Kula Ring

Extending around the islands of Milne Bay Province is an invisible circle, or kula ring, that binds the islands together in a system of ritual exchange. The ring encompasses the Trobriand, Muyua (Woodlark), Louisiade, Samarai and D’Entrecasteaux islands. In the past, the kula ring involved the trade of red-shell necklaces, called bagi or soulava, in a clockwise direction; and white shell armlets, mwali, in an anticlockwise direction. Each trader had a kula partner on their nearest neighbouring island in each direction. Once a year, the trader and a delegation from his clan journeyed to the island of his kula partner to receive gifts in elaborate public ceremonies. On a separate significant date he would be visited by another kula partner who would be presented with the prized gifts. Accompanying these voyages were other ceremonial objects and surplus fish and yams to be exchanged with neighbouring islands. Since the bagis and mwalis rarely left the circle, this system ensured a distribution of wealth among the islanders.

The exchange mostly occurred between traditional families of high status and thus helped to reinforce clan-based hierarchies. Today some people still journey to the island home of a traditional kula partner bearing ritual gifts; ideally, they 'move with the spirits' in a traditional sailing canoe, but more often they have to make do with dinghies.