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.