Trobriand Islands, Massim, Papua New Guinea. Wood, white pigment (lime). 28 ⅜ × 3 ½ × 1 in. (72 × 9 × 2.5 cm). Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, 80.0/9903.

From the Exhibition:

Frontier Shores: Collection, Entanglement, and the Manufacture of Identity in Oceania

Incised with customary Trobriand motifs yet not quite the prototypical Trobriand club, this wooden cutlass presents a conceptual puzzle. Clearly made in imitation of a foreign object, some questions regarding its role arise: Was it produced for a local market? If so, what was it used for? Or, if it was carved with a Euroamerican buyer in mind, why not make a traditional—read more “authentic”—Trobriand club instead?

Made around the late nineteenth to early twentieth century in the Trobriand Islands (Massim region1) of Papua New Guinea, this woodcarving is devoid of any utilitarian function beyond aesthetic captivation and exchange currency. Hardwood clubs with incised scroll patterns filled in with lime were made in several places in the Massim region of eastern New Guinea.2 Bwetalu Village in the Trobriand Islands was already a renowned center for woodcarvings before the arrival of Europeans. Bwetalu artisans were highly praised for their work, and their refined carvings were traded throughout the islands of the Kula ring. Although decorated clubs did not fulfill any ritual purpose in Massim societies, they were gifted and exchanged among locals in interisland trade expeditions by virtue of their perceived aesthetic appeal and enchanting potential.3 Cheap and portable, they became, along with lime spatulas, one of the most conspicuous objects collected by Euro-American whalers in the region in the early 1800s, and one of the first and most popular examples of tourist art in New Guinea.

Whalers had been visiting the Massim region since at least the 1830s to obtain supplies, exchanging hoop iron mostly for yams but also stocking up on water and firewood to extract lamp oil from whale blubber.4 The first recorded encounter was Captain R. L. Hunter’s of the Marshall Bennett in October 1836,5 although in all likelihood many more such exchanges went unregistered. These trade relations were already well established by the time the colonial encounter was officially inaugurated on July 21, 1890, with British governor Sir William MacGregor’s first visit to the Trobriands. In the first of his ten trips to the islands, the governor general of British New Guinea noted how “all other natives of the Trobriands have a great aptitude for carving in wood.”6 The governor general was particularly fond of Trobriand carvings, collecting them in great numbers. He would later complain that prices had risen about 300 percent between visits. Access to iron tools and the avidity of early collectors, such as MacGregor himself, were instrumental in stimulating the production of local artifacts for outsiders.

This cutlass is made of light wood and much thinner than a real club, further pointing to its function as a tourist object. It was part of the Black Collection acquired by the Buffalo Museum of Science in 1938 for US $6,000.7 The object arrived at the American Museum of Natural History in 1939 together with seventy-five more objects as part of an exchange—a common practice among museums at the time—to fill in what were considered gaps in their collections of a particular culture or region. P. G. T. Black was a branch inspector for the Australian shipping company Burns, Philp & Co. As part of his job, Black had to oversee the trading posts and harbors from where Burns Philp operated in the Pacific. While traveling around Oceania between 1886 and 1916, he gathered more than six thousand objects from the Pacific Islands and Aboriginal Australia for his personal collection.

The carver’s intent—to replicate a foreign object with the materials and tools available at the time—yielded a “hybrid” artifact, a curio that appealed to both Euro-Americans and Trobrianders. For the Trobrianders, these objects carried the potency of a mimetic appropriation: adopting and adapting foreign elements is, as Walter Benjamin famously claimed, a way of becoming alike.8 To Western outsiders, the cutlass spelled out the ingenious side of a dynamic culture while remaining intrinsically vernacular—and therefore “authentic,” a real Trobriand carving. Similar mimetic objects from Oceania (e.g., knives and axes) are more than material witnesses of cross-cultural encounters or simple appropriations by imitation. As transcultural artifacts, they help visualize the “other,” assist in bridging cultural divides, and encapsulate potential trade partnerships, evidencing how in places such as the Trobriand Islands where sociality is inherently relational, invention is tradition.

1.The Massim is a geocultural construct assembled by European anthropologists studying an area that roughly corresponds to present-day Milne Bay Province. See Michael Young, “The Massim: An Introduction,” Journal of Pacific History 18, no. 1 (1983): 3–10. The region is also known as the Kula ring, after the Kula ceremonial exchange popularized by Bronislaw Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922).

2.See the club collected by Otto Finsch featured in the Frontier Shores exhibition at Bard Graduate Center (American Museum of Natural History, catalogue number ST/850).

3.Carvings that are aesthetically pleasing in the Trobriands are considered to be “rightful” or “truthful.” Like people, their “radiance” is likely to attract, enrapture, and “soften” the minds of potential trade partners. See Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, “Carving the Spirits of the Wood: An Enquiry into Trobriand Materialisations” (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2013), 170.

4.Blubber was boiled on board the ships. See Andrew Connelly, “Ambivalent Empires: Historicising the Trobriand Islands, 1830–1945” (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2014), 49.

5.R. L. Hunter, “Gower’s Harbour, New Ireland,” Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle 8 (1839): 37–39.

6.William MacGregor, “Despatch Reporting Expedition to Effect Capture of Murderers of Two Traders at Murua (Woodlark Island),” in British New Guinea Annual Report 1890–91 (Brisbane: Government Printer, 1892), 7.

7.Robert J. Foster, “Notes for a Networked Biography: The P. G. T. Black Collection of Oceanic Things,” Museum Anthropology 35, no. 2 (2012): 149–69.

8.Walter Benjamin, Thought Figures (1933), in Selected Writings, vol. 2, pt, 2, 1931–1934, ed. M. Jennings, G. Smith and H. Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).