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


[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.



[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 .


Objects of Statemaking: Self-Help Groups’ Khaatas   



A typical khaata (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)

In rural India, women’s self- help groups or SHGs are promoted as the harbingers of empowerment for poor and marginalised women. During my fieldwork in 2013-14 among SHG women in the West Midnapore district of the state of West Bengal, I noticed that SHGs also serve as a means to make interactions between rural women and the state possible. A typical SHG consists of 8-10 women from the same village who pool in their savings every month. Members can then take loans out of this consolidated amount for their different needs: a wedding in the family, financing cultivation or running a small business. Members conduct weekly meetings among themselves to decide on the allocation of funds. Most of the existing SHGs were formed under state schemes, and governments try to provide benefits such as subsidised loans to these groups. Of course, the state’s support to these groups is also strategically self-beneficial in different ways. First, it enables them to make claims about their role in financially empowering women and contributing to ‘development’ and poverty reduction. Second, the state is able to reach the rural households and community much more through its everyday interactions with women.

In order to select the SHG groups that will receive benefits, state officials check the khaatas maintained by the SHG. The Bengali word khaata roughly translates to record books or notebooks meant for writing. At the time when SHGs are formed, state officials provided these record books to women. Each group maintains four khaatas:  Meetings Resolutions Book, Savings Book, Cash Book and Loans Register. The meetings resolution book is seen as reflective of how participatory or not the SHG is.  Members are expected to record the attendance and minutes of each meeting that the group conducts. Meetings are normally held weekly or fortnightly. The other three books record the financial status of the SHG. Only if the state and bank officials think that the khaatas have been properly maintained do they consider the SHG as eligible to receive benefits from the state and subsidised loans from state-owned banks. The reliance of the state bureaucracy on the written record therefore makes these record books important objects in the process of statemaking.

An important part of the training that the SHG women from receive from the NGO workers relates to teaching them how to maintain these records. However, this depends, first and foremost, on the literacy levels of the SHG women. Only those group members who have received a certain level of education are able to do what is required. For instance, Sumana Mahato of the Ma Saraswati SHG of Sal village told me, “I am the only one in the group who can read and write, so all the records are maintained by me. The other members have only just learnt how to write their names.” As a result, there is a hierarchy in terms of who can handle these objects of statemaking and who cannot.   To conclude, khaatas as objects acquire a life of their own and form an essential link between the state and its female subjects.  On the one hand, therefore, the state uses these objects to classify who is a legitimate receiver of benefit and who is not, while providing the women with the means to seek legitimacy through the very same objects.

State officials checking women's khaatas (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)

State officials checking women’s khaatas (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)


Lipika Kamra is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.