By Kerry Rodgers
Teeth from the lower jaw of sperm whales were and still are highly prized in several Pacific Island groups including Tonga and Fiji. For Fijians they have been a central feature of their culture from beyond memory. It was not unexpected when depictions of them appeared on the country’s new decimal coins from 1969 on. They are still present on today’s coins and paper currency.
Regrettably there is a popular and persistent misconception that such whales’ teeth were a form of currency in pre-European Fiji. This view has persisted for well over a hundred years. It is a most stubborn numismatic myth.
In Fiji beautifully polished whale teeth are known as “tabua.” They hold a potent spiritual value. They are considered sacred, hence the name “tabu-a” [tabu = sacred]. Traditionally they come with a braided sinnet cord attached at tip and butt.
Tabua were a social necessity. They were ceremonially presented on all formal occasions. Their acceptance by a chief bound him morally and spiritually to another party or a desired course of action. This usage continues today.
They are given to commemorate a birth, death or marriage, to receive and farewell important visitors, at the installation of a chief, to bestow a mark of particular esteem, to seek a favor, as an atonement, and to seal personal or communal contracts.
Tabua were not exclusively made of whale teeth, but before European contact, all ivory tabua in Fiji came from sperm whales stranded within the group or acquired though trade with other Pacific islands.
In his early 19th century journal, adventurer William Lockerby states that sperm whale teeth comprised “the most valuable” Fijian property. He notes:
“They hang them about their necks on great festivals, and give them with their daughters in marriage – as their marriage portion” …
In his outlandishly spelt sailing directions, designed for sandalwood merchants, Lockerby includes tabua in a list of suitable European trading merchandise:
“Ivory is the Most Vallable Article Made in the form of a Whales Tooth and those of them that is possessed by any of them lays up great riches as porshens for their Daughters & making peace with their offended Supirurs etc.”
It is these, and similar statements by other early European visitors to Fiji that gave rise to the delusion that whales’ teeth were a form of currency in Fiji.
It is a long way from an item possessing a deep spiritual significance to its having monetary value. Whether or not the 19th century European traders were aware of the difference or even cared is irrelevant. These traders were pragmatists to the last.
Raw teeth provided a valuable trade good along with muskets, white cowrie shells, barkcloth and the usual range of European goods. At best that is all whale teeth were in any economic sense: a trade item used by Europeans to obtain goods and services from the Fijians.
Unequivocal statements from social anthropologists and historians make it clear that tabua were never currency. However, this belief clings tenaciously among many numismatists and their writings. It is commonplace to see tabua described in auction catalogs as Fijian “primitive currency”.
Down Under numerous coin books declare this was indeed the case. For example, Tom Hanley and Bill James 1966 volume “Collecting Australian Coins” states, “Whales’ teeth, either whole or cut in slices, were used as money in Fiji islands before they became a British colony” (p. 209).
This assertion paraphrases and amplifies an earlier statement from Coleman Hyman in his 1893 classic “Coins, Coinages and Currency of Australasia”. He states, “In the Fiji group, among the natives, whales’ teeth are still current, though the English and other European inhabitants use of coin of various descriptions” (p. 147).
The watershed of this misconception occurs in Paul Einzig’s 1948 “Primitive Money in its Ethnological, Historical and Economic Importance”. An entire chapter is devoted to, “Whales’ teeth currency in Fiji”. The case in favor is developed progressively throughout the book, e.g. “whales’ teeth figure” … “as a favorite medium of barter” (pp. 44-45), “One single whale’s tooth was said to be enough to buy a big canoe” (p. 377), and, “It was extensively used as bride money” (p, 384-5).
Cultural anthropologists suffered few if any illusions in this matter. G.K. Roth’s extremely readable “The Fijian Way of Life” illustrates this admirably. He notes that prior to European contact Fijians had no form of money. He quotes Alison Hinston Quiggin’s scholarly “Survey of Primitive Money”. She is adamant: “In a modern scientific record the term money has been applied to an object which serves as a recognized medium of exchange and a standard value and a symbol of wealth” … “tambua [sic] did not as has been clearly stated in that record, possess such qualities. There was no size or shape which was considered as being acceptable for a definite quantity of goods or an agreed service” (pp. 105-6).
Pre-European Fiji was a trading culture. Exchanges of goods were conducted by barter between different clans, each of whom had their specialty. In this way pottery, barkcloth and wooden tanoa (kava bowls) ended up distributed through the islands. But at no stage prior to interaction with the outside world were tabua bartered. Their role was social. They operated on a higher plane than mere trade.
Like a war club or musket, a tabua was intended to accompany a warrior to his grave. Different items played vital roles in supporting a man’s spirit in its hazardous trek through the afterlife. Club and musket could defend against soul-destroying demons. The tabua provided a stone to cast at the spiritual balawa (pandanus tree). A hit ensured the dead man’s wives would be strangled and buried with him so their souls might care for his in the spirit world. Omission of a tabua left his soul uncared for in limbo.
Former Fiji Museum director, Fergus Clunie, considers a tabua as having evolved as a symbolic woman. Certainly the role played by tabua in Fijian life parallels the way in which real, live, fecund women were promised and gifted to seal bargains and cement political alliances. Clunie considers that tabua were presented in lieu of real women and came to spiritually bind the recipient to the donor inseparably.
Of wood, stones & ivory
In his “King of the Cannibal Islands” (1937) A.B. Brewster notes that at the time of his arrival in Fiji, tabua were predominantly whale ivory.
He found that other material had once been used such as cut and polished wood of the bua (frangipani). And appropriately shaped stones and shells are known to have been used. However, these were all likely little more than companions for the real thing when it was ceremonially stored in a basket.
A vast increase in the numbers of whale teeth tabua occurred in Fiji from the early 18th century with the arrival of firstly Tongan and then European traders. Prior to this point whale ivory was rare. Once polished, oiled and smoked such tabua were regarded as the acme of beauty. Their rarity enhanced their prestige and desirability.
When the Tongans arrived they brought with them various goods that included both raw and worked whale teeth. This led to some increase in tabua numbers but nothing compared with the increase that followed the arrival of European merchants seeking sandalwood and subsequently bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber).
Lockerby’s writings explain that Europeans would stop off at the New Zealand and Australian whale fisheries to stock up on whale teeth. They also brought walrus ivory from Alaska and, from Africa, the biggest potential tabua of them all, elephant tusks. However, in the latter respect they overplayed their hand.
Although size matters, shape and especially thickness when looking down from above is the real measure of a tabua’s potency. The traders soon learned they had to trim elephant tusks down to suitable whale-tooth-sized shapes, albeit somewhat chubby ones.
Within 10 years the sandalwood trade alone saw thousands of tabua introduced into Fiji. This upset the entire balance of power in the islands as the new tabua became concentrated into the hands of a few maritime chiefs. These rulers now had the essential cultural tools to undertake intrigue, alliances and wars on an unprecedented scale. For the next several decades excessive bloodletting and violence came to dominate the Fijian landscape. This carnage would finally simmer down with the arrival of British rule.
Something of the reverence and esteem in which tabua were once held has disappeared from Fiji. In April 1980 “Pacific Islands Monthly” reported few Fijian houses contained one, yet 10-15 years earlier, towards the end of British rule, nearly every Fijian home had its own. Post-independence most were sold or pawned.
For most Fijian families, when one is required today it is redeemed from the pawn shop, but sadly, where once a large tabua was offered, more often than not, a small one now suffices. But among the chiefly families the traditional custom is maintained.
When Queen Elizabeth paid II a visit to the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in 1974 marking the centenary of the cession of Fiji to the British Crown, she was formally presented with a tabua strung on its plaited sinnet cord, acknowledging her position, not only as Head of State but, more importantly, as head of the Great Council of Chiefs.
Similarly, following his first coup in 1987, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka knelt before the Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and presented him with a tabua. That gifting and acceptance were more effective than any words. They told the Fijian people all they needed to know about where allegiances now lay.
In recent times the islands’ stocks of tabua have been drained. Some have been given away to visiting dignitaries. In colonial times many were taken from Fiji by souvenir hunters. Their export is now banned but their numbers in the islands are not being appreciably replenished.
For over a hundred years there has been a growing supply problem, firstly with the cessation of 19th century trade and then the post-World War II reduction in whaling. Since 1975 the international CITES agreement has prohibited the movement of whale teeth – among many items – across international boundaries. Despite the need, a container load of teeth were turned back at the Suva wharves in recent years when they lacked the necessary CITES permits.
In the Fijian culture primitive currency is a meaningless concept. Money did not exist in any form. Certainly, Fijian chiefs bartered raw whales’ teeth with foreign entrepreneurs, but for these to be included as currency, so must cowries, muskets, barkcloth, parrot feathers, stingray barbs, sandalwood, bêche-de-mer, and of course, women.
Experience has taught me that numismatic myths are deeply embedded in the collective numismatic psyche. After all, why let facts get in the way of a good story. And so tabua will probably continue to be described as primitive currency despite my protestations to the contrary.
Those less interested in perpetuating fallacies may like to note that the first instance of tabua playing a part in Fijian numismatics occurred in 1969 when Ken Payne used one for the reverse design of Fiji’s 28.5 mm, cupro-nickel 20 cents, KM-121.
Subsequently, David Holland chose a similar motif for the $100 hammered gold piece struck by Pacific Sovereign Mint. Both results are among the more pleasing of modern coin designs. The smooth curves of each tooth together with the coils of the sinnet plait integrate well into the circular fields of both coins.
Ken Payne’s design was recycled in 2012 on the reverse of Fiji’s new, smaller, 24 mm, nickel-plated steel 20 cents, KM-334.
And in 2007 the “i tubetube” ceremony that accompanies the formal presentation of a tabua depicted by artist George Bennett on the back of the then new $50 note, P-113a. That image was reused for the 2012 issue $50, P-118a.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express.
>> Subscribe today
More Collecting Resources
• Check out the newly-updated Standard Catalog of World Coins, 2000-Date that provides accurate identification, listing and pricing information for the latest coin releases.
• With over 22,000 listings and 13,750 illustrations, the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Modern Issues is your go-to guide for modern bank notes.