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Gifts of the Chiefs

Why did Pacific peoples offer their most prized possessions to Captain Cook and the European explorers who followed?


Above: An ‘ahu ‘ula (feather cloak) that Liholiho, Kamehameha II brought to London, where he died from measles in 1824. The cloak—likely intended as a gift for King George IV — remained in Britain.

Boarding a train in central London and heading north through the lush English countryside, it takes me less than an hour to reach the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. The MAA is one of the university’s eight museums—and surprisingly small for a repository of “a million artefacts representing two million years of human history,” according to the museum’s web site.

I‘ve come to see some of the MAA’s most prized holdings: the Pacific artifacts and works of art collected during the three voyages of British navigator Captain James Cook and the explorers, traders and missionaries who followed him. These late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century collections, which have long served as a primary source for the study of art and culture in Oceania, are the subject of a new book, Artefacts of Encounter, published by the University of Hawai‘i Press. The volume tells many stories about early Pacific collecting and the various ways in which these artifacts ended up at Cam-bridge. But it also tells a larger story of encounter between European and indigenous peoples by re-examining that history via the artifacts and, significantly, the perspectives of the Pacific cultures that created them.


Above: The main gallery at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, England, home to one of the world’s most significant collections of objects that early European explorers and missionaries brought back from the Pacific. It holds some two hundred of the two thousand items gifted to Captain James Cook on his Pacific voyages — the largest single collection of Cook’s artifacts in the world.

When Captain Cook departed England in 1768 on the first of his three Pacific voyages, sailing west aboard the HMS Endeavour around Cape Horn, his primary objectives were to observe the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti and to find the “Great Southern Continent” that had long been the subject of geographic speculation. Cook never found the southern continent, for which he also searched on his second voyage. Neither did he find a northwest passage connecting the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which was the aim of his third voyage.

But what Cook accomplished in a decade of exploration (1768–1779) was considerable. Sailing across large swaths of largely uncharted ocean, he mapped islands from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to Hawai‘i in greater detail and on a scale not previously achieved. He made the first recorded European contact with the eastern coast-line of Australia, the first recorded contact with the Hawaiian Islands and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand. In the process he visited all four corners of the Pacific Rim: Tierra Del Fuego, Alaska, Siberia and Australia.

Cook returned from his travels with more than two thousand artifacts that are now dispersed in museums throughout the world. The largest of these collections—some two hundred objects—is housed at Cambridge, including one hundred of the rarest items from the first voyage.


Above left: A boar-tusk bracelet from Hawai‘i, also collected by Cook; Above right: A portrait of Captain James Cook.

Rachel Hand, the MAA’s collections manager, greets me and shows me to the ground-floor gallery. There, encased in glass, are many of the items I’d seen in the book: a Māori shell trumpet and dog-skin cloak; a wooden Tahitian breadfruit splitter and a fish-skin drum; a Tongan whaletooth necklace and another made with bird bones and turtle shells. Viewing these items up close, I marvel at the ingenious ways Pacific Islanders used the environment to fashion the implements of everyday life.

As we make our way upstairs to see other pieces in the collection, I ask Hand, “How many items from the museum’s total holdings are you able to display at any one time?”

I realize I am looking at something most Native Hawaiians—or anyone else—will never see.

“Only about 1 percent,” she replies before ushering me into a storage area stacked high with carefully labeled wooden crates. Pulling open a pair of wire-screen doors, she unveils a collection of what seems like a thousand Polynesian war clubs—each one tagged, attached to a screen and engraved with elaborate geometric designs. In an adjacent workroom, she shows me several other artifacts that I had asked to see, including two items Cook had acquired in the Hawaiian Islands during his third voyage: a bracelet made from boar tusks and a handsome shark’s tooth knife. She then shows me something I hadn’t asked to see: a magnificent crimson, gold-and-black ‘ahu ‘ula, or cloak, that had belonged to Liholiho, King Kamehameha II. Made from the feathers of native Hawaiian forest birds, it has a wingspan of at least nine feet. Admiring it, I realize I am looking at something most Native Hawaiians—or anyone else—will never see.


Above: Museum director Nicholas Thomas examines a paddle from Aotearoa (New Zealand) collected by Cook.

Earlier that morning in London, I spoke with Nicholas Thomas, director of the MAA and the book’s lead editor. Thomas, who has authored more than a dozen books on Pacific history, art and anthropology, says Artefacts of Encounter grew out of a collective desire among researchers to shed light on the many significant Pacific artifacts held in museums throughout Europe. “We felt that there was an unexploited cultural resource that was important in all sorts of ways—a lens on Pacific cultures of the late eighteenth century, before they got changed by the impact of engagement with Europeans,” he says. “Because I happen to work in Cambridge and we have exceptional early Pacific collections there, Artefacts of Encounter became a book that was just about those collections—trying to understand them deeply and seeing where they led us.”

Thomas emphasizes the importance of the term “encounter.” Cook’s voyages were not just about understanding the geography of the Pacific; they were also about an incredible series of meetings with the region’s diverse cultures and the transactions that brought these artifacts back to Europe. Although there were dimensions of misunderstanding, violence and tragedy associated with those meetings, there also was sharing and mutual curiosity that the authors seek to explore.


Above: A culacula, or paddle-shaped club, from Fiji collected in the 1850s by Methodist missionary Joseph Waterhouse; it may have been given by a chief to the mission to signify the adoption of Christianity.

“These artifacts are hugely significant for Pacific Islanders because they are things made by people’s ancestors,” Thomas says. “But they also tell us a lot about the moment of encounter and the interests of Europeans who made those collections: Why did they bring those things back? What did they think they might help them know or understand? Were they just souvenirs, or were they things that enabled an early anthropological understanding of the Pacific? If they were missionaries, were they simply bringing things back because they were trophies of heathen religions they hoped people had repudiated? Or were they bringing back things that were expressions of the skill that they saw in many indigenous cultures?”

These artifacts are hugely significant for Pacific Islanders because they are things made by people’s ancestors.

Questions regarding what the islanders involved in these encounters thought are equally intriguing. Maia Nuku, one of the book’s co-editors and the associate curator for Oceanic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, tells me that most of what we know about these exchanges comes from the diaries and journals of European voyagers. There is no equivalent history on the Pacific side of the equation. Only the artifacts remain to help tell that side of the story.


Above: A Māori tekoteko figure collected by Carl von Hügel in 1834; such figures would adorn the apex of a roof.

Many of these objects are tools, utensils and personal items that reflect the craftsmanship of their makers. Other items, like god figures, cloaks, breastplates and fabric, are of great historic and artistic value, including many that were gifted by high-ranking chiefs and are veritable cultural heirlooms. “One of the central questions the book tries to answer is how and why these exchanges came to pass,” says Nuku, who is of English-Māori descent. “Why did Pacific chiefs invest in strangers from the other side of the world? Why did they give them these ancestral treasures? What were they trying to achieve?”

Many of these objects are tools, utensils and personal items that reflect the craftsmanship of their makers.

Prominent among these gifts is a taumi, or feather gorget, from Tahiti, an island known to Cook because British explorer Samuel Wallis had anchored there in 1767. According to Nuku, taumi were breast-plates made from cane and coconut fiber, feathers, dog hair, shark’s teeth, pearl shell and bark cloth and were worn principally in war or mourning. Based on a depiction of the breastplates in a series of 1776 war paintings by William Hodges, ship’s artist on Cook’s second voyage, Nuku writes:

“The pictorial evidence reveals that taumi were worn in pairs, across the front and back of the chest and shoulders, so that the head appeared to rise up and out of the jaws of the shark. Indeed, this impression was exaggerated to dramatic effect in the central protagonist of the war party, whose head and neck … were given even more height by the upward-reaching fau—a towering helmet, also constructed from shark’s teeth, feathers and fibre, and topped with a dazzling spray of tropicbird tail feathers. Adorned with rows of white shark’s teeth, lustrous polished pearlshell and groomed sections of dog hair, Arioi warrior priests took on the ferocious and powerful qualities of the gods from whom they descended.”


Above left: This pare kura (headdress) collected from the Cook Islands by British naturalist George Bennett in the 1820s illustrates the value of the objects Pacific island people shared with foreign visitors. Comprised of barkcloth, tropicbird tail feathers, lorikeet feathers and human hair, it would have been worn by someone of chiefly status, such as Te Po, a chief from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Above right, top: A Fijian civavonovono, or breastplate made of pearl oyster shell, once worn by a chief and brought to England by Sir Arthur Gordon, the first British governor of Fiji. It may have been given to Gordon as a diplomatic gift for Queen Victoria — from chief to chief. Above right, bottom: a taumi, or feather gorget, collected in Tahiti on Cook’s first voyage.

When Cook departed Tahiti, he took with him a Tahitian navigator-priest named Tupaia to serve as his interpreter. Sailing west and south across the Pacific, he reached Aotearoa in October 1769, where his first encounter with the Māori people turned violent. Elsewhere, however, his encounters were more successful and vigorous trading ensued. One famous exchange took place on October 12, 1769, when a group of Māori canoes approached the Endeavour near Poverty Bay off the east coast of North Island.

Tupaia, who had brought with him Tahitian fabric of great value, is thought to have traded it that day for a set of Māori canoe paddles of equal value. The paddles had distinctive carvings on the looms, while the blades featured intricate kōwhaiwhai designs stained with kōkōwai, a red paste highly prized by Māori for its sacred color and reserved for objects of status. Two of the paddles from Tupaia’s original set are now part of the Cambridge collection. And while the dye has faded, the kōwhaiwhai designs are still visible and thought to be the world’s earliest surviving examples of this distinctive style of painting.

The paddles had distinctive carvings on the looms, while the blades featured intricate kōwhaiwhai designs stained with kōkōwai, a red paste highly prized by Māori for its sacred color and reserved for objects of status.


Above: Māori paddles acquired on October 12, 1769, three days after Cook had made first contact with the Māori. The paddles are believed to be the earliest surviving examples of this distinctive style. “Some artifacts are spectacular works of ritual art,” says Thomas. “Others are everyday objects like fishhooks that are expressions of islanders’ knowledge or skill. But what’s distinctive about the items in this collection is that we can be very specific about the time they were given to Cook or other travelers.”

From Aotearoa, Cook traveled up the eastern coast of Australia, encountering wary aborigines along the way who showed little interest in trading. Farther north, the Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and had to be repaired. In Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), an outbreak of typhus killed many in his crew, including Tupaia. From there Cook sailed across the Indian Ocean and around Africa, arriving back in England in July 1771.

Cook’s first voyage and the artifacts it produced generated tremendous interest among the British and European public, and that interest only grew with each succeeding voyage. Scientists were fascinated, and books about the voyages, containing engraved images of the islands’ flora and fauna, its peoples and artifacts, were among the most popular publications of the late eighteenth century.

“Narratives from the voyages emphasized sexual contact and the voluptuousness of the island environment, which of course was of great interest,” Thomas says. “But people were also impressed by costume, fabric and ornaments. You had these fashionable London masquerade balls where women were producing costumes inspired by those of Tahiti or other places. In some cases they were wearing bark cloth or incorporating it in some strange, fashionable get-up.”


With the publication of Artefacts of Encounter, Thomas hopes that the MAA collection will tell a new story— one that includes the point of view of the indigenous people who gifted these objects. “Critics of museum artifacts say you’re taking things out of the context of their life and societies, that in museums they are basically static,” says Thomas. “This is not true in these cases. People are coming back to these artifacts and investing them with new significances, and they are finding in them new sources of inspiration.” Seen here above, examples of barkcloth collected by Cook; swatches were later compiled into a book by Alexander Shaw in 1787, which introduced the material to the European public for the first time.

The artifacts themselves found their way into major museums throughout Europe, marking the first time that large collections representing the arts and cultures of indigenous people were carefully and systematically described. Fascination with Oceanic materials was such that they were the first non-European art forms to be avidly collected by Europeans.

Today these artifacts and works of art continue to have tremendous significance for Pacific Islanders and other indigenous people around the Pacific Rim. For many, these works are vectors of spiritual power, or mana. They are not just things made by their ancestors; they are ancestors, a view that reflects a way of relating to the world far different from Cook’s.


Above: a depiction of Te Po, a chief from Rarotonga, Cook Islands, wearing a pare kura (headdress) in 1839.

In Western tradition, humankind sits atop the evolutionary ladder, separate from and holding dominion over the plants and animals. By contrast, the relationship to nature in Polynesian and other indigenous cultures is one of kinship and family. Ancient Hawaiians, for example, believed they were directly related to the plants and animals that shared their world, and that both animate and inanimate things possessed mana. They believed that beings with great mana could take on the form of other plants and animals, and that one’s spirit might cycle through other living things after human death. As the youngest descendants among living family, humans had the role of caretakers, while the older siblings of the ‘āina (land) offered guidance. In such a world it is easy to see why works made from birds, trees and marine life would be considered ancestors.

For many, these works are vectors of spiritual power, or mana. They are not just things made by their ancestors; they are ancestors, a view that reflects a way of relating to the world far different from Cook’s.

In Māori culture the word taonga is used to describe important material possessions that contain the living presence of ancestors. In Tonga the corresponding term is to‘onga; in Sāmoa, toga; and in the Society Islands, taoa. The most valuable taonga were rarely given to outsiders. They were handed down among kin groups to affirm ancestral ties and bolster networks of reciprocal obligation. “The more valuable the taonga that was given, the greater the obligation on the part of the receiver,” Nuku says.

Over the course of his Pacific voyages, Cook brought back highly valued taonga that were given to him by high-ranking chiefs in ceremonies that sometimes lasted days. In a discussion of Polynesian ways of relating, Nuku and two other of the book’s co-authors argue that similar cultural mores help explain why these exchanges took place. Although Cook was an outsider, he was regarded by native chiefs as a man of the highest status and someone with whom they wanted to ally and bind to their networks of power and influence.


Throughout Polynesia the most valuable taonga are often made of fabric—such as cloaks, plaited mats and barkcloth, which are seen as material expressions of genealogy. In Tonga there is a saying: ‘Oku hange ki he lalanga ‘a e kakai. “Humankind is like a mat being woven.” In the Māori language, to kanoi is “to weave the main thread of a garment, and also to trace one’s ancestry.”

During Cook’s first visit to Aotearoa, two of the most valuable taonga he received were a pair of Māori cloaks that are now part of the Cambridge collection. Similarly, while visiting Tonga during a later voyage, he and his men were given more than twenty sisi fale waist garments and three palā tavake feathered head-dresses—items that were among the most prized and heavily guarded valuables held by Tonga’s ruling family.

Whether Cook recognized the intent of these gifts is not clear. What is clear, Thomas says, is that he became profoundly interested in Polynesian ritual and custom during his third voyage. “It’s a prominent strand of his visit to the Tongan Islands before he goes on to Hawai‘i,” he said. “He moves into another space: a space between cultures where he is trying to get a grip on what he is encountering.”


Above: A tahiri, or sacred fan, collected in the Austral Islands in the 1820s.

These artifacts demonstrate the richness and accomplishment of Pacific civilizations. Their diversity, their creativity and level of skill across cultures is remarkable.

Cook made the first European sighting and exploration of the Hawaiian Islands in January 1778—only to meet his death a year later at Kealakekua bay. His successor, a young midshipman named George Vancouver, witnessed the event. Vancouver, who later captained his own Pacific expedition (1791–1795), held the Hawaiian people in high regard and returned to the Islands three times during that voyage. Artefacts of Encounter features over fifty of the pieces he and his crew collected, including many from indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest as well as from Hawai‘i.

Interest in these artifacts is not confined to Pacific Islanders. In recent years, museums worldwide have put their collections online, making them accessible to new audiences. Thomas marvels at the number of exhibitions dedicated to Pacific cultures that have been held in European museums over the last decade, noting that in the fall of 2018 a major exhibition on Oceania is coming to the Royal Academy in London, one of the largest venues in Europe. The exhibition, which is tied in with the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage, will feature a range of work, including pieces featured in Artefacts of Encounter.

“It’s an indication that Pacific collections are being more widely recognized as a great world art tradition,” Thomas says.“These artifacts demonstrate the richness and accomplishment of Pacific civilizations. Their diversity, their creativity and level of skill across cultures is remarkable. It’s hardly surprising that Pacific peoples would take these collections as affirmations of the strength of their traditions. But I would also emphasize that there is still a lot of work to do to deepen our understanding of these forms. There are new questions to be asked, especially if we are trying to do justice to the Islander perspectives. That sort of research is very much ongoing.” HH