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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