British Museum collections, £12.99
Length: 81.000 cm
Collected by Capt. Henry Wilson of the
Previously owned by Revd William Wills
Gift of Miss Salter
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Possibly 18th century AD
This sword is one of the prestigious artefacts given to Captain Henry Wilson when he stayed in the Palau Islands, now known as Belau, after the shipwreck of his East India Company packet Antelope. Wilson and his crew lived on the island of Ulong for three months in 1783 while they built a new ship. The story of their travels was published by George Keate, and became a popular book.
Wilson and his crew became friendly with the Palauans, especially the high chief of Koror, the ibedul, known by the crew as Abba Thule. They exchanged gifts - the ceremonial exchange of gifts continues to be an important part of Palauan culture. Wilson's gifts to the Palauans included metal and European weapons. The Paluans did use shell-inlaid wooden swords as weapons, but the rich decoration of this example suggests that it probably had a ceremonial function. Wilson also received a large bird-shaped bowl decorated in a similar manner, and a tight fitting armlet made from the vertebra of a dugong, as worn only by the highest ranking chiefs. Abba Thule's second son, Prince Lee Boo, was chosen to sail to England with the crew. They left the islands on 12 November 1783. Lee Boo survived only six months in England. He died of smallpox and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Rotherhithe, where his grave can still be seen.
Belau is now noted for ceremonial men's meeting houses, known as bai. The gables and lintels are carved and painted with symbolic images. The gable boards, known as story boards, are carved with scenes that depict important historic events and aspects of Palauan culture.
F. Hezel, The first taint of civilizatio, Pacific Islands Monograph Series, no. 1 (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
N. Thomas and K. Nero (eds.), G. Keate, An account of the Pelew Island, The Literature of Travel, Exploration and Empire (Continuum International Publishing, 2001)
Palau Community Action Agency, A history of Palau, 3 vols. (Koror, PCAA, 1977)
G. Keate, An account of the Pelew Isla-1 (London, Wilson and Nichol, 1788)