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Trade Beads in the Pacific

Updated on March 28, 2013
Trade Beads - This is part of my collection. These were given to me a 3 years ago as payment or acknowledgement for providing food to a relative who has passed on.
Trade Beads - This is part of my collection. These were given to me a 3 years ago as payment or acknowledgement for providing food to a relative who has passed on. | Source

When 'Trade Beads' is mentioned, European and African artifacts and trade history always pops up in ones mind and in most published literature. The Pacific is rarely mentioned. The Europeans explorers and missionaries also had an influence on the Pacific. To this day you will see European influences in some of the Pacific Islands language, architecture and culture and diets. Vanuatu an island in the Pacific Ocean, the people speak French. French is their National Language. Large coconut plantations and homesteads established by Germans are still in existence. I still hear old men in our village, when they are angry with someone, they called out 'you swine'. 'Swine' is a German word (insult) which means 'pig, dog'. Germany was at one time in control of some parts of what is now known as Papua New Guinea. In some parts of Papua New Guinea (PNG), you will see Dutch influence.To this day the old people still talk about how it was like when Holland (Netherlands) was around. Holland (Netherlands) was never present in Papua New Guinea but it did have an influence on Papua New Guineans. How?

Papua New Guineans living along the northern border of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea migrated from the tribes in Irian Jaya. Irian Jaya is a province of Indonesia which used to be under Dutch control. Ancestory ties still exist to this day. When the people migrated, they also brought in some Dutch influence.This is seen in the Dutch made Trade Beads used today as a currency in most villages along the coast.

The beads according to my research, originated from the Netherlands. However, there are also some odd ones which may have originated from other European countries. Today, the beads are widely used, both in Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya. Cambodian and Chinese beads are also used and are very common and therefore the are less valuable then those of European origin.

The rare and older beads (of European origin) are stored away for safe keeping and are rarely used nor found in circulation. And just like in Africa they are a symbol of status and wealth. They are not usually displayed or worn for all to see. Ask an old women weather the family has any beads and she will bring out her prized possession, ie. a lengthy piece of nylon string with the rare and most valued beads.

Trade Route ,A to C, is where Trade Beads is used.

Vanimo, Papua New Guinea

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Provincial Town near the border. About 1 hour's drive from the border.

Wutung Village:
Wutung, Papua New Guinea

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1st PNG village on the border.

Jayapura, Indonesia

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Provincial Town of Irian Jaya Province.

Some Facts

Here are some facts about the Trade Beads;

  • It is acceptable as a currency today, both in the villages in Papua New Guinea (5 villages, including Wutung) and in Irian Jaya.
  • The extend of trade beads used today in Irian Jaya or Indonesia is not well known.
  • The beads are made from glass, ceramic and rare stones. The colours of beads widely circulated are cobalt blue, green, torquious and clear.
  • The rare ones are regarded as valuable and are not often circulated or used.
  • The rest of Papua New Guinea does not use the beads except the 5 villages on the coast near the border.
  • The Villagers go across the border into Jayapura,the nearest town of Irian Jaya province and trade goods and spices for these beads.
  • A couple of dozens of threaded beads can be used as a payment for a bride, land and food and services.
  • The beads are graded (in PNG) in three major category, De Ah, De Hi and De To.
  • De Ah is less valuable. De To is more valuable. De means money.
  • Trained and experience eyes are required to categorize the beads. Something which an elder is able to do or will sort a second opinion if not too sure.
  • The beads are used side by side with the country's currency (The Kina).
  • The beads are not used to buy goods in the shops or kiosks.
  • The beads are becoming difficult to obtain so may not be used anymore in the near future.
  • Tread beads that end up with people who earn a cash income is rarely used or circulated too.
  • An outsider is not expected to give beads for payment of goods or services.
  • How much beads is in circulation or in peoples possession will never be known unless one hold a competition or something of that sort to make them expose them all.


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