Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A sisi fale

1886.1.1332 Sisi Fale

Number 61 in the Catalogue of Curiosities is 'An apron made of fibres of cocoanut, beset with feathers and bits of shells.'  This apron, known as a sisi fale, was one of the most prestigious items collected on Tonga.  It is made from coconut fibre, which has been plaited to form star shapes.  Rectangular extensions on the back of each star have been sewn together to form a skirt.  The coconut fibre has been decorated with red parrot feathers, small beads made from shell and a pig's tooth.

1886.1.1332 Reverse of sisi fale

Sisi fale were worn only by very high-ranking members of Tongan Society.  They could be used by the Tu'i Tonga (the divine line of Tongan kings), his sister (the Tu'i Tonga Fefine), the Tamaha (her daughter) and possibly some other descendants of the Tu'i Tonga, and would be worn on ceremonial occasions or for dancing.  

George Forster writes in 'A Voyage Round the World' that when in Tonga in October 1773 'we likewise purchased of them an apron, consisting of many wheels or stars of plaited cocoanut fibres, about three or four inches in diameter, cohering together by the projecting points, and ornamented with small red feathers and beads cut out of shells.’  This is the apron now in the Pitt Rivers collection.  The materials of the sisi fale were all considered sacred in Polynesia, and the act of combining them into a garment for chiefs was itself a sacred process.  The name sisi (decorated girdle) and fale, (house) may relate to the fact that the skirt was made in secret, away from casual observers.  

Detail of reverse.  The waist-band is at the bottom of the image

There are no sisi fale in Tonga today, as their manufacture stopped shortly after Cook's visit, probably due to social change in Tonga at that time, when the power of the Tu'i Tonga line was replaced by the Tu'i Kanokupulu line of kings with its own traditions.

The skirt is not complete, and the feathers at first sight appeared to have been eaten away by insect pests, but only in certain areas.  An explanation of the condition of the mat can be found in Reinhold Forster's 'Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World', where he writes; 'We accidentally procured a quantity of these feathers at Amsterdam, one of the Friendly Isles, where they fastened them on pieces of their stuffs.  These being carried to O-Taheitee, and shared out in little pieces, procured us a great number of hogs; for a bit of two inches square covered with feathers, would at any time, be easily purchased with a hog.'   

So the skirt was cut up and the remaining red feathers were pulled out and used as trade items, possibly to obtain, amongst other things, the Mourner's costume mentioned in previous posts.

See Adrienne L. Kaeppler, 'Eighteenth Century Tonga : New Interpretations of Tongan Society and Material Culture at the Time of Captain Cook' Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No.2 (June 1971) pp 204-220

Adrienne L' Kaeppler, 'Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and History' Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 108 No.2 1999. pp168-232

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Tongan Clubs

There are ten clubs from Tonga in the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers, described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities'  (nos.70-79) as  'Ten clubs of different shapes, some curiously carved.'

George Forster writes in 'A Voyage Round the World' in the section for October 1773 that 'the clubs of the people of this isle, were of an infinite variety of shapes, and many of them so ponderous that we could scarce manage them with one hand…by far the greatest part were carved all over in many chequered patterns, which seemed to have required a long space of time, and incredible patience…the whole surface of the plain clubs was as highly polished , as if our best workmen had made them with the best instruments.'

Four of the ten Tongan clubs - from the top, 1886.1.1439, 1886.1.1445, 1886.1.1447, 1886.1.1467

Tongan clubs, akau, make up the largest category of objects collected on Cook's voyages, comprising roughly 20 percent of the Polynesian artefacts obtained.  The fact that so many were collected reflects both the numbers of war-clubs present in Tonga at the time, and the interests of those collecting objects, perhaps with an eye on the European market.

Akau were significant objects in historical Tonga.  A club that had killed many men was considered to be mana, through a close association with an owner who was successful in battle and possibly also high ranking, and the club was tapu to people of a lower social status.  Successful clubs were given names, and sometimes also considered to be sentient and capable of limited movement.  (See Gifford, 'Tongan Society', 1929)

Akau were made from hardwood, often ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia), but many other woods were used.  The clubs in the Pitt Rivers collection all appear to be made from the same wood -  merbau (Intsia bijuga).

Microscope image of the wood of club 1886.1.1445 x9

The club was made in two stages.  First, the tufunga fo'u vaka (canoe builder),who was responsible for all the fine quality woodwork, made the body of the club, shaping it with adzes made from basalt or clam shells.  A polished finish was obtained by using shark or ray skin rasps and pumice.  Very fine tool marks can be seen at high magnification on some of the Pitt Rivers clubs.

Toolmarks from 1886.1.1436 x50

There was a lot of variation in the shape of the club.  A common type was the apa 'apai, which resembled the coconut leaf midrib used in the sport of recreational club fighting
Other forms included the bovai, or pole club, and the maungalaulau or paddle club.

Next,the tufaunga tata, who was responsible for the decorative incision of clubs and other objects, would use tools made from sharks teeth to decorate the club.  The designs used are often also found on Tongan barkcloth and basketry, and many have heliaki, or hidden meaning.  Some of the designs are ideograms, like this panel on 1886.1.1349, which represents flying birds:

(See 'Akau Tau: Contextualising Tongan War Clubs, Andy Mills, Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol 118 2009 pp7-46)

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Tongan Noseflute

Numbers 82 and 83 in the Catalogue of Curiosities are described as 'Two flutes, for the nose.'  Number 83, 1886.1.1534, is now thought to be from Vanuatu, but No.82, 1886.1.1532, is certainly a noseflute, or fangufangu,  from Tonga.  

1886.1.1532 Noseflute, Tonga

In Tonga flutes blown with the nose were used to awaken chiefs - it was considered very bad manners to do it any other way.   Famously, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were woken by the sound of noseflutes during their visit to the Kingdom of Tonga in 1954.  At the time of Cooks' visit, noseflutes were also played in the evenings 'for pleasant amusements'

The noseflute in the Forster Collection is made from a piece of the large bamboo known as pitu, with a node at each end, forming a hollow sealed cylinder.  Holes were made with a shell-bladed hand twist-drill close to the node at each end, with three further holes then made roughly equally spaced along the length of tube between the first two holes.  A final hole was made opposite the central hole. 

The noseflute could theoretically have been played from either end, although it seems that one end was usually preferred.  The playing position involves blocking one nostril with the thumb, and using the other nostril to blow into the first hole, nearest the node.  The second or third finger of the same hand would be used to block the second hole.  The thumb of the other hand is used to support the instrument, while a finger of that hand blocks the hole nearest the end of the flute.  Only two holes appear to have been used, giving a range of four notes.

Detail of decoration
This flute has been decorated by burning a design onto the surface.

See R. Moyle, 'Tongan Musical Instruments', Galpin Society Journal Vol.29 May 1976 pp64-83

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Tongan Combs

In the Forster collection are three combs from Tonga.  They are described in the Catalogue simply as '97. A parcel of combs'.


Combs, or helu, were made from the midrib of the coconut leaflet, which were interwoven with coconut fibre in various colours to create patterns.  The tops of the midribs were either squared off, or cut to form triangles of various forms.

George Humphrey, a prominent ethnographic dealer whose museum (the Museum Humfredianum) was sold in 1779, describes Tongan combs his his museum catalogue -   '…Combs from the Friendly Isles made of small sticks of bamboo, fastened by a kind of Wicker-work made with Cocoa-nut fibres, some of which being coloured black are wrought into various figures.  Out of several dozen of these Combs which have been brought very few are alike which shows the great natural taste for invention these ingenious Islanders have and the great pains they take to complete their performances.  The like may be said of their other Manufactures.' *

As in other parts of the Pacific, combs served primarily as decorative items to be worn in the hair.  In Tonga, they were worn by women.

Binding of 1886.1.1556 twined in two colours of coconut fibre x10

Top of comb 1886.1.1555 x10

The microscope images of the coconut fibre bindings show how intricate patterns could be created. 

*Quoted in 'Cook's Pacific Encounters.  The Cook-Forster Collection of the Georg-August University of Gottingen' National Museum of Australia Press 2006.