Friday, 25 January 2013

'A breast-plate or war gorget'

1887.1.392 Taumi or Gorget, Tahiti

This Tahitian breastplate or taumi was collected on Cook's first voyage.  It was part of the collection of thirty objects given by Joseph Banks to Christ Church, his old Oxford college.

Taumi were worn by high ranking warriors, and they may have been worn in pairs, one on the front and one on the back - an illustration by John Webber shows a girl bringing a large roll of barkcloth 'as a present', to which are attached two taumi, suggesting that they may have belonged in pairs.  

'A young woman of Otaheite bringing a present' John Webber

Roger Rose, in 'Taumi Gorgets from the Society Islands' (in 'Artistic Heritage in a Changing Pacific', University of Hawaii Press, 1993) suggests that professional warriors on Tahiti, 'aito or toa, who achieved their position through valour, but who were also members of the elite ari'i class of society, or of the slightly lower rank of ra-atira, were eligible to wear the taumi in battle.  It is possible that the taumi represented the jaws of a shark, giving the wearer shark-like qualities.

The taumi is made from strips plaited coconut fibre, supported by a grid of ie'ie (Freycinetia sp.) aerial root which has been tied together with coconut fibre.   

1887.1.392 - back showing framework of ie'ie aerial root

The gorget is decorated with rows of pigeon feathers, interspersed with rows of sharks' teeth, possibly from the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharinus longimanus).  It has been suggested that it is possible to obtain only about ten or twelve matching teeth from a shark - there are 130 teeth on the gorget, so this represents a resource of considerable value.   

Detail of shark teeth

The gorget is fringed with dog hair, again a rare and precious resource.   

Detail of dog hair holders

The hair is bound into 'hair holders' bound with coconut fibre.  It is possible that the dog hair was traded for from the Tuamotu Islands.  Johann Reinhold Forster, in 'Observations Made During A Voyage Round the World' notes that 'the whole gorget is fringed with long white dogs hair, imported from the Low Isles (Tuamotus) to O-Tahietee, and the Society Isles'.  

He also observed that 'The Low-Islands have a race of dogs with long white hair, which the natives employ in fringing their breastplates or war gorgets; and these low islanders cannot cultivate the mulberry tree on their sandy, barren ledges of lands, which includes their salt lagoons; therefore the these reciprocal wants, form a kind of commerce between the inhabitants of the high and low islands, and a mutual exchange of superfluities.’   

This idea of trading links between Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands seems to be confirmed by a group of dog-hair holders, strung onto coconut fibre cord for storage or transport, in the British Museum (LMS210).  These were possibly from Ana’a Island in the Tuamotus.  
In 'Footprints in the Sand: Banks's Maori Collection, Cook's First Voyage 1768-71', by Paul Tapsell, (in Discovering Cook's Collections, edited by Michelle Hetherington and Howard Morphy (Canberra: National Museum of Australia, 2009), the possibility is raised that this object may have been a personal possession of Tupaia (Tupaea in Maori).  Tupaia was a high ranking priest taken on board the Endeavour on Tahiti as a navigational guide. Tupaia's belongings may have been appropriated by Joseph Banks after Tupaia's death in Batavia in 1770. Tapsell writes: 'So what happened to Tupaea's belongings, the taonga, after his death? Surely a high priest of ariki status would have had his own personal ornaments? Perhaps the chiefly breast ornament [1887.1.392] and flute [1903.130.20] now properly attributed as part of Banks's Christ Church collection were originally Tupaea's personal possessions.'

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Helmet (Whow) of wickerwork

Joseph Banks painted by Benjamin West, Usher Gallery, Lincoln.  

There are only two Tahitian Priests's helmets (fau) dating from the eighteenth century in existence today.  One is in the British Museum, and was probably collected by Joseph Banks on the first voyage.  It is possibly the one in the portrait above.  The other is Forster No 5 'The Helmet (Whow) of wickerwork four feet and a half high, covered with pigeon feathers in front, and ornamented with tropicbirds feathers on the edges.'

Pitt Rivers Fau - 1886.1.1683

This type of headdress was first described by Joseph Banks on Ra'iatea in August 1769:

‘Gratefull possibly for the presents we had made to these girls the people in our return tryd every method to Oblige us; particularly in one house the master orderd one of his people to dance for our amusement which he did thus:
He put upon his head a large cylindrical basket about 4 feet long and 8 inches in diameter, on the front of which was fastned a facing of feathers bending forwards at the top and edged round with sharks teeth and the tail feathers of tropick birds: with this on he dancd moving slowly and often turning his head round, sometimes swiftly throwing the end of his headdress or whow so near the faces of the spectators as to make them start back, which was a joke that seldom faild of making every body laugh especialy if it happned to one of us.’ 

A fau - sketch by Sydney Parkinson

The Pitt Rivers fau possibly belonged to the chief Patatau, as George Forster recorded in his journal for the 28th April 1774:

‘Potatow brought on board his monstrous helmet of war five feet high, and sold it for red feathers; some others followed his example, and targets without number were bought by almost every sailor. ‘ 
The function of the headdress in the Society Islands at the time remains a subject for debate.  

William Hodges, Fleet at Otaheite

According to Steven Hooper ‘we can be sure that fau were worn by men of high status in a warrior display context, certainly on board large naval vessels and probably on land.’  Birds’ feathers were associated with divinity on Tahiti and the public displays of these large headdresses together with huge war canoes, and quantities of bark cloth sent out an impression of wealth and power.
Karen Stevenson and Steven Hooper, ‘Tahitian Fau’, Journal of the Polynesian Society Special Issue ‘Polynesian Art Histories and Meanings in Cultural Contexts’ 116 No.2 (2007)

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Crossing the Antartic Circle

In January 1773, the Resolution and Adventure were entering the far Southern latitudes, looking for the landmass that the French navigator Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier had called Cape Circumcision.  Cook was instructed to find out if this island was part of an undiscovered southern continent.  The landmass had been incorrectly charted and in fact the first landing on the island, now re-christened Bouvet Island, didn't occur until 1822.

'A view of the ice islands, seen the 9th Jan. 1773' After William Hodges 

On Saturday the 9th January 1773, George Forster wrote; 'in the morning, we saw a large island of ice, surrounded with many small broken pieces, and the weather being moderate we brought to, hoisted out the boats, and sent them to take up as much of the small ice as they could.  We piled up the lumps on the quarter-deck, packed them into casks, and after dinner melted them in the coppers, and obtained about thirty days water, in the course of this day, and in the latitude of 61o 36' south…A picturesque view of some large masses of ice, and of our ships and boats employed in watering from small ice, is inserted in Captain Cook's account of this voyage.'

The ships went on to make the first ever crossing of the Antarctic Circle in 1773, after which Cook sailed along the ice for a further two months, looking for a way to sail further south.

Friday, 4 January 2013

'A piece of their brown cloth.'

This is another piece of barkcloth from Cook's second voyage - Forster No.49, listed in the section for the Friendly Isles (Tonga) as 'A piece of their brown cloth.'

1886.1.1239 Barkcloth, Tonga

Original Forster number label, together with labels added at the Ashmolean Museum before transfer to the Pitt Rivers in 1884.

Barkcloth, together with mats, are amongst the possessions most important to Tongans, who regard them as koloa, or wealth.  Adrienne Kaeppler write in her essay 'Tonga - Entry into Complex Hierarchies' in 'James Cook - Gifts and Treasures from the South Seas. The Cook/Forster Collection, Gottingen' Prestel-Verlag, Munich 1998, that 'koloa, made by women, are complimentary to ngaue, products derived from agricultural work and animal husbandry, and produced by men.  Koloa, products made by women, are prestigious, as are the women themselves.  In contrast, products made by men are considered 'work', and like the men are powerful.  The ngaue of men regenerates people physically, while the koloa of women regenerates them culturally.  Both are necessary to regenerate and reproduce society…the fabrication of koloa is not a craft, but a fine art which creates valuables, an important distinction in Tongan culture.'

The majority of barkcloth on Tonga is made from the paper mulberry.  At the time of Cook's voyages, the bark was stripped from the tree and briefly soaked to soften it.  The strips were placed on a wooden anvil and beaten out with a grooved beater, folding them and beating several thicknesses, then shaking the folds out and beating again, until the width of the strips had increased from 8-10cm to as much as 50cm.  Two of these sheets were felted together, to form a piece of tapa (on Tonga, this term referred only to undecorated barkcloth) called a feta'aki.  These were dried in the sun, and then stored in the houses of women.  Tapa was thus always available for making ngatu, large decorated sheets of barkcloth.

The ngatu collected by the Forsters in either October 1772 or June 1773 is a ngatu 'uli, or black ngatu.  Sheets of feta'aki were pasted together with arrowroot, and at the same time dye was rubbed into the surface of the barkcloth.  The fact that the sheets were pasted together means that there are no beater marks visible on the surface of the barkcloth, and the texture is different to backcloth from, for example, Tahiti. 

The pasting and dyeing process was carried out on a curved wooden board called a papa 'koka'anga, to which textured tablets or kupesi could be attached to give a pattern to the surface of the finished barkcloth.  The kupesi were usually made from palm leaf and sheath, carrying an embroidered relief design, or coconut fibre cords and leaf midribs were attached directly to the wooden base.  These design tablets could not withstand being beaten, hence the need to paste and rub the feta'aki strips together. Sometimes matting was stretched over the papa to form a design, and this is what seems to have been used on the central panel of the Pitt Rivers barkcloth. 

Pattern on the surface of the central panel

The border has a design of parallel lines, similar to patterns formed by using cords attached to the papa directly. 

Pattern on border panels
 (See Kooijman, 'Tapa in Polynesia', Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 234, Bishop Musuem Press, Honolulu, Hawaii 1972).  

A liquid brown dye was obtained from the bark of the koka tree (Bischofia javanica, Bishopwood) and this was rubbed into the surface of the ngatu using a pad of barkcloth.  The dye probably helped the layers to stick together, and gave the surface a glazed appearance.  The surface was blackened using a dye in powder form, fukai tutui, made from burnt candelnuts (Aleurites moluccana), which was sprinkled over the surface of the ngatu and rubbed in with a pad soaked in koka dye.  The black dye was difficult to make, requiring several days and nights of work, and was one reason for the high status of ngatu 'uli