the school year nears an end I’m continuing my harassment of my research
students. Here are a couple of questions I’ve just hit them with…]
John Thomas’ legacy
decade ago a young scholar named Andy Mills arrived at ‘Atenisi to research a PhD
thesis on Tongan war clubs. Mills soon discovered, though, that akau tau, along
with other artefacts from the era before Christianity, were in short supply in
the Friendly Islands. Many of them had been destroyed or exiled during
Tauafa’ahau’s violently successful campaign to Christianise Tonga in the second
quarter of the nineteenth century.
founder of modern Tonga used fire or blasphemy to destroy the enclosures and
houses where heathen gods had been revered and summouned. Pigs and bananas were
allowed to flourish in the grounds of
godhouses. The carved deities which had presided over heathen ceremonies
wearing robes of intricate tapa were stripped naked, hung by their necks from
ceilings, and mockingly challenged to revenge their sufferings. War clubs were
considered sacred, sentient objects – some of them, stories hold, could move of
their own volition, and choose their own victims during a battle – and were
often kept in godhouses. Taufa’ahau did not spare them.
artefacts which survived the destruction of godhouses and pagan forts were
often given to Wesleyan missionaries as symbols of the victory of Christianity.
Some of these treasures have found homes in the chilly storerooms and display
cases of European and Australasian museums. The Auckland War Memorial Museum
has a fine collection of ‘akau tau on permanent display; these objects helped
Andy Mills finish his thesis, and have also inspired Auckland-based Tongan
artists like Benjamin Work.
Reverend John Thomas was Taufa’ahau’s early spiritual advisor, and his
sanctimonious yet bloodthirsty sermons helped inspire and legitimate the young
king’s crusade to unify and Christianise Tonga. It is perhaps not surprising
that Thomas, who had a hateful fascination with pre-Christian Tongan religion
and culture, built up a collection of artefacts during his thirty years of
missionary work in the Friendly Islands. Recently Thomas’ descendants offered
these objects for sale at a London auction house. The decision of the Thomas
family to part with the artefacts was reported in the Tongan media, where the Tongan
government was reported as saying that it did not have the money to purchase
do you feel about the sale of Tongan artefacts by the descendants of John
Thomas? Does the fact that the artefacts were gifted to Thomas by sympathetic
Tongans like Taufa’ahau mean that he had a legal and moral right to them, and
that by extension his descendants have a right to sell them? Should the Tongan
government prioritise buying the artefacts and returning them to Tonga, or are
they not worth that effort? If not, why not?
questions of appropriation
read David Burley and Shane Egan’s essay ‘Triangular Men on One Very Long Voyage’,
which examined carvings in a stretch of beach rock on the island of Foa. These
petroglyphs were discovered by Foans after a storm shifted tonnes of sand off
have seen how Burley and Egan conclude that the carvings were made many
hundreds of years ago by Hawaiians, or by people very familiar with Hawaiian
culture. Burley and Egan suggest that the Hawaiian influence on Tonga probably
came via Tahiti, because of the difficulty involved in a direct journey between
Tonga and Hawaii, and they speculate that the influence was relatively light,
because of the lack of traces of ancient Hawaiian culture elsewhere in Tonga.
Men on One Very Long Voyage’ created considerable interest in the scholarly
community, because it offered rare evidence of a connection between the Eastern
Polynesian society of Hawaii and the much older Western Polynesian society of
Burley is a senior archaeologist who has done a lot of research in Tonga; he is
particularly well-known for his work at Nukuleka village, across the lagoon
from Nuku’alofa, which he believes is the site of the oldest settlement in all
of Polynesia. Shane Egan, by contrast, is an amateur archaeologist, who worked
as an assistant to Burley in Foa. Egan makes his living running the Blue Banana
guest house on the northern Hihifo coast, and operating a shop in Nuku’alofa
which offers Tongan-themed gifts to tourists.
he visited Foa with Burley, Egan has begun to make money from the patterns he
found in the rock of the island. Visitors to his gift shop can buy T shirts,
for instance, printed with patterns taken from Foa. Some of the patterns are
reproduced as Burley found them, but others have been altered for commercial
purposes. One of the T shirts, for instance, shows the outline of a human
figure found on the Foa rock, but places a surf board and a wave underneath the
figure. Hawaiians, of course, invented surfing, and their beaches are today
home to some of the sport’s most prestigious competitions.
a thought experiment: imagine that David Burley and Shane Egan examined and
wrote about a petroglyph showing Hawaiian figures which was uncovered near your
village, and that Egan then began to market these figures on T shirts.
would you feel about Egan’s use of the past? Would Egan be guilty of
appropriating and commercialising the history of your village, or would the
fact that the petroglyphs were probably created by a group of transient members
of a non-Tongan culture mean that Egan could use them?
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]