Feather Money of Santa Cruz

The use of feather money survived on the Santa Cruz Islands, a group of islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, into the post–World War II era. The red feathers of this money came either from the parrot Trichoglossus massena, or from a red-scarlet honey-eater named Mzomela cardinalis. The feathers were integrated into striplike coils of fiber extending 15 feet in length and 2 to 3 feet in width. The outer side of these coils was blanketed with overlapping rows of red feathers.

The feather money owed its high monetary value to the labor-intensive effort required to produce it. Capturing the birds was no small task, and each bird furnished only a few of the feathers suitable for the purpose of making a coil. Each coil was made by hand, further adding to the labor invested in each unit of money. The attachment of wooden emblems and charms partially accounted for the value of each feather coil. The production of a coil of feather money took 500 to 600 man-hours.

The feather money was too valuable to be useful for an everyday medium of exchange, but it was much in demand as a store of value. It was stored away with great care in a secure place that was dry and warm in order to preserve the color and elasticity of the coils. Wealthy individuals stored their feather money in huts built specifically for that purpose. The coils lost value as their feathers wore off.

The islanders paid fines, ransoms, and blood money in feather money. When a Bishop Patterson was murdered in 1871 on nearby Reef Islands, his murderer paid a fine of four coils of feather money, which was about the same amount that was needed to purchase an oceangoing canoe. A bride brought 10 coils or more, depending upon her beauty and habits of industry.

The trouble that went into the production of feather money helped keep the supply down, making the feather money scarce and valuable. Feathers probably became acceptable for money because of their beauty, which made them highly esteemed, and because significant prestige became attached to the their ownership. Gold and silver may have started as money for similar reasons. As Australian money began to invade the Santa Cruz Islands as a medium of exchange, the price of feather money in Australian money steadily rose, showing the hold of the feather money on the minds of the islanders. The attraction of feather money appears to have been purely aesthetic, independent of religious significance or physiological need.