Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Austral Island Dance Paddle

The Austral Islands dance paddle is one of the great enigmas of Polynesian Art. The Australs lie south of Tahiti and were visited briefly by Captain Cook on his first and last voyages, but the exposed nature of the islands and the unfriendliness of the inhabitants convinced Cook to sail on both times after a small amount of trading took place. Fletcher Christian and the Bountry mutineers returned to Tahiti after briefly attempted to settle on Tubuai, but not before they killed or wounded sixty islanders. It was only after Tahitian lay missionaries arrived in 1821 that the islands began to establish real contact with Europeans, yet even this coincided with the introduction of European diseases and a catastrophic collapse of the population. Most Austral Island paddles are dated roughly between 1820 – 1840, mostly made probably on the Island of Raivavae or Raevavae, and are generally described as made for trade items, with their original use being treated as something of a mystery. Their form varies depending mainly on length, with longer paddles in excess of 120cm generally concidered the most elegant. The pommel is usually encircled by eight protruding heads tapering to a slender cylindrical shaft and laceolate blade, incised with an ornate finely carved geometric motif over the surface. There are thought to be over one thousand in public collections worldwide, but it is likely that an equal number exist in private hands.

Generally they are treated somewhat dismissively by curators and writers as made for trade items and are certainly one of the most common survivors of Polynesian Art, probably equal with the Maori Taiaha, of which there is also no shortage. This attitude is surprising because these paddles are an artistic tour de force, a concentrated study in sustained carving of the highest quality. It is true some later ones were crude, but they remain a minority, the majority being good to superb. For any skilled modern carver holding a good example in ones hands is a humbling experience. In fact, compared to the average Maori Taiaha the carving skills required to execute a good Austral Island paddle exceeds that required for the taiaha by several degrees of magnitude in technical dexterity and difficulty, and that in no way denigrates either the beauty of a Maori Taiaha or the skill required to carve a good example.

In fact I would go further. The auction prices of some items perceived as rare in Polynesian Art bear no relationship to aesthetic quality. At Sothebys in June 2011 against as auction estimate of 100,000 to 150,000 euros a 8 1/5 inch foot rest for Maori digging stick sold for 1,408,750 euros, yet at my local auction rooms a good example of an Austral Island paddle brought only 3,500 euros. The Maori foot rest was unexceptional compared with many fine examples found in museum collections worldwide, yet we are asked to believe this object should be valued at 40 times that of a good representative Austral Island paddle?


Such are the vagaries of the art market and the dubious nature of art crititism. Whether Austral Island paddles are really dance paddles is often questioned, but why this should cause a pause for doubt seems to me somewhat ridiculous. Tonga, Easter Island, Fortuna and many other Polynesian groups used paddles for action songs, plainly Austral Island paddles were not made for paddling but for cerimonial purpose, so their use as a dance paddle is a reasonable conclusion. Many island groups specialized in production of canoes, tapa cloth or fine carved items, and prior to 1500AD when the complete discovery of all the inhabitable islands in the Pacific and also the West coast of South America and possibly also Southern California brought an end to long range voyaging, the Austral Islanders maintained contact with the Society Islands and the Southern Cooks, with whom the Austral Island's art of carving and tapa cloth retained many similar motifs.

Looking at the quality of Austral Island paddles, drums, fly wisks, fans and diety figures, these islands maintained a tremedous tradition of skilled craftmanship. How much carving patterns related to tattoo design would make an interesting study, as plainly there are great similarities between carving motifs and surviving tapa designs. Logicaly tattoo designs probably relate to carving patterns, indeed chip carving details on surviving figurative art seem to represent tattoos.

Rhys Richards has just completed a book on Austral Island paddles having personally handled over five hundred in public collections. This is the first serious attempt to obtain an overview of surviving Austral Island paddles. Unfortunately this was something of a lost opportunity. The fact that two thousand examples survive and were created over a very limited time span of twenty years creates a wonderful opportunity to match paddles made by the same maker, just as early Italtian and Flemish paintings are ascribed to unknown master painters. The attached image of what is arguably the best example of a Austral Island paddle now in the Detroit Institute of Art, shows superb workmanship and such carving should be easily matched to any other carving by the same maker. It is true that the appalling death rate experenced in the islands over those twenty year must have cut short the life of many artist/carvers, however to be capable of such fine workmanshp even if the carver of this particular paddle died after the paddle was finshed he must have completed many examples before hand to acquire such a high level of skill and importantly there can be little doubt that Polynesians possessed the asethetic sense to recognize a skilled craftsman and to consider his products more desireable and more valuable that lesser craftsmen. This must prove a fruitful field for research in the future if the person conducting the research had experience as a carver and a high level of understanding of Polynesian aesthetics. Rhys Richards maintains that these paddles were made using serrated shark's tooth chisels. I am somewhat dubious that this is in fact the case, but the claim could be proved or disproved by physically reproducing the patterns of Austral Island carving in the same native woods. This sort of experiment would certainly advance our knowledge of these mavelously mysterious and beautiful objects.

John Rutherford bearing Austral Island tattoos on his chest

One can also advance the distinct possibility that like Tongan carvers working in Fiji, many Austral Island paddles and other objects were produced by Austral Islanders working in Tahiti and other islands in the Society Island group. In the British Library there is a wash drawing by Sydney Parkinson dating to Cook's visit to Tahiti in 1769 of a war canoe or pahi with warriors and paddlers. Like his more famous drawing of a war waka off the coast of New Zealand the canoe is truncated to fit the page but accurate in essentuals, the gorgets for example wore around the neck of the warriors are plainly identical to the type collected by Cook and Banks on this visit. A closer look at the paddles in the hands of the paddlers bears considerable resemblence to the general shape of Austral Island paddles yet as far as we know none were collected on this trip. It is hard to imagine from what we know of supposed early examples of Austral Island paddles that Cook or his men who were avid collectors of Tahitian curiousities would not have found these appealing. Such frustrating hints as the paddles in Parkinson's drawing are the lot however of students of Polynesian Art.


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