Money In North America. Essay

3227 words - 13 pages

Apart from its intrinsic interest, history can often shed light on current political controversies. Many political disputes revolve around questions of economics and of all the matters that fall under the purview of economic history there is one that has had, and still has, a profound impact on many aspects of everyone's daily life, and that is money.________________________________________The Potlatch, Gift Exchange and Barter.Money is often, mistakenly, thought to have been invented simply because of the inconvenience of barter. In fact the development of money was due to many causes and even barter itself often had important social functions in addition to its purely economic purposes.The potlatch ceremonies of Native Americans were a form of barter that had social and ceremonial functions that were at least as important as its economic functions. Consequently when the potlatch was outlawed in Canada (by an act that was later repealed) some of the most powerful work incentives were removed - to the detriment of the younger sections of the Indian communities. This form of barter was not unique to North America. Glyn Davies points out that the most celebrated example of competitive gift exchange was the encounter, around 950 BC, of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. "Extravagant ostentation, the attempt to outdo each other in the splendour of the exchanges, and above all, the obligations of reciprocity, were just as typical in this celebrated encounter, though at a fittingly princely level, as with the more mundane types of barter in other parts of the world." (page 13).Wampum - Monetary Uses by Native Americans and SettlersSince the use of primitive forms of money in North America (as in the Third World) is more recent and better documented than in Europe, the American experience is discussed in the introductory chapter on the origins of money. Whereas the Incas in Peru had reached a high level of civilization without the use of money, in Mexico the Aztecs and Mayas used gold dust (kept in transparent quills) and cocoa beans (kept for large payments in sacks of 24,000) as money. The best known form of money among the native Americans north of Mexico was wampum, made out of the shells of a type of clam. However its use was not confined to the coastal states but spread far inland, e.g. the powerful Iroquois amassed large quantities by way of tribute. Wampum's use as money undoubtedly came about as an extension of its desirability for ornamentation. Beads of it were strung together in short lengths of about 18 inches or much longer ones of about 6 feet.Wampum came to be used extensively for trade by the colonists as well as the natives, e.g. in 1664 Stuyvesant arranged a loan in wampum worth over 5,000 guilders for paying the wages of workers constructing the New York citadel (page 458). Like more modern forms of money, wampum could be affected by inflation. Some tribes such as the Narragansetts specialized in manufacturing wampum (by drilling holes...

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