Drum Money

Page 100

The people of Alor, a small island close to Indonesia, used brass kettledrums and brass gongs as the principle forms of money. The drums, called mokos, played the dominant role in this monetary system, while gongs played a lesser role, and small change was made with arrows. Gongs without defects were treasured for their ceremonial value, but damaged gongs changed hands as money. Pigs also filled a niche in the monetary system of Alor, and one pig was worth a certain type of moko valued at 5 rupiah, a money of account that originated with the rupee in India. Pigs were highly valued because of their ceremonial importance in festivities.

Mokos came in a range of monetary denominations, each with its own name, and varying in value from 1 rupiah to 3,000 rupiahs. Most of these drums entered Alor from East Java, but some of the drums were reported to have been discovered buried in the ground. Although some drums were regarded as fake imitations of the real article, they nevertheless were readily accepted in exchange. Right before World War I the Dutch government sought to displace drum currency with modern money, banning the importation of drums, and purchasing hundreds of mokos for scrap.

Drums functioned as a medium of exchange, store of value, and standard of deferred payment, but seemed not be used as a unit of account for pricing other goods, aside from the fixed ratio between mokos and pigs. Most trade took the form of barter.

The accounts of debtors and creditors were composed almost exclusively of drums and gongs. Owners of drums and gongs were eager to lend them, partly to prevent their own creditors from seizing them. Ceremonial festivals were occasions for settling accounts, usually with passionate haggling and quarreling. Whenever a creditor found a debtor and demanded repayment, his own creditors crowded around the transaction, and demanded repayment of their own loans when drums and gongs passed from the first debtor to the first creditor. Subsidiary creditors of second or third degree might get involved. The islanders were enmeshed in a web of creditor-debtor relationships that focused the attention of the men while the women did much of the work. A women who got involved in financial affairs was called a man-woman and a man who gathered wood and gardened was called a woman-man.

Poetry of the Alor was known to take up the unromantic theme of quarrels between debtors and creditors on a scale that might suggest a lack of refinement to the people of the highly commercialized societies of the industrialized world. Debtors and creditors were put on a level with star-crossed lovers and tragic heroes of Western literature.