Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who owns history? and other annoying questions

[As 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
A 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.
The 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.
Those 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.   
The 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 them.
How 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?
Petroglyphs, and questions of appropriation
You 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 their shores.
You 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.
‘Triangular 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 Tonga.
David 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.
Since 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. 
Here’s 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.
How 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]


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Scott

When are you due to visit New Zealand again?


5:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the Nike fiasco!

9:09 am  
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