In 1888, recently ordained missionary Reverend Henry Moore Dauncey (1863-1931) set sail from his hometown of Walsall, England, for Papua New Guinea, embarking on a missionary service which would subsequently span over 40 years. His mission was directed by the London Missionary Society, a privately funded Protestant organisation formed in England in 1795, with the aim of spreading the knowledge of Christ and the teachings of the protestant religion and other ways of life within a diverse range of foreign cultural groups. On the 1st July 1871, a date which Islanders still refer to, and celebrate, as July One, or The Coming of the Light, members of the LMS Reverends McFarlane and Murray arrived at Darnley (Erub) Island in the Torres Strait, and proceeded to fulfil the mission aim through their work: they built schools and churches, introduced European notions of religion, morality, dress and cleanliness and, through the newly established missionary schools and government courts, largely suppressed Islander ritual practices and warfare. In 1888 Reverend HM Dauncey joined the missionaries arriving in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (known at that time as British New Guinea) after a while moving to the town of Delena. He was soon given a seat on the Legislative Council which formed part of Papua’s governmental scheme and became affectionately known by the locals.
On September 9th 1888, Dauncey and some fellow missionaries met Alfred C.Haddon (1855-1940), still one of the most important anthropologists to have documented this region, Haddon was on the first of two anthropological expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands. The group of missionaries met Haddon on Thursday Island where he showed them “many objects of great interest”1 perhaps inspiring the young missionaries to collect these ethnographic objects themselves, which they did, sending artefacts back to the UK on departing ships as and when they could. As well as buying these “curios”, the missionaries were also gifted with various objects by the indigenous people. In Dauncey’s diary dated 1888, he recounts a visit to a village in an area called Arome; ‘we were met by Koapena the most powerful chief in New Guinea […] he put his arms around me, gently pressed me to his breast, and then rubbed his nose against mine. This he repeated when we left, at the same time presenting me with his lime gourd (which is now in Walsall Free Library Museum and receiving from me a Wednesbury-made hatchet as a return present.”2 Dauncey went on to write a book called Papuan Pictures (1913), detailing his life and work in Papua and illustrated with his own photographs.
Back in Walsall, the Walsall Library Committee in 1891 had inspected a collection of curios at Dauncey’s house which he had offered to lend for an exhibition. This exhibition: The First Loan Exhibition of Pictures, Sculpture, Curios etc., was held the following year and included a great number of objects from the collection. The appreciation for this foreign and “primitive” ethnography was increasing as explorers, missionaries and anthropologists continued to reveal the secrets of these foreign and far-flung lands and cultures. In 1914 Dauncey’s sister brought together a collection of these “curios” in a garden fete to assist the missionary society. Her display of spears, clubs, ornaments, pipes, utensils and clothing attracted much attention, and was written about in the local paper, a demonstration of this new curiosity in the “exotic” cultures beyond Europe.
Dauncey returned to the UK from Papua New Guinea in 1928 due to poor health, and when he died in 1932 following a stroke, part of his collection was bequeathed to the Walsall Public Library. In 1967, the library made the decision to sell the objects from this collection. Four pieces were sold on the 26th June 1967 at Sotheby’s London, including the Tobacco God figure offered here, as well as a Torres Strait Island drum, now in the collection of the Barbier Mueller, a Dugong charm and a New Guinea War Axe. The remainder of the collection was auctioned the following month on the 26th July 1967. Dauncey had previously sold most of his collection, more than 400 objects, to Plymouth Museum in 1909 and subsequently donated further objects to the museum in 1923.
A Charming Figure
This profound and incredibly rare figure from the Torres Strait is one of only a handful of such charms known today which were originally used by the Torres Strait Islanders in traditional ritual and farming practices. Consisting of 274 small islands scattered between the northern tip of Australia and New Guinea, the Torres Strait Islands have a unique landscape and people who in turn have a distinct and complex culture within which this figure would have played an important part. Termed a Sokop Madub by the indigenous people (Sokop meaning tobacco), these charms carved from a piece of wood to represent a human figure and painted, would be placed near or in a tobacco garden. David Moore explains ‘magic played an extremely important part in virtually every activity of the Islanders and skilled practitioners were held in high esteem’3 and this figure would have been charged with a particular kind of spell to both protect the tobacco and promote its growth. Haddon also remarks that they would sometimes have been tied to a bamboo shoot so as to measure the height of the growing tobacco. Many different kinds of madub were employed for various purposes, for example as love charms, or as increase charms for other kinds of crop such as yams or bananas.
Tobacco was a treasured substance to the islanders. Used mainly in the eastern islands it was, unusually, grown on the islands, as Haddon describes: ‘although smoking was practised in these islands before the white men came, and they grew their own tobacco, they never smoked much at a time.’4 It would be chewed and smoked and was also sometimes used as currency within New Guinea.
In this sculpture, the shape of a male figure in profile is cut into a narrow, flat piece of wood, an arm raised to his pointed chin as if in thought. Black, red and white pigment covers the figure; the white is retained in the areas of low relief etching of the bands dissecting the body, emphasising their decorative impact, while red pigment outlines and subdivides the entire figure, further accentuating its two dimensional form. The face is sculpted in lower relief and the limit of the facial plane is defined by a red painted line which sweeps around the face emphasising the sharp chin and strong, pointed nose. A conical hat/coiffure tops the figure and is echoed in the lower point which would have driven the charm in to the ground.
In volume four of Haddon’s Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, an illustration of a tobacco charm features a remarkably similar head and face shape to the figure presented here.5 The flat form is evolved from the bull-roarer: a mysterious and spiritual charm used in rituals and ceremonies, and the cross hatched design seen on the present figure can also be seen on many bull-roarers. The sharp lines and points of the sculpted form mimic the etched designs traversing the body which in turn contrast to the rounded forms of the protruding belly, buttocks and calves. With its narrowed eyes, furrowed brow and mouth pressed into a pout, the expression is one of both contemplation and protective fierceness. This figure does not bear significance purely for its traditional use within the fields of tobacco; it also demonstrates the remarkable skill of the sculptors within the Torres Straits to create characteristic contours, meaningful expression and pleasing form, seamlessly uniting function and beauty. The remarkable provenance of this charm which sees it returning to a Sotheby’s auction after 50 years, with its origin most certainly reaching back 130 years, only strengthens its exceptional history and makes it all the more important and unique.
Objects from Dauncey’s collection can be found in the Plymouth Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, the Council for World Mission’s archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and the British Museum. His photographs can also be found at the Harvard Peabody Museum in the US and the Australian Museum in Sydney.
There are five other Tobacco Charms in the British Museum, all from AC Haddon; one in the Pitt Rivers Museum, also collected by Haddon and donated in 1889, and nine in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. One of the figures in the British Museum bears remarkable similarities to the figure offered here, both in its decoration and form. Both have bands with chevron designs traversing the body horizontally; both also feature black and red pigment subdividing the body. Formally, both figures share a similar stance: bent knees, protruding stomach, long neck and a sharp nose and chin with almond shaped eyes. There is evidence on the British Museum figure of a break both at the chin and at the sternum suggesting there may once have been an arm attached in that place in a similar position to the bent arm in the present figure. Although the elements of each of these figures display slight differences in dimensions, they share similar shapes and style as well as wear consistent with use, and from that we could place them within a similar geographical place of origin and date of creation.
1 FW Walker diaries, SOAS archives
2 HM Dauncey journal, SOAS archives
3 David R. Moore, The Torres Strait Collections of AC Haddon, British Museum
Publications, 1984, p.34
4 AC Haddon, Head Hunters Black, White and Brown, London: Methuen, 1901, p.75
5 A. C. Haddon, Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Cambridge: The University Press, 1901, vol. vi, p.208, fig.30
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