Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Polynesian Art - A'a The Rurutuan God – British Museum

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This carving is possibly the the most famous image in Polynesian Art, though this should be qualified by the term individual carving, as the Easter Island Stone Moai are far better know but they are famous as a group of carvings. However in dealing with this image, which is undeniably a masterpiece, I would argue that it is a World Masterpiece like no other, being in effect a permanent prisoner of war and the greatest surviving relic of the annihilation of a culture. The war in question was the war waged against the Polynesians by European Christian Missionaries, and this carving was their trophy and the ultimate symbol of the total victory they achieved. So let us not have any illusions as to what it is we a looking at for A'a is a inanimate wooden image of a dead God of a dead Culture. This is where Art History becomes more History that Art, and though this is great work of art, a real World Masterpiece, its value as a work of art is immeasurably smaller than its value as a lesson in human history.

For those who prefer their Art History to be dispassionate and Academic they could do no better than open the link below to Dr Steven Hooper's article; Embodying Divinity; The Life of A'a because his article is a scholarly history of A'a the art object, well written, detached and objective. But if the reader imagines that Steven Hooper and I and our different approach to the history of this object implies two people of differing views, they would be mistaken for our differences are only those of degree, angle and distance. Steven Hooper being English and a trained academic means his approach matches his temperament and geographic position, whereas I am not English, but rather a citizen of the Pacific and must live every day within spitting distance of the results of the crimes of the missionaries.

The physical history of A'a the God of Rurutu is as follows. In 1821 the two resident London Missionary Society missionaries on Raiatea in the Society Islands; Lancelot Threlkeld and John Williams sent two volunteer native pastors to Rurutu in the Austral Islands to establish in mission amongst the surviving population of Rurutuans who were left alive after the 1818-19 devastating epidemic which progressively reduced the population from over 2,000 to a few hundred. In August 1821 they returned to Ra'iatea to report their success and with them came trophies in the form of Rurutuan God images, the greatest by far of which was a large hollow casket in the form of a male figure with many subsidiary figures which we now know as the God A'a. Rather than burn the images which was always the fate of choice for any Polynesian religious art object that fell into the hands of European Missionaries Williams and Threlkeld forwarded these objects to London Missionary Society headquarters in England to act as public relations exercise to raise funds for the Pacific Mission and as tangible evidence of their success at converting heathens to Christianity. This it has to be said was a brilliantly successful strategy and as a consequence fortuitously saved many Polynesian Art objects from destruction.

Of the object as an art work a brief description will suffice; it is catalogued as late 18th century, 117 cm in height, probably made from pua wood (Fagraea sp). And has thirty minor figures designed to suggest physical features of the main figure. The figure is hollow with a detachable back. At some point the feet were cut off as was the penis post possession of the object by the London Missionary Society. There are presidents for this type of carved figure with subsidiary figures from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

From an aesthetic point of view obviously it is superbly carved and this quality of carving both in the intelligence of the design and the fineness of the carving set it apart as a major religious image and probably the premier carving that survived on the island at this time. Its condition suggests it was housed and only brought out on special occasions. To surrender of this object to the missionaries is as was seen at the time by the missionaries themselves was an act of total submission.

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The question as to why the Rurutuans surrendered their living God, or in fact whether they surrendered a living God or a just a noa or deconsecrated wooden object is the point of great interest. As to their surrender of the object, this is fairly understandable, with nine out of ten Rurutuans dead from introduced European diseases, the sense of loss and dislocation of their society and sheer human desperation of their situation must have been overwhelming. This of course was an island originally of two thousand souls, where everyone was connected either by blood or social ties, worshipping the same Gods and familiar perhaps not always in an individual sense as although the island was a mere eleven square miles in size, it rose to 492 feet in height which meant that most inhabited areas were coastal and the most convenient mode of travel by canoe.

At 355 miles south of Tahiti, Rurutu was not however isolated either from other islands in the Austral Group or from Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands. While the majority of Rurutuans probably never left their island enough did and arriving travelers from other islands would have kept the people of Rurutu well informed of their immediate Polynesian World. The Rurutuans also possessed an American resident to interpret the goings on in the wider world. But their world and the wider Polynesian World by 1821 had been in a great state of flux since Samuel Wallis had arrived in Tahiti in 1763, and that process had been accelerating and few of the twists that fate had in store for Polynesians were anything but disastrous. To hand over the images of their Gods Rurutuans must have sunk to the point where they feared the hand of death must touch them all, and their Mana that uniquely powerful Polynesian concept was lost. Mana that the missionary, Codrington defined as "a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control". And there is the rub of the Rurutuan's dilemma, they no longer had control of their fate and worse neither it seemed to them had their ancient Gods.

But still all over Polynesia people in the same position were in some way loathe to completely abandon their ancient Gods, and while Pomare in Tahiti might hand his family Gods over to missionaries and invite them to burn them, yet others traveled by night and hid their Gods in caves or bluff shelters or buried them in swamps, just in case their new God proved false. Did the Rurutuans hand over A'a for destruction or more likely did their knowledge of the missionaries brought home by one of their own, seek to trick these greedy missionaries who sort to feed on the souls of these few hundred survivors for their own fame and personal salvation. The man's name was Au'ura who with his wife and about thirty companions set out on a canoe voyage from Rurutu, touching first at Tubuai, about 100 miles to the east. But returning to Rurutu storms drove them off course and they made land about three weeks later at Maupiti, some 60 miles northwest of Ra'iatea. From Maupiti they sailed via Borabora to Ra'iatea, arriving on the 8th of March 1821, where they spent over three months recovering from their ordeal.

In those three months Au'ura, who was highly intelligent ingratiated himself into the circle of the missionaries. What was his motivation we do not know but we can guess from his actions. He learnt to read and write always at this stage of Polynesia's disintegration the course of the intelligent and eventually in some areas such as New Zealand Maori once reading material was translated accurately into their own language, then learning to read and write became a passion, which they pursued with intensity. In fact the Maori/English dictionary and the printing press was the missionaries first real success, one that took many years before their own understanding of Maori and other Polynesian dialects permitted a successful dictionary. Eventually an understanding grew between the missionaries and Au'ura based I am sure on satisfying each others ambitions. That Au'ura understood the missionaries ambitions I think is self evident, but whether they understood his true ambitions for himself and his people is debatable. Stratagem and cunning at qualities valued highly by Polynesians, their preferred tactic in war was the well laid ambush and when Au'ura returned to Rurutu he became thanks to his influence with the missionaries a man of consequence. In all likelihood the ninety percent death rate amongst Rurutuans two years previously had thrown the old order of the aristocracy into disorder and confusion. What his status was when he left Rurutu we do not know, but after his visit with the missionaries in Ra'iatea it grew. But we should note one very salient fact, he returned to Rurutu even though the island had been reduced to a place of a few hundred souls away from the influence in the Polynesian World. And what of the surrender of the Rurutuan Gods which he plainly brought about. Did he see the world as the missionaries did, I very much doubt it. I believe his motivation was not so much personal as for his people and his island. Having ingratiated himself into the missionaries good books surely he could have stayed in Ra'iatea. And what of this journey away from Rurutu with thirty companions? With a population of two hundred odd souls how is no one has thought to ask why fifteen percent of the island's population decide to take a trip not without peril. Do Pacific historians think Polynesian so fickle as to risk their lives over even a hundred miles of ocean to see someone else's lagoon and someone else's coconut trees?

So often in reading Polynesian History or of Polynesian Art a lack of the basic understanding of Polynesians, their native intelligence, motivations and desires is evident. At its worst this produces a Thor Heyerdahl who was nothing more than a racist, believing that Polynesians are indolent and stupid people blown around the vast expanses of the Pacific by fate and accident. My own country's contribution to racist bigotry was called Andrew Sharp who did not even have the benefit of originality, but followed Heyerdahl with a book entitled Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific because he lacked the guts to call it Accidental Voyages in the Pacific, but declared none the less that all voyaging and island settlement was "accidental" for islands farther than 300 miles from their nearest neighbor. This tendency to underestimate Polynesians usually comes from those who know them least as opposed to James Cook whose estimation of Polynesians was very un-European and consequentially extraordinarily insightful.

Of Au'ura and the Rurutuans who handed over A'a and the other Gods, I believe we can be sure that in essentials they gave up Noa wooden objects stripped bare of their bindings and dressings that made them live as vehicles of the Gods. Which has a strange sort of irony, in that all the gushing of A'a is based on a false premise, but not that it really matters as it served the missionaries very well to achieve their ends, as it serves museum curators today to advance their careers. But Polynesians have I believe always had a gift for turning any European concept into a Polynesian one, something they continue to do today, to meet the world on their own terms and find their own happiness in a world largely stacked against them.

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For my last point I would like to add a final word of praise for the two historians of Polynesia I most admire Terence Barrow and Steven Hooper. Both took every opportunity to skewer the missionaries while being careful not to say what they probably say in private. Their views are and were obvious while being cautious to protect their careers which is understandable for Christians did and still do have long reach. As an amateur I can say what I think with impunity which requires no moral courage. Steven Hooper however applied the rapier in Pacific Encounters where I would prefer a bludgeon. He drew a very clever, insightful and beautifully subtle distinction between the respective portraits of Joseph Banks and John Williams. In the Nathaniel Dance portrait of Banks he stands wrapped in a Maori Cloak of muka surrounded by the mainly work a day items of Polynesia, and gently holds the hemp of the cloak as if asking us to admire the workmanship. While Williams stands on the deck of his ship posing with his well feed Missionary paunch before the captured Gods of the Cook Islands looking like the sanctimonious prig he was. That Banks died honoured by his Country with friends and admirers in every corner of the planet, while Williams was clubbed to death in the surf at Erromango and eaten, restores somewhat one's faith in the balance of the world. Interesting in one of the more bizarre twists of fate the descendents of those cannibals recently apologized for their ancestors to the descendants of Williams. One wonders whose stupid idea that was, as the entire population of Erromango should rather be the recipients of a Humanitarian Medal for the good taste and instinctive native sense of their forefathers.

Of A'a we have only to add a few points that speak volumes as to sort of people who hung around the London Missionary Society. Firstly for many years A'a was exhibited at the Society's museum

located at the LMS premises at Austin Friars wearing a strange looking apron to conceal his nakedness and this despite the fact that that Society had lopped off his penis. The image of some sexually repressed individual armed with a saw at work on his private parts sums up everything one needs to know about these 19th century Taliban. In a letter of 4 July 1821, just before Captain Grimes's departure for Rurutu, Lancelot Threlkeld wrote to him: 'the Chief [Au'ura] promises their Gods to you we recommend him not to burn them but send them prisoners to the Society.' Thus my imagery of his capture and imprisonment I find echoed out of the mouth of a missionary. The figure being hollow originally contained twenty-four small figures, these were removed and destroyed in 1882, why need not be asked any more than ask why the Taliban dynamited the giant Ghadahain Statues of Buddha. However the fact that the figure contained twenty-four smaller figures is interesting, as in New Zealand the Maori made similar figures but these contained the bones of dead chiefs and were hidden in caves, mainly in the North. In 1911 A'a was sold to the British Museum where it has remained ever since appreciated for the masterpiece it is. The Rurutu population has recovered its health with it now hovering around the same figure of two thousand it was prior to the 1818-19 epidemic. Lastly is it the greatest Masterpiece of Polynesia Art as so often stated in knowledgeable tomes of the Art of the Pacific? My answer is not really, for despite its interest, history and fame there are many works of infinitely greater power of design and execution, starting with the 14th Century Kaitaia Lintel in the Auckland Museum. But as I stated at the beginning this does not matter, it is its story of tragedy and pathos that is of far greater importance, and as long as it exists this story will not be forgotten and that would surely be enough to satisfy the people of the Rurutu.

Futher reading:

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