CEDAW report added,
   There is no legislation to support the removal of this customary
   practice that places a commercial value on women. The Malvatumauri
   Council of Chiefs now needs to make this information known to the
   people of this Country as the bride price payment is still being
   practiced (p. 15).

It observed that the payment of bride price was used by men to justify domestic violence (Vanuatu NGO 2007:4; see also Tor and Toka 2004) and to claim custody of children after separation and divorce 'because the child is considered the property of the father' (Vanuatu NGO 2007:29).

Imrana Jalal included bride price in Vanuatu, the Solomons, PNG, and East Timor in her survey of Harmful Practices Against Women in Pacific Island Countries for a UN Conference in Ethiopia in May 2009. She observed that some practices legitimated as 'customary' are in fact rather novel, such as fathers in PNG 'trading their daughters for cash or goods from transient logging and mining workers' (Jalal 2009:6) or chiefs propounding restrictive new 'laws' (for example, against women wearing trousers or moving between islands in Vanuatu) (Cummings 2013). These are, she claimed, hostile responses by men to the 'growing assertiveness of women' (Jalal 2009:5; see Taylor 2008b). She acknowledged that defenders of the bride price saw in its past history a 'fair exchange of gifts between families and clans', which recognised the value of the woman and secured alliances between families. Echoing the language of Selwyn Garu, she described cash as 'distorting' bride price, 'with the bride becoming more of a commodity', her body now attracting a 'price tag'. And, resonating with the shadow report from Vanuatu on CEDAW and a publication by AusAID (2008), she linked bride price and a husband's rights to control his wife, and using violence to do so. Summarising several such documents, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva that in Vanuatu the bride price 'effectively puts a commercial value on women' and adjudged that, despite the recently enacted Family Protection Act (2008), it is still used to justify violence against women: 'because I have paid for her, I can do whatever I want with her' (United Nations 2009:4). (4) It reported that bride-price payments in cash were still widespread across the archipelago and quoted Amnesty International's call for the Government to work with the Malvatumauri for a 'revocation of the bride price' (United Nations 2009:5).

The debate about braed praes in Vanuatu has clearly gone global. But the lines of contention are all too familiar. In all such statements and documents, by those who defend the bride price and those who attack it, by ni-Vanuatu themselves and by foreign commentators in places like Canberra and Geneva, there is a pervasive, shared set of binaries--between gifts and commodities, between women as persons of value in local kinship exchanges and women as being like things with a price tag, between women as agents of benign customary practices and women as victims of commoditisation, violence, and invented traditions. Some, including both local evangelical Christians and foreign feminists, criticise bride price even if paid in 'traditional currencies'. But it is especially money which is seen as 'bad': inflating prices, distorting customary values, inculcating greed, and promoting individualism.

In this paper, I suggest that we need to thaw these frozen binaries of gifts or commodities, of women as persons or things. There is a palpable co-presence as much as a contest between gift and commodity values in contemporary marriage payments in Vanuatu. This can often be signalled by the necessity to give both pigs/pandanus textiles/shells/stones and vatu together. Of course we cannot read from the mere materiality of the object that it is either a gift or a commodity: cash can be a gift, and pigs, pandanus textiles, shells, and stones can be commodities. But their co-presence, their mutual imbrication, and their creolisation need to be better appreciated. The word vatu itself signals such creolisation: a word previously denoting 'stone' in several languages of North Vanuatu, it now denotes the indigenous national currency, metal coins and paper banknotes, and the abstract value they represent, as 'savage money' has been powerfully articulated with the global flows of commodities and finance in late capitalism (Appadurai 1986; Foster 2013; Gregory 1982, 1997; Rawlings 1999a, 1999b, 2002).

Since Marcel Mauss (1954), anthropologists have often distinguished between gifts and commodities in the following terms: gifts are inalienable objects embedded in relations of reciprocity and mutual dependence, saturated with the person of the giver; commodities are alienable objects, detached from social relations and anonymised. Chris Gregory, following both Mauss and Karl Marx, elaborated the distinction: gift exchange is an exchange of inalienable things between transactors in a state of reciprocal dependence; commodity exchange is an exchange of alienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal independence (Gregory 1982:12). His stark summation was: 'Things and people assume the social form of objects in a commodity economy while they assume the social form of persons in a gift economy' (Gregory 1982:41). Gregory linked gifts with the household and personal relations and commodities with trade and impersonal relations, but observed objects moving between these spheres. Arjun Appadurai (1986) stressed the oscillation of objects between commodity and non-commodity contexts, and critiqued the romantic notion that gifts derived from altruistic generosity. Some insisted on the crucial importance of gifts in capitalist economies. Some reserved the concept of the commodity for capitalist economies; others discerned commodities in pre-capitalist economies. Crops, pigs, stones, shells, and textiles used as exchange valuables in pre-colonial Vanuatu were highly fungible and arguably resembled the commodity form. I cannot address this question here, but rather offer a succinct history of how colonial capitalism dramatically amplified the commodity economy in relation to what has recently been called the kastom ekonomi (Rousseau and Taylor 2012).


Vanuatu's villages have been entangled with the capitalist commodity economy since at least the early 19th century, with successive extractive trades in sandalwood, heche de mer, and people, primarily young men working as indentured labourers, both overseas in Queensland, Fiji, and New Caledonia, and within the islands of the archipelago (Jolly 1987; Lightner and Naupa 2005; MacClancy 1980; Moore 1985; Shineberg 1967, 1999). From the late 19th century, ni-Vanuatu witnessed the alienation of their land and the development of foreign plantations, cultivating cotton, copra, and cacao for sale and raising cattle rather than those creatures endowed with such enormous material and spiritual value, pigs. From 1906, a rather rapacious commodity economy was promoted, regulated, and occasionally inhibited by the conjoint Anglo-French Condominium, widely satirised as a bizarre and dysfunctional cohabitation, an administrative 'odd couple' impossible in Europe itself. Since the national independence in 1980, when ostensibly, if not in reality, all land was returned to kastom custodians, urban migration, tourism, off-shore finance centres, speculative real estate development, overseas seasonal labour, and novel electronic and digital technologies have entangled increasing numbers of ni-Vanuatu in the web of the global capitalist economy (McDonnell 2013; Rawlings 2002). This entanglement has been pervasively gendered; men have constituted the overwhelming majority of labourers, indentured or waged, traders in commodities, and business entrepreneurs. This is not irrelevant to the bride price: young male migrant labourers were early the predominant source of cash and commodities while older men became the main conduits and beneficiaries of the cash generated by indigenous copra and kava plantations, trade stores, and bisnes (see Rodman 1987). Today, women increasingly gain cash from the sale of garden produce and artefacts and from waged work, primarily in the urban areas of Port Vila and Luganville, in jobs ranging from domestic service, teaching, and nursing, to administrative and professional positions in government, churches, private corporations, and NGOs (see Eriksen 2008; Servy 2010; Taylor 2008a); some work as seasonal labourers in New Zealand (Bailey 2013).

Conversion to Christianity accompanied this conversion to commodity economy. The London Missionary Society established missions in the southern islands from 1839, Presbyterians spread from Aneityum in 1848 throughout the southern and central archipelago, Anglicans throughout the northern islands from 1849, Catholics from the 1880s, the Church of Christ and Seventh-day Adventists from the early 20th century, while an array of new evangelical churches has emerged in the last two decades. Ni-Vanuatu have become pervasively Christian, and while early missionaries were predominantly European and Polynesian, all the major churches in Vanuatu are now indigenous (although some still benefit from foreign financial support). Conversion was sudden and complete in some islands, slow and faltering in others, but only small enclaves of adherents of ancestral religion, kastom, or John Frum persist in the islands of Pentecost, Malakula, and Tanna (totalling 4% in the latest census).

The relation between these twin agents of modernity, between commodity economy and Christianity, has often been portrayed as conflictual. Christian missionaries early attacked the brutality and degeneration of the sandalwood traders and labour recruiters. From the 1860s, the Reform Presbyterians in the south, led by John Paton, vituperated against what they called 'blackbirding', insisting that indentured labourers were not voluntary recruits but victims of kidnap and coercion, and that indenture was tantamount to slavery. Both through the Australasian press and the Anti-Slavery Society, they agitated for its end and the absolute exclusion of women from this trade in people. The Christian project was rather to refocus women's energies on reforming domestic life (see Jolly 2010, 2014). And yet, despite this noisy, public conflict, indigenous participation in the commodity economy and conversion to Christianity were intimately connected (see Taylor 2010). Conversion to Christianity was often catalyzed by the perception that this new god was spiritually stronger--a strength witnessed in foreigners' material wealth and efficacious steel tools and guns. Many men involved in the overseas labour trade converted to Christianity in Queensland and Fiji and on their return were as crucial as foreign missionaries in spreading the word of God. Conversion usually meant the abandonment of indigenous clothes and the adoption of European-style clothing (see Jolly 2014). Increasingly, Christian converts were cash cropping, initially arrowroot in the southern islands and later coconuts for copra to raise money for introduced commodities such as cloth, steel tools, pots and pans, rice, tinned fish, kerosene, soap, and school and medical fees. Christianity proved crucial in introducing commodity values and the novel notion of a 'price'.


But early Christian missionaries were adamantly opposed to the practice of 'bride price', especially in the context of young girls being 'bought' by old men. In Erromanga: The Martyr Isle, the Reverend H.A. Robertson quotes from letters by the Presbyterian missionary the Reverend George Gordon from Nova Scotia writing to the pupils of Mrs. Wark of Bathurst, New South Wales. He tells the story of the sister of Naling, an early and steadfast male convert to Christianity: 'When a little girl, she was bought--and that is the proper term--by a chief at Portinia Bay, a man old enough to be her father' (9 November 1869, Robertson 1903:143). Later, two other sisters of Naling's were 'sold' by an uncle (likely a father's brother).

But his uncle has done very wickedly in selling his sisters, and the worst of it is to men old enough to he their grandfathers. And what was got for each? A ring [a stone carved in a crescent shape] (5)--an image of the moon, which is the symbol of the chief's power, and which is coveted more than anything else. These two unhappy young girls have been sold to old men, residing far away, and made miserable for ever. One of them, it is said, climbed a tree for the purpose of casting herself down, but, after having been in the tree a long time, she was rescued ... How thankful you should be that you cannot be sacrificed for money as these poor, defenceless little girls have been! True are the words of God, as written by Paul--the heathen are devoid of 'natural affection' (20 November 1870, Robertson 1903:144, emphasis and ellipsis in the original, my insert in square brackets).

The age of the young brides compared with their elderly husbands, their relocation to a remote place, the unhappiness of the girls and the attempted suicide of one, the horror of a 'coveted' but savage stone ring exchanging for a person, all conspire to create a portrait of women as sad victims of heartless and greedy indigenous men, in contrast to the loving warmth and 'natural affection' of a Christian family. Such adjudications on 'bride price' lace the letters and memoirs of many foreign missionaries and the verdict is unanimous: they devalue a woman by treating her like a thing. In the northern islands, the Church of Christ and the Seventh-day Adventists who arrived in the early 20th century were the fiercest critics, seeking to ban its practice among their congregations, as they banned pig killing.

Similar stark denunciations of the bride price were circulated beyond the archipelago by foreign feminists such as Beatrice Grimshaw, novelist, travel journalist, and celebrant of British imperialism, writing in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald: 'Life in the New Hebrides' (Grimshaw 1905-06). Grimshaw, like a 'New Woman', narrativised her life as one of personal mobility and liberation and, although she distinguished herself from feminist suffragettes, promoted a form of women's emancipation which, like foreign missionary women, entailed the salvation of women she saw as oppressed by male 'savagery' (see Jolly 1993). She portrays Malakulan women as dominated by bestial men, compelled to overwork, and as objects of exchange in marriage; patently, women were 'sold' as commodities. She could understand neither local languages nor Bislama, but concocts this conversation between two women who were co-wives:

'I cost 12 pigs' Mrs Frizzyhead No. 1 boasts to Mrs Frizzyhead No. 4, who is a new acquisition, and inclined to be cheeky. No 4. who is painting her forehead black with burnt cocoanut and drawing a line of red ochre down her nose, pauses in her toilet to say, contemptuously 'I cost fifteen'.... The Frizzyhead Ladies subside, and wait till they can catch young Mrs Blackleg coming up from the yam plantations, with a baby in her arms and a hundred weight of yams on her back, to revenge themselves by telling her that she only cost ten pigs and is a low creature anyway (Grimshaw 1905-06:6; cf. Grimshaw 1907:159).

Alas, such savagely racist satire proved quite popular with Australian readers of the period; Grimshaw republished these articles in her best-selling book From Fiji to the Cannibal Islands (Grimshaw 1907).


Although their relations with indigenous people evince rather more empathy and crosscultural understanding, early secular ethnographers Felix Speiser and John Layard (like contemporaneous missionary ethnographers) continue to speak of marriage exchanges in terms pervaded by such commodity language. The ethnographic genre of Felix Speiser and John Layard's texts are rather different. Speiser was a Swiss anthropologist who travelled extensively from 1910 to 1912 in the then New Hebrides, spending short periods in many islands. His magnum opus (Speiser 1990 [1923]) combines his own observations with those of others, most notably missionaries; his comparative ethnology pays dedicated attention to physical anthropology and material culture, evinced in numerous photographs and line drawings. Speiser (1990 [1923]:261-7) synthesises reports from across the archipelago on practices of betrothal and 'marriage by capture', wedding ceremonies, polygamy, cohabitation, separation and sexual abstinence in married life, divorce, and what he calls 'the purchase of women'. He wrestles with what this means:

A clan's most valuable possession is its women. This is clearly evident in the purchase of wives, for even though the women are sold, they still remain within the corporate group of the clan ... the women do not lose membership of the corporate group on being bought, even though they are the property of their husbands. Consequently, the purchase of a woman may more correctly be regarded as compensation paid to the clan for the labour which it must forfeit on a woman's marriage. The purchase price is, so to speak, the rent which the husband pays to a woman's clan for enjoying her favours and making use of her labour (Speiser 1990 [1923]:261).

Later, he elaborates on the question of 'price':

The prices paid for wives vary from case to case. More is paid for a sturdy young woman than for an old and frail one; a pretty girl also fetches more than an ugly one although aesthetic considerations do not count for very much. The social status of the family also plays a part, for a girl from a distinguished family is worth more than another....

In Eastern Santo today a woman is worth 6 to 25 pigs, in Malo about 10, in Vao where girls are still fairly numerous about 5 pigs, in southern Malekula 9,' (6) in eastern Malekula 10, in Ambrym 5 to 30. In Erromango they paid with clubs, navilahs, and in Tanna 3 to 4 pigs are given. In Aoba and Maevo payment is made in mats as well as pigs (Speiser 1990 [1923]:262-63).

Thus, despite his sense that such acts of payment were embedded in collective relations of clanship and cycles of intergenerational exchange, Speiser ultimately sees the valuables exchanged for women in commodity terms as 'rent' for her sexual, labouring, and maternal services, or more baldly as a 'price', a price which can be used to calculate a woman's value across diverse islands.

Layard's ethnography (Layard 1942), published decades after his field sojourn of 1914, (7) is rather focused on one island, Vao, but complemented by comparisons with other islands and suffused with both diffusionist and psychoanalytic theories (Geismar and Herle 2010). Far more than Speiser, Layard immersed himself in indigenous life and language, and saw marriage through the lens of the complex patterns of kinship, moiety divisions, and intergenerational cycles. His immersion is patent both in his texts and superb photographs; his photographic gaze is not that of a distantiated observer of human beings as types, but of a captivated interlocutor and participant (Geismar and Herle 2010). He developed a consummate system of representing the movement of women and men in marriage, and meticulously describes betrothal and marriage rituals based both on his own observations and that of Jean Godefroy, a Catholic priest (Layard 1942; 192-201). He proffers a rare celebration of familial affection and reciprocal exchange: the girl to be married is oiled, decorated, and painted in vermillion, she shares a sad farewell pudding cooked by her mother, her brothers accompany her with piles of yams in reciprocation for the pigs and the 'money-mats' (nangau) paid by the husband's family. But Layard calls the payments made by the groom's family a 'bride price' and emphasises its size and increasing value, privileging the viewpoint of husbands subject to 'over-grasping parents in law'.

One of the everlasting complaints of all Small Island natives is the permanent state of indebtedness in which a man stands towards his wife's parents. He not only pays them a huge sum in pigs and mats as bride-price. He also pays for his betrothal, for each child at birth and later to 'buy it back' from its maternal relatives (Layard 1942:201).

Layard observes for Vao in 1914 that betrothal alone cost a pig and 10-20 mats, while the marriage itself would require an even larger number of mats and 20 or more pigs, including valuable boars whose tusks have circled once or even twice, the more valuable ones being given to the girl's closest male kin. In specific cases, the pigs are given cash equivalents: e.g. the marriage of a girl of fourteen, 'whose bride price consisted of twenty-three tuskers of which one was a circle-tusker valued at 40 [pounds sterling], another was worth 16 [pounds sterling] and the rest 1 [pounds sterling] to 4 [pounds sterling] each', totalling about 80 [pounds sterling] (Layard 1942:185, n2). The yams given in reciprocity by the girl's family were worth only about 5 [pounds sterling]. These cash equivalents recorded by Layard suggest that pigs and tusked boars were not just produced, gifted, and sacrificed, but were part of local and inter-island exchanges and had a commodity value, in either pre-colonial or early colonial times. Godfrey's accounts, written 20 years after Layard's fieldwork, reported that cash had now substituted for mats in betrothal (3-4 [pounds sterling]) and that there was an 'enormous increase in the value of the bride price' which was now paid both in pigs and in cash.

So, portrayals of the bride price in Vanuatu using the language of the commodity have been part of foreign representations since the mid-19th century and cash has been part of such payments since at least the 1920s. But what of the argument that such commodity language distorts the perduring indigenous character of such exchanges (e.g. Strathern 1988), and that, even when cash or commodities are used, these are 'gifts' in marriage prestations, 'bride wealth' not 'bride price'? I now consider the broader anthropological debates about bride price in relation to the distinction between gifts and commodities.


As Valerio Valeri observed, 'the idea that affinal payments are commercial transactions--that they can be viewed as the buying and selling of wives ... has been rejected by mainstream anthropology' (Valeri 1994:3). He detected a professional 'squeamishness' about linking the exchange of women with a commodity transaction. Such disavowals can reflect anthropologists' performance of their depth of knowledge of indigenous practices and concepts in contradistinction to the crude verdicts of judgemental missionaries or superficial observers.

Valeri catalogues the reasons anthropologists typically adduce for why the payment of a bride price is not a commodity transaction. First, the payments made are reciprocated; for example, it is not simply an exchange of a woman for valuables as wife givers also reciprocate with valuables, even if these are of lesser value. Second, the actual payment of a bride price is embedded in a long sequence of related, ritualised practices which may start with infant betrothal and involve extensive negotiations between the two families before culminating in the payment of the bride price. Third, the payment of a bride price is usually not a singular transaction, but part of intergenerational cycles of alliance, and thus the payment of bride price is not final like a commodity transaction where the relation between buyer and seller ends at the moment of payment. Fourth, the payment made for a bride is typically not made by an isolated individual, the groom, but a widely dispersed collectivity, whose contributions will likely be reciprocated in other future transactions. Fifth, it is not possible for the woman who is given to the husband and his group to be given to another; she must either remain or, in the case of divorce, return to her natal group, sometimes also occasioning the return of part of the bride price.

Clearly, some of these generalised claims can be contradicted by ethnographic particulars, as Valeri attests. But, from the specific example of the Huaulu people of Seram (in eastern Indonesia), Valeri challenges the way in which the anthropological debate has been framed. Huaulu men say that they 'buy' their wives and that these have a 'price' but do not say they 'sell' their sisters or daughters to other men. Marriage exchanges 'have a dialectical structure: they begin as commodity transactions (rights in a woman are exchanged for their equivalent in valuables) but end as gifts by negating the initial payment with an equivalent counterpayment'. They are neither 'gift' nor 'commodity' exchanges 'in an absolute detemporalised sense' (Valeri 1994:1), but rather two phases linked with the values of otherness (commodity exchange) and non-otherness (gift exchange).

Valeri critically reviews three anthropological approaches to the relation between gifts and commodities. The first, the 'oscillation' approach, emphasises how the same object moves between commodity and non-commodity status depending on context, as suggested by Chris Gregory (1982) and Arjun Appadurai (1986). The second, the 'oppositional' approach he discerns in Nicholas Thomas's (1991) work on Fiji, which posited a strong ideological contrast between the Fijian 'way of the land' and the western 'way of money'. The third, he credits to Alfred Gell (1992) who suggested that male-controlled commodity exchanges are models for reproductive-gift exchanges in Melanesia. The third comes closest to Valeri's own dialectical model which sees the oppositional relation of commodity and gift exchange 'internalized as constitutive process in Huaulu marriage alliance' (Valeri 1994:20). This exemplifies broader processes in the 'mutual determination and modification of commodity and non-commodity forms in their concrete historical entanglements' (Valeri 1994:20).

Valeri's argument is powerful and persuasive. I seek to extend his insights to concrete historical entanglements in Vanuatu and to develop his arguments about 'otherness'. Valeri worked with a tiny group of people in eastern Indonesia (numbering only 168 in May 1988). With some exceptions (e.g. Filer 1985; Mowbray 2011), anthropological debates about the bride price have usually relied on the idealised models and ethnographic realities of small communities characterised both by exogamy (of clans or villages) and endogamy of larger collectivities (language groups, tribes or districts). Yet the boundaries of 'endo' and 'exo', of 'self' and 'other' in relations of marriage have become more complicated, more porous, and more stretched with the novel mobilities of modernity and the emergence of more individuated models of personhood (see Sykes 2007; Wardlow 2006; and Introduction, this volume). In Vanuatu, this has been occasioned as much by conversion to Christianity as by the expansion of the capitalist commodity economy.


This process can be witnessed in two recent ethnographies of Vanuatu, by John Taylor (2008a) and Sabine Hess (2009). These yield contrasting but complementary insights into the contemporary character of marriage and the bride price. An important constant is the presence of two weddings, one marked as kastom mured and one as Christian, mared blong jos, which articulate with each other in significant ways.

Taylor's research on North Pentecost gives a sense of the local grounding of marriage among Sia Raga, given matrilineal descent and patrilocality. His male interlocutors spoke of women as flowing across the land in cycles to secure ancestral regeneration; they ideally move between moieties so that what Taylor dubs the 'place-substance' of a descent group returns to its source. Women are valued as roads linking men of different vanua (hamlets), although women themselves expressed grief at moving from their natal group. The passage of a woman should ultimately be compensated by a woman moving in the opposite direction, but copious valuables, notably precious pigs, also reciprocate her passage. The lengthy, complex exchanges of a lagiana or kastom mared, almost always precede the church wedding. The bride price paid in pigs by the groom's side is reciprocated by the bride's side, typically store-bought commodities: buckets, mattresses, clothes and blankets, lamps, bush knives and kitchen utensils, but also baskets of red patterned pandanus textiles. The pigs given by the groom's side are called vole vahine, the 'price' of the woman, while the commodities from the bride's side of lesser value are dubbed tabiana, a 'gift' of thanks, thus subverting any simplistic equation of indigenous valuables with gifts and introduced goods with commodities (Taylor 2008a: 124-9). These things are then redistributed through complex internal gift exchanges called hunhuniana. The union of bride and groom affirms not only their relation but reconfigures the relations of the two sides (Taylor 2008a: 132-3). These solemn exchanges are far more serious than the church wedding; they reconstitute collective kinship and economic links recreating 'dividuals' (see Strathern 1988), whereas the church wedding is 'more ostensibly individual' and a more joyous celebration by a broader public congregation of the couples' free union before God in the Anglican Church. Only Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostal adherents eschew the kastom mared ceremony. For the majority, the co-presence and mutual interaction of commodities and of gifts, and the values of kastom and Christianity are palpable. They remind us of what Valeri called the internalisation of notions of gifts and commodities as constitutive process in Huaulu marriage alliance (Valeri 1994:24).

Such internalisation is also powerfully revealed in Sabine Hess' compelling depiction of both kastom and church weddings on Vanua Lava. Here it seems both are equally important, though their sequencing varies. Her primary male interlocutor and VKS filwoka, (8) Eli Field, portrayed marriage as an exchange between two venem (or clans) which reconfigures attachments to land on a model of alternating custodianship. Again, there is an ideal of a return to an ancestral source although people readily acknowledge that contemporary marriages fail to effect this. Infant betrothal has given way to 'reserving' a woman with a cash payment when she is ready for marriage. Hess stresses that all Christian missions tried to curb bridewealth (9) payments, but that only Seventh-day Adventists refrain from paying bridewealth. For all others, the local chiefs have set the price at 40,000 vatu.

Hess depicts the payment of bride price in the context of a specific wedding (da lage), that of her 'brother' Kali, a performance of 'authentic kastom' orchestrated by her 'father' Eli Field, the VKS filwoka. She sees both this and the ensuing church wedding as a portrayal of an exchange relation between kastom and modernity; the latter is represented by foreigners and, at that moment, especially herself. As well as 40,000 vatu, the groom's side provided enormous amounts of uncooked taro and planting material, household utensils, and an unopened helicona leaf as a sign of peace. Cash was transformed into a gift; the banknotes were ritually displayed on sticks of wild cane. The bride's side reciprocated with a small amount of money so as not to lose her completely (and to license their intervention if violent conflict eventuated with her husband and/or his clan). Eli explicitly compared Kali's bride price with 'white man's loans', celebrating the diverse practices of 'we black people' (Hess 2009:88), and the loans' inherent delayed payment over generations. He expressly distinguished gire, that is, reimbursing someone for a service (e.g. for the helpers and participants at the wedding), and wol, the term used for commodity transactions. Other speakers, however, lamented that marriage was now effected as if it were a bisnes. Hess observes how, through the comparison with western loans and bisnes in such male oratory, there was a disavowal that bride price was a commodity transaction and an opposition orchestrated between racialised white and black ways of life (Hess 2009:91).

The Anglican church wedding, like that described by Taylor (2008a: 125, 2003), is open to the broader congregational community, not just close kin. Brides dress in pure white island dresses and grooms in suits; often several couples are blessed by the priest in the same ceremony. The emotional tenor is less grave than a kastom mured and more openly expressive: kissing in joyful celebration and sad farewells, music and dancing, and spraying copious perfume and baby powder on the couple and guests. A large communal feast, previously part of kastom weddings, concludes the church wedding. Presents are given, including cash and store-bought goods, solely for the couple. Hess suggests, the church wedding, unlike the kastom wedding, celebrates the union of the couple as singular persons with each other and with God. Elements of kastom are present in the church wedding and vice versa, because after all, 'the two are married'. In her concluding adjudications, she raises the question so central to many feminist critics, that the bride price gives licence to violence by the husband.

The fact that cash has replaced shell money, and presumably pigs, does not make the bridewealth a commodity transaction. It has to be said though that within the power relations of a marriage the transaction is sometimes depicted as an economic one, where a husband may tell his wife 'I have paid for you' as a means to make her obey his orders and as an excuse for domestic violence.... The expression in Bislama pem woman (buy the woman), used in everyday speech is explicitly counterposed at every wedding, where people stress that bridewealth can never be equivalent to the worth of a woman. One may ask why people need to emphasise that the da lage is not a commodity transaction. Has engagement with Western forms of capitalism blurred the categories? (Hess 2009:97).

Hess relates her material to Valeri's (1994) suggestion that bride price can move between being a gift and a commodity. But perhaps this is not just dependent on the temporal phases in a wedding and beyond, but on the gendered perspective of the interlocutor. For a violent husband, the worth of a woman does seem to be the equivalent of her bride price.

So in these two recent ethnographies, we find the co-presence, the mutual constitution, and indeed the intimate imbrication of gifts and commodities, kastom and Christianity in marital exchanges (see also Eriksen 2008). They witness, if in rather different ways, what Valeri called the 'mutual determination and modification of commodity and non-commodity forms in their concrete historical entanglements' (Valeri 1994:20).


Important insights from research in PNG by Martha Macintyre and Holly Wardlow might extend the horizons of future research on the ongoing transformations of the braed praes in Vanuatu. Significantly, these rely on dedicated interviews and intimate conversations with women.

Like Valeri (1994) and myself (Jolly 1994), Martha Macintyre discerns an 'anthropological queasiness about the commoditisation of women' reflected in our persistent use of the term 'bridewealth'. 'But this term has no currency with local people, for whom braidprais (10) (bride price) has become a contentious topic' (Macintyre 2011:93). Her insights derive from working with two separate groups of women: women recently employed by the mine on Lihir, New Ireland Province, primarily in menial and poorly paid jobs, and urban women who are highly educated professionals, earning far more. Interestingly, their views on marriage and on bride price, converge in significant ways, witnessed in the words of one of her interlocutors: 'money changes everything'.

Both groups of women articulate ambivalence about marriage and caution about, and even opposition to, the bride price. Unlike their male counterparts, they spend their wages primarily on household expenses, food, education, medical fees, and gifts to female relatives rather than beer and conspicuous consumption. They articulate a strong novel sense of individuality linked to the notion that their own labour is the source of their wealth and well-being. The Lihirian women saw the cash payments involved in bride price not as a benign substitution for indigenous valuables, but as an exchange which 'entailed proprietary rights over their bodies, their fertility and their labour' (Macintyre 2011:108). A woman's employment and education is now part of her worth, alongside her capacities as a worker, sexual partner, and mother. Many of the urban women were vehemently opposed to bride price and thought that money has perverted its meanings. Some married women stated that they had refused the payment of a bride price expressly so that they were not subject to the violent control of a husband and his family. Some strongly linked the bride price to gender violence and the spread of HIV (see also Jolly et al. 2012). Several of the urban professional women had eschewed marriage altogether as they felt able to live and support children more successfully without a husband.

Macintyre (2011:108) observes the particular problems between couples from different regions, debates about the size of the bride price, whether it should be paid at all, and how to reconcile conflicting ideas about the power of the husband and his family over the person of the bride. She reports how a Lihirian man who was poised to pay bride price to a woman from another province was eschewing the support of his close kin in order that his new wife be immune from familial criticism and control. Clearly, such novel patterns whereby both women and men are trying to detach themselves from kinship networks and relational forms of personhood are not just confined to the urban elite.

This is patent from research in more remote, rural parts of PNG, as revealed in Holly Wardlow's superb study of Huli people in the Tari area (Wardlow 2006). Women's critiques of the bride price, though resonating with those of foreign NGOs, are emerging from women's local experience of modernity. Wardlow offers a poignant portrayal of women called pasinjia meri (11) (literally, 'passenger women'). This moniker in the PNG lingua franca Tok Pisin is a stigmatising label, akin to 'slut', for women who sell sex or who are unduly mobile or promiscuous. But some women embrace it as a self-description. In Huli idiom, such women are said to have 'jumped the fence' or broken out 'from under the legs of men'. Some are evading conventional arranged marriages and the payment of the bride price, others divorcing or else thwarting their husband's projects through mundane acts of subversion or what Wardlow calls 'negative agency' (see Introduction, this volume).

Unlike men, who engage in strong oratory, women are routinely muted or denied the power of persuasive speech and rather articulate laments and desires through their bodies and through sexual agency. Pasinjia meri repudiate how a woman's sexual, productive, and reproductive capacities are transacted between male-defined collectivities through the payment of the bride price. In contemporary Huli perception, braid prais is increasingly seen as being like a commodity transaction, in which the woman has a cash price like market goods and the husband acquires ownership of her sexual, productive and reproductive capacities, and the right to violently extract these from her. This penetration of what Strathern dubbed a 'commodity logic' (Strathern 1988) into gift exchanges, is taken even further by pasinjia meri who presume the right to sell sex without male intermediaries, and thus assert a kind of 'possessive individualism' and an autonomous sexual agency through which they find diverse pleasures that the good woman, the modest, Christian wife dare not seek. Wardlow does not indulge in a 'romance of resistance'. She sees pasinjia meri as living hard, troubled, and often violent lives. Pasinjia meri are a minority. Most Huli women conform to the lives of hard subsistence work and mothering, modesty, and monogamy enjoined in both Huli tradition and Christian modernity. But the lives of all men and women have been dramatically transformed by the combined influences of commodity economics and Christianities. Most men are earning a living as migrant labourers more than subsistence gardeners, and are the main recipients of royalty monies from the Mount Kare gold mine. Since Christian conversion, most men now live not in separate men's houses but in smaller more private dwellings with their wives (Wardlow 2014). These transformations have intensified conflicts between men and women, over money and material things, over intimate relationships and emotional life. Although the recent prospects of wealth through the Liquid and Natural Gas (LNG) Project have changed the emotional tenor of Huli people's lives, gender violence between couples is still so pervasive as to constitute an ongoing emergency, licensing the medical humanitarianism of Medecins sans Frontieres in the region (Wardlow 2012).


Clearly, the spectre of a commoditised bride price in PNG haunted Selwyn Garu as he attempted, if ineffectually, to ban cash for bride price payments in Vanuatu. Vatu continues to be prominent in urban and rural contexts. Then leading the Malvatumauri, and thus enjoined to protect kastom, he saw cash as 'distorting' its meaning. He also saw it as imposing an undue burden on young men, as if they alone were responsible for accumulating bride price (but see both Taylor 2008a and Hess 2009). Perhaps a groom's responsibility is increasing in towns and especially when men marry women from places other than their ancestral islands, when the bride price is routinely higher (Alice Servy, personal communication, July 2012). Urban women, too, are increasingly marrying beyond their ancestral group (see Eriksen 2008). In such new expanded circuits of marriage, the bride price is increasingly used to mark not just the 'worth' of the woman but the worth of her group. Increasingly, it values not just the worth of a woman's labour, sexuality, fertility, education, and employment, but her origins (see Zimmer-Tamakoshi 2012 on the elevated bride price asked by male landowner groups benefitting from extractive industries in PNG in Jolly et al. 2012). This expands the commodity dimensions of bride price as it becomes more intimately linked to the major circuits of contemporary global capitalism. Patterns of uneven development witnessed in PNG have been far less prominent in Vanuatu, but some class differences are emergent, and unequal relations between inner and outer islands, towns and villages are intensifying with major real estate speculation and appropriation of land by local men and expatriates on Efate and Santo (see Eriksen 2008; McDonnell 2013; Rawlings 2002).

Garu's bold proposal apropos the bride price deployed the opposition of gift and commodity, village and town, kastom and modernity. But this needs to be situated in the context of the broader movement for kastom ekonomi in Vanuatu. This was not so much an anti-capitalist and nativist celebration of the 'black man's gift' versus the 'white man's commodity', as a movement creatively seeking to recalibrate their relation. Although the announcement of the Year of Traditional Economy from November 2006 by Prime Minister Ham Lini (and subsequent extensions) might appear to reinscribe a binary between kastom and commodity economy, the ultimate purpose was rather to change their articulation.

This was emphasised in an interview between Ralph Regenvanu, erstwhile Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and later Minister for Lands and Haidy Geismar, an anthropologist then based at New York University. It was envisaged as a way of facilitating exchange between commodity and kastom economies, generating cash for those villagers primarily involved in the kastom economy who needed money for medical and education expenses and reviving the use of traditional wealth by those predominantly involved in the cash economy (especially but not only urban dwellers). In rolling out the policy across the archipelago, many rural people were bemused as they were already negotiating both economic forms. It was Vila-based national policy-makers, influenced by foreign economists and donors who proved most resistant to thawing such frozen binaries in development policy. But ultimately, the kastom ekonomi movement gained powerful traction, with its stress on self-reliance and the worth of indigenous practices and its opposition to the extremities of real estate speculation, dependence on imported foods, and the consumerism of capitalist modernity (see Rousseau and Taylor 2012). (12)

The reinvigoration of the debate about bride price in Vanuatu is indissociable from these broader local, national, and global processes. Should it be preserved as part of kastom ekonomi even if it has been dramatically transformed by cash and the commodity economy? Future research needs to more carefully hear not just the loud political rhetoric of men in urban and rural contexts, but how women who are both subjects of, and subjected to, these practices themselves perceive their worth as 'brides' and why they celebrate or critique bride price in its contemporary manifestations (see Tor and Toka 2004). Women, and in particular younger women, are debating this in both old and new media, on radio, in the pages of the Vanuatu Daily Post, and on Facebook. Any attempts to formulate policies and visions for the future of bride price need to hear the voices of ni-Vanuatu women in all their diversity and contest.

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5074


Initial thanks go to Jon Altman, Karen Sykes, and Chris Gregory for the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia Symposium Domestic Moral Economy, 3-4 September 2012 at ANU where this was invited and first presented, and to John Cox and Francesca Merlan who were excellent discussants. Further thanks go to John Taylor, Miranda Forsyth, and Chris Ballard for comments on this paper in its several iterations and to the two anonymous readers for their insights. Warm thanks go to all involved in the discussion in our Reading and Writing Group of the Laureate Project Engendering Persons, Transforming Things: Christianities, Commodities and Individualism in Oceania (FL100100196) and to the Australian Research Council for generous funding.


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Margaret Jolly

The Australian National University


(1.) I use this term because it translates readily between Pidgin and English, but note that the usual idiom in Bislama in Vanuatu is pem woman.

(2.) The vatu is the name of the currency of Vanuatu introduced at independence in 1980. At the present rate of exchange, $AU I equals 94.3643 vatu. Although Garu refers to this as a ceiling or a maximum, elsewhere it is reported as a minimum (e.g. Amnesty International Vanuatu 2008:9).

(3.) These pandanus textiles, both ivory white and patterned red, have, like cognate forms in countries like Tonga and Samoa, been referred to as 'mats' in the Anglophone literature, and are so called in Bislama (but see Bolton 2003 on the gap between lowly floor coverings and precious exchange valuables).

(4.) This quotation is identical with that from the Amnesty International Vanuatu (2009:8) report and very similar to that attributed to Merilyn Tahi, long-time coordinator of the Vanuatu Women's Centre in Port Vila, in a much earlier article by Times journalist Leora Moldofsky: 'I have the right to beat her because I bought her' (Moldofsky 2001:2).

(5.) Felix Speiser (1990:245) describes these as huge stone rings, about five feet in circumference and weighing 40 to 50 pounds, some so large that a man could pass through the middle. Each had its own name and history and in his view were as much heirlooms as 'money'.

(6.) Note that the earlier spelling of Malekula is now often rather Malakula.

(7.) The complex reasons for this, Layard's psychological history and his relation to Jung, are sensitively described in Geismar and Herle (2010).

(8.) Filwoka is Bislama for 'fieldworker' which is a voluntary position with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS), which entails recording and promoting local kastom in one's home area. Filwokas from across the archipelago attend annual meetings in Port Vila, with male and female filwoka's meetings held separately, although the themes have recently been harmonised.

(9.) Hess prefers this term.

(10.) The spelling in Tok Pisin differs from Bislama.

(11.) This is the usual spelling in Tok Pisin, though Wardlow writes 'pasinja men' (Wardlow 2006:281).

(12.) Rousseau and Taylor (2012) see the kastom ekonomi movement as not just articulating indigenous opposition to the cash economy and resistance to development, but critically deploying development discourse about sustainability and self-reliance. They suggest that this ambitious and idealistic project was equally modern, and promoted a new self-reliant and reflexive subject.
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