Friday, 28 June 2013

Photographing Barkcloth

Last week we photographed some of the large backcloths and mats from the Cook-voyage collections here at the Pitt Rivers.  This takes a bit of planning, as the only way to do it is to use the Researcher's Room, which has a light well opening into the floor above.  We can lay the barkcloth out on the floor or table, and take a photo by leaning over the railing. One barkcloth, recorded as being in three pieces, turned out to actually be a single piece, over 12m long - much too big even for that space!  Here are a few of the images, which will soon be available on the Pitt Rivers online databases, and on the new Cook-voyage collection website, currently under construction.

Barkcloth, Tonga  1886.1.1225

Mat, Tonga  1886.1.1172

Barkcloth, Tahiti  1886.1.1234

Barkcloth, Tahiti 1886.1.1240

Mat, Tonga 1886.1.1174

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

'A fire in the ship'

On Monday 1st August 1774, the Resolution was off the coast of Erromango, one of the islands of Vanuatu.  In 'A Voyage Round the World' George Forster described a terrifying incident as they approached the island  - 'Towards ten o'clock, we were most dreadfully alarmed by a fire in the ship.  Confusion and horror appeared in all our faces, at the bare mention of it; and it was some time before proper measures were taken to stop its progress: for in these moments of danger few are able to collect their faculties and to act with cool deliberation.  The mind which unexpected and imminent danger cannot ruffle for a time, is one of the scarcest phænomena in human nature; no wonder then, that it was not to be met among the small number of persons to to whom the ship was entrusted.  To be on board of a ship on fire, is perhaps one of the most trying situations that can be imagined; a storm itself, on a dangerous coast, is less dreadful, as it does not so entirely preclude all hopes of escaping with life.  Providentially, the fire of this day was very trifling, and extinguished in a few moments.  Our fears suggested that it was in the sail-room; but we soon found, that a piece of Taheitee cloth, carelessly laid near the lamp in the steward's room had taken fire, and raised a quantity of smoke, which gave the alarm.'

Burn marks on 1886.1.1235 (Forster No. 15)

Detail of damage to 1886.1.1235

Several pieces of barkcloth in the Forster collection have burn marks on them, which had always puzzled us.  Could the fire on board the Resolution be the reason why?  Interestingly, during a visit last week from Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, a barkcloth thought possibly to be from Hawaii was identified as Tahitian, and it too has significant fire damage.   

Barkcloth 1886.1.1253.1 Showing more extensive fire damage

We are fairly sure that there are several 'lost' barkcloth pieces from the Forster collection in the Pitt Rivers museum, but since they have lost their labels, or maybe didn't ever have a unique Forster Number label (for example, Forster No. 48 in the Catalogue of Curiosities is described as 'Another parcel of Otaheitee cloth' and it is unlikely that each had a label) identification is difficult.  We can be fairly sure however that this newly discovered piece of barkcloth is part of the Forster collection - and maybe even the piece mentioned by Forster, 'carelessly laid near the lamp in the steward's room…'

Friday, 7 June 2013

'A bundle of arrows, some of them poisoned.'

Arrows, 1886.1.1184, 1185, 1186, 1190, 1191

These arrows are from Vanuatu, and described in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', under the heading 'Mallicollo' as '144. A bundle of arrows, some of them poisoned.' and, from Tanna, No. 152 'A bundle of arrows.' The arrows are made from reed, and most have sharpened wooden points.  One, 1886.1.1844, at the bottom in the above photo, is recorded as having a bone point when it was transferred from the Ashmolean Museum to the Pitt Rivers in 1886 - this arrow is recorded in plate XXVIII of Cook's account of the second voyage.  

'Weapons &c at Mallicollo and Tanna' The arrow 1886.1.1844 is probably No.5

As the Resolution approached Malakula on Thursday 21st July 1774, George Forster recorded that some islanders approached in canoes.  'By degrees they ventured near the ship, and received a few pieces of Taheitee cloth, which they eagerly accepted.  Presently they handed up some of their arrows in exchange; at first such as were pointed with wood only, but soon after even such as were armed with points of bone, and daubed with a black gummy stuff, on which account we suspected them of being poisoned. A young Tahitian puppy was therefore wounded in the leg with one of these arrows, to try its effect, but we perceived no dangerous symptoms.'

A day or two later, Forster mentions poisoned arrows again.  'They began to sell us their common arrows, and afterwards those which were poisoned; but advised us not to try the points against our fingers, making us understand, by the plainest signs, that with a common arrow, a man might be shot through the arm without dying, but that the slightest scratch with one of the other sort was mortal.  If notwithstanding this information, we attempted to bring the point on our fingers, they caught hold of our arm, with the most friendly gesture, to save us, as it were, from imminent danger.'

During the night, one of the sailors on board the Resolution caught a shark nine feet long, which was eaten by the crew.  Although Forster did not regard them as palatable, he thought they they were 'at all times preferable to salt provisions.'  However, when the shark was cut open, it was found to have the bone point of a poisoned arrow in its skull.  'The wound was healed so perfectly that not the smallest vestige of it appeared on the outside….Fishes therefore are not affected by these arrows, which are thought to be poisoned.'

When summing up the visit to Malakula, Forster again reflected on poisoned arrows, noting that 'it is at this moment doubtful, whether their arrows are really poisoned.  The dog on which we made the experiment on the day of our arrival recovered perfectly without any assistance…Another experiment was tried upon the sequel upon a different dog; an incision was made in his leg with a lancet, and the gummy substance, supposed to be the poison, was laid into it, and covered with a plaster.  The dog was very lame for a few days, from the swelling and festering of the wound, but gradually recovered like the first.'

According to Felix Speiser, in 'Ethnology of Vanuatu: An Early Twentieth Century Study, trans. D.Q.Stephenson (Bathurst, 1990 (orig. 1923)), 200-201) the resinous substance used to coat bone arrows was not necessarily poisonous, but it often contained tetanus bacilli, which would often lead to death.  Some reports suggest that arrowheads were also treated with putrefying flesh from decomposing bodies. (See George Forster, 'A Voyage Round the World' Vol II.  Ed. Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2000.)