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Collecting from the collectors: Pacific islanders and the spoils of Europe1

by Jennifer Newell

Entanglements between Pacific islanders and Europeans over material goods have always been complicated. Encounters on island shores in the late eighteenth century were usually accompanied by the trading of objects: swapping each other's manufactured goods, gathering and giving plant and animal specimens, presenting lavish welcoming gifts, bartering for provisions and the company of women, bickering and hoodwinking. Objects played a key role in shaping meetings between cultures in the Pacific.

Mourning dress, front and back
Cook's Pacific Encounters exhibition, Mourning dress heva, front and back views, National Museum of Australia, 2006. Photos: George Serras.

Enlightenment Europeans visiting Pacific islands were quintessential collectors, with a legendary passion for gathering material evidence and souvenirs of their travels. What is not so often recognised is the equal enthusiasm for collecting among the people the Europeans were visiting. Indigenous peoples had a similar range of reasons for wanting to acquire European goods. The passion to acquire exotic objects was mutual.

Kamehameha I, the great chief (ali'i) of Hawaii, was one of the Pacific's most conspicuous collectors of European material culture. In 1778 the arrival of the first tall ship from Europe, Cook's Resolution, presented Kamehameha with a new avenue to augment his already rising status. Like any other major chief he owned sumptuous, feathered regalia, rolls of fine barkcloth and polished wooden bowls made by his people. But Kamehameha also worked to amass objects made by people in distant lands. He owned piles of European brocade rugs, shoes, Chinese porcelain dinner sets, English silver and glassware and dress uniforms made from soft woven cloth. He had a cannonade to protect the shore and in the bay were his 30 American-built ships. All these possessions worked to demonstrate to his subjects his growing spiritual and material power and authority: his mana. Operating in the same way as his feathered cloaks, these showy new possessions extended Kamehameha's bodily presence and made clear his ability to maintain his people's prosperity. Kamehameha's mana did indeed increase; with a combination of military and diplomatic successes, he was not only able to repulse two Russian attacks but was the first ali'ito unite the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago.2

Encounters across cultures

Many eighteenth-century visitors to the Pacific spoke derisively of islander collecting, seeing the locals' enthusiasm for obtaining European objects as grasping, naïve, or downright criminal. A typical complaint was that islanders were − as one missionary reported of the Tahitians − 'covetous and eager after property. They are continually asking us for presents'.3 Islanders helping themselves to the ironwork, sailcloth, clothes and tools they found on board visiting ships exasperated the captains. Officers and sailors were often surprised at the intensity of pressure from islanders to engage in barter. It was exactly the islanders' desire to obtain European goods, though, which made it possible for European voyagers, missionaries and settlers to engage in trade to secure essential food, fresh water and timber, as well as the exotic goods the islanders produced. Provisions and curiosities could not sustainably be taken by force. Without the islanders' interest in trade, the resources and natural and artificial curiosities the Europeans wanted to gather would have been beyond reach.

The political, maritime and scientific establishments of Britain and France had turned their attention to the Pacific after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. Both British and French navigators were searching for new territory, new sources of wealth and new knowledge of the world. Their rivalry gave urgency to these imperial and Enlightenment endeavours. The ships' captains needed to find land during their explorations across the expanses of the Pacific; they needed to secure food, fresh water and timber. Sighting land was not a guarantee of success, however, as inhabitants usually vastly outnumbered the crew, were well-armed and hostile to strangers. These initial encounters were therefore approached with anxious care.

First exchanges

Captain Wallis and his crew were the first Europeans to approach Tahiti, an island in the central Pacific. As the early morning fog lifted from around HMS Dolphin at their anchorage on 19 June 1767, the south-east coast of the island was clearly in view and the crew found themselves surrounded by a fleet of about a hundred canoes.4 The ship's master, George Robertson, revealed his nervousness when he described the canoes having stopped 'a pistol's shot away'.5 The islanders were calling out, and some of them stood to offer plantain leaves and speeches.6 One, 'a fine brisk man', paddled to the side of the ship, hoisted himself up the side and climbed rapidly up onto an awning where he was out of reach of the crew. He stood, laughing and staring down at the Englishmen. He would not take any of the 'trinkets' offered up to him but waited for his companions in the canoes to throw some plantain branches on deck, symbolic of human bodies and thus representing a human sacrifice of appeasement.7 This achieved, he was prepared to take gifts and to shake hands. A few more islanders came on board. Robertson vividly described this first negotiation between Europeans and Tahitians:

They seemed all very peaceable for some time, and we made signs to them, to bring off Hogs, Fowls, and fruit and showed them coarse cloth, Knives, Shears, Beads, Ribbons etc, and made them understand that we was willing to barter with them. The method we took to make them Understand what we wanted was this: some of the men Grunted and Cried like a Hog and pointed to the shore − others crowed Like cocks, to make them understand we wanted fowls. This the natives of the country understood and Grunted and Crowed the same as our people, and pointed to the shore and made signs that they would bring us off some.8

So it was through the cries of animals and gestures of barter that the two sides had their first functional communication. Fortunately the Tahitians did not presume the visitors were displaying some sort of affinity with the pigs and chickens on shore but picked up the inherent request and accurately translated the gestures as an offer to swap goods. It was not long before canoes brought out the requested animals.

Relations did not always proceed smoothly after an initial bartering relationship was established. At most islands sailors and islanders would on occasion trade blows, fire muskets and pistols, throw spears and sling stones, or break into outright warfare and hostage-taking. At issue were the value of commodities, misunderstandings about gift-giving and trading, trespassings, thefts and blatant cheating. Island chiefs, with the supply of essential provisions under their control, could usually command delivery of the items they wanted. Captains were unwilling to risk the supply drying up and, if a high-ranking islander insisted on being given a musket and ammunition before agreeing to supply a ship with pigs for butchering, a captain would usually need to concede. Islanders would at times feel a gift exchange had been unequal and would help themselves to further goods to create a balance. Europeans rarely understood the rationale behind these transactions. Young islander men called on Hero and other mischievous gods to assist with thefts. Anyone skilful enough to get away undetected with the goods was worthy of admiration, but both islanders and Europeans recognised that severe retribution was in order if caught.9

On arriving in Tongatapu in 1773, Cook, the crew and attendant scientific gentlemen struggled with Tongans who tried to take oars, muskets, grappling irons and muskets from those who came ashore. On returning to the Resolution one afternoon, the astronomer William Wales spotted a man climbing into a canoe with logbooks, a nautical almanac, a copy of Pope's Homer, a ruler and a sword, all taken from the master's cabin.10 He was shot at, chased in the pinnace, and although he dropped his bounty and dived repeatedly under the boat, he was caught about the ribs with a boat-hook and lifted on board. He escaped, but Cook and his officers dealt with other Tongan thieves by firing at them, cutting at their arms and ears or shaving their heads to make an example of them. Many were probably commoners stealing on behalf of their chief, but their chief was unconcerned at the fate of these ineffective thieves: his suggestion was that they be put to death. Despite the risks, Tongans and other islanders persevered in filching European goods in addition to the safer options of barter and engaging in gift exchange.

The European vogue

An officer on Captain Bligh's second trip to Tahiti in 1792 was surprised to find they had 'at O'tahytey their Collectors, and their cabinets of European curiosities'.11 Most of the islanders, he said, had 'european boxes or chests to keep their valuables in. Any thing foreign bears some estimation'.12 A high priest, Ha'amanemane, had acquired a volume of The Statues at Large, and this, the officer said, 'I believe nothing could induce him to part with; he even kept the book concealed, dreading it might be taken from him'.13

Once island chiefs had established a settled pattern of diplomacy and trade with the British and the French, the island's people would eagerly meet each ship as it arrived. A ship would be rapidly surrounded by great numbers of islanders in canoes laden with coconuts, fruits, fish and pork, each calling out to the sailors to trade. A typical description was given by one ship's surgeon stopping in the central Pacific in 1788:

By break of Day, the canoes were alongside in great numbers & frequently we had not less than 500 on Board at a time, they stuck about every part of the rigging & Ships Sides like Ants upon a Mole hill.14

The enthusiasm for exotic goods was particularly marked in the islands of the central and eastern Pacific, in the cultural-geographic region called Polynesia. Polynesia covers a triangle stretching from Hawaii to Easter Island in the eastern Pacific and across to New Zealand in the south-west. Settled by long-distance canoe migrations from the western Pacific through to Samoa, then by migrations radiating from a central hub of the Society Islands, the region kept a degree of cultural continuity despite the vast distances separating the islands. European mariners visiting Polynesia in the eighteenth century found a widely shared language base across the islands, making it possible for words learnt in the Marquesas Islands or New Zealand to be put to use in Tonga or the Cook Islands with only slight variations.

There were a number of reasons why Polynesians were so welcoming. First, Polynesians had a tradition of voyaging and receiving voyagers that remained a substantive part of their cultural forms.15 Second, the political structure in operation in eighteenth-century Polynesia was predominantly one of hereditary chieftainships. Chiefs had their power and right to rule affirmed through their descent-line from the gods. These chiefs headed large communities and possessed extensive spiritual, military and economic powers. They were able to provide their people with protection from invaders and manage diplomacy with visitors, including Europeans. Chiefly families recognised the benefits of establishing relationships with visitors who carried cannon, muskets and attractively exotic, useful goods. The voyagers returned often enough to make them useful allies against rival chiefs.

The goods being brought out by Europeans for trade and diplomatic gifts included materials unavailable in the Pacific, such as iron, glass, woven cloth and dyes, as well as tools, toys, and mechanical weapons. Captain Beechey, for instance, stocked up for an expedition through the eastern Pacific in the 1820s with the following:

50 yards of blue and red broadcloth, iron in the form of hoops and bars, 500 hatchets, nails, saws, 4 cases of beads, jewellery and trinkets of different colours but mainly blue, 500 knives, 100 printed handkerchiefs, 50 kaleidoscopes, 100 bundles of needles, 40 pair of scissors, 80 looking glasses, 36 common shirts, 1,000 fish hooks of different sizes, 10 bundles of vermilion, and 2 double-barrelled guns as presents to the kings of Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands.16

To obtain these things, Polynesians were prepared to trade away their food crops and animals, as well as a rich variety of items used in everyday, ceremonial and ritual life. Fishhooks, mats, carved canoe paddles, earrings, warriors' regalia, talismans and feathered images of gods were among the things given and bartered to Europeans. This range reveals the extent to which new arrivals were welcomed into the social, political, and sometimes spiritual workings of local communities. Were it not for the Polynesian interest in obtaining European goods, the ability of Europeans to trade for food and curiosities would have foundered. As it was, the islanders were keen to negotiate and encouraged their visitors to stay and keep the trade going for as long as possible.

There were practical advantages to possessing these new objects and materials. Iron nails provided finer, more resilient points for carving, drilling and tipping fishhooks than coral, stone or wood. Iron axes and adzes made lighter work of cutting wood, preparing food, and digging than stone blades. Iron tools were always in demand, frequently requested as gifts or in barter, and on many Polynesian islands women were prepared to trade sexual hospitality for these goods. Ready-made clothes and lengths of cloth were durable and had a vibrancy of colour or a fine, smooth whiteness that made them peculiarly attractive. Preparing, beating and bleaching a length of fine, white barkcloth (tapa) was the work of five or six days. Tapa was a valuable possession, but it could be torn and soiled quite readily.17 The officers' white bedsheets and lengths of European trade cloth were useful alternatives.

The new trade items Polynesians obtained were valued not only for their practicality; they also inspired creative innovations. As historian Anne D'Alleva has shown, Tahitian women decorating sheets of tapa experimented with English scissors to create intricate new designs, cutting sheets with vandyked edges and pasting striking, finely detailed geometric shapes of a darker tapa over the top of a lighter ground.18 One ship's officer noticed that scissors were 'much prised', and the islanders were 'constantly amusing themselves cutting their hair in various forms'.19

European goods also entered Polynesian society as internal trade valuables and items in gift exchanges. In the Society Islands, traditional courting gifts from a man to a woman would comprise flowers, puddings, or some leaf-wrapped fish.20 After European goods became available, elders advised young men that a suitable gift would be scissors and trade cloth.21

Many of the imported objects carried particular weight as claims to status. Possessing a marine's scarlet jacket, a naval officer's cocked hat, a kaleidoscope or a knife demonstrated a relationship with the powerful, well-armed visitors. The meanings these items carried for the islanders were largely opaque to the Europeans. The goods acted as trophies of politically powerful allegiances, symbols of material wealth and high-status adornment. All these values created a fashion for things European. Women wore white sailors' shirts, European hats, ribbons and shoes when they could obtain them. At one formal dinner on board Captain Bligh's ship at Tahiti in 1792, the local ruling family wore their recently acquired gifts in a distinctively Tahitian style. A chiefly woman, 'Itia, wore a 'crimson coat with gold button holes', with a sheet wrapped around her waist, taking the place of a pareu (skirt) made of tapa. Her sister wore a blue dress jacket and a tablecloth pareu. In one officer's eyes 'Itia looked 'truly ridiculous' but, as D'Alleva has discussed, 'Itia knew the value of this innovative style on shore.22 High-ranking visitors to a ship's great cabin for a meal typically studied the cutlery, crockery and furniture. Some Tahitians arranged for local versions of these to be made to furnish their own houses so they could receive their British guests in a style they felt suitable.23 Beyond objects of utility or of dress, the islanders also sought out objects they simply found interesting. George Tobin, an officer and collector of intriguing paraphernalia himself, was entertained by seeing a parallel urge among Tahitians. The high priest Ha'amanemane, said Tobin, placed as much value on the art book he had acquired as 'some among us do, on a petrified periwinkle or … a stuffed baboon.'24 It was this type of activity − obtaining objects with the intention of keeping them − which can be defined as 'collecting', sitting as a practice distinct from the acquisition of objects for consumption or trade.

The most eager gathering and keeping of objects from European ships occurred within communities where the closest bonds were made between chiefs and captains. In Polynesia, spiritual links were created in ceremonies that bound the visiting captain to the potent ancestral power of the chief.25 To a certain extent, binding the body and belongings of a visiting captain to a chiefly descent-line meant the captain was bound by links of obligation to the chief and became a conduit for the flow of mana. This rendered the captain and his possessions objects of particular status, requiring careful and respectful treatment. European possessions were accorded high value as a result. Such bonds were formed with Cook in Hawaii and Tahiti.

In the north-western Pacific, in the region of small islands and atolls called Micronesia, islanders met only the occasional ship from Europe. The atolls were resource-poor and did not attract voyagers. The islanders there grasped the rare opportunities to connect with captains and their cargoes. One such opportunity arrived in August 1783 when the Antelope, a British East Indiaman, ran onto a reef fringing one of the islands of Koror, Palau.26 One of the most distinctive episodes of Pacific collecting unfolded as Captain Wilson and his crew were welcomed warmly by the Palauans. The paramount chief of the region, Ibedul, helped the crew to establish a camp on shore and reclaim some of their wrecked possessions. The visitors and islanders were able to communicate with each other with an unusual degree of clarity. One of the crewmen spoke Malay as well as English and one of the residents of the island was a Malay man, so there were translators to avoid the misunderstandings that commonly troubled meetings on island shores. Over a period of four months the Palauans provided the crew with food and helped them to build a new ship. In return the visitors put themselves and their salvaged weaponry at the disposal of Ibedul. They attacked his rivals on nearby islands, devastating them and bringing a long-term shift to the balance of power in the region. The British gave Ibedul the muskets and swivel guns he requested, and as he had been a fascinated observer of the craftsmen as they worked, added a set of tools and materials to his collection of British goods. When the ship was ready to sail, Ibedul entrusted his adopted son Libuu to Wilson's care, so he could learn the crafts, agriculture and other ways of England. He also gave Wilson a set of ceremonial vessels and knives made of tortoiseshell and wood with striking mother-of-pearl inlays. The gifts were later presented to the British Museum, where they remain.27

A different set of historical, cultural and political imperatives operated in the cultural-geographic area called Melanesia, in the western Pacific. By the eighteenth century, people of Vanuatu, the Solomons, New Caledonia and other Melanesian islands already had a long history of raiders and colonisers arriving from nearby islands. They had also weathered sporadic, violent encounters with European sailors from the 1500s. Unlike the centralised, hereditary chieftainships of Polynesia, Melanesians had diffuse power structures, with small groups under a leader who had to earn his authority. This provided a less secure basis from which to negotiate with newcomers. The islanders were generally unwilling to let visitors come inland, into villages or, in some places, to land at all.28

The goods offered by Europeans were often not wanted. In Vanuatu, when Cook stopped during his second voyage, the islanders were often wary of touching the cloth and ironware offered by Europeans. They may have initially assumed the visitors were spirits, and treated them accordingly.29 The multitude of languages spoken in Melanesia also made communication difficult. Although some trading for provisions was eventually achieved, relations were troubled. The ship's collectors were only able to secure things that had been produced easily and could easily be replaced; primarily small ornaments and weapons, some gathered after they had been thrown at the crew.30 Cook came away with the conclusion that the people of the archipelago 'seemed to have no notion of exchanging one thing for another'.31 The statement reveals how superficial the interactions had been and how wide the gulf in understanding had remained. Cook did not return. Those who made landings in the western Pacific in the last part of the eighteenth century tended to stay briefly and returned to Europe with stories of spear attacks, cannibalism and disease, all of which kept ships' crews wary of these islands well into the nineteenth century.32

The price of collecting

Where none contest the fields, the woods, the streams:
The Goldless Age, where gold disturbs no dreams,
Inhabits or inhabited the shore,
Till Europe taught them better than before,
Bestowed her customs, and amended theirs,
But left her vices also to their heirs.
Away with this! Behold them as they were,
Do good with Nature, or with Nature err.

Lord Byron, The Island, 1823

The Pacific islands soon felt the repercussions of entering into the cross-hemisphere trading network of commodities. Polynesians took up new practices and techniques and abandoned many traditional practices. Encouraging ships to stay for as long as possible and maintaining close relations with the crew, meant islanders − especially Polynesians − acquired a range of devastating diseases, many sexually transmitted. Epidemics swept each island and severely reduced populations, by over half in some places. In the 1790s, with growing islander demands for the goods available through the new trading network, a parallel unease developed in Europe. Commentators fretted about what they saw as a loss of innocence, an original, simple purity being sullied by the contamination of industrial, scheming, greedy, exploitative 'civilisation'.33 Captain Bligh was dismayed at the change he noticed between his first visit to Tahiti in 1789 and his return in 1792. Every 'blackguard expression' of the sailors had been picked up by the locals, they had discarded their elegant tapa robes for European 'rags': the shirts, waistcoats and coats were shabby from long use and starting to disintegrate. They were, he said, 'no longer the clean Otaheiteans, but in appearance a set of Raggamuffins with whome it is necessary to have great caution in any intercourse'.34

'What,' one commentator wondered in the early 1800s, 'does the future promise?' Traders from British colonies were starting to arrive in growing numbers. They knew they could secure a good supply of provisions for 'a dozen Muskets and a good proportion of ammunition'.35 The typical trader apparently only wanted:

refreshments and supplies, to enable him to prosecute, in this distant quarter of the globe, his greedy scheme of gain − and if Gunpowder, or pernicious enervating brandy, should be demanded in preference to the useful Axeor ornamental bead, will they not be given without reflecting on the consequences?36

The guns and brandy were European versions of existing islander sling stones, clubs and the debilitating narcotic kava, but on entering an island these imported commodities worked in ways that unsettled existing political relationships. It was muskets that Mai ('Omai') most wanted to collect when he arrived in England in 1775. When Joseph Banks took him to be presented to George III, Mai is said to have announced that he had come to England 'for gunpowder to destroy the inhabitants of borabora who are our enemies'.37 He returned to his home island of Raiatea in 1777 with the weapons he requested, a horse and armour, games and a demonstration piece of electrical apparatus. He gathered supporters and with his English weapons devastated the occupying force from Bora-Bora (one of the Society Islands). Mai died a few years afterwards of illness but his collection of English objects was kept together, held by a chief and brought out to show those he wanted to bestow a favour upon.38 In conflicts between rivals, it was not just the muskets that were useful, but also the intimidating connection to those who had provided them.

Memorialising connections

Some Polynesian collecting was directed towards continuing and making tangible a relationship with specific Europeans. In 1777 John Webber, artist on Cook's third voyage, painted a portrait of Tu (later Pomare I), the primary chief of the Pare-Arue region of Tahiti. Tu requested a similar portrait of Cook, to keep on the island. Webber did as he was asked. It was nearly a decade before the next European ship, the convict transport Lady Penhryn, stopped by the island. The islanders who greeted the ship asked after Cook and were told the convenient tale that their friend was now old and living back in England. The news was greeted with great cheer and a few days later Tu brought the portrait of Cook out for the captain to see. One of the officers reported it was in good condition despite its age. Tu left it on board overnight, a trusting gesture, and, perhaps on request, Captain Sever signed his name to the back of it and added the details of his stay.39 The elaboration of tangible connections to English captains continued to accumulate on the surface of this object. Captain Bligh on the Bounty in 1789, George Vancouver on the Discovery 40 in 1792, Edward Edwards on the Pandora, Bligh again in 1792 on the Providence; all signed their names and the dates of their arrival and departure. George Tobin, on the Providence, was touched by the 'friendly care and reverence' with which Tu had preserved the portrait. It was acknowledged to be a striking likeness of Cook and 'nothing', Tobin supposed, 'would tempt this amiable chief to part with it'. Tobin admitted how much he coveted 'the polygraphic secret', and was tempted to steal it. The back of it was by now filled up; and while Tobin thought a new tablet for recording voyages would now be needed, it was not this function that was foremost in Tu's mind. The portrait's role was much more significant.

James Morrison, one of the men who lived in Tahiti following the Bounty mutiny, reported that whenever the Pare-Arue region was under threat of an attack from an enemy party, Cook's portrait was carefully moved to safety along with the bodily remains of former chiefs.41 Morrison also reported that the portrait was the focus of a ceremony performed by the region's aristocratic arioi society. The man who cared for the picture brought it out and the cloth covering was removed. All those present removed their garments from their upper bodies; a mark of respect accorded to those of chiefly rank. An offering of a plantain branch and a piglet was placed before the picture. A speech was then made, in which, according to Morrison, Cook was hailed as 'Chief of Air Earth & Water … Chief from the Beach to the Mountains'. The arioi performed dances, and presentations of cloth and mats were taken into possession 'for the use of Captain Cook'.42 Webber's painting had become an embodiment of the region's adopted 'chief'.

The value islanders placed on objects collected from Europeans is typically more illusive than this, but when an object was sufficiently distinctive, later travellers and observers occasionally documented a specific European item being retained by its collector. When Joseph Banks was in New Zealand during Cook's first visit, he was often frustrated by the frequent unwillingness of the Maori to give up their ancestral taonga (treasures) for the beads and other 'trinkets' he had to offer.43 Metal objects had proved more consistently popular, though, and when back in England, part of the preparations Banks made for a second Pacific voyage with Cook was to have a number of replica pendant hei tiki and 40 replica Maori hand clubs (patu) cast in brass. Banks had his crest embossed into the clubs with the year, 1772, and would have expected them to be fine trade and gift items, being appealing metal versions of an already valuable type of object.

Although Banks withdrew from the second voyage when his accommodations on the ship didn't measure up, he ensured that the brass patu made it to the Pacific. He appears to have given at least some to Lieutenant Clerke, who would have taken them out on the third Cook voyage. While there is no record as to how they were received, they were considered valuable enough in New Zealand to be acquired and kept in some kind of active role. A missionary saw a brass patu being carried by a Maori man over 30 years later, in the North Cape, New Zealand.44 The same can be said of the two replica patu sighted in communities on the north-west coast of America by captains Colnett and Meares in the late 1780s. One came to light inland, on the Columbia River, in the late nineteenth century.45

Collecting local significance

Some of the most desirable objects Europeans carried to Pacific islands were things that mirrored the islanders' own valued tools and objects. European goods were not necessarily captivating for being exotic but, as in the cases of the brass patu and Kamehameha's shirts, were frequently assigned worth for being more status-laden versions of local objects, already holding a clear place in the value system. When one Tahitian chief, Tutaha, visited Cook on board ship in 1769 he asked the captain to open all the drawers in the great cabin so he could select the presents he wanted. After he had picked out a pile of things, he spotted an English version of a Tahitian adze, made of iron. He immediately gave back everything else and asked for this single object.46

As Nicholas Thomas has argued, we need to be cautious of generalisations and wary of seeing islanders as irresistibly captivated by European goods.47 Some of the most active collecting that islanders engaged in while in the company of voyagers was not of European goods at all but the productions from other islands. Ships were highly useful for enabling easier connections between islands. As Cook discovered, 'the most Valuable thing[s]' he could carry to the Society Islands were the bundles of tiny red feathers from Tonga and New Zealand.48 Red was a favourite colour of the gods and bird feathers drew on connections between gods and birds. Red feathers, used in a ceremonial context, were seen to be particularly useful for catching the favourable attention of a god. During Cook's second voyage, with Tongan red feathers on board, Cook and the naturalist Georg Forster were finally able to obtain a mourning dress each;49 something that had been beyond the reach of collectors on the first voyage.

In a case in the British Museum's Enlightenment gallery is a life-sized wooden hand with elegantly curving fingers. It has a hole through the wrist likely to have been used to suspend it around a priest's or priestess's neck. It is the only carved hand known to have come from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) during the voyaging era. It was collected by Hitihiti,50 a young man of Bora-Bora, in 1774. Hitihiti was acting as translator and guide to Captain Cook on his second voyage and after visiting Tonga, New Zealand and surviving Antarctic waters, they went ashore for food at Easter Island.51 One of the naturalists on the voyage, Georg Forster, reported that while ashore Hitihiti took stock of the things made by the islanders and was 'most pleased' with their carved human figures. Hitihiti 'purchased several of them, assuring us they would be greatly valued at Taheitee'.52

The young Boraboran decided he liked the carved hand and was 'very eager to collect as many feathered caps as he could meet with, especially those which had the feathers of a man of war bird'.53 Fortunately, he had brought Tahitian tapa with him. Cloth was a scarce commodity in Easter Island, with few paper mulberry trees from which to harvest bark. Several people agreed to trade away their carvings in return for the valuable cloth. Hitihiti returned with his collection to the Society Islands. How they were received there is not clear, but before the Resolution and Adventure left he gave the hand to the expedition's senior naturalist, Johann Reinhold Forster. Back in England, Forster presented it to the British Museum. It is rare to find an instance of islander collecting so well-documented. So many of the stories leach away from museum objects over time. It is not possible to know how many of the artefacts in collections now, which we assume were gathered by Enlightenment explorers, were originally collected by islanders.


Working to uncover histories of islander collecting allows insights into the nature of cross-cultural exchange in the eighteenth-century Pacific. We are used to reading of Enlightenment Europeans and their prodigious efforts of collecting and categorising plant and animal specimens and the productions of the new peoples they were meeting. We are less used to looking at the mirror-reverse of this picture. The interest that islanders had in providing specimens and productions was crucial to the functioning of these exchanges. The desire among islanders of the eastern and north-western Pacific to capitalise on the political, military, social and practical advantages of trade with Europeans meant it was possible for effective exchanges to take place. The desire for European goods also prompted cultural changes, shifts in balances of power between chiefs, and devastating epidemics. Stories of islander collecting are important to tell.

These histories also help us to better understand the malleable meanings of objects as they moved from European possessions to islander acquisitions. Islanders gave the objects new sets of meanings; a painted portrait could be given the same ceremonial potency as the subject's body, a bedsheet could become high-class fashion, a brass casting from London could become an heirloom on the other side of the world. All the gift-giving, bartering, conniving and thievery that occurred took place in a tug-of-war over who would give and get, who would establish the value of things, who would keep the upper hand. The records of voyagers, traders and missionaries typically reveal islanders maintaining a position of power within the exchanges. Uncovering histories of the to-and-fro of exotic goods between islanders and Europeans allows us to see how crucial it was that the fascination was mutual.

Jennifer Newell is a curator at the British Museum.


1 Many of the issues and some of the material discussed in this essay have been previously published in J Newell, 'Exotic possessions: Polynesians and their eighteenth-century collecting', Journal of Museum Ethnography, vol. 17, 2004, pp. 75−88, and J Newell, 'Irresistible objects: Collecting in the Pacific and Australia in the reign of George III', in K Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment: Collecting the World in the Eighteenth Century, British Museum Press, London, 2003, pp. 246−257.

2 Patrick V Kirch and M Sahlins, Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii: Historical Ethnography, vol. 1, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1992.

3 Brs Elder and Wilson, 'Journal round Tyerrabboo [Taiarapu]', 28 June−1 August, manuscript, LMS/Church World Mission Archive, SOAS (London), South Seas Journals, Box 1 folio 14, 1803, pp. 13−14.

4 A Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, Penguin, London, 2003, p. 40.

5 O Warner (ed.), An Account of the Discovery of Tahiti: From the Journal of George Robertson Master of H.M.S. Dolphin, Folio Press and JM Dent, London, 1973, p. 20.

6 Warner, An Account of the Discovery of Tahiti, pp. 20−21.7 D Oliver, Ancient Tahitian Society, 3 vols, Australian National University, Canberra, 1974, pp. 105−106.

8 Warner, An Account of the Discovery of Tahiti, p. 21.

9 Oliver, Ancient Tahitian Society, p. 105, drawing on observations from, among others, J Montgomery, Journal of Voyages and Travel by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, Esq. 1821−1829, Crocker and Brewster, Boston, 1832, vol. 1, pp. 186−187. See also Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 64.

10 Georg Forster, A Voyage round the World, ed. by N Thomas and O Berghof, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000, pp. 254, 714 and Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 218.

11 G Tobin, 'Journal on H.M.S. Providence 1791−1793', manuscript, Mitchell Library, Sydney, p. 162.

12 Tobin, 'Journal', p. 176.

13 Tobin, 'Journal' p. 176.

14 A Bowes, 'Journal of Arthur Bowes, Surgeon of the Convict Transport Lady Penrhyn on a Voyage from Portsmouth to Botany Bay', manuscript journal, British Library, London, Add MS 47966, 1787−1789, 11 July 1788, pp. 104−5.

15 N Thomas, 'Epilogue', in Michael O'Hanlon and Robert Welsch (eds), Hunting the Gatherers: Ethnographic Collectors, Agents and Agency in Melanesia, 1870s−1930s, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2000, pp. 273−277: p. 275.

16 The Sandwich Islands was the British name for the Hawaiian Islands. FW Beechey, Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering's Strait, to Co-operate with the Polar Expeditions: Performed in His Majesty's Ship Blossom under the Command of Captain F. W. Beechey in the Years 1825, 26, 27, 28, London, 1831, p. 22.

17 Oliver, Ancient Tahitian Society, pp. 147−148.

18 This new style was called hapa'a. A D'Alleva, 'Continuity and change in decorated barkcloth from Bligh's second breadfruit voyage, 1791−1793', Pacific Arts, vols 11−12, 1995, pp. 29−42: p.33.

19 Tobin, 'Journal', p. 176.

20 'Mai, ari'i rahi of Borabora, 1824', recorded by JR Orsman, quoted in Oliver, Ancient Tahitian Society, p. 364.

21 Advice from a chief of Bora-Bora, 1824. See Oliver, p. 364.

22 A D'Alleva, 'Framing the 'Ahu Fara: Clothing, gift-giving and painting in Tahiti', paper presented on 23 June 2003 at Translating Things: Clothing and Innovation in the Pacific conference, University College London, 23−25 June 2003.

23 Tobin, 'Journal', pp. 147−148, 156.

24 Tobin, 'Journal', p. 162.

25 Salmond, Trial, p. 426.

26 K Nero and N Thomas (eds), An Account of the Pelew Islands, by George Keate, The Literature of Travel, Exploration and Empire series, Cassell, London, 2003.

27 Libuu did learn much in England, but died there of smallpox. Ibedul's gifts were handed down through Wilson's family and donated to the British Museum in 1875.

28 Thomas, 'Epilogue', p. 275.

29 Forster, A Voyage round the World, p. 813, n. 14.

30 Forster, A Voyage round the World, p. 815, n. 39.

31 JC Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, vols I−IV, Hakluyt Society Extra Series 34−37, The Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1968−1972, vol. II, Journal of the Resolution and the Adventure 1772−1775, entry for August 1774, p. 486.

32 D Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood, A Study of the Sandalwood Trade in the South-West Pacific, 1830−1865, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967, p. 12.

33 For a discussion of the general European anxiety over their physical and moral contamination of Pacific islanders, see PJ Marshall and G Williams, The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, JM Dent and Sons, London, Melbourne, Toronto, 1982, pp. 282−284. 34 W Bligh, The Log of H.M.S. Providence (1791−1793), facsimile edn, Genesis Publications Limited, Surrey, 1976, entries for 11 April 1792, 24 April 1792 (unpaginated).

35 Tobin, 'Journal', p. 150.

36 Tobin, 'Journal', p. 150.

37 F Rendle-Short (ed.), Cook and Omai: The Cult of the South Seas, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001.

38 W Ellis, Polynesian Researches, During a Residence of Nearly Six Years in the South Sea Islands, 2 vols, Fisher, Son & Jackson, London, 1829, pp. 96−97.

39 A Bowes, 'Journal of Arthur Bowes', p. 108.

40 Vancouver's flagship, the Discovery, was named after the ship on which he had accompanied Cook on his last voyage of exploration.

41 O Rutter (ed.), The Journal of James Morrison, Boatswain's Mate of the Bounty Describing the Mutiny & Subsequent Misfortunes of the Mutineers Together with an Account of the Island of Tahiti, The Golden Cockerell Press, London, 1935, pp. 85−86.

42 Rutter (ed.), The Journal of James Morrison, pp. 85−86.

43 For discussion of the exchange dynamics between Maori and Europeans, see particularly A Salmond, Between Worlds: Early Exchanges between Maori and Europeans 1773−1815, Viking, Auckland, 1997.

44 London Missionary Society, 'The Missionaries Journale in the Royal Admiral from Port Jackson to Matavai, Taheite', manuscript, South Seas Journals Box 1 fol. 11, SOAS Church World Mission Archives, London, 1801, p. 12.

45 A Kaeppler, 'Two Polynesian repatriation enigmas at the Smithsonian Institution', Journal of Museum Ethnography, vol. 17, 2004, pp. 152−162.

46 N Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook, Allen Lane/Penguin Books, London, 2003, p. 66.

47 N Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991, p. 103f.

48 Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. III, The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768−1771, p. 186.

49 The mourning dress collected by Cook is thought to be the one at the British Museum (TAH 78); the one collected by Georg Forster is at the Pitt Rivers Museum (1886.1.1637). Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. II, pp. 382−383; Forster, A Voyage round the World, pp. 361−362.

50 Also known as Mahine. Georg Forster explains: 'Our young friend Hedeèdee … acquainted us … that his own name was properly Mahine, he having exchanged it for that of Hedeedee with a chief in Eimeo'. Forster, A Voyage round the World, p. 228.

51 Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. II.

52 Forster, A Voyage round the World, pp. 313−314.

53 Forster, A Voyage round the World, pp. 313−314.