Objects and power in Māori culture
Aotearoa/New Zealand was the last major part of Oceania to be colonised by Polynesians, around AD 1100 – 1200. The links between the cultures and languages of Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, Tahiti and the Society Islands were clearly demonstrated by the ability of Tupaia, the Society Island navigator brought on board ship by Captain James Cook, to talk to people in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Polynesian cultures developed maritime prowess, complex belief systems and social structures, and rich artistic traditions.
Māori carving, textiles and architecture as well as traditions and performances, can best be understood as being about the flow of power through people and the land. Objects provide connections to gods, spirits and ancestors and can possess a sacred power known as mana. Objects and actions that are sacred or restricted are tapu – a word which Cook brought back and is the origin of the English word taboo.
Local and global significance
Clubs came in different forms and were used by a warrior in combination with a long-handled weapon, such as a spear. They could be made from bone and ivory, like these examples, wood, stone or jade. Jade clubs were highly-prized and symbols of authority. The curved wahaika was used in a slicing motion towards the head or neck, while the spatula-shaped pate was more suited to a thrusting motion. Warriors carried them in their belts, ready at hand, with a wrist-strap attached through the hole at the end.
The wahaika has a human figure above the handle and two faces joined together in a pattern. This weapon belonged to Hine Te Ao, a woman who accepted the club in payment after an opponent nearly killed her brother with it in combat. She gave it her own name and it then passed through six generations to Taratoa, leader of the Ngāti Raukawa people in the 1850s. The inscription on the patu paraoa indicates that it was acquired by Captain Cook during one of his expeditions to the Pacific and thus adds a dimension of inter-cultural trade and encounter to the significance it had within its original context.
Exploration, trade and exchange
Cook undertook three journeys to the Pacific: AD 1768 – 71, 1772 – 75 and 1776 – 80. On board for the first of these was Joseph Banks, who went on to become one of the most important natural scientists and patrons of scholars of his time. Many of the voyages undertaken by British explorers in this period had scientific intentions, but were closely linked to national, economic and ultimately imperial motivations. Mapping the world was an essential starting point and British maritime technology and navigational skills aided them in their explorations. By examining these territories with teams of scientists, such as Banks, they were able to collect potentially lucrative crops and also establish which regions might provide fertile ground for development.
Banks and Cook were fascinated by the cultures they encountered and acquired many objects through the medium of gift-giving or exchange. However, Banks became frustrated with trying to trade with the Māori as they were unwilling to exchange many objects which they valued more highly than anything the British could offer. The history of the wahaika shows why this was the case. Back in Britain, Cook’s club eventually made its way into the collection of a London scholar and scientist, indicating the popularity of Māori objects at this time of increasing interest in the wider world. Banks commissioned several replica clubs to be made by British metalworkers out of brass which he intended to trade on a second voyage. He believed that the Māori would value these more highly as they were made in a familiar form, but from a material which he observed appealed to them. Banks did not return but gave several to an officer on Cook’s third voyage. A brass patu was seen in the possession of a Māori man on the north island of New Zealand in 1801; in the early 1900s another was seen, this one owned by a Native American in the United States.
Te Ara – Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Blog on the art and science of Sir Joseph Banks
Banks’s replica hand club
British Museum Explore page on Banks’s replica hand club.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Cook, Tupaia and Māori
British Library short article on Tupaia’s notebook.
More information on Māori warfare
Objects from Polynesia
Project at University of Cambridge looking at objects from Polynesia across world museums.
Cook’s three voyages
National Maritime Museum collections: useful links to Cook’s three voyages.
History of the World in 100 objects: Aboriginal bark shield
Listen to the programme or read the transcript.
More about Omai
From the Captain Cook Museum at Whitby.