Volume 85 1976 > Volume 85, No. 3 > A recently discovered figure from Rarotonga, by Dale Idiens, p 359-366
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Surviving Rarotongan figure carvings fall into two major groups, the so-called staff gods, and the fisherman's gods, 1 with the remarkable exception of the famous piece in the British Museum, which has until now stood apart (Plate 1). Recently, however, another example of Rarotongan wood sculpture has come to light (Plate 2), which, although not identical does bear a striking similarity to the British Museum figure, and justifies comparison with it.

This “re-discovered” piece was originally acquired by Elijah Armitage, an artisan member of the London Missionary Society, who went out to the South Seas with his wife and family in 1821, to teach the spinning and weaving of cotton to the islanders of Tahiti. Armitage's home was Manchester, where he had been foreman of a considerable concern, and he had given up the chance of partnership in the business in order to come to the Society Islands. 2 Unfortunately, his endeavours were less than successful, for the Tahitians did not prove to be industrious weavers, and his letters to the Directors of the Society in London are a catalogue of struggle and frustration. 3

In 1829 Armitage received an invitation from the missionaries Buzacott and Pitman to visit them on Rarotonga, which he eventually accepted in the belief that “in Rarotonga the people are disposed to be more industrious, which is one of the principal reasons that have weighed with me in disposing to remove among them”. 4 His hope that the Rarotongans would be hard-working was fulfilled, and for a while the enterprise seemed to prosper, but the hand-crafted cloth they produced was coarse and inferior to the machine-made coloured calicoes offered in exchange for food by the numerous American whaling ships

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Figure from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Ht. 69 cm. The feet are mounted on supports. Formerly in the London Missionary Society Collection. The British Museum, London, LMS 42.
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Figure from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Ht. 56.5 cm. The feet are mounted on supports. Collected by Elijah Armitage between 1833-1835. George Ortiz Collection, Geneva.
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that soon began to call at the island, and the manufacture of local cloth was short-lived. 5 Armitage lived on Rarotonga for over a year, from November 1833 until January 1835, and it is during this period that he must have obtained the figure. 6 He was recalled to England in 1835, but did not, as many of the missionaries did, donate his acquisition to the museum of the London Missionary Society, and it remained in the hands of the Armitage family until 1972, now belonging to a private collector. 7

The Armitage figure is carved from a dense brown hardwood, and measures 56.5 cm. in height. The large head occupies more than one-third of the total length of the body, and sinks low onto the shoulders, which are marked by a pronounced shelf or ridge across the top of the back. The arms are flexed, and the hands, each of which has five fingers, rest on the protruding abdomen above the umbilicus. The penis, with glans marked, hangs between flexed legs, and the uneven feet tilt slightly inwards, so that without the aid of supports the figure would fall forward; the toes are indicated by incised zigzag grooves. Each eye and brow is represented by prominent opposed curves and the nose is carefully delineated, with indented nostrils, above the open mouth.

Carved in low relief at various points on the body are six stylised secondary figures. Two on the chest are positioned laterally with their heads pointing towards the centre; these are fairly well defined with large ears, marked brow and nasal ridge, mouth, brow and eyes and rudimentary limbs (Plate 2). Two similar but less well marked figures are carved in a vertical position, one on each buttock, and two more in a lateral position, one on each flank, with their heads pointing rearwards. The figures on the flanks and buttocks are only roughly carved, but they are still recognisably of the same form as the pair on the chest of the figure.

Each ear is perforated at the back, and until the figure came into the possession of its present owner they supported ornaments of carved whale ivory in the form of testicles, which have now been removed (Plate 3). These ornaments were formerly secured to the figure by the traditional suspensory cords of finely

Ear pendants. Ht. 2.8 cm. Formerly attached to the Armitage figure. George Ortiz Collection, Geneva.
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a Fisherman's god from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Ht. 41 cm. Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, 1923.360., b Staff god (upper section) from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Ht. 51 cm. Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, UC455.

braided human hair, until this became worn, and was replaced some years ago, by black European thread. 8 This type of phallic pendant (rei), is thought to have originated in the Austral Islands, 9 or on Mangaia or Atiu in the northern part of the Cook group, although they were not unfamiliar imports to Rarotonga, 10 and so this pair could have been already attached to the figure when Armitage acquired it.

The origin of the figure would be unmistakable on stylistic evidence alone, even without the valuable confirmation of Armitage's visit to Rarotonga. The general attitude of the piece, with the arms flexed and resting on the abdomen, - 364 defined by Buck as the “central posture pattern”, 11 is typical of sculpture from Central Polynesia. But the decisive feature is the large eye and brow made up of opposed curves in the classic Rarotongan form. The massive proportions of the head and the manner in which it sinks on the shoulders, the thrust of the jaw following that of the arms and belly, echo the basic formal characteristics that are typical of the Rarotongan fisherman's gods (Plate 4). The particular features that differentiate the Armitage figure from the fisherman's gods, the length of the legs, the definition of the nose, and the addition of smaller secondary figures in low relief to the body, are qualities that relate the figure stylistically to the British Museum piece.

The figure in the British Museum measures 69 cm. in height, and is taller and less massive in form. Like the Armitage piece, the hands rest on the abdomen with the arms flexed, although only the left hand has five fingers, while the right has four. On the upper chest are two breast-like projections, resembling those found on some of the fisherman's gods, and below these are three small figures carved in high relief. The central, and largest figure is almost completely three-dimensional being free from the main body at the head and shoulders. All three secondary figures have large ears, pronounced brow and nasal ridges, well-marked mouths and chins, and the typical eye form of opposed curves. The arms and legs are stylised and rudimentary, and each figure has the phallus indicated while the central figure also has the glans penis and umbilicus marked. In addition, two small figures are carved in low relief on each arm, positioned vertically, one above the other. They exhibit the same characteristics of large ears, marked brow and nasal ridge, eye, mouth, phallus and degenerated limbs. The figures on the forearms are somewhat distorted by the curve of the arm into the wrist, and the two figures on the left arm are less well-carved than those on the right. On each arm, between the two figures, is a strip of barkcloth wrapped with three-strand plaited sinnet cord, the left wrapping having sections of feather inserted beneath the cord.

The secondary figures carved on the Armitage and British Museum pieces correspond quite closely. There are a few small differences, those on the British Museum piece, for example, being all markedly male, while those on the Armitage piece are not. Also, the characteristic eye form is maintained on all the small figures on the British Museum piece, excepting the two on the left arm, whereas on the secondary figures of the Armitage piece it is considerably simplified. None the less they are similar in broad formal terms, and they also appear to be related to the secondary figures carved on the so-called staff gods from Rarotonga (Plate 5). Many of the staff gods carry, below a narrow wedge-shaped head with the typical prominent Rarotongan eye, a frieze of small three-dimensional figures, with large eyes, marked brow and nasal ridges, eyes, mouths and chins; some have the phallus indicated and others do not. There is also a unique Rarotongan staff god in the British Museum, that is surmounted by a pair of small standing male figures, instead of the usual head, and these also exhibit the same stylistic features. 12

The identity of both figures is problematic. No documentary evidence has been found for the Armitage figure, while the British Museum figure has sometimes been described as “Te Rongo and his three sons” on the basis of an old label to that effect. But, as Buck argues, this information is rather ambiguous since the author appears to have confused two different gods with similar names, from Mangaia and Rarotonga. 13 The god Tangaroa, the creator and sea god - 365 who appears under a variety of names in Polynesia, has also been suggested as the identity of the piece by analogy with another figure in the British Museum, the extraordinarily prolific image from Rurutu in the Austral Islands. But the identification of the Rurutu figure as Tangaroa is itself tenuous, and appears to rest solely upon the authority of Ellis, who published the piece in 1829, 14 whereas Williams, who originally acquired the image in 1821, describes it as A'a, the chief ancestral deity of Rurutu. 15 Despite this confusion concerning the individual identities of the figures, it is clear that on Rarotonga, prior to European contact, there was a tradition of images characterised by the proliferation and superimposition of secondary figures; a tradition to which the figure in the British Museum, the Armitage piece, and the staff gods belong, and which may be linked in its origins with the god from Rurutu.

A further problem associated with the Armitage figure is the curious feature of its lack of finish, for, contrasted with the gleaming surfaces of the British Museum piece, it appears to be incomplete. The head in particular, and also the shoulders and upper body, have a considerable polish, yet the sides of the torso beneath the arms, the lower body and the smaller figures on the flanks and buttocks have not been finished to the same standard, and the toolmarks are clearly visible.

A possible reason for this may be that the figure was intended to wear a “tapa” or barkcloth wrapping, and was deliberately left unfinished with this in mind. Although only a small number of the surviving staff gods retain their barkcloth wrapping, they were once all bound in this way, and indeed those that have lost the wrapping are less well finished on the central section of the staff. However, other figures kept in the sacred enclosures or “maraes”, were also dressed or wrapped in barkcloth, both on Rarotonga and neighbouring islands, 16 yet of all the figures known from Central Polynesia none is unfinished, with the sole exception of the Armitage piece. 17

An accidental cause for the lack of finish seems more probable: perhaps the sculptor died, or infringed some part of the strict ritual associated with the process of creating a sacred image before it was completed, and owing to the operation of a “tabu”, none other could continue the work. Certainly, the tim∂ when Armitage was on Rarotonga came towards the end of a period of considerable religious upheaval, as the traditional forms of belief gave way before the evangelical activities of the Christian missionaries. Papeiha, the Tahitian convert left on Rarotonga by Williams in 1823, began the work, and as a result of his efforts idolatry had ceased by 1827, 18 although the process of achieving true converts appears to have been slow, and the principal chief, Makea, did not enter the church until 1833 19 There were other kinds of upheaval during this period too; in 1828 and 1829 the island was afflicted by an epidemic in which many people lost their lives, and this was followed in 1831 by a devastating hurricane and a famine. 20

We can only speculate as to whether the figure was of relatively recent date when Armitage acquired it, or whether it had a considerable history. The latter case is arguably the more likely, since, judging by the toolmarks, the piece gives - 366 the appearance of having been worked with traditional stone or shell tools, although metal tools must have been introduced to Rarotonga long before the arrival of Papeiha and Williams, who mistakenly believed himself to be the first European to discover the island. 21 In fact, the first landing by Europeans on Rarotonga dates back to 1814 22 and a little later several Rarotongans had themselves come into contact with missionaries on visits to neighbouring islands. 23

The incomplete nature of the figure also provides some useful technical insight into the methods of a traditional Rarotongan carver. The toolmarks are characterised by the rather blunt edges and shallow curves caused by using a stone or shell adze on a hard wood, and it appears that the carver, having achieved the total form of the piece, and marked out the details, has proceeded to complete the head before anything else. The shoulders and upper body are slightly less well finished than the head, while the carving on the lower body is quite rough, suggesting that the carver was consciously working on the figure in one direction, from top to bottom.

The Armitage figure is a striking and welcome addition to the small yet distinctive corpus of surviving Rarotongan sculpture, the more so because it has a known history and provenance, although it is disappointing that there appears to be no record of the circumstances of collection, or its identity. Its existence suggests that the figure in the British Museum need no longer be regarded as a unique and isolated phenomenon, but was probably part of a thematic group within the Rarotongan carving tradition. Certainly each piece gains by comparison with the other, and in recognition of this the owner of the Armitage figure, Mr George Ortiz, and the Trustees of the British Museum, have agreed to the exhibition of the two side by side, in Edinburgh and then in London, for a considerable period over the past two years. 24

  • BUCK, Peter, 1935. Material Representatives of Tongan and Samoan Gods. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 44:48-53, 85-96, 153-62.
  • —— 1944. Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 179.
  • BUZACOTT, Aaron, 1866. Mission Life in the Islands of the Pacific. London, Snow.
  • DUFF, Roger, 1969. No Sort of Iron: Culture of Cook's Polynesians. Christ-church, Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand.
  • ELLIS, William, 1829. Polynesian Researches During a Residence of Nearly 8 Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. 2 vols. London, Fisher and Jackson.
  • MAUDE, H. E. and Marjorie Tuainekore CROCOMBE, 1962. “Rarotongan Sandalwood: An Ethnohistorical Reconstruction.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 71:32-56.
  • WILLIAMS, John, 1837. A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands. London, Snow.
1   There are also diminutive and highly stylised figure carvings on Rarotongan fan handles, of which about 11 survive in different collections; on two hand clubs, one in the British Museum and the other in the University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Cambridge; and on an unusual canoe ornament in the British Museum. However, these will not be discussed in the present paper.
2   Ellis 1829:(II)469.
3   I am indebted to the Armitage family, the Congregational Council for World Mission, and The Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, for allowing me to examine the letters of Elijah Armitage to the London Missionary Society.
4   Armitage, E. MS. letter, January 1829 to the Directors of the London Missionary Society. School of Oriental & African Studies Library, LMS Archives, Box 7.
5   Buzacott 1866:93.
6   Unfortunately, there is no mention of the figure by Elijah Armitage in any of his surviving letters, nor is it referred to by Williams, Buzacott or Pitman, who were on Rarotonga at the same time as Armitage.
7   Sotheby's sale, 5 December 1972, Lot 190.
8   This information kindly communicated by letter from Mr. Dennis Armitage.
9   Duff 1969:27.
10   Buck 1944:107-15.
11   Buck 1935:162.
12   British Museum 1910-6-9-1; Buck 1944:326, fig. 201.
13   Buck 1944:316.
14   Ellis 1829:(II)220.
15   Williams 1837:37-8.
16   Williams 1837:152.
17   Apart from the fisherman's gods, a few of which are left rather roughly finished in places and certainly without the smooth overall surface of the British Museum figure. This tends rather to confirm Williams' evidence that the fisherman's gods served a particular function and were not installed in the “maraes”.
18   Williams 1837:152.
19   Buzacott 1866:144.
20   Buzacott 1866:46-7.
21   Williams 1837:84.
22   Maude 1962:36-7.
23   Williams 1837:47.
24   I wish to thank Mr George Ortiz and the Trustees of the British Museum for permission to publish their respective pieces, and also Mr Bryan Cranstone of the British Museum's Department of Ethnography for his help and advice.