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.'