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Tapu and Divinity and their Depiction


Adrienne Kaeppler and Cliff Thornton

Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, gave a talk on “Tapu and Divinity and their Depiction” on Sunday, 23rd October, 2016, at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Grape Lane, Whitby.1 It had been prepared for a symposium of art historians held recently at Beijing. She had been asked to talk there about the origin of the word Tabu.

I took a few notes, and give them here. The talk was fuller and much more interesting than the impression given by my notes.

Adrienne began by saying that some years ago she spent some time in Tonga whilst working on her PhD on Tongan Dance. She was surprised to find there were no objects there from the 18th century, and decided to go to Europe, find some, and send photos back to Tonga. She went to many museums and asked what ethnographic items they had from Cook’s Second Voyage. No one knew, so she had to research their collections herself.

She found that records of acquisitions in the 18th century gave the names of the donors, but rarely descriptions of the donations. She also found many objects catalogued as being from Otaheite were a mix of items from Tahiti, Tonga, Hawai`i and elsewhere. This work led to her curating the 1978 exhibition “Artificial Curiosities” in Hawai`i, and writing the accompanying book.2

Adrienne told us that Mana is the word representing power and sanctity of a high-ranking individual, and Tabu represents the restrictions and prohibitions to prevent the dangers around Mana. Tabu can be applied to a person, place or object. To illustrate the point, Adrienne showed us the drawing by Tupaia of the Tahitian mourner. The drawing was brought to London by Joseph Banks in Endeavour. She explained that the drawing seemed to show the elements important to Tupaia, and wondered whether all of his other drawings also showed what he considered to be the important elements.

The accounts of Cook’s First Voyage have no references to Tabu, but those of the Second Voyage show the concept was understood. The men also recognised that the same concept was depicted by different words in different places, e.g. in Tonga the word Tabu is used, whereas in Tahiti the word is Ra`a.

In Hawai`i, Adrienne told us, as cloaks were made prayers would be said, and become integrated into the cloaks. As tabu restricted who could wear other people’s cloaks, chiefs would inherit cloaks that they couldn’t wear. She wondered if that is why cloaks were given to Cook and other voyagers, as the Europeans wouldn’t have been affected by the tabu.

Two sessions of the talk had to be held due to high demand. My congratulations to Sophie Forgan for the superb facilities in the new room where the talk was held.

Captain Cook Memorial Museum

Ian Boreham

1. Cook’s Log, page 2, vol. 39, no. 4 (2016).
2. Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Artificial Curiosities: Being an exposition of native manufactures collected on the three Pacific voyages of Captain Cook, R.N.. Bishop Museum Press. 1978.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 35, volume 40, number 1 (2017).


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