The term Kula Ring refers to the circulation of shell valuables between island communities in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. Bronislaw Malinowski was the first anthropologist to document the exchange in a classic anthropological text, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, written in 1922. Anthropologists working in the latter half of the 20th century have clarified many of the local characteristics of the kula from different island perspectives.
Visualizing the exchange as operating within a ring is somewhat misleading, as not all island communities are involved, nor do all communities within islands participate in the exchange, although it could be argued that all people in the Milne Bay are affected to some extent by the exchange. The majority of shell valuables that circulate in the exchange are regularly diverted from the kula and put into other local exchanges to satisfy people’s more immediate exchange obligations. Entrepreneurial skills are needed for the kula man (and sometimes woman) to find a replacement and reenter it into the kula; otherwise he will lose all standing as a reliable kula partner, thus affecting his career in the kula. Unmet kula obligations may also threaten his life.
There are two shell ornaments circulated against each other between kula partners. The armshell or mwali is made from shell belonging to the Conidae family. Both ends are broken off and smoothed to leave a cylindrical armlet that is decorated with other shells, seeds, beads, and ornamental items. The armshells travel around the ring in a counterclockwise direction for the necklaces, or soulava, which travel in a clockwise direction. The necklace is made up of Spondylus and/or Chama shell roughly broken and then repeatedly smoothed between stone in a single, long strand of shells strung together to form the necklace. These, too, are highly decorated for aesthetic purposes. While armshells and necklaces are the primary objects exchanged in the kula, other valuables and locally produced resources (such as clay pots, greenstone, and ocher) are also exchanged as solicitory gifts.
Although there are local differences, as a general rule men only have kula partners on other islands. A man will have partners on one side of him from which he receives only armshells. He gives these to partners on the other side of him from whom he can expect to receive necklaces. This means that men have to cross the open seas to solicit and acquire their valuables. Kula protocol is all about attraction and persuasion. While Malinowski wrote that kula was a “very simple affair,” anthropologists have since documented the dangerous business of conducting kula. Partnerships are unstable because others desire the shell valuables they might hold and may persuade the trader to give up the shell to someone other than the intended partner. The consequences of this action include suspension of one’s kula career and even death threats. The most valuable shells invite jealousy and accusations of foul play in their acquisition, subjecting holders to attacks of sorcery. While participation in kula offers men status and prestige, it may also bring upon them disgrace and death.
Today kula continues to be a significant exchange between people in the Milne Bay. Indeed, people who now work and live outside of the province continue to conduct kula with others relocated in other towns, cities, and nations as well as with those within the Milne Bay. Instead of traversing the season specially constructed, decorated, and magically impregnated kula outrigger canoes, these partners travel by motored launches and airplanes.
- Campbell, S. F. (2002). The art of kula. Oxford: Berg.
- Leach, J. W., & Leach, E. (1983). The kula: New perspectives on massim exchange. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.