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)