Polynesian works of art around the world allow access into our culture outside of our islands. Here, we offer you a discovery of one of these artistic ambassadors through this superb yet eerie costume worn during ancient times by the chief of a group of mourners present during the burial of people of high social rank. This particular œuvre is part of the collections in the Academic Museum in Göttingen, Germany.
Barkcloth, tortoise shell, feathers, mother-of –pearl. 210 centimeters high (6’9”). 18th Century. Tahiti or the Society Islands.
No one wanted to cross their path…
When an important person passed away, the bereaving family arranged for a group of professional mourners to publicly grieve him. This arrangement was rather expensive. The chief mourner and the other mourners had to be lodged and fed, as well as given presents to compensate them for their time spent mourning. This mourner’s costume was extremely expensive to make. One mother-of-pearl shell was as costly as the price of a pig.
The chief mourner’s job was to circulate around the property of the deceased, appearing insane with grief and terrorizing anybody who crossed his path. As the mourner group carried weapons and was quite violent, one did not want to cross their path for fear of being beaten or even killed. This group consisted of young members of the family in an extreme state of agitation referred to as neva neva. They expressed their pain through beating anyone who was in their path. Mourners gave warning of their arrival through clapping shells.
Sitting on top of the chief mourner’s headpiece are four pieces of reddish brown shells with a bark cloth padding behind them. These shells are held together with coconut fiber strings. Black and white tail feathers from a tropical bird which Tahitians considered sacred with supernatural privileges protrude from the top. As many as 130 feathers were used. Considering each of these birds had only two tail feathers, 65 birds were needed. Those seeking to surprise the bird in its nest seriously risked their lives. These birds were rare and difficult to catch. In 1799, Wilson wrote, “In Tahiti, this tropic[sic] bird builds nests in the holes of steep cliffs facing the surface of the sea” (387).
The chief mourner’s elaborate costume, known as a heva or heva tupapa’u, was worn during funeral ceremonies for high status Tahitians. Examples of these heva costumes were eagerly sought after on Captain James Cook’s expeditions. This is one of an approximate ten known existing mourner’s costumes. Most probably some of these extraordinary costumes were exchanged for red feathers (brought from Tonga) which the Tahitians believed would secure favors from the war-god Oro. Other costumes similar to this one were given away as prestigious gifts to important guests.
This complete chief mourner’s costume is part of the Cook/Forster Collection, probably brought back by Captain James Cook on his second voyage. Captain Cook made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean: 1768-71, 1772-1775 and his last fatal voyage from 1776-79/80. Johann Reinhold Forster and his eldest son accompanied Cook as naturalists on the Resolution (Cook’s second voyage.).
Captain Cook and his crew witnessed these costumes in use several times. On Cook’s first voyage, Joseph Banks participated in one of these ceremonies for which he was stripped of his European clothing and given a small piece of cloth to tie around his middle. His body was then covered with charcoal and water and rubbed until it became black.
The face mask is comprised of two semi-circular mother-of-pearl shells. Narrow strips of tortoise shell cut into a zigzag pattern hide the section where the two shells meet. A 1.5 cm slit in the right shell allows the chief mourner to see out. Under the face mask is a crescent-shaped dyed black board, measuring 71 cm (28 in).
Five mother-of-pearl shells are attached to this board. The shells on each end have blue and greenish black feathers (probably green pigeon) around the upper perimeter. The lower edge of the board has small holes drilled next to each other. Through these holes, thin strings attach over a thousand tiny, narrow rectangular mother-of-pearl slips that dance (average width 0.3 cm.). The robe with an opening for the head is made of undyed strips of whitish bark cloth (‘ahu). Over this is a finely braided mat with seven rows of small roundish-shaped coconut disks and some small pieces of cowry shell. The back of the robe resembles a net made up of many strings with tufts of greyish black cock feathers. Around this is a twisted natural colored bark cloth belt, held in shape by narrow strips of reddish brown bark cloth.
The other mourners in the group only wore loincloth. They painted their bodies in soot, sometimes adding red and white paint over the soot.
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff
Watercolor of Chief Mourner’s costume by Tupaia.
Until recently, the artist of this watercolor and a group of other watercolors in this European style was unknown. They were most often believed to be the work of Joseph Banks, the wealthy young English Botanist who paid ten thousand pounds to accompany Cook on his first voyage. However, it is Tupaia who created this work. He was a Tahitian who embarked on Cook’s expedition in 1769.
On July 13, 1769, Captain James Cook left Fort Venus in Matavai Bay, Tahiti on his ship, The Endeavour. Tupaia, a skilled navigator and mapmaker from Raia’tea, was on board. He helped guide James Cook through what are now known as The Society Islands.
In April 1997, Harold B. Carter, Joseph Bank’s biographer, found a letter dated in 1812 that Banks wrote to Dawson Turner, a fellow of the Royal Society. “Tupaia the Indian who came with me from Otaheite learn [sic] to draw in a way not quite unintelligible (Editor’s Note: Otaheite was the name for the island of Tahit at that time). The genius for Caricature which all wild people Possess Led him to Caricature me & he drew me with a nail in my hand delivering it to an Indian who sold me a Lobster but with my other hand I had a firm fist on the Lobster determined not to Quit the nail till I had Livery and Seizin of the article purchased” (from the Banks Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England).
Some historians believe that during his Endeavour voyage, Tupaia learned to paint in the European style from the ship’s Scottish artist Sydney Parkinson and Banks’ Swedish secretary and draughtsman, Herman Diedrich Spöring, who sometimes sketched the same subjects.
Tupaia possessed the phenomenal maritime knowledge of the Polynesian people, who at that time were the most widely traveled people on earth. Tupaia drew Cook a map which stretched over some 2200 km/1368mi of Ocean. A chart was drawn from Tupaia’s description of 72 islands around Tahiti. From the moment the Endeavour left Tahiti, Tupaia handled every encounter with indigenous peoples. Tupaia died at sea. James Cook did not want to share his glory with a savage. Cook’s epitaph concluded that Tupaia, while shrewd and ingenious, was also “proud and obstinate, which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him.”