‘Akatara were carved from ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia), known in the Cook Islands as toa. The club was made of the heart, or taiki, of this exceptionally hard wood; it is interesting to note that taiki also means “a veteran of war” (Savage, Dictionary of the Maori Language of Rarotonga, Wellington, 1962), suggesting the quality of strength and hardiness which was valued in both the wood and the warrior who wielded the weapon made from it.
Harding notes that “traditionally the ‘akatara clubs have been assigned to the island of Rarotonga and they are referred to in the oral histories of this island which go back many generations.” (Harding in Sotheby’s, ed., May, 2010, p. XX). Steven Hooper meanwhile suggests that they “were originally made on Atiu, though they may have found their way to Rarotonga and elsewhere. A number of them [including the present example] have collar designs as small figures of the central Cook Islands kind.” (Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760 – 1860, London, 2006, p. 222). An attribution to Atiu is also supported by the account of William Anderson, surgeon and naturalist on Cook’s third voyage, who saw these clubs there in 1777; he writes that they “were about six feet long or more, made of a hard black wood launce shap’d at the end but much broader, with the edge nicely scallop’d and the whole neatly polish’d” (Beaglehole, ed., The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780, Cambridge, 1967, Vol. III, Part 2, p. 841).
Whether found in Atiu or Rarotonga, “the beauty and superb finish of these weapons appealed to early visitors to the islands and most of the ‘akatara now in museums and in private hands were collected during a relatively short period from the 1820s onward […]” (Harding, ibid.). Whilst a great deal of sculpture from Rarotonga was burned in the “fires of infamy” by members of the London Missionary Society (King, Food for The Flames: Idols and Missionaries in Central Polynesia, San Francisco, 2011, p. 66), weapons were often sent back to Britain as fine specimens of native workmanship. The present ‘akatara has the most illustrious provenance possible, for it was collected in situ in the 1820s by the Reverend John Williams (1796-1839), the most renowned evangelist to visit the Cook Islands, where he collected a number of important objects ([see fig. 1]). This ‘akatara was later acquired from one of Williams’ granddaughters by James Hooper, the great English collector of Polynesian objects. As his grandson Steven Hooper notes, “artefacts from [the Cook Islands] are rare and craftsmanship was commonly of a very high order – two aspects which attracted James Hooper’s attention and interest” (Phelps, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas: the James Hooper Collection, London, 1976, p. 127).
Dodd described Rarotongan sculptors as “in some ways the ultimate masters [...] They could execute the most intricate fretwork [...] and beautifully controlled rhythmic decorations, but best of all they appreciated the virtues of restraint and spoke most eloquently on plain surfaces. ‘Plain’ is a poor word for them because the subtle undulations, the clearly incised elements, and the superbly defined outlines made these carvings anything but plain.” (Dodd, The Ring of Fire: Polynesian Art, New York, 1967, pp. 255-256). The remarkable ‘akatara offered here stands as proof of this assessment.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.