Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The word money is as old as English itself. (The etymology of the word is debated, and it came either from Old French or via Old French from the classical Latin term for a ‘mint’ – monēta was the name of a goddess whose temple in Rome was a place where coins were manufactured.) The Oxford English Dictionary – whose earliest citations date from the fourteenth century – defines it as follows: ‘Any generally accepted medium of exchange which enables a society to trade goods without the need for barter; any objects or tokens regarded as a store of value and used as a medium of exchange.’ However, this may require some refinement, for anthropologists have begun to question the ‘tendency to postulate a fundamental division between nonmonetary and monetary economies (or even societies)’, especially when they are treated as defining features of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ societies respectively (Parry and Bloch 1989, 7).
In practice, different forms of exchange (monetary transactions, barter, the exchange of gifts) coexist and overlap in all societies (Thomas 1991, 7–29). This qualification becomes especially important when studying the relations formed between early modern European travellers and the people they encountered in other parts of the world. For instance, the first reports of Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean suggest an evident asymmetrical exchange of gold for ‘trifles’, but whose significance (for both parties) is unclear, as notions of friendship and economic calculation are complicated by other factors, including understandings of the acquisition of territory and the ‘gift’ of Christianity (Murray 2000, 3–6).
In their accounts of late eighteenth-century French landings in Tahiti and Easter Island respectively, Bougainville and Laperouse attribute to the Pacific islanders both a childlike innocence that leads them to accept useless ‘pacotillage’ in exchange for objects of value, and a more calculating worldliness that dictates a preference for highquality goods, in both cases ignoring the possibility that they might have valued them in terms other than those recognized by Europeans (Greene 2002). Contemporaneous overtures to authorities in China and Japan by Lord George Macartney and John Saris began with the offering of gifts, but while the recipients interpreted these as a recognition of their higher authority, the English traders were disappointed that they were not reciprocated by the granting of commercial privileges (Klekar 2006).