Carved clubs were used extensively throughout the Pacific. Maori used carved weapons designed specifically for hand-to-hand combat or contests. The Tongan ‘akau-ta is a wooden club that was also used in battle and in contests.
The ‘akau-ta was a symbol of rank as a well as a weapon. It is long and flares out from a narrow rounded handle at one end to a thick triangular head at the other.
When ‘akau-ta were made, they had almost no carved decoration on them. However, every time the warrior was successful in battle, a new part of his club would be carved. The fact that this club, on display in the Mana Pasifika exhibition, is completely covered with decoration, suggests the owner was a highly skilled warrior.
The owner of the ‘akau-ta was probably also a chief - you can tell this by the amount of ornamentation and the quality of the detail, and from the panels on the ‘akau-ta. They contain stylised animal characters including turtles, pigs and dogs, and men involved in ‘chiefly’ pursuits such as pigeon snaring.
The clubs were shaped with a stone adze blade which was lashed to a wooden handle. After the club was made, it was smoothed with a rasp made from sharkskin. The carved decoration was probably done with a special chiselling tool consisting of a shark’s tooth lashed to a wooden handle.
Of all the Tongan artefacts collected during the voyages of Captain Cook, clubs were the most numerous. This club was almost certainly collected on one of Cook’s voyages.
Described in an 1819 catalogue as ‘a beautiful short War-club; presumed to be the finest ever brought from the South Seas’, it was listed for sale on the same day as the Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet, now also in Te Papa's collection. Like the cloak and helmet, the ‘akau-ta was brought by Mr Charles Winn. His grandson, Lord St Oswald, gifted the club, along with other items, to the Dominion Museum in 1912.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)