Museum weapons ‘feared and vicious’

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Whitby Museum has several objects made of sharks’ teeth, such as this sword, and some spears.

These weapons came from the Pacific region, and are fearsome weapons to look at – and must have been feared and vicious when used in anger. In a cabinet in the Explorers’ Wing is a pair of trousers from a suit of armour made of coconut fibre; on their heads would have been a helmet made of the spines of puffer fish.

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The sword, or ‘tebute,’ shown here was given to the museum in 1841 by Captain Thomas Wellbank, returning from a voyage transporting convicts to Australia.

Because of the length of the voyage vessels would put in for fresh water, a popular stopping-place for Whitby captains was the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati.

This form of weapon is unique to this group of 33 islands on the Equator, where there are few natural resources, so that until Europeans landed there were no metal tools.

These weapons were made by hand, the shaft from coconut palm wood, the teeth were sharpened by pumice stone, drilled through, and attached in rows using a fine cord spun from coconut fibre.

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Contact with European explorers did not improve the lot of the islanders, and they suffered from previously unknown diseases such as measles and smallpox, and a number of islands were raided by slave traders seeking fresh ‘cargo.’

Missionaries forced the islanders to give up much of their traditional culture, and as a result, little survives in the islands – there are in fact more artefacts in European museums than there are in Kiribati.

After being fought over during the Second World War, used as a nuclear testing ground (Christmas Island), mined for fertiliser (Ocean Island), the remaining inhabitable islands face being drowned by rising sea levels.

Three islands are already submerged, and in 2008 Australia and New Zealand agreed to take the whole nation as refugees when the others are covered and they have to leave their home.

In the meantime their beautiful objects remain as a reminder of the devastation Europeans have wrought on so-called ‘lesser’ cultures across the world, and the potentially catastrophic results of rising sea levels.

Whitby Museum has many gaps in its knowledge and, after a period of cataloguing and re-display, is now building a research archive around its collections, and for this article I acknowledge the work of our Curator of Ethnography, Sue Boyce, which featured in our 2012 Annual Report.

If you are interested in contributing to this archive, please contact Mark at the museum.