To sell: a collection of four 19th century Pacific Island carved wood war clubs and paddles

Posted in: News on August 16, 2017.

A collection of four nineteenth century Pacific Island carved wood war clubs and paddles, to sell on the 26th August 2017.

The nineteenth century saw a period of great change in the Pacific Islands. Politically, religiously and epidemically tumultuous, the period had a profound effect on Polynesian art. But however much life modernised and traditional cultures diffused into a union with the west, traditional craft did not die out. Our recent consignment of nineteenth century carved clubs and paddles is a particularly fine example of this.

European explorers of the early 1800s set out into the Pacific on voyages of discovery, exploring and surveying unchartered islands. The period marked a new intensity in missionary activity across the region, with religious spokesmen arriving for the first time in New Zealand, Tonga, Hawaii, Samoa and Fiji. In addition to the gift of the Holy Trinity, European and American sailors, missionaries and traders brought with them epidemics of diseases, wiping out vast numbers of people. It is thought that between 1821 and 1842 the Austral Islands lost ninety percent of their population due to these foreign diseases. This drastic depopulation of course severely disrupted many societies and with this, the continuity of cultural and artistic tradition. Moreover, conversion witnessed a complete destruction of much of traditional island art, particularly of sculpture, which had been newly condemned as idolatry. So how did traditional craft manage to thrive?

With the influx of Western technology, alongside a European desire for island artefacts, traditional crafts modernised. Nineteenth century craftsmen equipped themselves with newly acquired steel carving tools previously unheard of in the Pacific. This new opportunity to model things with metal blades saw craftsmen making exquisitely detailed works of immense technical complexity. The intricately carved Austral Islands paddle is a perfect example of this. The large leaf shaped blade with incised concentric sun motifs and chip carved x’s, bands and borders shows detail that could not have been done with the traditional tools of stone, shell or rat and shark teeth. And these objects, whilst items of beauty and often designed specifically for the tourist trade, continued to have practical use, the weaponry more than anything.

In Polynesian society, war was not uncommon. It occurred between different tribes and clans and was often seen as a chance for warriors to prove their personal prowess and improve their reputation as fighters. It was in fact quite common for Maori war leaders to fight one-on-one rather than tribe to tribe. A structure and sense of formality in warfare can be seen in weaponry through to the nineteenth century. The Polynesian war club was the most highly prized and intricately decorated of the weaponry, used for both warring and ceremonial purposes. Fighting with war clubs was perceived as honourable. Polynesians from a young age trained to use them, mastering the arm, body and foot movements necessary to use the various types effectively, in the same way as a martial art. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was no steel or bronze in the Pacific. And so warfare was conducted with the hardest materials available – wood, whalebone and stone. Our nineteenth century incised Tongan war club (apa-apai) has been carved from ironwood,  a wood type known for its hardness. But regardless of its brutal function, it is still a highly decorative piece of art. Its tapering ‘crocodile head’ form sits atop a shaft incised in the round with panels occupied by geometric zigzags running in differing directions, terminating in a splayed rounded head with further incised detail of crescent moons and stylised fish.

The intricate carving of the war clubs and paddles bear an interesting similarity to tattoos of the same location. In fact, wood carving in the Marquesas Islands is still a practice undertaken by many of the local master tattoo artists, adept craftsmen known as tahuna. Similar low-relief designs can be found on both skin and wood. This is particularly noticeable in the nineteenth century, with the consequence of the introduction of imported metal carving tools. Paul Gaugin noted this decorative importance of the Marquesas, describing “an unheard of sense of decoration” in their creative forms. It is thought that the English word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Polynesian word tatau, which the British explorer James Cook brought back to England following his journey to Polynesia in 1771. On return, he brought a fully tattooed Tahitian called Ma’I back with him, bringing about an influx into the popularity of the inked arts (see Nathaniel Dance’s engraving below).

This consignment of Pacific woodcarving will sell on Saturday 26th August. Viewing will take place on the Thursday and Friday before. Please do get in touch if you have any further questions. We look forward to hearing from you.


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