Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: February 15th, 2021

Article Discussed: Silva, K. (2018). Marriage presentations, gift making, and identity in Urban East Timor. Oceania, 88(1), 127-147.

Marriage presentation occur in cultures across the globe, involving a series of exchanges between the two family sides of wife-takers and wife-givers. The practice very generally is for wife-takers to compensate wife-givers, as well as to ensure integration of wives in to their new families. In Timor this practice is known as barlake. In this article, Silva (2018) explores where barlake fits in the modern context, and in particular, the moral implications of certain Dili residents associating barlake with commodity exchange as opposed to gift exchange.

Residents who migrated to Dili after 1975, and therefore more recently connected to rural tradition, support barlake and associate it within the realm of gift exchange. From their perspective, the act of exchanging gifts elevates the dignity and respect afforded to the prospective wife not because she has a material “value” but because the exchanges require a certain level of sacrifice and commitment. The participation of wife-givers in exchange also demonstrate publicly that the prospective wife comes from a family of social worth. Lastly, barlake does not occur in one condensed moment of time. The exchange and its commitments are prolonged over a period of years to ensure that the relationship between families is continual and not that can be mistaken as a “purchase”.

Residents who migrated to Dili before 1975, and therefore more connected to Dili’s colonial history, do not support barlake and associate it more within the realm of commodity exchange. Being more historically engrained in the cultures of urban commodity exchnage, barlake to closely resembles the exchnage of goods and services. As a result they believe the “transaction” alientes the prospective wife from her family as if she were sold. Similarly, the association fo being transacted degrades the prospective wife’s dignity and respect in the wife-takers family. The moral objections of this group can also be traced back to their Chritian virtue which espouses that people, unlike things, should not be assessed according to their material value. Interesting those who do not support barlake still engage in exchnages around marriage. However they try to differntiate it from barlake due to the perception that it is commodity exchnage.

Silva (2018) details the many strategies both groups use to distance marriage presentations away from commodity exchnage.

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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