Barkcloth and the Baining: Masks in New Britain

Post written by Inna Yaneva-Toraman, University of Edinburgh
Baining masks are one of the most famous artefacts of Papua New Guinean cultures. A tourist cannot visit the country without encountering these masks in one form or another. They are printed on tourism brochures and post stamps, used in various advertisements, and displayed at museums and art galleries. Made from white bark cloth, and painted with natural black and red dyes, these masks have become a symbol for Baining culture and society.

As a PhD student working on Baining masks, I am grateful to Chantal Knowles and Eve Haddow for inviting me to join them on their review of the collection of masks and headdresses from Papua New Guinea at the National Museum of Scotland stores.

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it's construction and style

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it’s construction and style


During this visit we had a brief discussion on the use of new materials in the composition of masks made after European contact. The Baining mask at the museum stores, for instance, contained a layer of printed paper (probably pages from an old book) underneath the bark cloth, which seemed to stabilize the structure while at the same time keeping the mask as light as possible. When we compared the Baining mask with other Papua New Guinean masks made from bark cloth, we saw that there was a considerable difference in their weight. This led us into a discussion about the use of these masks and the characteristics of the dances for which they are made.

The Baining are a non-Austronesian speaking people, who live on the Gazelle Peninsula in northern portion of East New Britain. They are best known for their spectacular masked dances performed at night. The name “Baining” means “inland people” – bai as “to go inland” and nig or nig-nig as “wild, uncultivated area” (Corbin 1976). Therefore, it is assumed that the name originated among the Tolai people, who live along the Northeastern coasts of the peninsula.

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)


The mask at the museum is an example of the smaller Baining masks called Kavat, which are used in the Baining Fire dance. In the anthropological literature this dance is also known as the Baining Snake dance because it used to include snake handling (Bateson 1931/1932). The Kavat dances are the most vigorous and ecstatic performances at the Baining night dances. The dancers jump in and over a large bonfire, wave burning sticks in the air, and kick the embers to create waves of sparkles around themselves. A good Kavat performance is said to be the one that draws attention with its energetic moves, thus accounting for the need of lighter masks.
A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame

A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame


This particular Kavat mask had been made of a single layer of fine white bark cloth and thin flexible branches. In order to keep the mask light, it is possible that the Baining man who made it chose to use printed paper rather than an additional layer of bark cloth. This example shows that the characteristics of the dances for which these artefacts were/are made, can also tell us about why particular ‘innovations’ in mask making were incorporated into the mask designs. Similarly, by looking at the composition of specific artefacts, we can understand how they were used. In many Melanesian dance contexts, features such as light/heavy, bright/dark, shiny/matte, and high/low, play a significant role in the composition, display, and reproduction of social relationships (A. Strathern & M. Strathern 1971). Thus, by examining the structure and design of artefacts such as masks, we can also learn something about the people who have made them, and the meaning of particular qualities like lightness and heaviness.

Works Cited:
Bateson, G. (1931/1932). ‘Further Notes on a Snake Dance of the Baining’, Oceania, Vol.2, pp.334-341.
Corbin, G. (1976). ‘The Art of the Baining of New Britain’. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, (doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1976).
Strathern, A. & M. Strathern (1971). Self-decoration in Mount Hagen. London: Duckworth.

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Missionary Diasporas: Researching Vanuatu collections in the Pacific (part 1)

Over the past five weeks I have been working in the Pacific in Vanuatu, incorporating two weeks related research in Australia. The research has several key aims: to discover how those working with collections of Vanuatu material in Scotland (and the UK more broadly) can make collections accessible to originating communities; to explore the significance of Vanuatu artefacts and related photographs and archives in Scottish museums to communities today; and to gather stories and information relating to these important assemblages which can be fed back into the collections. In a previous post I wrote about the Vanuatu collections in Scotland and explained their significance and also their strong connection with Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who lived and worked in the country from the 1840s-1940s. This summer a team of international archaeologists and archaeology students on an Australian National University fieldschool were excavating missionary sites on the island of Aneityum, the southernmost island in Vanuatu. As both Glasgow Museums and National Museums Scotland have collections from Reverend Lawrie who was a missionary on Aneityum from 1879-97 I took the opportunity to travel to the island with the group for 2 weeks. Prior to flying to Aneityum I spent several days in the capital of Port Vila with Chantal Knowles who has been part of the Pacific Collections Review project and who recently joined the Queensland Museum in Brisbane as Head of Cultural Environments. During our time in Vila we worked with staff at the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS). While travelling back from Aneityum I also had the opportunity to spend several days on Tanna island where I travelled to some historical mission sites and visited the Tafea Kaljoral Senta (TKS) which covers the whole of Tafea province (including the islands of Erromango, Aniwa, Aneityum, Futuna and Tanna).

Leaving Scotland at the end of June, my first destination was Canberra, Australia. I spent a week consulting material related to the Presbyterian missions which are part of the collections at the Pacific Manuscript Bureau at Australian National University. Some of these resources have been microfilmed from other archives and libraries but there are also archives from private individuals. You can find out more about the Pacific Manuscript Bureau here: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/pambu/

National Library of Australia in Canberra which provides access to all Pacific Manuscripts Bureau microfilm material.

National Library of Australia in Canberra which provides access to all Pacific Manuscripts Bureau microfilm material.


In the forthcoming blog posts I will give details of the project and my findings in Vanuatu, and share my experiences of working in a wonderful Pacific country.

I have been able to carry out this research with the generous support of grants from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (http://www.socantscot.org/) and the Strathmartine Trust (http://strathmartinetrust.org/grants.htm).
-Eve

A look at Vanuatu collections in National Museums Scotland

Last week I hosted a visit from Christian Kaufmann former Curator of the Oceania Department at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. We spent two days in store at National Musuems Scotland mainly looking at collections from Vanuatu. The four project partner museums (National Museums Scotland, Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow Life and University of Aberdeen Museums) all have material culture from Vanuatu which we knew from the beginning of the review had connections to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who lived on the islands, mainly in Southern Vanuatu, from the 1840s-1940s. During the course of the Pacific Collections Review we have found the missionary connection is much more significant than first believed, with many more artefacts than we originally thought being traced back to missionary collectors once you scratch the surface of the documentation.

Map of Vanuatu

Map of Vanuatu


At National Museums Scotland (NMS) there are around 550 artefacts from Vanuatu and 250 of those were brought to Scotland by Reverend James Hay Lawrie, a missionary who was based on the southernmost island in Vanuatu, Aneityum, from 1879-1896(also known as Anatom and marked as such on the above map). Lawrie brought back material from Aneityum, Aniwa, Futuna, Tanna, Malekula, Epi, Ambrim, Nguna, Efate and Tongoa. The descriptions Lawrie recorded of the artefacts he collected give an insight into the culture on the islands at that time. They show he had a real interest in the culture of the people of Vanuatu, as opposed to some missionary collectors who focussed on using material culture to over emphasise cultural differences and justify what they saw as a need for mission work.

The first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu was established on Aneityum in 1852 by Rev John Geddie. Geddie was born in Aberdeenshire in Scotland and his family emigrated to Nova Scotia in Canada when he was young. Geddie was on Aneityum from 1848 and was joined in 1852 by another missionary, a Reverend John Inglis from Scotland. The Vanuatu collections in Scotland that were collected by missionaries reflect their interests and work on the islands: there are artefacts such as sacred stones and items of dress that reflect the missionary desire to modify people’s behaviour and convert them to Christianity, there are objects that tell the story of local culture and everyday life at that time, and there are artefacts that reflect the cash economy that missionaries were helping to create such as samples of arrowroot (a plant people were encouraged to cultivate and process for trade). There are also some items in Scottish collections that may not automatically be thought of as being associated with Vanuatu including bibles that have been translated into the local language of an island and communion tokens. Tokens are particularly associated with practices of the Scottish Presbyterian church and I gave a paper on them at Pacific Arts Association Europe conference last month in Cologne. Communion tokens offer a starting point to think about the complex relationships that existed between missionaries, local communities and others in Vanuatu in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.

Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.


Rev. JH Lawrie’s collection includes a wide variety of material ranging from body adornments such as combs…
Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)

Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)


To clubs including this dance club carved at the end with a shark’s tail…
Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


To two tree fern grade figures from Malakula which Lawrie sent to the museum in 1896.
two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!

two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!


These figures relate to grade taking ceremonies where a person rises in status. They are made of a tree with multiple aerial roots. The green pigment is special and is particular to one area of Malakula from which it was traded.
Reverend Lawrie took many photographs during his time in Vanuatu and also brought a photo collection back to Scotland. Sadly the collection has been lost but there are still copies of many of his photographs in the Mitchell Library in Australia. One of these images shows an older man with a caption reading ‘Numrang, sub-chief of N side of Aneityum – Bequeathed his beard when dying to his successor. The beard was intermixed with dried seaweed and worn by the man in the opposite photo. 1890’The photo of the younger man shows him wearing the neck ornament and after studying these photos and the artefacts in Scotland I’ve discovered that the neck ornament is now here in Edinburgh in National Museums Scotland:
Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)

Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)


In addition to Lawrie’s collection, there is other important material from Vanuatu here in NMS. Christian and I were particularly interested in some of the older ceremonial masks such as this one of Malakula. It was brought to Scotland in 1890 by Reverend William Watt of Edinburgh who was a missionary based on Tanna with his wife.
Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)

Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)


Side view of mask from Malakula

Side view of mask from Malakula


One of the earliest set of artefacts from Vanuatu in National Museums Scotland are three skirts from Ambrim which would’ve been worn in layers. Although we don’t have an exact date, we know the skirts came via the University of Edinburgh collection which dates them as pre-1854.
One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)

One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)


I have recently been awarded generous funding from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Strathmartine Trust to travel to Vanuatu to carry out more research relating to the missionary collections in Scotland. I’ll be on Aneityum for 2 weeks in July and am excited about being able to take photographs and information on the collections in Scotland back to Aneityum where there is work on-going on the island to establish a museum and archive. I’ll be there with archaeologists from Australia National University who are carrying out fieldwork on the site of the old church and missionary’s house from the 19th century. In preparation for going to Vanuatu I have been working through the missionary archives at National Library of Scotland and have recently found what is best described as a scrap book compiled by a friend of Rev. JH Lawrie in Edinburgh. It contains some photographs taken by Lawrie as well as letters from him and pressed plant samples. The photographs from the album have been digitised and you can view them here: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/search/field/refere/searchterm/Acc.7548%252FF%252F19

– Eve

Modelling culture: An outrigger canoe from Futuna

Guest post by Ross Irving, Assistant Curator, World Cultures, National Museums Scotland

As part of the Pacific Collections review Eve has been steadily working her way through our Pacific collections here at NMS. While studying material from Vanuatu, Eve started looking at the Reverend James Lawrie collection, which came to NMS in the 1890s from a Scottish Free Church missionary who was based on the island of Aneityum in the south of Vanuatu. The collection is quite large, numbering some 370 objects, including weapons, clothing and personal ornaments, objects of ceremonial and magical use and several models. Lawrie collected a number of ‘models’ to bring home with him, many of which survive in the NMS collection. They can tell us a great deal about the objects they represent and are a rich resource for researchers.

One model in particular came to our attention; a boat model from the island of Futuna around 50 miles from Aneityum. This island is not to be confused with the Polynesian island Futuna of Wallis and Futuna. The model represents a small outrigger canoe with dugout hull and sewn washstrakes, panels used to raise the height of the canoe. Models like this were popular souvenirs for European visitors, allowing them to take home examples of traditional craft in miniature (much easier to transport home than the real thing!).

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)


Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )


‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The Futuna model can be seen at the front in the photograph above, interestingly with a fish hook tied over the stern carving which is still in the NMS collection. There is also a comparable model from Aneityum propped vertically at the back. Other models, also in the NMS collection, shown here include the model fish trap, shell adze and model house.

The Lawrie collection highlights the fact that models are extremely useful, along with other evidence like photographs, as records of traditional craft and constructions that would have been impractical for Europeans to bring home. Often constructed to scale (this model is estimates to be ¼ actual size) and using the same building materials and techniques as the full sized objects they represent, they can tell us much that other records cannot. Looking at this particular model, we can draw on Lawrie’s own published observations as well as his photography to learn more about it.

Having an interest in local culture, Lawrie wrote about and photographed different aspects including: appearance, dress and ornamentation, music and instruments, carving, weaponry, legends and traditional belief systems. Lawrie’s article entitled ‘New Hebrideans’ was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1892. On canoes, Lawrie observed that:

“The canoes on the southern islands are usually small and rude in construction; they are hollowed out of a single log with an outrigger attached, and are intended to carry from two to six adults”

Lawrie then goes on to discuss Futuna canoes in particular:

“On Futuna they have an ingenious method of heightening the sides of the canoes by building on extra pieces. They bore holes in the wood with a heated iron and sew the slabs to the body of the canoe with sennit, plugging up the holes afterwards with coco-nut fibre.”

This is also documented in one of Lawrie’s photographs:

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The model collected by Lawrie shows this perfectly. Adding wash strakes to raise the height of the sides of the canoe would allow for travel in more open water. William Gunn, Lawrie’s predecessor who was based on Futuna, also commented on this element in his book The Gospel in Futuna (London, 1914):

“The sides are raised by a row of planks, sewn by sinnet, the holes being plugged with coconut fibre…These Futunese canoes, now used when catching flying fish, were their ‘ships’ in early days, for going to other islands. Then two rows of planks raised the height of the canoe and kept out the sea. The baler is a wooden scoop with the handle raised. The natives never go to sea without a bailer, as their canoes always leak, more or less.” P198

This contrasted with those made on Aneityum which Gunn stated were not built with wash strakes and were intended only for calmer waters. The Futuna model comes with miniature paddles and a baler. The model baler can be seen in 1st photo of this blog post. Gunn also mentions that the carved ornament on the stern is “supposed to resemble the tail of a fowl” (this can be seen on both the model, and in the photograph above).

It would appear that the Futuna model was made using the same techniques as described by Lawrie and Gunn. The washstrakes are sewn to the hull using coconut fibre cordage, with cane strips. There appears to be coconut fibre pushed into the joins, the spaces between the washstrake and the hull, a method of making craft watertight known as caulking.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.


The model appears to be a miniature version of the canoe both in form but also in construction. Although valuable as a record of larger objects, this focus often leads to other interesting aspects of models to be overlooked. A question that springs to mind is ‘why would a model need caulking?’ A master teaching an apprentice, or just a matter of authenticity?

Forming a part of most ethnographic museum in the UK, model boats are commonly displayed and interpreted simply as ‘boats’ rather than being discussed as models. Although they are definitely valuable as historical record of vessel types (which often are no longer made) their status as ‘model’ is rarely discussed. Early trade in these models between islanders and Europeans showed a mutual interest in watercraft and seafaring. Perfect as souvenirs these models were easily brought home as curios and so are widely represented. I feel the appeal and interest in the models from a European perspective is clear, but what needs further research is the history and process of model making from the Pacific islanders perspective. What role (if any) do models and model making have in local culture and craft? Were they made before European arrival and played some part in passing on knowledge about construction and craft, or are they simply a souvenir used to trade with Europeans? The fact that this model is constructed in the same way as the full sized version does suggest that time and care were taken to make them.

What we do know is that the models form part of Lawrie’s record of New Hebridean culture and allow us, without travelling to Vanuatu, to closely study many of these structures which would otherwise have been impossible.

An Island Adventure

Sign in Gaelic welcoming visitors to Great Cumbrae

Sign in Gaelic welcoming visitors to Great Cumbrae


We recently visited The Museum of the Cumbraes in the Garrison building in Millport on the island of Great Cumbrae to see their collection from Papua New Guinea. For the project team this was the first time we had visited an island. Sadly we weren’t going as far as the Pacific but we were pleased to find palm trees (technically New Zealand cabbage or ti kouka – EH) in the garden outside the museum…
Museum of the Cumbraes in Millport, Great Cumbrae

Museum of the Cumbraes in Millport, Great Cumbrae


On the ferry from Largs to the island of Great Cumbrae (L-R: Chantal Knowles, Eve Haddow)

On the ferry from Largs to the island of Great Cumbrae (L-R: Chantal Knowles, Eve Haddow)


We visited the museum specifically to look at the collection made by Andrew Goldie. A Millport man, he followed his father into the trade as a nurseryman and in the 1860s left Millport town, on the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast to spend ten years in Auckland, New Zealand importing plants for the gardens of New Zealand settlers. At the end of the ten years he returned home but soon gained a contract with a garden nursery business in London to travel through the South Pacific and supply the firm with bulbs, plants and seeds. Although a knowledgeable gardener, giving him some expertise in Natural History, Goldie was a Victorian ‘plant hunter’ seeking exotic species for the fashionable gardens of Britain.

In 1877 Goldie travelled to Brisbane where he expected to catch a mission vessel to Vanuatu to begin his search for plants, unfortunately he arrived too late to board and on the toss of a coin changed his plans and headed for New Guinea. Goldie spent the next few years exploring, trading and developing businesses. He acquired land, discovered new species of plants and birds, and named the Goldie River after himself. Over the years he became very much a part of New Guinea life and an important contact for missionaries, museums and colonial officials. He set up a trade store and acquired a sizeable piece of land in the capital Port Moresby and became a well-known figure in New Guinea and Brisbane.

Over the years Goldie’s business grew, he invested in various companies and built relationships with museums supplying Natural History specimens to the Australian Museum, Sydney and later Queensland Museum, Brisbane among others. He also supplied dealers and taxidermists worldwide. On our return to National Museums Scotland we were able to discover through our records that one such dealer E. Gerrard and Sons, London based taxidermists, supplied the museum with 103 items attributed to Goldie. How many other Goldie collections may there be?

These 4 lime spatulas from Papua New Guinea are some of a number of objects at National Museums Scotland we have discovered to have been collected by Andrew Goldie

These 4 lime spatulas from Papua New Guinea are some of a number of objects at National Museums Scotland we have discovered to have been collected by Andrew Goldie


The small but significant collection of Goldie material in the Museum of the Cumbraes has been published in the Queensland Museum reports (see http://www.network.qm.qld.gov.au/About+Us/Publications/Memoirs+of+the+Queensland+Museum/MQM-C+Vol+6#.UvqluPbn1VQ ) and can also be seen on-line (http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/people/key-people/collectors-explorers/andrew-goldie.aspx). It is supplemented with some associated archival material including Goldie’s journal documenting his first voyage to New Zealand, Goldie’s memoirs, the premature announcement of his death in the local paper, a few personal letters, and a photograph of his New Guinea display at the International Exhibition, Sydney. All this makes an interesting and valuable collection and highlights include the shield and hornbill ornament that are on permanent display. The collection didn’t arrive in the museum until the late 1970s having resided in the home of the Goldie family all those years. Whilst clearing the building prior to sale the Goldie family unearthed the objects and donated them to the museum.
There is a permanent display at the Museum in Millport of material from Papua New Guinea donated by Andrew Goldie

There is a permanent display at the Museum in Millport of material from Papua New Guinea donated by Andrew Goldie


At the time the museum curator was assured that nothing remained in the house, however, in the last few months a further collection of bamboo pipes and stone-headed clubs were brought in having been found in the attic. The pipes and clubs add breadth to the collection already in the museum and one of the pipes is decorated by, most likely, a European, depicts stylised ships, men in elaborate dress and fanciful creatures and animals. It is difficult to ascertain who the artist might be – a bored sailor or Goldie himself?
Close up of part of a tobacco pipe which has been in the attic above the old Goldie family home. It was discovered with several other pipes and stone headed clubs last year. We believe this pipe was decorated by a European, possibly a sailor?

Close up of part of a tobacco pipe which has been in the attic above the old Goldie family home. It was discovered with several other pipes and stone headed clubs last year. We believe this pipe was decorated by a European, possibly a sailor?


There are probably other artefacts in Millport and there were certainly a greater number in the past. On our visit Museum Officer Mark Strachan introduced us to Sandy, one of the museum’s volunteers. A retired television and radio shop owner, Sandy remembered fitting the Goldie’s TV aerial in their attic and removing boomerangs and spears to take up on the hills to try out. Sandy also remembered ‘a catamaran’ boat model – most likely a model outrigger canoe – which may yet turn up. So the collection in Millport is Goldie’s mementoes, those souvenirs he brought home with him to Scotland not long before his death. The objects with which he could describe the places, people and things he had seen to his family and friends.
 Mark Strachan, Museum Officer for North Ayrshire Council. Mark is responsible for the Goldie collection and hosted our visit to the museum in Millport

Mark Strachan, Museum Officer for North Ayrshire Council. Mark is responsible for the Goldie collection and hosted our visit to the museum in Millport


Goldie and his collections are well documented but just like the NMS collection we are sure there are more items to discover. For the project it is interesting to connect Goldie’s collections with Custom Officer Ballantyne’s collection in Greenock and Governor McGregor’s collection in Aberdeen giving a sense of Scottish – New Guinea collections and the interactions and interrelations between traders, missionaries and government officers in the early years of the colony.
– Chantal

Flying squid and island encounters in the 1830s

At Perth Museum and Art Gallery there is a journal written by Dr John Lyell, a ship’s surgeon from Newburgh in Fife, in which he documents his journey on board the whaling ship Ranger. He writes over two volumes during the period from 1829-33. In addition to in-depth descriptions of the places, the people and the creatures he encounters, Lyell includes some fine colour illustrations.

Turning the pages of the two volumes, I felt privileged to be able to read the words written by a man almost 200 years ago as he voyaged around the world. I was surprised to read about one of the animals he encountered in the waters around Japan – a flying squid. On 12th 1831, Lyell writes:
“…a shoal of flying squid rose from the sea and crossed our track as the ship passed. Many dashed against the side and were killed, about a dozen alighted on the decks, and a few flew over the ship altogether and escaped into the sea on the opposite side. A flight of these animals presents a very irregular spectacle; as they rise from the sea they eject a shower of ink in the face of their pursuers and in a body proceed to the distance of 30, 40, or 50 yards; on the wing the arms surrounding their mouth are spread out and assume the form of their triangular tail. I am almost certain the tail is anterior in flight but nevertheless their outline thus [line diagram of shape quid makes overhead] is so dissimilar to that of Volant animals in the air that is cannot be viewed for the first or second time without great astonishment. Nor is ones wonder at all diminished if one of these curious beings should happen to fall at his feet while he walks the decks. Had it not been evident to his own senses, he scarcely could have been convinced that an animal so constructed had ought in common with the birds.”

I shared the details with colleagues at the museum over lunch and we speculated whether this creature was really a squid and, if so, whether it still existed. Reading further, I found a coloured illustration of the flying squid and it did indeed look distinctively squid-like.

Flying squid drawn by Dr John Lyell, 1831

Flying squid drawn by Dr John Lyell, 1831


A quick look online by Mark Simmons at the museum returned a number of articles about the creature. It was only officially recorded as a species in the 1880s, 50 years after Lyell’s account, and it was only through research in 2011 that scientists were able to show this squid really does propel itself through the air (see K. Muramatsu et al., ‘Oceanic Squid do fly’, Marine Biology May 2013, 160, (5) pp 1171-1175). We wondered then if Lyell’s above description and illustrations provide one of the earliest written English language accounts of this animal?

In his journal, Dr Lyell often writes of difficult and even harrowing encounters on his journey. In a sombre account Dr Lyell writes of meeting a crew on another ship in June 24th 1831 who had recently visited an island near the Solomon archipelago. While there, they had friendly interaction with inhabitants of the island, trading for local produce and allowing many of them on board the ship. However, one day when most of the crew were on shore and a large number of islanders on the ship, two of them seized the captain. A struggle ensued which culminated in two dogs being allowed on deck to attack the islanders, who themselves had not brought on board any weapons. The crew took possession of the ship again without the loss of life. However revenge was instantly sought and the crew chased the islanders back to shore in boats “armed with whale lances and such ghastly weapons”. What happened next is described by Lyell as a “merciless attack” and he describes in detail the horrific actions inflicted on unarmed people. Dr Lyall writes with disgust for several pages, questioning how “Englishmen that pride themselves in philanthropy, and Christians that have been enlightened by the gospel” can act in such a manner. He gives two other accounts of such attacks by British crews, one on Nauru Island and the other at New Zealand. Although his language is steeped in his own prejudices commonly held by Europeans at the time, Dr Lyell’s opinions are clear. He asks not to hear anymore of cruelty by inhabitants in the Pacific Ocean,
“…when their bloodiest deeds are unparalleled by those of a people that boast the blessings of civilized life, and would feel themselves infinitely degraded to be placed on a footing [with such people]”

Dr Lyell’s journals are on permanent display in Perth Museum and Art Gallery next to their Tahitian mourners costume.

– Eve