A world expert on objects brought back on Captain Cook voyages stopped at Whitby for the Captain Cook Society/Whitby Naturalists meeting on her way back from a conference in Beijing.
Dr Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, gave a fascinating talk on Sunday at the Captain Cook Museum on Tabu and Mana: their interpretation by Cook and his artists.
She explained that Mana, or the spiritual strength of a high-ranking individual, was protected by tabu, or numerous taboos and prohibitions.
These might apply to a person, a place, or an object, and were particularly important when an important person died, or a new chief was proclaimed.
To start with, Cook and his companions did not understand the taboo system.
In later voyages, however, they were much more aware that some things could not be touched, or occasions when they were not allowed to be present.
Some of the gifts given to the voyagers were important taboo items, such as feather cloaks in Hawai’i. These are now treasured by museums worldwide.
In this case, clothing which had been worn by a high chief could not be worn by anyone else, as that would make them vulnerable to sorcery.
Clothing of dead chiefs were given away to unsuspecting Europeans who did not seem to be subject to the same taboo system.
Following her talk, Dr. Kaeppler – an ethnologist – fielded many lively questions from the audience, who agreed that it had been a memorable occasion.