A Souvenir Of The Great Explorers

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1925

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The University Museum has recently received from Alaska an object of quite extraordinary interest, found in an Indian village on Admiralty Island by Mr. Louis Shot-ridge, of the American Section of the Museum.

U shaped breast plate with a fringe of dog hair decorated with feathers and shark teeth
Tahitian featherwork breast ornament found in Alaska
Museum Object Number: NA9476
Image Number: 12669

The circumstances of the finding of this object are as follows. Mr. Shotridge, himself a full blood Alaskan Indian and a chief of the Chilkat tribe, who has been for many years an assistant in the Museum, was sent two years ago to Alaska to visit certain remote and little known native villages on the southeastern coast, to obtain information about their customs and to collect specimens of their handiwork for the Museum. Recently he visited Admiralty Island and obtained from its inhabitants a collection of ceremonial objects of great interest. These have lately been placed on exhibition in the Museum. Among the objects in this collection is an ornamental breastplate from Angoon of which Mr. Shotridge wrote: “This breastplate is very rare and expensive. The greatest care should be taken of it.” No other information was forthcoming at the time except the native name of the object which Mr. Shotridge translated as “Raven Cape.” The interesting thing about this object is that it is a product of the island of Tahiti and is not Alaskan in its origin. Moreover, it is an object of a class that has not been seen in the island of Tahiti for many years. Though showing evidences of age, the breastplate is in excellent condition and shows the care with which it had been cherished and preserved.

The interesting questions arise when and how did this object find its way from Tahiti to the Alaskan coast and why was it cherished by a native tribe and used in their ceremonial exercises and dances? Mr. Shotridge at first evidently supposed it to be a native product of Alaska. The fact that it had a name, Raven Cape, shows that it was naturalized among the people to whom it had come as a stranger. Also it is clear that it was no recent acquisition of these people; and the collector has, as we shall see, lately gathered certain information in the form of a tradition which appears to connect Raven Cape with Captain Cook himself.

The first direct communication between Tahiti and the Alaskan Coast of which we have any knowledge, was made by Captain James Cook in 1778-1779 and the second by his sometime lieutenant, Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Of these two voyages we have detailed records.

Tahiti was discovered by Captain Wallis in June, 1767, when he showed to the natives the first goats they ever saw. Their introduction to the animal is thus described in Captain Wallis’s narrative.

As one of these Indians was standing near the gang-way, on the larboard side of the quarterdeck, one of our goats butted him upon the haunches; being surprised at the blow, he turned hastily about, and saw the goat raised upon his hind-legs, ready to repeat the blow. The appearance of this animal, so different from any he had ever seen, struck him with such terror, that he instantly leaped over board; and all the rest, upon seeing what had happened, followed his example with the utmost precipitation.

An Account of a Voyage Round the World. By Samuel Wallis, Esq., Commander of His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin.

When Captain Cook landed on Tahiti six years later, the natives were more familiar with goats, through the increase of stock that had been left with them by Spaniards and Frenchmen in the meantime. Cook himself left some goats when he paid this second visit to Tahiti. The Tahitians might by that time have been using goat’s hair for making such decorations as the fringe which surrounds our breastplate.

In 1777-1779, Captain Cook on his third voyage of discovery sailed from Tahiti to the American coast, which he reached at a point on Nootka Sound, stopping only at Christmas Island and the Sandwich Islands, both of which he discovered on the way. From Nootka Sound, Cook sailed northward along the coast until he found the coastline running westward. He then followed it until he found the entrance to Bering Sea and pursued his voyage northward into the Arctic Ocean. After leaving Nootka. Sound, Captain Cook was prevented by heavy weather from keeping in close touch with the land, but on May 2, 1778, he was near Cape Edgecombe, which he named. This is close to Sitka and opposite Admiralty Island, which lies nearer the mainland. It would appear that Cook had no communication with the natives either there or at any point between Nootka Sound and Cook’s Inlet, though parties from these regions may have visited him while he remained at Nootka Sound. We have no evidence that he actually touched at that part of the coast where Admiralty Island lies. From the narrative of his voyage, it would appear that his passage along the coast from Nootka Sound to Prince William Sound was made continuously without interruption. There still remains, however, a possibility that our breastplate may indeed, as the native tradition indicates, have been carried by Captain Cook during his third voyage from Tahiti to Alaska.

Next we have George Vancouver’s voyage on the Discovery in 1792. Vancouver, who had been with Cook on his third voyage, left England in 1791 on an expedition of his own with a commission from the Government to explore that part of the American coast sighted by Captain Cook and to look for a Northeast Passage. The expedition first proceeded to Australia and New Zealand where it had some work to do and then sailed for Tahiti. On board the Discovery was a surgeon’s mate named George Goodman Hewett who had an interest in natural history and in ethnology and who collected specimens of native handiwork. That he brought a number of such objects on board the Discovery before she left Tahiti is a known fact. It is also known that he made collections on the Alaskan coast and traded with the natives there. From Tahiti, the ship sailed to the Sandwich Islands; thence, direct to the American coast and made her first landing on the northern part of the Californian shore. That was in April, 1792. From then until the autumn of 1794, Vancouver explored the entire coast northward to Cook’s Inlet, only returning twice to the Sandwich Islands to winter. In 1793 he discovered Admiralty Island, made a thorough survey of its coastline and traded with the natives, whom he found very friendly. Obviously the breastplate now in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM could have been brought on board Vancouver’s ship, the Discovery, in January, 1792, while she lay at Tahiti. It could have remained on board during his subsequent explorations until it was left with the inhabitants of Admiralty Island in 1793.

One must consider also the possibility of its having been carried by some whaler at a later period. Hunting the sperm whale in the South Seas was an industry developed as early as 1790, but whalers of that period could have had no incentive to go north. It was not until 1835 that ships went after the bowhead in the waters off the northwest coast of North America; not until 1848 that they began to follow the whale through Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. After 1835 they sometimes hunted the sperm whale in the South Seas and the bowhead in the northern Pacific, in Bering Sea, and the Arctic at different stages of the same voyage.

It is not likely, however, that the breastplate that has been described here was carried on a whaler. William Ellis, the representative of the London Missionary Society who resided in the Society Islands, in which group Tahiti is the largest and best known island, from 1817 to 1825, has left us an account of the course of events in the islands under missionary influences which shows how rapid was the decay of native custom during even that brief period. The images of the gods, except a few which the missionaries sent home as curios, were destroyed, penal regulations were made against such practices as tattooing, everything, like this gorget, which could recall and help to perpetuate time honoured practices, was discouraged out of overt existence. It is extremely unlikely that any of these breast ornaments were left in the fourth decade of the last century, which was the period when whalers began to ply between the southern and the northern waters of the Pacific Ocean.

If, unwilling to credit unreservedly the testimony offered by the Alaskan natives of today, we continue the search for other possible means by which the ornament in question may have travelled to Admiralty Island, we find that there were traders who sailed, during the years following Cook’s discoveries, from Chinese and East Indian ports to points on the northwest coast of America for furs. Some of their ships found their way into eastern Polynesian waters; one, at any rate, driven by stress of weather, touched at Tahiti in 1798. But this was an exceptional case. She had been bound from Macao for the Northwest Coast, had reached Kamchatka and had been driven south and east by storms. She did not proceed on this occasion directly north from. Tahiti, but went to New South Wales to refit.1

A print of a woman wearing two ornaments similar to the breastplates on a wide skirt
A lady of Tahiti wearing ornaments like the one described in this article. From Cook’s Voyages.
Image Number: 298

The Society Islands were not so conveniently situated as the Marquesas for ships sailing northwards through the Pacific. No official explorer, Russian, French, and English, among those who were completing Cook’s work of discovery in the Pacific during the first three decades of the nineteenth century could well have been the intermediary of this striking example of a contact between two distant and widely differing cultures, for either they did not touch at both points or they only touched at them in the wrong order. Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, satisfies the necessary conditions of space and time in this respect, but he reached Tahiti on his way to the Northwest Coast only in 1840 and his remarks on the cultural conditions he found in Tahiti form an interesting commentary and supplement to Ellis’s observations which refer to a period closing about sixteen years earlier.2 Wilkes gives, for example, a vivid description of the costume of the son of the chief of the seven judges set up by the missionary inspired government of the island. This costume comprised a most incongruous array of European fashions and it was worn on a certain festal occasion by the son of the leader of the Tahiti for Tahitians party, who himself appears to have become completely Europeanized in all such matters. It is in the last degree improbable that any gorget of featherwork adorned in those days any even antiforeign breast which sweated proudly under a peajacket on ceremonious occasions or wore unceremoniously on others an unbuttoned cotton shirt that maintained uncertain contact with a loin cloth or trousers of material woven on a Manchester loom.

To pass now to the native tradition concerning the origin of this notable featherwork decoration. The following passage is a quotation from a letter of Mr. Shotridge to the Director, dated July 11th, 1925: “The breast ornament . . . is included in the Angoon Collection. . . . The origin of the old Deshu-hit-ton ‘Raven Cape’ . . . is almost unknown. The late owner before she died had offered no more [information] than that the old leaders of their house had maintained to the last a great esteem for the object and they had boasted of having a possession which was uncommon. The old men were even quoted to say: We show our esteem for the Raven Cape before the people because it is the work of the people of another world. . . .” It may be well to note here that Angoon is the name of an old Tlingit town on Admiralty Island. The northern part of this island lies in the mouth of the so called Lynn Canal; a short distance to the northwest of this fjord or deep inlet lies the settlement of Kluckwan. From a native resident of that settlement, a certain Mrs. Benson Yisyat, Mr. Shotridge obtained some further information about the strangely renamed Raven Cape tending to confirm the probability of the gorget’s having been received by the Tlingit of Angoon indirectly from the hands of some person in Cook’s company or directly from someone in Vancouver’s.

It appears that when she was quite young Mrs. Yisyat was a member of a party which visited the Deshu-hit-ton clan at Angoon to witness an important ceremony which involved the wearing of the Raven Cape by some representative of the clan. Struck by the foreign appearance of this strange vestment, of which she had previously heard, she asked questions about it and was told that it came from the Kutaeha people “through the hands of the first white man who came to our land.” Mr. Shotridge’s informant is not quite clear as to who these Kutaeha people were, but thinks that Kutaeha “was a place somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Giyakquan (Aleut people) beyond Copper River.” It of course is quite possible that a party of natives from that region might have got some such object in trade from Cook himself or some member of his party and traded it further on during a coasting trip to Tlingit country.

Now it appears from a passage in the notes obtained from another informant whose name is not given by Mr. Shotridge that “the strange party in question [the Kutaeha people] made its visit to this land in company of the first man of the sun.” According to this person the whites were referred to as men of the sun. On this Mr. Shotridge comments that it is very likely that the first man of the sun was Captain Cook, “who, according to the Southern Tlingit, was the first white man seen upon this land.” But, as we have seen, it does not appear that Cook made a landing on Admiralty Island while we know that Vancouver did. If the transfer of the gorget was made by a party of natives from a distance in the company of a white man, it seems more likely that the latter may have been Vancouver or some member of his party who was guided to Angoon by foreign Indians or Eskimos, accustomed to trading with the Tlingit of Admiralty Island. On the other hand it is to be noted that Mrs. Yisyat does not in the passage quoted speak of the trading party as including white men. She says merely that the Raven Cape “was brought to this land by a party [which] received a handsome price for the object from the Deshu-hit-ton clan of Angoon.” This statement is indecisive as to the choice between Cook and Vancouver; either might have parted with it to native traders before it was brought to Angoon. Mrs. Yisyat’s statement, quoted in the preceding paragraph, that the gorget came to the Angoon people “through the hands of the first white man who came to our land,” though ambiguous in itself, evidently is intended to be taken literally as meaning that the first white man was the actual intermediary in the transaction, since she continues, quoting her own Deshu-hit-ton informant: “This first white man was not slow to find out that the Deshu-hit-ton would get a thing which its men desired regardless of any demand, and the white man got his price indeed. Those men of old, nowhere had they seen men with skin fairer than even that of our maidens and appearing with such luring (sic) surroundings.” The price paid in “furs or pelts of sea and land animals” for the breastplate is said to have been “equal to the value of four male slaves.” Mrs. Yisyat’s statements, taken together, thus tend to the same effect as that of the anonymous informant of Mr. Shotridge, namely, that the bringer of the gorget to the Tlingit was Vancouver. If this authority is correct in his identification of the men of the sun with the white man, it may be that he and his commentator, Mr. Shotridge, are at cross purposes and referring to different individuals. In other words, the former may have had in mind the first white man who landed on Admiralty Island or reached the neighbourhood of Angoon, while the tradition of the Southern Tlingit cited by the latter, since it is evidently more general in its application, may refer to the first white man who appeared on the coast; which latter, so far as the possibility of his bringing in a Tahitian object is concerned, would have been Captain Cook. If there is justification for narrowing the range of possibilities to these two explorers, and if there is any ground for a choice as between the two, it seems that Vancouver or some member of his company is more likely to have brought the gorget to the Tlingit than Cook.

There is in the Tlingit country a kind of monumental embodiment of the tradition concerning Captain Cook’s visit to the Northwest Coast. “Speaking of the man of the sun,” says Mr. Shotridge, “the spirit of Gemp-kuk (Captain Cook) was one of the important objects in the tradition recorded on the totem of the Tae-kuae-di of Tongass. To this day the image of the great explorer, adorned in the Prince Albert style of coat and a great tall hat, can be seen standing prominently among the many old totem poles . . . on Tongass Island.” In the photograph reproduced here, which was taken by Mr. Shotridge, Gemp-kuk appears in all his curiously anachronistic glory. Clearly the monument was erected long after the event it claims to record, and the model for the forgotten features and costume seems to have been a composite mental picture of the type of the white men who appeared later, grim with heavy sculptured beards and bearing, not memorials of joyous adventure among the carefree islanders of the south, but tracts and bibles to complicate the simple morals of a sturdier northern folk. Tongass Island is near the entrance to Portland Canal on the British Columbia borderline and so is much nearer than Admiralty Island to the first recorded landing place of Cook on the Northwest Coast, Nootka Sound in Vancouver Island. It might have been supposed that the tribal memory of the Tongass Islanders would have preserved a different presentment of the great explorer. Perhaps his well known humanitarian impulses and liberal mind would not be outraged if his shade could know that Mr. Shotridge at first sight mistook his effigy for that of Abraham Lincoln. I feel sure that he could not forgive the Tlingit artist the chimney pot hat and still less the frock coat so long imposed on guiltless English speaking generations by the well meaning example of a blameless Prince Consort.

We know little enough of the use to which this breast ornament was put either before its transmogrification into a Tlingit cape or after. Probably never numerous, seven of these objects are known to be still in existence in museum collections besides the one figured here: one in the Australian Museum at Sydney, two in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, one in the Municipal Museum at Berne, and three in the British Museum.3 The example in the Australian Museum was purchased from the family of Captain Cook. Cook must have been familiar with the appearance of these objects from the time of his first voyage. In the official account of this voyage4 one of them is figured and described as “a military gorget.” Whether or not this is a picture of a gift to Cook there is no means of knowing. It is not the same as the specimen now in Sydney. A picturesque incident of his third voyage is described by himself and illustrated in the Album of plates to that Voyage by one of Webber’s charming drawings. On Monday, September 8th, 1777, Cook writes: “I . . . went with him [Otu, Pomare I] to his father’s where I found some people employed in dressing two girls with a prodigious quantity of fine cloth [bark cloth or tapa], after a very singular fashion. The one end of each piece of cloth, of which there were a good many, was held up over the heads of the girls, while the remainder was wrapped round their bodies under the armpits. Then the upper ends were let fall and hung down in folds to the ground, over the other, so as to bear some resemblance to a circular hoop petticoat. Afterwards, round the outside of all, were wrapped several pieces of differently coloured cloth, which considerably increased the size; so that it was not less than five or six yards in circuit, and the weight of this singular attire was as much as the poor girl could support. To each were hung two taames or breastplates, by way of enriching the whole and giving it a picturesque appearance. Thus equipped they were conducted on board the ship, together with several hogs and a quantity of fruit, which, with the cloth, was a present to me from Otoo’s father. Persons of either sex dressed in this manner are called atee; but, I believe, it is never practised except when large presents of cloth are to be made.”

A totem pole with a figure in a hat atop it, trees in the background
Effigy said to be a traditional image of Captain Cook on Tongass Island, Southwestern Alaska.
Image Number: 15019

This Otu, or more correctly Tu, was ruling chief of a district on the northern side of the larger of the two peninsulas into which Tahiti is divided. Afterwards, under the name of Pomare he became by conquest lord of the whole island, he and his successors of the same family subsequently extending their sway over the whole archipelago. In accordance with Tahitian custom his father had abdicated on the birth of an heir, continuing however to exercise authority as regent until such time as his son was judged capable of assuming the actual authority belonging to his chieftaincy. The gift of cloth with its accompaniments was therefore in a sense a royal gift, since Tu and his father belonged to the class of high chiefs whose persons were sacred and who claimed kinship with the gods. The breastplates referred to in Cook’s story must have been such as were worn only by persons of this class and could only have passed into Cook’s hands, as they appear to have done with the cloth, because he was regarded as at least the equal of this exalted personage.

The breastplate figured here also was originally the property of some member of this class of high chiefs, the highest aristocracy of the island, since its adornments include red feathers, sacred to Oro, the war god who received the chief worship of most Tahitians. Such feathers could be worn only by persons of this class, descendants and kindred of the gods.

We have seen that Cook described these breastplates as military gorgets. Though the term is still commonly used for the purpose, it is not properly applicable, since they were worn upon the breast and not as protection for the throat. Ellis’s description of a warrior’s costume includes this feature. “The Tahitians,” he says, “went to battle in their best clothes, sometimes perfumed with fragrant oil and adorned with flowers; and whether they wore only the light tiputa or the cumbrous ruuruu, which left only the arms at liberty, the whole was bound round the waist with a finely braided sash or girdle. On the breast they wore a handsome military gorget, ingeniously wrought with mother-of-pearl shells, white and coloured feathers and dog’s hair.”5

This practically sums up what we know about these breastplates. The lightness of their construction excludes the possibility of their having been used for protection, although forming, like the Hawaiian feather cloaks, part of the costume of a chief. But they were not the only part of a warrior’s costume in Tahiti which could not only not have been a protection but must have been a positive encumbrance. Men of importance wore in battle an enormous nodding headdress which seems to have had no other use than to draw the enemies’ attention to them.6 The tiputa mentioned in the last paragraph was the poncholike oblong of tapa which was the customary upper garment of the higher classes; the ruuruu was “a kind of wooden armour for the breast, back, and sides, covered with successive folds of thick cloth [tapa] bound on with ropes. Over this a costly cloth was spread.”7

What we have hitherto learned about the use to which this far travelled breastplate was put when it reached Alaska is even less than our knowledge of its employment in Tahiti. It was put to a ceremonial use of undefined nature. Our Alaskan informant is quoted as saying: “We were visiting Kal-yaku, who was at that time the master of Took-ka-hit (the great house of the clan). Incidentally we were there to witness an important ceremony at Angoon, in which the Raven Cape was put to use.” It was the property of the clan, and not of any individual, being referred to in the first place as the Deshu-hit-ton cape. Also we have somewhat more definite information on this point from Mr. Shotridge, who says: “I have been informed that the Raven Cape was used by different house groups of the Deshu-hit-ton during important affairs of the clan, hence it can safely be classed as a clan object.” The communal nature of its ownership as well as the estimation in which it was held by its owners is emphasized in the statement by Mr. Shotridge that it “well deserved a high name . . . the name Raven, the emblem of the great Tlhigh-naedi, the moiety of the Tlingit division to which the clan belongs” — moiety being a name for each of two larger divisions comprising clans into which some American and other aboriginal societies are divided. Someone else told Mr. Shotridge that the breastplate might well be “compared with those objects improvised by the great Raven, as described in the legend.” Round about Bering Sea, on both sides of it, Raven has a great place in mythology and cosmogony as creator or organizer of the universe. So the aura of divinity which hung about the breastplate at the beginning of its travels was regained at their end, if Raven can be regarded as in some sense divine. The esteem, if not reverence, in which the Tlingit of Angoon held their acquisition is explained on the grounds that “it had been the work of unknown hands.” What is beyond our horizons smacks always of the wondrous if not, according to the degree of our enlightenment, of the supernatural. Witness that altar set up by the Athenians to the unknown god.

Mrs. Yisyat’s host at Angoon told her that the breastplate was the “handiwork of the Kutaeha people.” Neither she nor Mr. Shotridge appears to know much if anything about these people. We have seen who Mrs. Yisyat believed they were. Is it possible that we have a Polynesian name preserved in this word, whose sound is strange both to the collector and his principal informant, and transmitted by a European intermediary to this remote Alaskan people? It would hardly be more strange than many another strange passage in the half deciphered story. The word has of course an obvious resemblance to the name of the people inhabiting the shores of Cook’s Inlet, the Khotana, but whether Polynesian or Athapascan or something else, the linguistic bearings suggested by the word would take me too far afield at present.

The name of the Tlingit personage through whom the breastplate was acquired for the Deshu-hit-ton is given provisionally by Mrs. Yisyat in the following passage, quoted by Mr. Shotridge: “I . . . either missed at the time I listened to the story or [I have] forgotten since the personal name of the master of the leading house group of the clan who made the purchase of the Raven Cape possible, but it is safe to say that it was A-yaha, Lake-Shore, because he was in truth, the first man who made himself prominent among the Deshu-hit-ton, and his name [was] connected with the foundation of the important history of the clan.” The reasoning is not perfect, but it seems clear at any rate that the person who got the credit for endowing the clan with this treasured possession was the most prominent head of a Deshu-hit-ton family at the time. It “was always kept,” says Mr. Shotridge, “by the leading family or house group,” of the Deshu-hit-ton.

The breastplate has for its groundwork plaited or braided sennit of coconut coir. This is stiffened and strengthened by a number of closely laid pliable twigs or withes bent to follow the outlines of the breastplate. These are crossed by short twigs, all being bound together and to the foundation with twine made of coconut coir. The dark feathers which cover the greater part of the foundation are laid on in three rows, separated, and, except for the outermost row, bounded on both edges by rows of sharks’ teeth. These feathers are tied in small bunches at the quill end and the bunches are caught between two stout cords which are tied down tightly between every two bunches to the sennit foundation. There are, strictly speaking, more than three rows of these dark feathers, the outermost being composed of two overlapping layers. The lighter coloured (red and yellow) small feathers are laid over the dark ones; wherever this occurs the dark feathers have been placed in overlapping layers, one of which is cut away enough to show the red and yellow. These small feathers are laid on in much the same way as the larger ones, except that the bound ends of the small bunches are laid between slender slips split from what appears to be cane or coconut leaflet midribs. A continuous fine cord binds these slips together by means of three half hitches taken between every two bunches of feathers. The whole is tied down at intervals through the underlying dark feathers to the sennit foundation. The sharks’ teeth are fastened just below the perforations of their broad ends between two stouter slips of a similar material to that used for the small feathers by means of a cord passing through the perforations and passed spirally around the slips. The cord which fastens the teeth to the foundation also passes through these holes in the teeth.

A cylindrical box with handle cord, decorated with rings
A box of bamboo found among the Eskimo at Cape Prince of Wales on Bering Strait, Alaska.
Museum Object Number: NA442
Image Number: 12703

The goat’s (or dog’s) hair fringe is composed of tresses wrapped as to the extremity which passes into the framework of the breastplate with fine cord of coconut fibre. The spiral winding is so arranged as to form a loop at the end which is inserted into the framework. This loop has no structural connection with the latter and must be merely ornamental. This fact, together with the other that in the winding of each tress the fibre cord is interrupted with a varying number of bands formed of those extremely fine braids of human hair for the manufacture of which the Tahitians were famous, seems to indicate that these carefully prepared tresses of goat’s or dog’s hair were used for some other purpose as well in which the ornamental wrapping would have been visible.

The wrapped portion of the tresses is laid on the back or under side of the sennit foundation crossing the long and parallel with the short twigs used for strengthening. They are held against this by two long slender withes which pass, parallelling each other, around the outer edge of the frame. To the outer one of these the tresses are fastened by means of a spiral winding similar to that which secures the red and yellow feathers to the other face of the breastplate. The inner bent withe serves only to keep the bound ends of the tresses flat against the framework; they are not attached to it.

At the upper end of each branch of the horseshoe shaped ornament and near the outer edge of it is a rosette formed of small red and blue feathers tied to a circular foundation of withes. Commonly these rosettes, two or three to a side, surrounded a piece of mother of pearl shell; in the case of our breastplate the shell is lacking. The space which might have been occupied by another rosette towards the inner edge of each side is covered by the breast of a bird with iridescent blue down.

The inner side of the horseshoe or rather hairpin curve of the breastplate is finished off with a narrow double band of woven coconut fibre sennit. The technique of the featherwork of the Tahitian breastplates differs completely from that employed in the making of the Hawaiian feather cloaks.8

By way of a footnote to this story of the strange linking of two diverse and far sundered cultures let us place here the record of two other examples of objects whose drift half round the world would have been impossible before the restless Caucasian had begun in the course of his far flung wanderings to bring the ends of the world together. The first of these was carried in a direction the exact opposite of that in which the breastplate was brought, and the outline of its history which is all that we can divine is to be traced in the material of which it is made and the form given to it by the artificer who shaped the material in accordance with an alien tradition. It is a war club made by a Samoan from the tusk of a narwhal killed in the Arctic seas. The story of this club has already been told in a study of Club Types in Nuclear Polynesia9 made by William Churchill on a large number of clubs in the collections of the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM. Speaking of the activities of the whalers in the Pacific which we have already referred to, he says : ” In the summer the fleet went northabout after the right whale in Bering Sea and the Arctic; in the winter of the northern hemisphere it made a new summer off New Zealand after the Antarctic whale. In each voyage between the ice of the north and the ice of the south the whalers scattered over the equatorial waters and followed the fiercely fighting cachalot. . . . Arriving shorthanded in the Pacific, the whalers filled up their forecastles with islanders from Samoa and Tonga and Fiji in the south. . . . It was surely a Samoan sailor who first came into possession of this horn of the unicorn of the sea and saw at once how well fitted it was to the exercise of his handicraft. . . . It is easy to picture him in the lazy hours of cruising . . . as he busies himself with holystone and shagreen to rub the twists out of the stalk of ivory, and with the sheathknife as he carves the lug upon its end in his own country fashion. . . . Before he had had the time to complete his club by making the hole through the lug whereby it might be suspended by a becket of sennit, the chance of his voyage led him to Santa Cruz. One does not associate the thought of gentle traffic with that savage island; no Samoan would ever give up peacefully such a club to men whom he could not trust with arms in their hands; there is blood upon the club without a doubt.” The club was obtained in the Melanesian island of Santa Cruz in 1891.

Finally the trinket box figured here made of a section of the inter-node of a bamboo stoppered at both ends with Alaskan wood was obtained by the Director of the Museum from an Eskimo at Cape Prince of Wales in 1905. Its surface shows some incised drawings in characteristic Eskimo style etched through the silicious cuticle of the bamboo as well as three more deeply incised bands of linear decorations including two varieties of zigzag ornament. Like that of the club, then, the material is alien to the culture of the workman who fashioned it; unlike the club it was probably fashioned by that workman at home on his native beach where the material came to his hand by a lucky chance from no place nearer than distant Japan at nearest; unlike both club and casket, the breastplate which is the leading character in this chapter of accidents was brought ready made of alien material by an alien craftsman to a new and strange yet not altogether dissimilar sphere of employment in land foreign both to its maker and his material.

1 W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, Vol. ii, p. 23, etc. London, 1853.
2 Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842). Charles Wilkes, U. S. N. Vol. II, Chapters 1 and 2. Philadelphia, 1849.
3 Occasional Papers of the Bernice Pauahi Museum, Honolulu, Part I, pp. 3, 20, 35, 46, and Pl. II.
4 Cook I (Hawkesworth), ii, Pl. 8.
5 Polynesian Researches, I, p. 301.
6 Ibid., pp. 299-300.
7 P. 301.
8 Two Hawaiian Feather Garments, Museum Journal, March, 1923.
9 Carnegie Institution, Washington, 1917. Pp. 162-164 and P1. VIII, a.

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "A Souvenir Of The Great Explorers." The Museum Journal XVI, no. 3 (September, 1925): 182-199. Accessed June 17, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1341/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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