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.)