In Adrienne L. Kaeppler’s 2011 study of the distribution of the collections from the sale of the Leverian Museum in 1806, she traced the later history of a three-legged Fijian oil dish, or sedre ni waiwai, right up to its sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet in London in 1978, but was obliged to record “present location unknown”.1 Students of the collections traceable to Cook’s voyage, as well as students of Pacific art in general and of Fijian art in particular, will thus be grateful to William Gurstelle for the information he provided in his recent article about “Captain Cook’s Oil Dish”.2 It is good to know that soon after the sale in 1978 the dish became part of the collections of the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University in the city of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. We can now look forward to it featuring in specialist publications and exhibitions in the future.
As Gurstelle rightly reports, the presence of the sedre ni waiwai in the collections of the Leverian Museum means that it was almost certainly acquired on Cook’s Second or Third Voyage, though not in Fiji, with which there was very little contact, but in Tonga. As Steven Hooper explains in the publication that accompanied the exhibition Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific,3 there is no record of Cook or any of his co-Voyagers meeting any of the Fijians who were resident in Tonga, or any Fijians visiting Tonga, during the visit of Resolution and Adventure in October 1773, or during the visit of Resolution alone in June 1774. However, during the visit of Resolution and Discovery to the Tongan archipelago in April through to July 1777, the Voyagers became much more aware of the presence of Fijians in Tonga and of the complex nature of the relationships between the peoples of the two archipelagos.
The sedre ni waiwai may have been acquired from a Tongan on the Second or Third Voyage or from a Fijian in Tonga on the Third Voyage. In either case, however, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that it was collected by Cook himself. Ashton Lever is known to have acquired objects from Cook after the Second Voyage and, via Cook’s widow, after the Third; but the sedre ni waiwai could equally well have been collected by another Voyager, and later acquired (directly or indirectly) by Lever. Moreover, even if evidence were to be found to the effect that Cook had been given or otherwise acquired such a dish in Tonga, it would not be possible without further evidence to determine which of at least four similar dishes known to have been in the Leverian Museum had once been in Cook’s possession.4
As is well known to readers of Cook’s Log, the study of the collections traceable to Cook’s voyages has been bedevilled by unwarranted claims and misattributions. Thanks to the painstaking work of Kaeppler and others, we now know far more about the Cook-voyage collections that survive in museums and private collections around the world; though there is still plenty to do, of course. Scholarly knowledge of precisely what was acquired where and when and by whom and, most importantly, how continues to be sketchy. Advances have been made, but continued progress depends upon further painstaking research, and upon not being tempted to make a drama out of a hypothesis. It is understandably tempting to assume that an object traceable to Cook’s voyage was collected by Cook himself. However, dozens of his co-Voyagers are known to have brought back “curiosities”, and there are thus many people besides Cook who could have brought back the sedre ni waiwai now in North Carolina. Claiming, without any particular evidence, that Cook himself collected this or that object is unhelpful, as is referring to particular objects traceable to the voyages as “his”.
At the time of writing, the relevant entry on the online collections database of the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University states that the sedre ni waiwai (catalogue number 1978.E.87) was “collected by Captain Cook on one of his three voyages”.5 I look forward to seeing this being updated to something along the lines of “collected in Tonga during Captain Cook’s Second or Third Voyage to the Pacific”.
- Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum. An Eighteenth-Century English Institution of Science, Curiosity, and Art. ZKF Publishers. 2011. Pages 173–74 (no. 961).
- Gurstelle, William. “Captain Cook’s Oil Dish – Dramatic Provenance” in Cook’s Log. 2021. Vol. 44, no. 2. Pages 4–8.
- Hooper, Steven. Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific. Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, University of East Anglia. 2016. Pages 44–45.
- Kaeppler. op. cit.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 54, volume 44, number 3 (2021).