Missionaries and Explorers in Central Polynesia
'Male figure- "Fisherman's God"' is a concise description representative of the minimal labelling favoured in the Sainsbury Centre. Those seeking a reason for the designation should turn to the Sainsbury Collection Catalogue where they will find, in Steven Hooper's entry on the object, a succinct explanation. The Rev. John Williams, in his memoirs of his time as a missionary in Central Polynesia, published in 1837, illustrates a figure very similar to the Sainsbury one and tells a story about it. 'An idol … was placed upon the forepart of every fishing canoe; and when the natives were going on a fishing excursion, prior to setting off, they invariably presented offerings to the god, and invoked him to grant them success'.
There is clearly an 'agenda' here which begs the question as to how far Williams was exaggerating or even imposing stereotypes on the Polynesians and their images. Missionaries knew their role: to convert pagans and stamp out superstition. They took this with them wherever they went and had little choice but to find things to disapprove of, and idolatry was high on the list. What I suggest is that Williams is likely to have made a typical imaginary journey to pagan lands long before he made his actual visit to the Pacific. How far this affected what he 'saw' we will never know; we can really only confront what he wrote, that is his rhetoric, and the objects he purported to be writing about. His rhetoric makes clear that he was interested in the way the object was used and by whom, and I maintain that it is important to distinguish between this concern and his complete silence about what the object was.
What I mean is that there are two rather different ways in which something might be said to be a Fisherman's God. The first is that it was designed to be one, and the second that an existing type of object ended up being used in some ceremony to promote a successful fishing trip. The former position allows the form of an object to be in part determined by its intended function, whereas the latter can be regarded as the imposition of a new 'social' role on a pre-existing artefact. I am not going to choose between these extremes, but I do want to suggest that artefacts like the so-called Fisherman's God were not limited to Rarotonga but were found elsewhere in central Polynesia and that their social function there was apparently rather different. The evidence for this comes from the well-known imagery produced by European artists on Cook's expeditions to the Pacific.
I cannot adopt the position that the reportage from Cook's voyages to Polynesia was objective: it too results from the encounter of pre-formed minds and new sensual stimuli. So although Cook and his patrons and sponsors aimed at 'scientific' discovery, including mapping the land, observing the heavens, collecting plant species, and the investigation of 'noble savages', they had a pretty good idea what they expected to find. Apart from exotic expectations built up over centuries, there were the very recent accounts from Wallis's expedition on the Dolphin in 1766, which had 'discovered' Tahiti.
The artists Cook took with him to 'record' what was discovered put together a remarkable archive. Among those who contributed significantly were Sidney Parkinson, William Hodges and John Webber, though it is on William Hodges and Cook's second voyage that I concentrate here. Firstly I should say that I love Hodges' work. His training under Richard Wilson developed in him a particular interest for the topographical with an idyllic even heroic emphasis. In his work, the classic and pastoral traditions seem to keep pace with any temptation to exoticise, or at least that is the impression. His working methods lend substance to his objectivity. Not content with making drawings to be turned into paintings back in England, Hodges painted in oils on board ship, setting up his 'studio' in Cook's cabin on the Resolution. It was sheltered but had an excellent spread of windows (nine in all) giving a semi-panoramic vista as well as good lighting conditions. So when we encounter oil sketches such as his Tahitian War Fleet we are inclined to think of it as a 'snapshot' account of a spectacular and specific naval review.
The reason for my interest in this painting will be immediately obvious. In the foreground is a large double 'canoe', containing some sixteen people and on the prow is a carved wooden figure made on the same scale and with the same pose as our so-called Fisherman's God. This canoe could, of course, have been used for fishing - almost any boat can - but the way in which Hodges represents it suggests he thought of it as more elevated in the hierarchy than we would normally place a fishing vessel. Even if we disregard the 'cabin', which is not an uncommon feature on Polynesian canoes of all sizes, the presence of a figure in 'ceremonial vestments' implies that this boat is more than a fishing smack. But how secure are we in reading it this way?
The 'ceremonial' costume that appears here features in another work by Hodges, a scene of mourning in which the figure wearing it is described as the chief mourner. Well, one can imagine all sorts of reasons why this spectacular garb might have been worn on other occasions too, though perhaps not for fishing. But rather than pursue this we need to ask whether Hodges ever actually saw it being worn on a boat. For, despite its small size (nine inches high) and quite sketchy finish, it seems certain that the painting in question was not done sur le motif in 1774 but was composed probably in 1776 from drawings made in 1774 of boats in Appany (Pare) Bay. We have Cook's own account of Hodges making drawings of the Tahitian Fleet, and at least two of them have survived, one a distant view and the other a close-up of a single vessel. However, when he came to create the composition we are considering, he made major adjustments to the suitably impressive foreground focus, using the time-honoured practice of putting together visually interesting bits and pieces of things he had seen in other contexts. Another one of these is perhaps the very 'scientific' measured drawing, made by Cook himself, of a huge war canoe, 109 feet long and with a prow figure. Hodges's painting gives a slightly under half-size version of it which yields a figure exactly the right size to be a so-called Fisherman's God. But did they really exist on this scale, or was it invented for the purposes of composing the picture? So you see, to an extent, and even though he was there, Hodges is having to journey in his imagination in order to create the impression he wants to give his European audience back home. His oil sketch was duly engraved and circulated as part of the official visual record of the voyage.
We have now got ourselves, and Hodges, into much the same embarrassing position in which we found ourselves with Williams. The difference is that rather than wanting to represent Rarotongans as pagans, Hodges wants to show the picturesque, even flamboyant and sophisticated material culture of 'noble savage' Tahitians. As we all know, viewing and composing are not neutral activities. But that doesn't actually help much. For we find it as hard to believe that Williams and Hodges would invent something for which they had no basis as to believe that their seeing was unmediated.
Ostensibly we are left with choice or synthesis. The choice is between viewing the images on the prows of boats either as idols to be invoked before fishing trips, or as equivalent to the figureheads seen on European warships and other large vessels to convey their status and to help 'personalise' them. A synthesis would regard these two positions as entirely compatible - they can both be true, though for various reasons I doubt even the synthesis is usefully comprehensive. My reasons for wanting to go further can be expressed in questions, to which I leave the answers hanging. When one boat has carved figures fore and aft are they both gods? And if the figure on the prow or stern of a boat is a living human, perhaps on the lookout for reefs and shoals, how far should the wooden figures be regarded simply as human surrogates?
In conclusion, there are a number of loose-ends I want to acknowledge, if not tie up. Firstly, these figures are made to be detachable. They can lead separate lives on land and at sea. While the Sainsbury figure shows some signs of bleaching and cracking caused by the effects of wind and water, it does not look as though it has spent a long life in the open. The second point is that Tahiti is not Rarotonga, and 1774 is not 1824. Although the culture of Central Polynesia has its commonalities - of language, social structure and belief systems - there is no reason why practices in one locality should not differ from those in another, especially given also a fifty year gap. So what matters here, I maintain, is the particular practice one is interested in, and I should clarify that. So far as one can tell from Hodges' painting, the 'Tahitian' canoe prow figure is very like the Sainsbury Rarotongan figure. If one is interested primarily in artistic practices and traditions of making, then the 'beliefs' to which the figure is appropriated are less important than the object type it represents. The existence of a common form of detachable canoe prow figure across Central Polynesia allows for the development of different ceremonial practices and functions, but these are applied to a physical, 'artistic' resource rather than initiating it. In so far as the Sainsbury Centre is an art gallery rather than an ethnographic museum, the designation 'Fisherman's God' is arguably unnecessary 'ritual detail'. The final point is that, whatever they 'saw', Williams and Hodges had themselves gone fishing for something, and their audiences as much as they themselves would want, if possible, an appropriate haul. They too used the canoe figureheads they found as though they were a resource allowing them to fulfil their different roles, just as Tahitians and Rarotongans may also have used them variously. On the evidence of Hodges, but without Williams, we might now be looking at an object labelled 'Warship Figurehead' rather than 'Fisherman's God', and I suggest that would transform both the way we now look at it and how it would change the imaginary journeys the object takes us on. Personally I prefer to think of it as 'detachable figure for the prow of a medium size canoe', and I would (of course) regard this as an 'objective description'. But as we have seen, the objectivity of one person or interest group is the subjectivity of another.T. Heslop | May 2003