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Joseph Banks’ patu come home - in aluminium

An exhibition by Rarotonga-based artist Sam Thomas uses patu to explore questions of cultural exchange. Pat Baskett reviews 'Pakeha Gifts'. 

Cultural exchange has always been a loaded concept, especially historically. Were the terms equal? Was there reciprocal understanding between the parties? How does the exchange operate today?

Forty aluminium patu displayed on a jade-green wall in Auckland’s Bowerbank Ninow Gallery are the way Rarotonga-based artist Sam Thomas explores these questions. The exhibition is titled Pākehā Gifts and consists of two works - Pacific Aluminium (the patu) and Plantain Chandelier, made of glass plantain bananas.

Thomas’ starting point for the patu was an exhibition he saw several years ago called Pacific Encounters, which featured Polynesian artefacts collected by European travellers in the years 1760-1860. Amongst the objects he recognised a patu but instead of stone it was made of brass. In the exhibition’s catalogue he read its history.

Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook’s first voyage in 1769, took home several patu onewa – stone patu – he had been gifted by chiefs. He took two of these to a brass foundry and commissioned 40 to be cast from the foundry’s owner, Mrs Eleanor Gyles. They were engraved with Banks’s family crest and motto and the year they were made, 1772.

Their uses as part-knife, part-baton made the metal versions valuable gifts, which Banks had planned to distribute when he accompanied Cook on his next voyage. But Banks didn’t go on the second voyage because Cook refused his unreasonable demands for extra accommodation to be added to the ship for his entourage.

The whereabouts of only six of the 40 are known – four are in museums in England and two are in the US.

Mrs Gyles’s foundry, at 9 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, made a two-part mould from sand and clay which would have been destroyed in the casting process. In Rarotonga, Sam Thomas made a wooden template in the workshop of Michael Tavioni, using dimensions of the original and then a mould of sand from a beach on the island’s west coast.

He copied Banks’s practical addition of a hole for a lanyard.

Thomas says he would have liked to make his versions in brass. Instead he looked at the material that was almost ubiquitous in the environment – aluminium, in the form of empty drink cans. These are routinely collected in Rarotonga by a private recycling company, compressed into bales and sent to New Zealand for recycling.

The company gave him the equivalent of 2500 cans, which he melted using a small wood-fired foundry of his own design. Recycling and sustainability have been key motivations for much of his work. In this case he has recycled not only the material but also – appropriately given this year’s 250th Cook anniversary – the history of the gift Banks received.

That unfulfilled debt seemed to Thomas emblematic of colonial relationships – gifts given strategically with the aim of reciprocity and cementing relationships but received as mere expressions of welcome and enjoyed as exotic artefacts.

Sam Thomas' exhibition Pākehā Gifts on display at the Bowerbank Ninow Gallery. Photo: Supplied/Bowerbank Ninow Gallery 

In Pacific Aluminium, Thomas updates this relationship because he considers the work expresses the imbalance between societies’ perceived material needs and the power of corporations who profit by the production. His research traced the aluminium as likely originating in the smelter at Tiwai Point, Bluff.

More research enlightened him about the smelter’s history and he was, he says, “shocked”.

It began operation in 1971 two years after the construction of the underground power station at Lake Manapouri, which was built specifically to supply the smelter and for which the level of the lake had to be raised. The level was originally planned to be higher than it is now but 50 years ago a campaign succeeded in limiting the level.

The Save Manapouri petition had the largest number of signatories for its time and remains a milestone in the history of successful environmental actions.

Nevertheless, says Thomas, we sacrificed a beautiful lake and allowed exploitation by outside influences – which he believes continues today in the low price the smelter pays for its electricity.

“I want to draw people’s attention to Tiwai Point and the unequal nature of the exchange involved in its existence,” he says.

The smelter uses 13 percent of the country’s total electricity and produces the world’s purest aluminium. Despite the renewable nature of the electricity used, the process emits almost four tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of aluminium. And Rio Tinto, the mining multinational that owns the smelter, gets free carbon credits from our government under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Thomas is not alone in questioning the benefits to the country of the favourable rates Meridian contracted to charge. Now that Rio Tinto has announced a strategic review of its operations which could see it closed, is this the price the country should pay for the continuance of 1000 jobs in Southland?

Thomas doesn’t think so. Tiwai Point serves as a reminder, he says, of environmental exploitation, outsized energy demands and the consumerism on which our economic system depends. He’s confident other creative ways of providing employment using electricity locally will be found and, at the same time, help us meet our emissions reductions commitments.

Pākehā Gifts continues at Bowerbank Ninow gallery until December 20. Ideally, Thomas would like to see Pacific Aluminium remain as a whole but he accepts that the patu may have a fate mirroring that of Banks’s 40 and be dispersed amongst individual owners.

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Several of Banks’s brass patu were dispatched on Cook’s third voyage (1776-1780), writes Ian Smith in his recently published Pakeha Settlements in a Maori World: New Zealand Archaeology 1769-1860. They were in the care of Charles Clerke, commander of HMS Discovery. He left some in British Columbia and at least one in New Zealand, when the ship stopped in Queen Charlotte Sound.

“There have been three reported sightings in New Zealand, although two of these could be of the same specimen,” Smith writes. “One was in Cloudy Bay, not far from Queen Charlotte Sound, where in 1835 whaler James Heberley found a ‘mere….one of the three that Captain Cook brought out from England….which had a ships name on it and a date…partly worn out.’

“An earlier sighting was made in 1801, by two members of the London Missionary Society. They encountered an elderly man near the mouth of the Waihou River in the Firth of Thames, who ‘had a Brass weapon with the name of Joseph Banks Esqr engraved on it.’

“This may be the same patu observed by Bay of Islands missionary Thomas Kendall in 1815 or 1816. Kendall wrote to Banks, telling him that he had been ‘visited by some natives from the River Thames, one of them produced a brass maaree, or war club, bearing “Joseph Banks, Esqr”…. The possessor would not consent to part with it for any consideration whatsoever.”

“How this, (or these) patu got from Queen Charlotte Sound to the northern half of the North Island is not known. Nor is the current whereabouts of any of the patu that were brought to New Zealand; there have been no confirmed sightings since the nineteenth century.”

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