Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A club from Malakula

Club 1886.1.1466

This club is from Vanuatu, from the island of Malakula, which Cook visited at the end of July 1774.  It is number 142 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', and is one of only three items collected in 'Mallicollo', the others being a bow and a bundle of poisoned arrows.  Meetings with the inhabitants of Malakula only occurred on the beaches - the visitors were not permitted to venture inland.  As a result the objects collected here are the kinds of things that would have been carried on the person.

George Forster writes in 'A Voyage Round the World' that 'Besides bows and arrows they wore a club of the casuarina-wood, which hung from their right shoulder , from a thick rope, made of a kind of grass.  This club was commonly knobbed at one end, and very well polished, like all their manufactures.  It did not exceed two feet and a half in length, and appeared to be reserved for close engagement, after emptying the quiver.'  The inhabitants of the island were persuaded to sell their arms for 'a handkerchief, or a piece of Taheitee cloth, or English frieze' (a type of coarse cloth).  As they departed Malakula, Forster said that that 'the natives came to us with all their fourteen canoes, and sold us great numbers of arrows of all kinds and some clubs….they seemed very eager to part with their arms for Taheitee cloth.'

Club head

The club in the Pitt Rivers collection is Janus-headed, having two faces with highly conventionalised features. Lissant Bolton, in her chapter entitled 'Place, Warfare and Trade 1700-1840' in 'Art in Oceania: A New History' (Peter Brunt et al. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012) writes that 'part of the Forster Collection now in the Pitt Rivers  Museum, Oxford, is a club collected at Port Sandwich, Malakula Vanuatu, in July 1774. Kirk Huffman identifies it as a "rare type of high-status club" that signifies links between south-east Malakula and west Ambrym, north Ambrym and south Pentecost. Although the club was very likely made where it was collected, it appears that this, one of the first objects ever collected by Europeans in island Melanesia, was an item in a ritual network that linked a number of adjacent islands and regions. This kind of club could be used as a weapon, but also in ceremonies and as a dance club. It was above all an object that related to a complex system of status enhancement: it would have been owned by a high-ranking man, and would have signified his status as a someone to be treated with respect.'