The case of whale tooth money on the island of Fiji shows how a commodity can become a symbol of wealth in a collectivist society in which most trade in goods takes the form of gift exchanges, omitting the need for a common standard of value. To the people of Fiji the polished ivory teeth of the sperm whale commanded a ceremonial value and sacredness that put them beyond the realm of a fixed value compared with other goods. The idea of pricing a wide range of goods in terms of whale teeth would not have occurred to the Fijians.
Captain James Cook first set forth the customs surrounding whale teeth in his Journal describing his voyages through the Fijian and Tongan Islands in 1774. The Fijians called the whale teeth tambua, a word that connoted a sacred sense of propriety, a positive sense of what was fitting, as well as a negative sense of what was not fitting. The negative side is captured in the modern meaning of the word taboo.
Whale teeth served as the principal store of wealth among the Fijians and were considered precious articles to receive in gift or barter exchanges. No one left unhappy who received a whale tooth in an exchange, making it a de facto medium of exchange for large purchases. In the nineteenth century a single whale tooth commanded sufficient value to barter for a large canoe. It could also purchase a bride, or serve as blood money in compensation for a murdered person. To a bride a whale tooth bore the same symbolic significance as an engagement ring today. According to some reports the power of a whale tooth clenched any accompanying request, whether it was for a specific gift, an alliance, or a human life.
Whale teeth were constantly oiled and polished, and even in the later nineteenth century were preferred to gold. After Fiji became a British Crown Colony in 1874 a native Fiji official of the government asked to be paid in whale teeth, rather than sterling silver or gold sovereigns, citing the added sense of prestige and authority commanded by the sacred attributes of whale teeth in the eyes of the Fijians. The ceremonial significance of the whale teeth survived into recent times. The officials of Fiji made a formal presentation of a whale tooth to the queen of England and the duke of Edinburgh when they visited Fiji in 1982.
The native Fijians were not acquisitive in the modern sense. They traded their surplus produce for particular things they wanted, and if they did not have a particular thing in mind, they let their surplus produce rot. Gold and silver coins held no charm for them when they were first introduced. Fijian whale teeth reveal possible religious and ceremonial roots to the evolution of money that precede the need for a convenient medium of exchange to finance trade.
Davies, Glyn. 1994. A History of Money.
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.