Volume 89 1980 > Volume 89, No. 2 > A historic Admiralty Islands kapkap, and some ethnological implications, by Roger G. Rose, p 247-258
A HISTORIC ADMIRALTY ISLANDS KAPKAP, AND SOME ETHNOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
As the dawn of March 3, 1875, broke over stormy Melanesian waters some 400 km off the north coast of New Guinea, H.M.S. Challenger made slowly for the Admiralty Islands, barely visible on the southern horizon. Proceeding cautiously, the Challenger rounded the eastern tip of D'Entrecasteaux Reef later in the day and, accompanied by several canoes under sail from the nearby islets of Sori (Wild) and Harengan (D'Entrecasteaux), anchored at dusk in Nares Harbour. For the next week scientists aboard the research vessel explored and mapped the vicinity, collected floral and faunal specimens, and made the first systematic observations of the people inhabiting these two islets off the northwestern tip of Great Admiralty Island.
The purpose of this paper is to bring to attention a previously unpublished turtle shell and Tridacna disk breast ornament collected during this encounter, and to re-examine some of the ethnological facts relating these ornaments to the heterogenous but economically interdependent societies occupying the Admiralty group. Known as kapkap, a word appropriated from a northern New Ireland language and applied to comparable objects from the Bismarck Archipelago and elsewhere, such ornaments have long been of interest because of their putative bearing on cultural and historical relationships within Melanesia and beyond.
Although the Admiralty Islands were discovered by Alvaro de Saavedra in June, 1528—and sighted (possibly) by Inigo Ortiz de Retes in 1545, by Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire in 1616, and by Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 (Nevermann 1934:1)—the first tentative contact occurred on September 14, 1767, when Captain Philip Carteret, of H.M.S. Swallow, was attacked off the southern coast by a dozen canoes. Musket fire from the ship quickly dispersed the small party armed with spears and ended further communication. Some years later, Captain Francisco Maurelle of La Princesa sailed along the northern coast of the main Admiralty Island while en route from Manila to San Blas in January 1781, but the Spanish frigate experienced only nominal contact with a small group who came off shore to inspect the intruder. 1- 248
Ten years later, in June 1791, the Waaksamheyd, heading west along the north coast of the main island, encountered five large canoes, each with 11 people aboard—apparently eager to barter yet unwilling to come alongside the ship. Seen indistinctly from a distance, their white shell ornaments gleaming against dark skins were evidently taken for facings on French naval uniforms, and their reddish barkcloth for European fabric. Aboard the Dutch vessel was Captain John Hunter, rescued after his ship, H.M.S. Sirius, had been wrecked the previous year at Norfolk Island. Greatly exaggerated reports of Hunter's curious sightings soon reached Commander Bruni D'Entrecasteaux, who had been dispatched to seek information on the fate of La Pérouse, France's great navigator who had disappeared without trace with his discovery ships Boussole and Astrolabe some three years before. D'Entrecasteaux's vessels Recherche and Espérance reached the eastern cluster of offshore islands late in July, 1792, and coasted along the north shore of the main island to the same area later visited by the Challenger; finding no traces either of La Pérouse or of European relics, he hastily sailed away on August 1 without landing. The two accounts of his visit, particularly the one by Jacques Julian de Labillardière (1800), provide some interesting observations on the inhabitants and their eagerness to obtain metal, but, ironically, nothing about the shell ornaments—the “French uniforms” that indirectly seem to have prompted the visit in the first place.
After that, the islands were increasingly frequented by visitors, including Hugh Reed and Nicholl in 1800, the whaler Lyra in 1825, the American clipper Margaret Oakley in 1843, Captain Abraham Bristow of Sir Andrew Hammond in 1871, Captain Erwin Redlich in the schooner Franz in 1872, Lieutenant Commander Saunders of H.M.S. Alacrity in 1874, and others, notably whalers and traders seeking turtleshell (Nevermann 1934:4-6; Tizard et al. 1885:698-9). While members of the Challenger party found the inhabitants of the Nares Harbour area to be experienced in barter with Europeans and familiar with the use of iron, actual contact up to 1875 had been so irregular, however, that at least one of the British scientists was led to believe “No European appears to have landed in the Admiralty Islands before the visit of the ‘Challenger’ Expedition. . .” (Moseley 1877:4).
Except for one probably spurious idiosyncracy, the kapkap to be described here is typical of those seen during the Challenger's stay, or those collected by later visitors to the islands (Fig. 1a). The ornament consists of a ground and polished disk of Tridacna shell (Tridacna gigas) to which are attached two thin circular plates of turtle shell cut in intricate fretwork patterns. A nearly perfect 115 mm in diameter, and 2 mm thick at the squared rim by 3 mm near the centre, the gleaming white shell disk is centrally perforated by a biconical hole tapering from 5 mm to 2 mm in diameter. As with most, but not all, Admiralty Island kapkap, the front face of the disk is incised with small, cross-hatched triangles situated apex-inward along the outer margin, the shallow incisions emphasised here by a thin wash of reddish ochrous pigment under a heavy layer of black gummy material. A fine, reddish-stained, metre-long cord of unidentified two-twist “Z” vegetable fibre, 1 mm in dia-- 249
FIGURE 1- 250
Admiralty Islands kapkap with unusual double overlay, now in the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawai'i (No. 70.131.01): (a) Front, both turtleshell overlays in place; (b) Front, with the uppermost overlay separated to illustrate details of carving; (c) Reverse, showing inscriptions attributing kapkap to voyage of H.M.S. Challenger, March 8, 1875. Diameter of Tridacna shell disk, 115 mm. (Bishop Museum Photos by Ben Patnoi)
meter, is threaded through the disk and the turtleshell plates, then looped around a spherical, creamy blue, glass bead about 3 mm in diameter. Rethreaded back through the overlays and disk, the cord is loosely knotted in two places and holds the elements snugly in place when pulled tight.
Although all other kapkap known to the author have only one fretwork overlay, this particular specimen boasts two, similar in size, yet different in design (Fig. 1b). Even though the specimen had been in a private collection for many years, 2 the second turtleshell plate may have been added after the object was collected, since the tie cord knots are easily undone; other kapkap are known to have been altered (Reichard 1933:91). The uppermost plate, of amber-coloured shell 92 mm in diameter by 0.5 mm thick, is intricately carved in typical Admiralty patterns, as is the lower plate, which is 91 to 94 mm in diameter by 0.5 mm thick, and a somewhat darker colour, mottled yellow and brown. Both plates were probably taken from the hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, or possibly the green turtle, Chelonia midas; their scutes often are visually indistinguishable. It is uncertain whether the intricate designs were cut with introduced metal or indigenous tools, such as obsidian flakes, since little direct information concerning the manufacture of these objects has survived.
Old, partly illegible inscriptions in faded sepia ink on the back of the Tridacna shell disk link the kapkap to the voyage of the Challenger. They read: “Admiralty Island, 8/3/75, H.M.S. Challenger,” and in another, bolder hand, “Broach” (Fig. 1c). Although the date itself appears to the unaided eye to be “3/3/75”, microscopic examination reveals the first digit to be most likely an incompletely formed and partly obscured “8”, thus indicating (presumably) that the object was collected on March 8, 1875 — or just two days before the expedition sailed. Unfortunately, from the various official and popular accounts of the voyage, it is not possible to determine precisely where, or by whom, the ornament was collected. It is interesting to note, however, that on that day the expedition artist, John James Wild (1878:137-39), in company with Captain Frank T. Thompson, Sub-Lieutenant Lord George Campbell (1876:268-72) and others, visited Harengan Islet at the western tip of D'Entrecasteaux Reef. While there is no specific mention of kapkap being collected, Captain Thompson had with him a bag of trade gear for the occasion. Attempts to match handwritten inscriptions on the ornament with signatures of expedition personnel, reproduced in a memorial volume of photographs accompanying the 50-volume set of official Challenger reports (Crane 1897), have been unrewarding, even though that of Captain Thompson himself seems a possible candidate.
Whatever the circumstances, there were ample opportunities to obtain the “broach” during the Challenger's stay, for a lively barter began the morning after the ship anchored and continued nearly unabated up to the last possible moment before departure. In anticipation, the expedition had stocked up in Sydney with about £300 worth of trade gear of the sort
. . .regularly manufactured for Polynesian trading, and sold by merchants in Sydney and elsewhere . . . It consisted of a cask of small axes, - 251 rather worthless articles with soft iron blades, butcher's knives of all sizes, some with blades 12 to 14 inches in length, Turkey red and navy blue cotton cloth, beads, trade tobacco and pipes, and other similar articles (Tizard et al. 1885:704).
The principal articles received in exchange, according to W. J. J. Spry (1887:268), one of the ship's engineers, were “tortoiseshell, spears, stone, [obsidian] knives, axes, earrings, bracelets, ornaments worn from the nose, circular plates of white shell, some finely carved bowls, and models of canoes, etc.” Both Spry (1887:f.p.271) and Moseley (1877:pl. XXI, fig. 1-3) illustrated three presumably different kapkap they had seen or obtained, some of which were later deposited in the British Museum with other articles collected on the voyage.
A number of these interesting ornaments have since come to light—Reichard (1933) located more than 140 from the Admiralties in only 20 collections—making kapkap among the most widely known of Melanesian artefacts. Despite their aesthetic appeal, as well as provocative geographical distribution, surprisingly little is known of their ethnological significance. Several members of the Challenger party remarked on their occurrence in the Admiralties (e.g. Campbell 1876:283), including artist J. J. Wild, who produced a charming if not altogether accurate sketch of a group of men wearing kapkap on their chests or foreheads (Fig. 2). Challenger naturalist H. N. Moseley (1879:462), whose account of the inhabitants of this part of the group is probably still the most complete, merely noted: “Circular plates, ground out of Tridacna gigas shell, are also worn, either as breastplates or on the front of the head. The discs are faced with plates of thin tortoiseshell, perforated with very elaborated patterns.” Commenting on the artistic merit of the object, Moseley added:
A still more remarkable appreciation of symmetry and fertility in design is shown in the patterns which are cut upon the circular plates worn sometimes on the forehead, oftener on the breast. These consist of circular white plates ground down out of Tridacna shell, with a hole in the centre for suspension. On the front of this white ground is fastened a thin plate of tortoiseshell, which is ornamented with fretwork, so that the white ground shows through the apertures. The patterns are of endless variety, no two being alike, and show all kinds of combinations of circles, triangles, toothing, and radiate patterns. The shell background is often graved also at its margin. Symmetry is evidently striven after, but with the appliances available the execution falls short here and there of the design. Nevertheless these ornaments are very beautiful. Closely similar ornaments are worn in the Solomon Islands, and also in New Hanover, and in the far-off Marquesas Islands, curiously enough (Moseley 1879:470-71; cf. Moseley 1877:22,32; Tizard et al. 1885:721 -22).
Nine years after the Challenger's visit, the Admiralty Islands fell under the jurisdiction of the German colonial administration with headquarters in the- 252
FIGURE 2- 253
“Natives of Wild Island, Admiralty Islands,” reproduced from coloured lithograph by Challenger artist John James Wild (1878:pl. VIII, f.p. 136). Note improper rendering of tie cord attachment to Tridacna shell disks worn on the breast. Sori (Wild) Islet on D'Entrecasteaux Reef was so named in honour of the expedition artist. (Bishop Museum Photo by Ben Patnoi)
Bismarck Archipelago, and anthropologists began to document the diversity and internal relationships of the three or four major cultural groups found to inhabit the area. While these major cultural divisions have since been best described as “ecological types” (Schwartz 1962:221) rather than ethnographic units, Margaret Mead (1930a, 1930b, 1931, 1934, 1937, 1956) and others have described how the “whole archipelago is threaded together into a network of interdependence and exchange” (Mead 1937:210). Generally speaking, these major units are themselves marked by cultural and linguistic diversity that complicate orderly understanding of their distribution and characteristics. Moreover, while the 18 to 40 languages or dialects spoken throughout the archipelago are now classified as Melanesian, there is as yet no evidence “to suggest a more inclusive genetic grouping short of Oceanic itself” (Healey 1976:350). On the basis of incomplete data available, however, recent attempts at linguistic internal subgroupings (e.g., Healey 1976) do tend to parallel somewhat the cultural divisions established by earlier investigators.
Admiralty Island (or Manus) itself, a high island some 80 km long east to west by 10 km wide, is home to a linguistically and culturally heterogeneous group collectively called the Usiai, who traditionally occupied the hilly interior regions away from the sea. Gardeners who lacked canoes and did not fish, they were dependent on symbiotic trade relations with neighbours inhabiting the 40-odd offshore islands lying within sight of the mainland's 900-metre summit. Settled on the fringing islands to the north, east, and south-east were the Matankor, another somewhat diverse group noted for their skill as carvers and craftsmen, par excellence—different islands specialising in some particular manufacture such as carved beds, wooden bowls, pottery, free-standing figures (Badner 1979), obsidian spear heads, and so forth. Experts in turtle and dugong fishing, and cultivators of fruit and root crops, they were, nevertheless, also partly dependent on the Usiai—as well as the Manus, a third group centred along the south coast of the main island and on a few adjacent offshore islets to the south and east. Fewer in number than the Usiai and Matankor, but culturally and linguistically more homogeneous, the Manus are the best known as the result of Margaret Mead's work among them. Occupying pile dwellings in shallow lagoons, the Manus life centred on fishing, trading, and the accumulation of wealth, but, apart from a few minor crafts, they are singular in having produced almost nothing in the way of traditional art or manufactured goods. A fourth group, called Paluan or Balowan, occupied the three southernmost islands of Baluan, Lou, and Pam; though poorly known, they “fitted generally within the range of variation of a culture extending over the whole of the Admiralties” (Schwartz 1962:239).
The kapkap described above, as well as others collected during the Challenger expedition, presumably came from Matankor peoples living on Harengan and Sori Islets of D'Entrecasteaux Reef. These were the only two permanent settlements encountered in the area, and canoes that may have come to trade with the Challenger would have belonged to nearby Matankor islets to the east. Although to my knowledge undocumented in the literature, it would appear from what is generally understood of Admiralty Islands culture that - 254 such ornaments were manufactured exclusively by the Matankor peoples, who spread them throughout the group in the complicated system of exchanges where shell money formed an integral part.
Unlike the Usiai, the Matankor were experienced turtle fishermen, had ready access to supplies of Tridacna shell in the surrounding reefs, and certainly possessed the technology necessary to produce the polished shell disks and overlays. During the early 20th century, A. Bühler (1936:18) noted that manufacture of ornaments and money of Conus shell was still a specialty of Sori Islet, and formerly of Harengan, Sisi, Pitilu, Andra, and Papitalai—all northern Matankor villages. In short, Bühler believed the production of “Muschelgeld and -schmuck” in the Admiralty Islands could be attributed to these people. R. Parkinson (1907:390) also noted that Andra, and particularly Sori, produced shell money, a chief occupation of the women, while August Eichhorn (1916:257) suggested Ponam, another northern Matankor islet, as the primary centre of manufacture. In discussing various types of pearl, Conus, and Tridacna shell as ornaments-cum-money, Hans Nevermann (1934: 134) of the 1908-10 Thilenius Expedition characterised those of Tridacna with turtleshell overlays, i.e., kapkap, as the most costly ornaments in the Admiralty Islands. Larger ones were worn on the breast suspended from a cord, while smaller ones were worn upon the forehead (Nevermann 1934:136). Nevermann (1934:134) gives the Sori language name for these objects as bombŭl, a word, incidentally, with cognates on several other Matankor islets. In 1928-29 Mead (1930:309-10) observed: “The delicate art of making tortoise shell filigree, worn on a round shell disk, has practically vanished.”
It has been recognised that similar kapkap attributed in general to New Ireland can be, in reality, localised to northern and north-eastern New Ireland and the surrounding offshore islets, namely Lir, Massait, Maur, and Djaul (e.g., Bodrogi 1961:51). The possibility of similarly restricted manufacture for the Admiralty Islands is not generally recognised, however. Reviewing the New Ireland situation in a study of kapkap in 1961, Bodrogi pointed out further occurrences of similar specialisation on islands to the east and south of New Ireland; Tridacna shell disks manufactured on Tanga were traded via Aneri and Pinipel to Nissan Island, where the Nissan people themselves are believed to have produced and added the turtle shell overlays (Bodrogi 1961:51, 54). From here, the objects eventually reached Buka and Bougainville in the northern Solomons.
Bodrogi (1961:59, et passim)3 also discussed the distribution of kapkap and kapkap-like ornaments throughout Melanesia, suggesting four major centres, or subcentres:
Working independently some years before, Gladys Reichard (1933) in a study of Melanesian design represented in part by kapkap and comparable ornaments, suggested somewhat similar subdivisions, outlining formal design criteria appropriate to each of the major areas of distribution. Although a useful inventory of Melanesian kapkap in several European and American museums, the study was unconcerned with localising points of origin or manufacture within broader cultural contexts; the analysis of kapkap unfortunately omits details of date and location of acquisition, collector, and other particulars that would have been useful in substantiating Matankor manufacture of those from the Admiralty Islands.
It is clear that much additional work needs to be undertaken before we can properly understand and evaluate the historical and ethnological relationships of kapkap in the various areas where they have been reported. Reichard (1933:119-21; see also Bühler 1936:31) has already suggested a close formal and stylistic connection between Admiralty Islands kapkap and similar ornaments from the Sepik-Ramu-Hatzfeldhafen area of northern New Guinea, even though the latter ornaments were worn differently and made apparently from Melo amphora (formerly sometimes called Cymbium, or Melo diadema) (Weaver and du Pont 1970:72), rather than Tridacna shell, Reichard (1933: 88, 123) also pointed the way for a number of potentially fruitful comparisons involving turtleshell ring chain ornaments from the Carolines, earrings from St. Matthias, and turtleshell overlays on kapkap from the Bismarck Archipelago, particularly Nissan. Elsewhere, kapkap-like ornaments of Melo shell from the Roro-Mekeo area of the Papuan Gulf, and possibly similar objects reported from the Murray Islands in the Torres Straits (Bodrogi 1961: 58; Reichard 1933:123), may have some connection with the Tridacna disks with turtleshell overlays found far to the north and east, but data are too scanty for proper assessment.
Good archaeological materials that might permit time-depth evaluations over broad areas are also lacking for the most part. In the south-eastern Solomons, for example, E. Paravicini (1940:161-3) has cited ethnographic data suggesting that the addition of stylised turtleshell overlays to traditional, semicircular pearlshell plates might be a relatively recent inspiration from the Santa Cruz group (see also Bodrogi 1961:56). Paravicini (1940:158-61) also called attention to the spotty distribution of kapkap-like Tridacna disks lack-- 256 ing overlays but engraved with stylised frigate birds and other devices, which are known from South Malaita, San Cristobal and Ulawa in the south-east Solomons on the one hand, and from Buka and Bougainville on the other, where they were highly esteemed (see Reichard 1933:111-4). Perhaps more intriguing are the somewhat aberrant and relatively isolated Santa Cruz kapkap themselves, in which stylised frigate bird or bonito/shark overlays have replaced the more familiar circular ones of the central Solomons and beyond. Here, too, it is possible that closer examination of the data might show localisation or specialisation of manufacture and attendant distribution within the traditional Santa Cruz trade network, reminiscent of that noted for New Ireland—and suggested herein for the Admiralty Islands.
Although kapkap have been familar in the literature and museum collections for the last century, it hardly need be said that their study in relation to broader Melanesian and Oceanic issues is far from exhausted.
1 My primary source for contact history is Nevermann 1934. Additional information comes from Tizard et al. 1885.
2 The object was donated to Bishop Museum in June 1970 by Mr and Mrs (Dorothy W.) A. Lester Knight and Mrs Knight's sister, Miss Florence Gregory, whose grandfather, Mr Albert Brown, is said to have collected it about 1880-1890 from his cousin, a sea captain. Originally from New Jersey, Brown lived in the Mendocino, California, seaport vicinity from ca. 1880 to 1945. Identity of the cousin/sea captain has not yet been ascertained.
3 My listing is compiled from Bodrogi. He does not present the material in list format and I have reworded it somewhat.