Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Diameter: 21.500 cm
Gift of Sir Joseph Banks
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Basketry-covered wooden container
From Polynesia, Tonga, 18th century AD
This basketry-covered wooden bucket appears to have been collected on Captain Cook's second voyage to the Pacific (1773-74). The few European voyagers to the Tongan Islands prior to Captain Cook did not make collections which have survived, so Cook's collections, from this voyage, including this wooden container, are the oldest now known.
The wooden container is encased in plaited coconut fibre, some of which is dyed black. The triangular patterns are created by contrasting dyed and undyed fibre. These are accentuated with small shell and coconut shell beads.
Tongan women make baskets today – it is a flourishing industry – but this type of container, which is probably the type called mosikaka in the Tongan language, is no longer made, and the significance of the triangular designs is not recorded. However, in Tonga objects have always reflected the social status of their owner, thus both the designs, and the right to use this kind of container, would have been dependent on the owner's position in society.
The documentation for the objects collected on Cook's voyages is often very brief, and identifying them requires the skills of a detective. The scholar Adrienne Kaeppler has made a large contribution to this process. This container appears in a drawing by Cleveley, an artist who worked for the rich Lincolnshire land-owner, Sir Joseph Banks, which is now held in the British Library. Banks travelled on Cook's first voyage, at his own expense, but did not participate in the second voyage. Kaeppler's research suggests that the container was given to Banks by someone who was on the second voyage, and that Banks subsequently gave it to The British Museum in 1778, as part of a collection of 'artificial curiosities'.
A.L. Kaeppler, Artificial Curiosities: being (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1978)