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On money #

While a bit dense (paragraphs were evidently doled out stintingly, if at all, in the 1800s), this passage from John Martin's An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean is worth the effort. For those who prefer the tl;dr version, check out the last few sentences - that's where the meat is.
Whilst Finow was yet at the Hapai islands, he often held conversations at his cava parties with Filimoeatoo, respecting the state of affairs at Tonga. Among other things, this chief related, that a ship from Botany Bay had touched there about a week before he arrived, on board of which there was a Tonga chief, Paloo Mata Moigna, and his wife, Fatafehi, both of whom had left Tonga before the death of Toogoo Ahoo, and had resided some years at the Fiji islands, from which place they afterwards went along with one Selly (as they pronounced it), or, probably, Selby, an Englishman, in a vessel belonging to Botany Bay, to reside there. At this latter place he and his wife remained about two years, and now, on their return to Tonga, finding the island in such an unsettled state, they chose rather (notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of their friends) to go back again to Botany Bay. The account they gave of the English customs at this place, and the treatment they at first met with, it may be worth while to relate. The first thing that 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 any body 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 with it one-tenth part of what they wanted. One day, whilst sauntering about, the chief fixed his eyes upon a cook's shop, and seeing several people enter, and others again coming out with victuals, he made sure that they were sharing out food, according to the old Tonga fashion; and in he went, glad enough of the occasion. After waiting some time 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, straightway 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 the white people worked from morning till night, to get money ; nor could he conceive how they were able to endure so much labour.

After having heard this account, Finow asked several questions respecting 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 has 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 them 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 of 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 he made, that it might be 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 show the convenience of money as a medium of exchange, when Filimoeatoo 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 any 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 every body considered it so, and would readily give their goods for it, he did not see but what it was of 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 Filimoeatoo 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 a man," he added, "has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork or gnatoo. 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 provisions 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 either to exchange it away for something else useful, or share it out to his neighbours, and inferior chiefs and dependents, for nothing." He concluded by saying, "I understand now very well what it is that makes the Papalangis so selfish--it is this money!"

/misc | Apr 21, 2012


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