Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 2: An Eighteenth-century ceremonial club from Vancouver Island

RUTH SCOBIE

[This is Ruth’s second post on material culture in the 18th century]

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

In March 2012, a mid-eighteenth-century ceremonial club, made by the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, was donated to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The club was carved from a single piece of yew wood, in the shape of a hand clasping a sphere. It is beautiful and extremely rare, a hawilmis, or “chiefly treasure” of Canadian Aboriginal people. As the Musqueam First Nation artist Debra Sparrow told reporters at the time of the donation, the club, “was carved with a purpose,” and is thus “not an object, it is a reflection of a people’s history.”[1]

For UBC’s press department, the primary significance – or at least one of the most interesting aspects – of the club was the brief role in its life of a famous British individual, Captain James Cook. The title of the UBC media release describes it as “the last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection.”[2] Almost every national and international news report of the story followed this lead by headlining the name of the explorer, who was presented with the club during his third Pacific voyage in 1778, a year before he died. The Vancouver Sun opened their report in 2012 with an account of the donor, Michael Audain, and his fan-like relationship with Cook. This began when “as a child, [he] was fascinated with the story of Capt. James Cook,” and seems to culminate in his emotional response to seeing and handling the club, which offers a kind of physical connection to the long-dead explorer. Audain, the report details, felt “a tremor of excitement” and asked “Can I touch it? Can I hold something in my hand that James Cook must have held?”[3]

The information board which now accompanies the club continues to quietly emphasise this link across the centuries to Cook, referring to the object’s presence in Hawaii at the time of his death, as though it somehow acts as an inanimate witness to the event.[4] The Nuu-chah-nulth club’s status as an emotional conduit to Cook, then, may be, for many visitors to the museum, a key part of their experience of the object. For some cultural theorists, such extraordinary revaluations by collectors and museums of objects linked to Cook, and especially his death, resemble the processes of “celebrity endorsement” or even “the status of sacred relics.”[5]

A form of this celebrity effect was already central to the early acquisition and exhibition of Pacific artefacts in eighteenth-century London, where the club was displayed between 1780 and 1806 at the Holophusikon in Leicester Square. Visitors to this museum were expected to be thrilled by the opportunity “to see several of the identical articles which were once the property of the celebrated Captain Cook.” An encounter with Cook’s collection could not “fail to excite a melancholy pleasure, while we reflect on his eminent abilities, and his unhappy fate.”[6] This “unhappy fate,” a mysterious and violent death in Hawaii, created an aura of tragic celebrity around Hawaiian artefacts. This might explain why the Nuu-chah-nulth club seems to have been mislabelled in the museum catalogue as a “curious war instrument” from Hawaii.[7] Such objects had a more personal association with Cook, and so would be more likely to appeal to visitors. The club was probably displayed in the Hawaiian room, one of the Holophusikon’s most heavily advertised attractions. This room displayed a portrait of Cook, and an inscription “To The Immortal Memory of Captain Cook.”[8] Most visitors seem to have understood the display as “devoted to the memory of Captain Cook, which is here effectually preserved by a collection of arms, dresses, utensils, idols, &c.”[9]

In the 1780s and 1790s, a sensational version of Cook’s death, sometimes including unfounded allegations of Hawaiian cannibalism, spread in British popular culture. As a result, the club (like many genuinely Hawaiian artefacts such as the feather ‘ahu ‘ula discussed in the last post) was stripped of its original meanings and made to fit into a highly emotionally-charged, somewhat Gothic story in which Cook, an Enlightenment hero, was sacrificed to a glamorous but barbaric Hawaiian society. It made sense to Lever to label the ceremonial Nuu-chah-nulth club a Hawaiian “war instrument” when, for many of his visitors, Hawaii was the most warlike setting imaginable. A bestselling elegy, for example, compared Cook to Jesus and Orpheus. It dramatised his death as a gruesome confrontation between good and evil “On a far distant, and remorseless shore”:

Where treachery, hov’ring o’er the blasted heath,

Poises with ghastly smile the darts of death,

Pierc’d by their venom’d points, your favorite bleeds,

And on his limbs the lust of hunger feeds![10]

The horror of fictionalised scenes like these became a filter through which the objects in Cook’s former collections were often viewed by metropolitan tourists. While they added a sensational edge to the exotic wonders of the Holophusikon, they also worsened British perceptions of Pacific island cultures, and created the myth of Cook’s heroic status, which continues to guide many responses to artefacts around the world today.

 

Notes

[1] “A West Coast icon comes home after round the world journey”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012)

[2] “Last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection donated to UBC Museum of Anthropology.” University of British Columbia media release (20 March 2012).

[3] “A West Coast icon”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012).

[4] “Ḥaẃilmis: a chiefly treasure.” Information board at UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver (2012)

[5] Lissant Bolton, “Brushed with Fame: Museological investments in the Cook voyage collections” in Discovering Cook’s Collections, edited by Michelle Hetherington and Howard Morphy (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2009), pp. 78-91, p. 79; Amiria Henare, Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2005), p. 43.

[6] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), footnote to p. 7.

[7] The UBC media release (2012) quotes (unattributed) Catalogue of the Leverian Museum, Part I. Including the First Eight Days’ Sale (London: Hayden, 1806), p. 278.

[8] Companion to the Museum, p. 6

[9] Benjamin Silliman, A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland (New York: D. and G. Bruce, 1810), vol. 1 of 2, p. 208

[10] Anna Seward, Elegy on Captain Cook (London: J. Dodsley, 1780), pp. 14-15

 

Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .

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Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 1: ‘Ahu ‘ula (eighteenth-century feather cloak from Hawaii)

RUTH SCOBIE

(This is the first of a two-part post on material objects  in the 18th century.)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum […] has a whole Room ornamented with instruments and articles of dress, of the Inhabitants of those Countries alone, which were discovered in the last voyage of the unfortunate Captain Cook. The dress is entirely made of birds feathers, and their warlike instruments, of stone, besides some necklaces, and a kind of Coat of mail, of dogs teeth.[1]

As an American tourist in England in the 1780s, John Quincy Adams wrote letters home describing his London sightseeing trips. He was especially enthused about Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum or “Holophusikon,” an exhibition of curiosities housed in a large, cluttered house in what is now Leicester Square. One of the Holophusikon’s most popular collections, as Adams noted, had been brought to England in James Cook’s ships Resolution and Discovery when they returned in 1780 from Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. This voyage had seen two especially newsworthy events: the first European encounter with Hawaii (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands), and the violent death of Cook in those islands in 1779. By buying up Hawaiian artefacts, Lever capitalised on the popular European fascination with these two events, and with the mysterious new land of “Owhyhee.”

Featherwork items – including mahiole (helmets), ‘ahu ‘ula (cloaks)and akua hulu manu (sculptural images of gods) – were piled on the floor of the Holophusikon, arranged in glass and mahogany cases, and hung on the walls. They were made from a plant fibre mesh, into which craftsmen had painstakingly woven thousands of tiny bundles of red and yellow feathers. The feathers came from honeycreeper birds, each individually trapped and plucked. The scarcity and sacred power of their materials, and the extraordinary labour intensity of their production, made featherwork objects powerful symbols of chiefly status in Hawaii. The Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u had presented Cook with a magnificent ‘ahu ‘ula at a ceremony a few weeks before he was killed. This cloak was acquired by Lever for his museum. At the break up of the Holophusikon in 1806, it was sold. It is now held by Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.

Detached from its original political and religious context, in the Holophusikon the cloak became an embodiment of the glamour of Hawaii in the eighteenth-century London imagination. Its dazzling colours and soft texture were alien and exotic in this damp, somewhat grubby city. Contemporary British accounts struggle to compare Hawaiian featherwork to more familiar materials, or, like Adams, simply give up and declare it “curious.” One guide to the museum instructed its readers to admire “the colours of the feathers – red, yellow, and brown, and with […] much art disposed” – the cloaks must be, it concluded, a Hawaiian version of European coronation robes and crown jewels.[2] Another speculated that the “curious manufacture” of this “superb cloak” (and the other “elegant and singularly beautiful cloaks” displayed around it) “would no doubt be found a work of considerable time and expence in the hands of the most ingenious European artist.” Its “delicate softness and glossy appearance” could only be likened to “the thickest and richest velvets.”[3]

Language like this easily slipped into the baroque flourishes of contemporary advertisements, which sold luxuries like silks and feathers through elaborate hyperbole and name-dropping. Unlike the British Museum – which also held a collection of Pacific artefacts – the Holophusikon was a thoroughly commercial institution. It attracted visitors through intensive newspaper campaigns, and prioritised consumer amusement over education (one of its other popular exhibits was a room of taxidermied monkeys dressed up and posed in tableaux). Its publicity materials emphasise an comfortable and elegant building appropriate for “people of the first fashion.”[4] Other establishments turned similar Pacific artefacts into Western commodities. At Daniel Boulter’s shop-museum in Yarmouth, for example, a “Beautiful Feathered Cloak, worn by the Chiefs of Owhyhee,” cost 1l.1s.[5] Imitations were available: Mr Berrow’s Feather and Flower Manufactory on Pall Mall offered ladies “a pleasing variety of his new invented Feather Hats,” copying the techniques of Lever’s “feather dresses.”[6] Other versions appeared in paintings at the Royal Academy, at masquerade balls, and as stage costumes at Covent Garden. When Elizabeth Montagu wanted to demonstrate her wealth and taste in 1781, she designed a set of huge featherwork wall panels for her London townhouse.[7]

The Holophusikon’s exhibition of Hawaiian artefacts reinforced existing associations in the British imagination between Pacific islands and luxury, urban entertainment and exotic glamour. As an evangelical movement hostile to these forms of metropolitan pleasure emerged in the 1790s, this kind of appeal was often reframed as mere decadence and barbarity, making Hawaii a particular target for missionary discourse. The craftsmanship and beauty of the featherwork in the Holophusikon, for the Baptist writer John Evans, in 1798, suggested only the wasteful extravagance of “the ingenuity of savages” when misdirected towards the worship of “hideous monsters” instead of the Christian god. “In the contemplation […] of these exhibitions,” he concluded, “we cannot help pitying the ignorance of those deluded creatures.” Both pagan Hawaiians, and British pleasure-seekers, he argued, were equally diverted from real virtue by the pursuit of the sensual luxury represented by the cloak.[8] These attacks were intensified by the other association which made Lever’s Pacific artefacts a metropolitan sensation in the 1780s: their links (real or imagined) with the famous Captain Cook, increasingly regarded as a reforming colonial hero, and particularly with his violent death. This, and the continuing celebrity status of Cook in museums today, will be explored in my next post.

 

Notes

[1] John Quincy Adams, in letter to Elizabeth Cranch (18 April 1784), Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, edited by C. James Taylor (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007).

[2] The School-Room Party, Out of School Hours (London: T. Hurst, 1800), pp. 11-12.

[3] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), pp. 18-19

[4] London Courant (11 February 1782)

[5] Daniel Boulter, Museum Boulterianum (Yarmouth: n.p., c. 1794), p. 77

[6] Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser (6 November 1781)

[7] See Ruth Scobie, “To dress a room for Montagu”: Pacific cosmopolitanism and Elizabeth Montagu’s feather hangings” in Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (forthcoming).

[8] John Evans, “A Visit to Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum, near Black Friars Bridge” in Monthly Visitor and Pocket Companion 5 (September 1798): 53-62.

Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .