July 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Gods of war and rain

By Ashley Hay
Gods of war and rain
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In a cavernous hall of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, things are in a state of disarray. Curators stride past with rolls of tissue paper and soft material, and strong-armed blokes lift large paintings down from the walls. An exhibition is being taken down; behind a partition at the back of the room, the next show sits packed and padded in its boxes.

At its centre are 350 objects gathered on James Cook’s three voyages through the Pacific in the eighteenth century. Sequestered for more than two centuries at the University of Göttingen, they’ve arrived fresh from a stint at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts: Tahitian drums, bamboo panpipes from the New Hebrides, shell trumpets from the Marquesas; Tongan baskets, lengths of Hawaiian barkcloth, a complete Tahitian mourning costume. There’s a wickerwork helmet covered with red, yellow and black feathers. Its shape, as the excited gentleman who purchased it when it arrived in England noted, is “greatly similar to those of the Ancients”, and it still conjures up the classical curls of a Greek statue, despite its tropical brightness.

Most of the pieces were never designed to last this long, and many are now not only in pristine condition but are also the last surviving examples of their kind, or of their craft.

Among the bright and pretty things, there’s another feathered object. “A Bust,” wrote that same Englishman, “supposed to be an Idol … the mouth is very wide, filled with teeth formed of Dog’s tusks: The Eyes which are made very large, are formed of long oval pieces of Mother o’ pearl for the white of them and a hard black wood for the Ball of them. The whole image is singularly curious.”

Curious is one word for it; ferocious is another. You can feel those very large eyes boring through their packaging, through the other boxes, through the partition at the back of the hall, through the walls of the museum and out to Lake Burley Griffin and the winter sky. They’re like the eyes that peer out from under childhood beds, and they’ve lost no power during their years tucked away in Germany. Embedded in a figure of the Hawaiian god of war, Kuka’ilimoku, these are not eyes in whose gaze you would choose to stand. These are eyes to be approached with care.

“It’s important to treat objects like that with as much respect as possible,” says Stephen Little, the director of the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. “We sent a traditional Hawaiian cultural practitioner to Göttingen to bless the object and fly back with it. We installed it in the exhibition in such a way that it could receive offerings. There was chanting; people placed flower leis in front of it. And it was the most elevated piece in the show: everyone had to look up to it.”

It is easy to jump through the different values and meanings that these items have at different times, in different places. Take a piece of material woven in Tonga in the late 1700s: Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg packed it into the collection they amassed as the official natural historians of Cook’s second voyage, part of their “close investigation” of “the habits, rites, ceremonies, religious beliefs, way of life … arts, weapons, modes of warfare, political organisation and the language of the people we met”. Encountering eighteenth-century Pacific cultures was like time travel, they said.

Back in England, the material was another piece of exotica to excite European imaginations and send gentlemen rushing to expand their own collections. It might have become part of George III’s souvenirs of exploration and imperial power, but instead it became part of one of his royal bequests, a collection of New World material for the university in Göttingen, the German part of his realm. There, the material was incorporated into the world’s first ethnographic museum (the word “ethnography” was coined in Göttingen). It also became the sole remaining example of a particular way of weaving, as Tongan visitors to the Honolulu Academy spotted immediately when they saw it in May this year. It was like time travel, seeing something like that in the twenty-first century.

This process demonstrates what Mathew Trinca, a senior curator at the NMA, calls “the polyvalency of material culture”. That polyvalency may also mean that a red-feathered image doesn’t exert the same power in Australia as it does in Hawaii, although it seems appropriate for a god of war to receive offerings in Canberra.

Kuka’ilimoku isn’t the only one who’ll sit differently on this side of the Pacific. Almost insignificant when in the Honolulu exhibition – “We had one portrait of him from the frontispiece of a first-edition journal we happened to own,” says Stephen Little, “really, he was almost a footnote” – Captain James Cook will emerge in Canberra as the show’s overarching context, its hook. In travelling 8500 kilometres south-west, Honolulu’s Life in the Pacific in the 1700s will become Cook’s Pacific Encounters, augmented by pieces such as the famous Cook portrait by John Webber, Johann Zoffany’s romantically imagined The Death of Captain James Cook, and a privately-held bust of the Yorkshire seaman (“Looking like a Greek god,” confides an NMA employee, “amazing curls, bare chest, the lot”).

On this side of the Pacific, Cook is the person who charted our continent’s eastern edge. Colonisation followed hot on his heels. On the other side, he’s the person who Hawaiians treated with great reverence when he first arrived in 1778, the person who mapped their Big Island, the person they killed – after what could be described, with some understatement, as cultural differences – when he returned a year later.

“There are so many ambiguities around Cook’s death,” says Little. “He immediately became a huge hero in Europe, which he was, on one level. But that’s always complicated perceptions of him in Hawaii.”

Cook also became a thing to be collected, having made the processes of collecting so intrinsic to imperial exploration through Joseph Banks and the Forsters, and through his own acquisitions on his third and final journey. There were the pieces of Cook collected from the beach on which he’d died: flesh from his thigh came aboard the Resolution on 15 February 1779, followed almost a week later by “bundles of remains”, as the exhibition’s catalogue rather creepily puts it. Then, his papers and effects having been set aside for his widow, a sale was held in his cabin for officers to buy a piece of the captain’s clothing for their own collections. He was included in poems, pantomimes, operas, and on medals of scientific achievement, and he was given royal recognition. There are still fan clubs, and private collectors bid hard for any memorabilia that comes on the market.

“There are a number of different Cooks across the Pacific today,” Mathew Trinca says. “He’s variously seen as a peerless navigator, an excellent and highly skilled cartographer, an ethnographer, a vanguard of colonisation, an instrument of imperial power. The show details all those different Cooks, and reveals the changes in him across those three voyages, even as a collector. He was fascinated by that process and he became quite a deliberate and careful observer. But at the same time, by the third voyage, he was beginning to lose patience with cultural differences. And that’s what’s particularly tricky to unravel: what was happening in the Pacific’s mind.”

That question is taken up by a British Museum curator in the exhibition’s catalogue. Jennifer Newell reverses the usual stories to talk about how the people of the Pacific collected and cherished European artefacts, and how they used Europeans to ferry their own supplies. One Tahitian chief commissioned a portrait of Cook, treating it like the remains of earlier chiefs. The King of Hawaii assembled his own cabinet of curiosities: dinner sets, silver and glassware, shoes, rugs. Cook, meanwhile, realised that in some places the most precious thing to exchange was not iron or glass, but “bundles of tiny red feathers from Tonga and New Zealand”. Red, it seemed, was a favourite colour of the gods.

Kuka’ilimoku’s red feathers are still warm and rich; the yellow mohawked on his head and ruffed around his neck looks as soft as fur. But his teeth are still sharp, his eyes still large.

He’ll soon be out of his box to spend a few months gazing at the Australian capital (the exhibition will run until 10 September). Some sources say he used to demand human sacrifices – which, given that he’s just down the hill from the federal parliament, may make him feel at home – but he was also invoked for gentler things, such as the harvest of healing herbs. More importantly, he’s one incarnation of the Hawaiian god Ku. And Ku, who wears a hat as the god of rain, should be more than welcome around here.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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