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)