Pacific Profiteering

Early European visitors to the Pacific Islands claimed the locals did not understand trade and were easily cheated.

Manus Province Map

Manus Province Map
Creator: Design Unit © Australian Museum

They bragged about purchasing precious objects in return for cheap metal items or glass beads. Hundreds of spears and daggers bought in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, between the 1870s and 1970s, tell a different story.

Manus Islanders were experienced businessmen who had traded obsidian, the volcanic glass used as tips in spears and daggers, for thousands of years. They took advantage of the new trading opportunities brought by foreign traders.

A study of museum collections from around the world by Dr Robin Torrence, Australian Museum Research Scientist, found that Manus craftsmen changed the spears and daggers they traded in response to consumer demand. Fierce-looking weapons (in the19th century) were modified into large decorative ornaments (in the early 20th century) and then into tourist souvenirs (in the middle of the 20th century). They made profits by reducing materials, time and effort. When elaborate designs were required, smaller obsidian tips were used. Eventually, old re-used pieces were fitted into poorly made handles. Where possible, designs were simplified and standardized. Carvings and incised lines were less carefully made. Cheaper daggers were substituted for spears.

Trade is only successful when both sides think they are getting a good deal. This explains why museum collections have so many obsidian-tipped spears and daggers from Manus.

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