Mat Currency of Samoa

Prior to World War II mats were the closest things to currency on the islands of Samoa. The women of Samoa wove mats of two to three yards square, investing months and sometimes years making a single mat. In British currency the mats ranged between 2 and 40 shillings in value. Samoans paid the wages in mats for artisans engaged in constructing houses and boats. Private ownership of land was vague, and rent took the form of gifts in mats. The bridegroom and his friends received a large number of mats at the celebration of the wedding. Chiefs married several women, in part to get their hands on more mats.

The value of the mats varied with the quality of material, and perhaps equally important, with historical and sentimental associations. Mats that had been used as the “top mat” at a wedding, or conclusion of a peace treaty, acquired a sentimental and historical significance that enhanced their value in the eyes of Samoans, despite wear and tear and the normal deterioration of age. The governor of Samoa during the period of German colonialism received a request that mats be rendered unpawnable because of their sacredness and significance. Mats endowed with special historical and sentimental significance became heirlooms that were rarely traded, but ordinary mats were exchanged frequently.

These mats had no fixed negotiable value, falling short of a completely evolved medium of exchange in that important area. Some of their uses, however, bore a closer resemblance to modern money. At election time candidates for king and chief distributed mats to voters, and whoever could afford to distribute the most mats stood the best chance of winning the election. After the election, successful candidates received mats as gifts from the people. Samoans did fix fines and blood money in mats, and assuaged the feelings of angry husbands with gifts of mats.

Having no fixed negotiable value, mats could not function as a monetary unit of account, an important function of money. However, mats did function as a medium of exchange, and a store of value. Samoans saved mats for their children to inherit.

Mat money may owe its origin to the collectivist nature of Samoan society. Private ownership was not well defined. Land was vaguely claimed by individuals, but movable objects, including modern money, had to be given up at the request of a friend or family member, and taking movable objects without permission was also common. Mats, however, acquired sentimental attachments that lifted them above the vulnerability of other movable objects, and made them the only possible means of storing value.