Island Encounters

Canoe Ornament

Contact between Europeans and Islanders in the 19th century changed the lifestyles of Pacific peoples and their material culture. For Europeans, collecting artefacts went hand in hand with exploration, scientific discovery, missionary activity and colonisation in the Pacific region.

William John Macleay's collection of Torres Strait and Pacific Islander artefacts was one of the most significant private collections of such material in colonial Australia. Between 1874 and 1891, Macleay amassed more than 1,000 artefacts from the Pacific region, mainly collected by naturalists, explorers, naval officers, ships' captains, missionaries and planters. Collectors obtained artefacts mainly by gift and exchange. Islanders, who received European goods in return, were selective in the types of objects they were willing to trade.

Today artefacts in the Macleay Collection have significant cultural value to the peoples from whom they were obtained. This exhibition aims to provide an historical context for the collecting of these artefacts using extracts from collectors' journals and other sources. Although the indigenous perspective in such encounters is absent, it is partially revealed through the collectors' accounts.

The Torres Strait : William John Macleay & Captain Arthur Alexander Walton Onslow
In 1875, Macleay embarked on a scientific collecting expedition to New Guinea (Papua New Guinea). While his primary aim was to collect specimens of natural history, he also made a collection of the material culture of peoples he encountered in Torres Strait and New Guinea.

His Cousin Captain Arthur Alexander Walton Onslow (1833-1882) accompanied William John Macleay, on the barque Chevert to New Guinea, stopping at various islands in the Torres Strait. A keen photographer, Onslow took photographs of Islanders during the voyages of the Herald and the Chevert, some of which have survived and are now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. The Macleay Museum holds artefacts from the Torres Strait Islands collected by Onslow either on the Herald (1860) or during the Chevert expedition (1875). This is the oldest collection of such material in any museum in Australia.

When William John Macleay stopped at Darnley Island in August 1875, he noted that the inhabitants and their lifestyle had changed greatly since J.B. Jukes wrote about them in the 1840s. Most of the artefacts from the Torres Strait Islands in the Macleay Museum were collected in the Eastern Torres Strait, probably at Darnley Island. Although Darnley Islanders were accustomed to exchanging objects with Europeans, their willingness to part with mourning clothing and the remains of their relatives may be a reflection of the increasing missionary influence on the Island.

"We remained at a very snug anchorage in Treacherous Bay, on the north side of Darnley Island, for a fortnight, waiting for letters from Cape York ... This island, known and described by Jukes, in the voyage of the Fly, by the name of "Erroob", is very beautiful and fertile.... The inhabitants are much reduced in number since Jukes wrote of them, and many of their interesting old customs, such as preserving the bodies of their dead, &c., are fast disappearing before the march of civilization with its accompaniments - rum and tobacco. There is a missionary teacher resident on the island, a native of Lifu [Loyalty Islands].
"W.J. Macleay, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1875

South-East New Guinea and New Ireland in the 1870s
Many indigenous artefacts were collected by scientists, missionaries, traders and explorers visiting these islands for the first time during the 1870s and 1880s. The success of European endeavours in this region often depended on indigenous assistance and goodwill, which, in turn, was associated with the gift or exchange of objects. Collecting indigenous artefacts accompanied the scientific discovery, exploration, and later colonisation of the region by Europeans. Their collecting reflects wider European interests in the region.

Indigenous knowledge of local fauna and flora enabled naturalists to acquire specimens new to science. Local guides also enabled scientists to explore. They introduced Europeans to local people and helped to create friendly relations between them. The artefacts from New Guinea in the Macleay Museum are directly associated with European scientific investigations and exploration of the south-eastern part of the Island. Some were collected during William John Macleay's Chevert expedition in 1875, while others were acquired by Theodore Francis Bevan in 1887, during his explorations of the Papuan Gulf region.

Theodore Francis Bevan (1860-1907), a British explorer and trader, arrived in Australia in the early 1880s. He made five visits to New Guinea between 1884 and 1887 and established several trading stations on the south-east coast of New Guinea. In 1886, he exhibited 1440 objects of "New Guinea Ethnology" at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London.

Bevan's fifth expedition to New Guinea in November 1887 was partly funded by William John Macleay. During this expedition, Bevan further explored the Aird (Kikori) and Queen's Jubilee (Purari) Rivers which he had already visited and given European names earlier in the year.

New Ireland
Missionaries arrived in New Ireland in the 1870s. Before this time, New Ireland had been little visited by Europeans. The Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, led by the Reverend George Brown, arrived in the region in August 1875. Brown, who aimed to establish a mission at New Ireland and New Britain, was accompanied by 8 Fijian and 2 Samoan converts or 'teachers', and a naturalist, James Cockerell.

Artefacts from New Ireland, now in the Macleay Collection, appear to have been collected by Cockerell during his 12 month stay in the region with Brown, who like many other missionaries, was an avid collector of artefacts.

The Solomon Islands
Artefacts from the Solomon Islands in the Macleay Collection reflect European, British, and colonial interest in these Islands during the second half of the 19th century. Some of these artefacts were collected during the voyages of HMS Curacoa in 1865 and HMS Blanche in 1872.

The Curacoa spent 6 months cruising the Pacific, visiting several island groups. Among those on board were the traveller and explorer Julius L. Brenchley and a shell-collector John Brazier. The Curacoa spent two weeks cruising around the Solomon Islands and Brenchley acquired over 1,000 artefacts there. Brazier also collected artefacts during the voyage, some of which are now in the Macleay Collection. In November 1865, an exhibition of "curiosities" (artefacts) collected during the voyage was displayed at the Diocesan Book Repository in Sydney.

In 1872, John Brazier sailed on the HMS Blanche as a shell-collector. The Blanche had orders to visit as many islands in the Pacific as possible and to gather information regarding British subjects and the treatment of Islanders employed on fisheries and plantations, and the practice of taking islanders, sometimes by force, for labour on plantations in Queensland and other colonies. In the Solomon Islands, Brazier collected artefacts as he had in 1865. Some of these artefacts are also in the Macleay Collection.

"More than a hundred canoes, with a couple of men in each, swarmed round the 'Curaçoa,' bringing all sorts of articles for barter with our crew; there were bows, arrows, four-sided clubs, painted, fringed, and running up to a point curved up at the end, pretty mats of fine texture, little neat and well ornamented bags, containing small gourds filled with chinam; also poultry, yams, bananas, and cocoanuts."
J. L. Brenchley, Santa Cruz Island, Solomon Islands, 25 August 1865

Caroline Islands
European contact with Caroline Islanders began in the 16th century when Spanish and Portuguese navigators first visited the Islands. Such contact increased during the 1800s when missionaries, whalers and traders began regularly visiting the region.

In 1885, Spanish claims to the Caroline Islands were disputed by Germany, which had previously established trading stations in the region. In 1899, after the Spanish-American War, the Spanish sold its interests in the Islands to Germany, which controlled the Islands until the first World War when they were seized by Japan. In 1944, the United States assumed control of the Islands and from 1947 to 1986 administered them as a UN Trust Territory. The Federated States of Micronesia (established 1986) celebrated its independence in 1990.

The Macleay Museum holds a small number of artefacts from the Caroline Islands collected by John William Brazier during the voyage of HMS Blanche in 1872.

Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, received their European name from a Russian hydrographer in the 1820s. European contact with the region increased during the second half of the nineteenth century and from the 1850s American and British whaling and trading vessels frequently visited the Islands. Missionaries also became active in the islands around this time. During the latter part of the 19th century many Islanders were recruited to work on plantations elsewhere in the Pacific..

In 1892, the Gilbert Islands were proclaimed a protectorate by Britain, and were administered jointly with the Ellice Islands until 1975 when the Ellice Islands separated and became known as Tuvalu. In 1979, the Gilbert Islands became an independent republic with the new name Kiribati.

The Macleay Collection contains a small number of artefacts from Kiribati collected by John William Brazier, during the voyage of HMS Blanche in 1872.

Tapa dress ET.84.178.2 © M Myers

Tapa dress circa 1890, ET.84.178.2, Samoa Islands. Photograph © M Myers

Observations of People and Places
"From their ears were suspended from six to twelve rings, made of large shells, half an inch thick. Their arms above the elbow were decorated with armlets of black and white shells. On their necks they wore necklaces made of small black and white rings, to which were attached little pieces of mother of pearl."
J. L. Brenchley, Santa Cruz Island, Solomon Islands, 25 August 1865

In the nineteenth century, European observations of Islanders generally concentrated on their physical appearance, dress, weapons, ornaments, villages and houses. All were described, drawn, and sometimes photographed. These descriptions were part of the process of collecting. The observable characteristics of Islanders and their lifestyle were 'collected' in the same way as the material evidence of their culture - their artefacts.

Curated by Susie Davies