Oceanic Material Culture Changing the Course of History Examples of What Was and Might Have Been
- By - Arthur B. Palmer
- Discussion Paper 1 of 3


Two outstanding events in the early European exploration and rediscovery of the Pacific irrevocably altered the future outcomes for Polynesian and Western culture. An examination of the crucial role Oceanic artifacts played in Cook’s combat death in Hawaii and Bligh’s Bounty mutiny after Tahiti.


“How very difficult it is to draw any certain conclusion from the actions of people, with whose customs, as well as language, we are so imperfectly acquainted.” Lt. James King HMS Resolution 1779.

As with many historical moments, Cook’s death and the piracy of Bligh’s Bounty have become shrouded in a theatre of misunderstanding, myth and mystery, irony and contradiction. However what remains imbedded in original sources, although somewhat obscure and largely disregarded, is that the material culture of the Pacific Islanders, and the sailors’ perception of and interaction with these artifacts, played a significant role in these two events. Ultimately it was traditional artifacts which determined what transpired or expired.

In both cases, what shines out is that arrogant underestimation of another society’s material culture is thinly veiled contempt for a people. As with most ignorance it imparts weakness and vulnerability, not strength to those possessed of this misplaced article of faith. Cook contemptuous, Bligh neutral and Banks infatuated. Positions all held by these seminal Pacific voyagers which changed history.

There were however some members of the company on these voyages who neither underestimated nor undervalued Pacific ethnographic items. Many were fascinated with not only the material culture, but the Polynesians and the traditional Pacific life style.

By the time of Cook’s death, Pacific artifacts were fashionable vogue in Europe and had fast become valuable collectors’ items (Moorehead 1966:72, Smith 1992:109). For a good indication of just how quickly London was enamored with Oceanic material culture, we only have to look at the 1771 official portrait of Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. (Usher Art Gallery Lincoln 234cm x 166cm.) (Smith 1992:42).There Banks stands, full length, the great and celebrated botanist surrounded by, not plant specimens, but artifacts from his Endeavor voyage, and lots of them. He looks to be cloaked in Maori ngore dress cloak (or Tahitian high rank white tapa cloth?). To his right a Maori Taiaha and paddle hoe, and at his feet a woven Tahitian dancing headdress cap, an axe or birds head club, also a tapa beater or club. A small set of dried botanical specimens lie, as almost an after thought, on the floor behind these last two artefacts.
The Usher Gallery notes to Bank’s portrait are revealing.
“Banks wears a Maori cloak & stands beside other trophies from N.Z. and Polynesia as if in rebuke of his more conventional contemporaries who were portrayed in Rome with their new purchases of classical antiquities”
Banks wanted to be known, by this painting, as the first great ethnographic field collector and indeed he has every right to this proud claim.

Many of these ethnographic items had been previously recorded in meticulous drawings by Parkinson & Miller (Joppien, Smith 1985:93-217).
Although Bernard Smith ignores the presence of all the artifacts depicted in the Bank’s portrait, he does “take serious account” of the impact by Pacific material culture pieces collected during Cook’s voyages, on European art, taste, and sensibilities. Both Cook’s official artists, Webber and Parkinson, were great collectors of Pacific artifacts (Smith 1992:109).The discovery and collection of Pacific arts and crafts provided a threshold for the development of the European taste for primitive art (Smith 1992:109,218-219).
Of course previously, in1769, Bougainville had returned to France with the Tahitian Ahutoru who was formally presented to Louis XV. Reports and books, such as Diderot’s philosophical work, based on Bougainville’s Pacific voyage had a huge impact on European intellectual thought. It was the first time a non European society had been held up as a model .A preliterate non iron based culture at that (Lewis 1977:163).
This is 100 years before African masks promoted Cubism.

One set of Pacific artifacts (trophies) Bank’s picked up in Tahiti not showing are his Otaheite (sic. 1770’s) tattoos (Moorehead 1966:27). Tattoos, from the Tahitian tatau, were a badge of honour proudly displayed, flaunted like campaign medals in taverns, by that unique band of sailors returned from Pacific exploration. At the time tattooing was almost unknown in England (Hough 1974:116). Many of the first tattooed mariners arrived back with the Endeavor at the end of Cook’s first voyage with Banks. Most Bounty sailors, including Fletcher Christian, had undergone traditional tattooing over large parts of their bodies, particularly the broad black decorative band across the buttocks. (Alexander 2003:116-117). By the time Bounty left Tahiti, Bligh could rely heavily on tattoos as his descriptive identification of the Bounty mutineers, all except one” very much tatowed..” Tattoo, the one artifact memento you kept for life (Dening 1992: 36.Lumis 2000: 81).

Although Cook and Bligh were very different men, their fates shaved very close to each other on a number of occasions in the Pacific, and all outcomes involved items of Oceanic material culture. Collection and passion for artifacts, theft of artifacts by both parties and the inability to distinguish the sacred paraphernalia from the profane, played an intrinsic role when push came to shove and blows lead to killing.

Cook Hawaii 1779

Lord Horton, President of the Royal Society and sponsor of the Endeavor voyage, gave Cook written advice. This included the instruction that “Have it still in view that shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature…. They are natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. Should they in a hostile manner oppose a landing, and kill some men in the attempt; even this would hardly justify firing amongst them, till every other gentle method had been tried.” (Smith 1992:207).

Cook’s third voyage was remarkable for his violence, cruelty, intolerance and intemperate outbursts.

In Tonga tapu he had punished theft and stone throwing with floggings by the dozen. Then in a fury of impotent exasperation he ordered crosses slashed on the thieves naked arms. At Tahiti he became more severe & unreasonable. The theft of a goat prompted an entire village to be plundered and destroyed. The loss of a sextant resulted in the Tahitian thief’s head shaved and his ears cut off. Cooks Officers’, including Bligh, were horrified but powerless. Some historians consider Bligh proved to be the better man (Alexander 2004: 128).

George Gilbert, a young midshipman, on the Resolution relates “ Capt. Cook punished in a manner rather unbecoming of a European viz. by cutting off their ears; fireing at them with small shot, or ball, as they were swimming or paddling to the shore or…stick the boat hook into them. One in particular he punished by ordering one of our people to make two cuts upon his arm to the bone one across the other close below the shoulder..” (Smith 1992;206). It was Cook who on a previous trip had named Tonga the Friendly Isles.

In Hawaii, Cook tells King the night before being killed. “These people will oblige me to use some violent measures, for they must not be left to imagine that they have gained an advantage over us” (Hough 1974: 42). Cook is confident that a single musket-shot would subdue any violence (ibid: 43). The General Custer syndrome is difficult to learn from. It has a history of teaching largely by attrition.

Cook’s population estimate for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), based on the one thousand canoes with ten thousand islanders which met them in welcome, was 300,000 plus.

Next morning, February 14th 1779, Cook and Phillips are on the beach when they hear shooting from two parts of the bay. Then the deep boom of the ships guns. ”The signs of friendliness and respect amongst the Natives dissolves, and Cook & Philips saw that they (Hawaiians) were beginning to arm themselves, were donning their close-woven mats which they wore for protection in battle, and were gathering in great numbers, at great speed, along the rocky shore.” (ibid: 45).

Cook’s particular final fatal mistake was not rashness or provocation. It was his underestimation of local technology and the Hawaiian resolve. After having enraged with his rudeness, an overwhelming group of locals, Cook discharged his musket at point blank range into the chest of an advancing Hawaiian warrior. The effect was, that it not only had no affect on the target, it immediately produced the reciprocal of Cook’s intention. The Hawaiian was wearing woven protective armour of coconut fibre designed to be impervious to sling missiles, shark tooth club blows, spears and other projectiles. Its efficacy included, unfortunately for Cook, musket shot. This warrior is reported to have removed his armour, proudly displayed the ineffectual mark left by the shot on his body, triumphantly waved the armour above his head and urged his company on to victory at the cost of Cook’s life and Native awe.
Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage also takes a fatal blow with Cook this day.

Bougainville in 1768 had compared the Pacific Isles to the Garden of Eden and named Tahiti the New Cythera. By 1788 La Perouse declared indignantly “All their caresses were false…more malignant than the wildest beasts “(Moorehead 1966: 78-79). Being clubbed over the head is a very coal face form of being mugged by reality.

Bligh in a cutter off shore from Cook was also an observer participant to this catastrophe. For Bligh, Cook’s death was an expensive and valuable lesson in manners and execution. Cook had been elevated to Tahitian God status, Lono a shark who walks on land, and his death did not diminish his divinity (Dening 1992:157-173). Bligh never aspired to be anything other than a dutiful if fallible human. Ironically Cook’s supply of red feathers from Tahiti, so revered in Hawaii, is yet another Pacific artifact in the chain of his inevitable circumstance and fate.

Cook on the beach, the shark God Lono walking on land, and Bligh always on the deck of his floating island, a man content to walk on the waters of the world. Bligh’s beach was his deck and he very seldom went ashore. Cook needed to touch his discoveries to make them real. Bligh simply mapped his to make them “discovered”. It’s as if Bligh acted out the old Irish joke – tell me where I’ll die and I’ll make bloody sure to never go within 15 miles of the accursed place.

Richard Hough (1972: 46-47) distills from the account of Lt. Philips, the only recorded participant observer, on shore and survivor of Cook’s last minutes “A native broke from the threatening circle about Cook and Phillips, raising in one hand his pahhooa (a long spike like a spear) and in the other hand a stone, shouting threats and abuse. Cook replied at first by a gesture ordering him to retreat, and when this failed by firing the barrel of his musket loaded with ball shot. This had none of the deterrent effect Cook expected. It was quite the reverse. The shot failed to penetrate the native’s protective mat, which he flaunted first mockingly at Cook and then triumphantly at his own people.

Hawaiian mats of woven armour are described in some detail by Phillips in Henry Theodore Cheever’s book “Life in the Sandwich Islands; or the Heart of the Pacific, as it was and is” (1841:26). “Large thick mats they were observed to wear, which they constantly kept wet, and, further more, the Indian that Cook fired at with a blank discovered no fear, when he found his mat unburnt, saying in his language, when he showed it to the bystanders, that no fire had touched it.”

What is demonstrably false in this report is reference to Cook firing a blank. Cook had loaded that morning with ball specifically to kill & he fired ball to kill (Hough 1972:44).It is part of the wider historical cover up of Cook’s increasing vengeful brutality that characterized him at his worst on this final voyage (Alexander 2004:128).It is intended not to report history but to maintain the myth of Cook - the humanitarian hero, discoverer extraordinaire.

John Cleveley, 1788 Published Painting of Cook as Peace Maker Martyr, Musket smoke the Hero’s halo.


John Cleveley, Original Watercolour, rediscovered 2004 based on his brother’s eyewitness account


In 2004 an original seminal painting of Cook’s death by John Cleveley, based on a description from his brother James, carpenter on the Resolution, was brought to light. It depicts what all who witnessed the scene knew to be true. Cook fighting hard for his life, swinging his musket as a club. No sign of a martyr suing for peace and calm as depicted in the reinterpreted published engraved aquatint by Jukes in 1788 (Smith 1992:232). The sanitizing of Cook’s violent relations with Natives in illustrations predates Cook death. Cook himself suppressed images of conflict and other matters such as nudity in his publications (ibed:198). On this third voyage he had expressly forbidden the official artist, Webber, from portraying any violent confrontation with Native people (ibid: 202).

John Webber, The Death of Cook, Engraving for publication. Enigmatic gesture, emotional, ambiguity, martyr-hero.

Stones were already flying, aimed at the marines who stood along the shore with muskets at the ready and at Phillips and Cook. A chief lunged at Phillips with his dagger. Phillips deflected the blow and swung the butt of his musket at the man’s head. Another came at him from behind, stabbing him between the shoulders. Phillips turned, discharged a ball and killed him instantly. The screaming mob closed about Cook who must now have realised he was doomed, fired his remaining barrel at the nearest native. The man fell. But it was ominously clear that these Hawaiians were not as afraid of musket fire as Cook had anticipated. Instead of falling back, the sound and the fury intensified … Cook’s end was near” (Hough 1972:47).

To add to the irony of the moment Cook was stabbed to death by one of his own artifacts. Lieutenant John Rickman (1779:271), an observer from the Resolution who manned a cutter in the bay notes in his hand written journal; “Cook fired some small shot at the offender without doing any damage…….came from behind and stabbed him between the shoulders with an iron instrument like a dirk, of which they had many made by Capt. Cook at their own direction..”

In death, the memory of Cook now metamorphosed into a cross cultural artifact meaning all things to all men, Polynesian and European.

“The gentlemen auctioned off Cook’s clothes in the great cabin as the chiefs divided up his bones in the Temple of Ku. They all – gentlemen and Chiefs - had some sense of how great men find resurrection in their relics. Even the lower deck had their eyes on the value of souvenirs. All the Hawaiian artifacts they had collected went up in value, and you can find them now in the museums of the world – spears, axes, feather cloaks and beads – marked with a note that they had belonged to men who had belonged to Cook and had seen him die” (Dening 1992:171).

Bligh Tahiti 1789

“At Otaheite it could not be expected that the intercourse of my people should be of a very reserved nature.” (Bligh in Moorehead 1966: 77). Bligh is not talking of trade or ethnographic studies here. However, in between the horizontal folk dancing a lot of trade managed to take place.

A decade after Cook’s killing, and shortly before preparing to leave Tahiti in February 1789, Bligh had a very close brush with death from a Pacific club on the deck of the Bounty. Three crew had deserted and been recaptured. These three were to be flogged and the midshipman, Tom Haywood, mate of the watch who had been asleep, brought up from below in irons.

“There was one more ironical - and potentially disastrous consequence of this affair. Haywood’s male Tyo,( a special friend) a man by the name of Wyetooa, had been on board the Bounty, standing close behind Bligh and with a club in his hand, on the morning when the three deserters had been flogged and Haywood publicly rebuked and ordered below in irons again. Bligh never knew how close to death he had been. If Haywood had been flogged, Wyetooa had planned to fell Bligh on the first lash, then leap overboard and gain shore before anyone could reach him” (Hough 1974:125) All of this only came to light when the mutineers returned to Tahiti (Alexander 2004:122).

What saved Bligh was his prevailing sense of magnanimity. His order was far below the accepted naval punishment for desertion, or asleep on watch, of death (Alexander 2004:120. Lumis 2000:57). Bligh’s real punishment for his crew was to nag incessantly (Hough 1974:83,303), flog them with his bitter vicious tongue, but to use the cat sparingly. Bligh’s flogging record was minor in comparison to Cook. Bligh flogged five men on the Bounty. Cook flogged thirty-two on the Resolution. Both flogged the Natives but Cook flogged many more (Dening 1992:384).

Even the great and shining lies to defame Bligh rely on artifacts for their props. The infamous false film exchange between Bligh (Howard) and Christian (Brando), during the closing stages of the mutiny – Christian hanging a cat of nine tails over Bligh’s shoulder as he’s put over the side into the launch, purportedly says “take your flag with you Capt. Bligh.” Bligh replies “no thank you, I don’t need a flag, as unlike you, I still have a country.” (1962 Film “Mutiny on the Bounty”).

Flags and the lash certainly were the artifacts that riveted the Polynesian attention on a political level. They knew that to understand these articles in context you then had the measure of the strangers.

When the bounty left Tahiti every sailor had “purchased mats, spears, curiosities and every thing the Natives would dispose of in a frenzy of trading. There were yams and clubs in all quarters of the ship” (Dening 1992: 76). “The people (the lower deck non commissioned sailors) had become entrepreneurial too. They would never make their fortunes out of wages, but they would still do well out of the artificial curiosities they had collected. The Bounty already over crowded, was now full of clubs and spears, Tahitian cloth, fans and feathers” (ibid: 86).
If Bligh collected artifacts it is unrecorded.

A week later, on the way to the mutiny, Bounty called in at Anamooka in the Friendly Isles, (Tonga) one of the Pacific’s great map misnomers. Again, all on board traded nails for spears and clubs (Alexander 2004:131). Dening (1992:86) reports the sailors made spectacular bargains with the Tongans trading in their recently acquired Tahitian artifacts for Anamooka food. Also combs for carved shields, mirrors for spears. Soon the decks were so cluttered with artifacts it was difficult to get about (Hough 1974:139).

The great enduring mystery of the Bounty mutiny is not how a spontaneous decision by Fletcher Christian succeeded in taking the ship or why (Christian 1999:182). The question that remains is how is it that the considerable number of loyalists, could not, and did not attempt to overpower the few pirates and successfully retake control during the hours of indecision and confusion? The binding of Bligh’s hands and his accusatory finger of retribution and authority may have tipped the balance in favor of the uncertain few mutineers, who lacked a plan, but dared to win. The fact that he was in a hitched up night shirt without pants would have reduced Bligh’s dignity to the point where stamping his authority upon the situation was nigh impossible.

Bligh’s clerk, at the Court Marshall, later recalled “The officers being now all up, I looked for some attempt (to retake the ship) be made, but, saw none. Dening (1992:38) observes that “now it was begun, how could it be ended by those who had no authority to lead and no example from those who did”?

There were some of the Bounty men looking to put down the mutiny. Morrison, the Bounty Boatswain’s Mate, in his defense, for his life during the Court Marshall, gave evidence that he and Tom Haywood had discussed retaking the Bounty as the mutiny progressed during the morning. “He dropped a hint to me that he intended to knock Churchill (one of the ringleaders) down, I told him I would second him, pointing to some of the Friendly Island clubs which ( there were many on board) were sticking in the booms and saying, there are tools enough (Traditional Pacific islander weapons to over power Fletcher Christian’s pirates.) Nothing came of it and Haywood meekly got into the launch with Bligh (Dening 1992:240. Alexander 2004:242). Morrison had also apparently made plans with the master John Fryer to re-take the ship (Lumis 2000:63). Morrison won a pardon from his sentence of death.

Bligh felt powerless and now simply wanted to pull the 23ft. launch away from the ship to protect the loyalists with him from the increasing threats of some hard & dunk mutineers. (ibid: 64.)
One blow, on the Captains behalf on this mutiny morning, from any one of these dozens of Tongan clubs would have forever altered Bligh’s life and swerved the course of much Pacific history. Not to be. Of course if a violent attempt to retake the Bounty, armed with Tonga clubs, had failed, Bligh may well have forfeited his life then and there as a consequence. There were some murderous types in the mutiny who would have happily shot Bligh, and suggested it at the time, “blow the buggers brains out”, with no provocation other than Bligh’s incessant demands and complaints on behalf of those who’s sense of duty threw in their lot with his demise (Christian 1999:177-189. Alexander 2004:160-161).

Pacific Artifacts also were to map out the rest of Fletcher Christians life – he and Robespierre, both devotees of Rousseau, knew not to fear the revolution. Fear the day after. But this is the full subject of discussion paper 11(Palmer 2007:11. 12).

The irony of the Bounty mutiny was that this scientific cum commercial endeavor - Banks held interest in the West Indies - spelt the end of pure voyages of discovery and knowledge. The mutiny on HMAV Bounty was a turning point in the exploration intent and prosecution for the Pacific. All voyages up to this time were strongly scientific (navigation refinement) and colonization cum trade (spice) possibility based. The Pandora mission to capture the mutineers was exclusively punitive. Another small irony is that the Queensland Museum marine archaeological excavations on the Pandora Barrier Reef wreck site has revealed, for the first time, an intact cache of five Tongan clubs collected by a crewman for the return voyage. This provides not only firm evidence of European seamen’s passion for collecting and appreciation of Pacific material culture but also some of the few Oceanic artifacts with an unimpeachable provenance as to temporal period & voyage.

Thereafter what followed was an emerging sense of rapacious exploitation in the meanest and most ruthless brutal form. Whalers, sealers, forced labour, missionary zeal, colonization, plantation torpor, exclusion, poor governance and grog, tristes tropiques, sad maudlin latitudes of license, Gauguin’s’ nevermore, Louis Stevenson’s gone native, gone troppo, beach combers and carpetbaggers, rogues and misfits, anthropologists & ethnographers (Palmer 2007:1.15).

The Bounty paradox was in joining East and West hemispheres by transporting breadfruit, the tree of life and symbol of unencumbered idyllic existence, from the Tahitian Isles of freedom and paradise to the Islands of bondage, the living dead of the Caribbean West Indies slave plantations (Dening 1992: 4-10).

The final irony is, that despite all these visits by the finest 18th Century European navigators of their time, the only additional new artifact the West has ever provided to the great tradition of Polynesian navigation, in the last 200 years, is very ethereal. In the 1970s David Lewis reported some of the old men from Santa Cruz carrying out inter island voyages, far voyaging, now used the con trails left by high airliners crossing the Pacific as a guide pointing the way to civilization (Lewis 1977:191).Perhaps so they may steer off on the reciprocal heading?

Could the power and mana of material culture of the Polynesians have held back or controlled the encroachment of the West? Is this what really happened? Did the Pacific dream possess the West while Oceania, Fa’a Pasifika, went it’s own free way, taking what was needed of the Cook legacy? Up until the early 1800’s they certainly had the numbers and high ground. Now days perhaps just the high ground.

“Cook, Bligh and Banks. “The great Trinity of Pacific exploration Cook the Father, Bligh the Son and Banks the Holy Ghost”(Toohey 1998:74). And the Holy Grail ? An artifact collected on that first voyage ? A tag with Banks catalogue notations?
When you now hold a pre contact Oceanic piece, are you more in touch with the dream of “arcadia”, Polynesian cosmology or more in league with Cook, Bligh and Banks ?
Or just a dedicated follower of beauty?


Alexander, Caroline. 2004 The Bounty. London : Harper

Barrow, Sir John. 2003. Mutiny! Real History of the Bounty. N.Y : Coopers Square Press.

Christian, Glynn. 1999. Fragile Paradise. Sydney : Doubleday

Dening, Greg. 1992. Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language. Passion and Theatre on the Bounty. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hough, Richard. 1974. Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian. The Men and the Mutiny. London : Arrow.

Joppien, J. Smith, B. 1984 The Art of Cook’s Voyages. Vol.1.
1768 – 1771. The Voyage of the Endeavor. Melbourne : Oxford University Press.

Lumis, Trevor. 2000. Life and Death on Pitcairn Island and the Bounty Mutineers. London : Phoenix & Orion Books.

Lewis, David. 1977. From Maui to Cook. The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific. Sydney : Doubleday.

Moorehead, Alan. 1966. The Fatal Impact. The Invasion of the South Pacific 1767 – 1840. London : Hamish.

Palmer, Arthur Beau. 2007. History of Pacific Ethnographic Collecting 1700 - 1880. Brisbane : Manuscript form 1.

Palmer, Arthur Beau. 2007. Artifacts as Evidence. Bounty Mutineer Fletcher Christians Fate. Brisbane : Manuscript 11.

Rickman, John. 1779. Hand written Manuscript.

Smith, Bernard. 1992 Imagining the Pacific. In the wake of the Cook Voyages. Melbourne : Melbourne University Press.

Toohey, John. 1998 Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare. Sydney : Duffy & Snellgrove.



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