“Suitable for Decoration of Halls and Billiard Rooms”: Finding Indigenous Agency in Historic Auction and Sale Catalogues
At first glance, auction and sale catalogues of ethnographic artefacts dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appear to record merely the desires of colonial collectors. Our detailed study of changes in proveniences, types and prices shows how an archaeological approach to assemblages coupled with appropriate analytical strategies can uncover changing patterns of negotiation between indigenous makers and western consumers. We begin with a broad regional comparison of cross-cultural interaction as witnessed in the catalogues and then turn to a finer scale case study based on catalogue entries relating to the colony of British New Guinea, commonly called Papua. These analyses provide insights into how indigenous artefact producers and traders in the Pacific region made creative responses to market opportunities.
Catalogues of Curios
At first glance the catalogues might seem to be solely the product of a commodity-based market driven by the collecting desires of western society. While these were certainly important stimuli, we argue that they also provide a record of how indigenous artefact makers and traders actively participated in the material transactions that were an integral part of colonial society. These illustrated lists of objects provide tantalising insights about the indigenous artefact producers who were otherwise the silent partners in the documents and records of colonial relationships. Viewed in this way, the catalogues may also provide an as yet untapped source of information about the nature of the interactions between indigenous groups and westerners, what Adams (2009: 17) has termed ‘the other side of the collecting encounter’. Based around a case study of auction and sale catalogues, our paper offers preliminary ideas about how an archaeological approach can begin to overcome the seemingly intractable problem of extracting indigenous agency from the material histories of colonialism.
Collections, Catalogues and Colonialism
… colonial New Guinea was not made up of two separate societies, New Guineans and colonials in collision and confrontation, but rather came to be a single social and cultural field of mutual influence, in which all people, black and white, were linked through the movement of goods and the definition of roles, statuses and forms of moralities’ (Gosden and Knowles 2001: xix).
In this view of colonialism, the agency of artefact producers is a key ingredient in the complex cross-cultural engagements and the resultant material outcomes such as museum or private collections or, indeed, the auction and sales catalogues themselves. At the simplest level, engagement and exchange centred around material culture created a set of relationships between makers, receivers and the objects. However, if we focus only on a single element, for example one or more collectors to the exclusion of the others, then not only do we risk losing sight of how all three are intimately entwined but the process of how colonial culture was produced and reproduced through these exchanges also becomes obscured. It is therefore somewhat ironic that within much contemporary museology ethnographic collections have provided richer information about the collecting society, than about the people who made and offered them for trade (e.g. Cochrane and Quanchi 2007; Peterson et al. 2008).
In contrast, recent studies of the cross-cultural relationships that arose from the events and processes of colonialism now encompass, almost as a given, the recognition that indigenous people were rarely passive actors in the myriad of exchanges and encounters that occurred across the globe, including those that involved objects (e.g. Thomas 1991; Torrence and Clarke 2000; Gosden and Knowles 2001: xix; Adams 2009). For example, a rare insight is provided by an observer on the 1870s Challenger expedition, who made the wry comment that people from the island of Manus, ‘soon took to making trade goods, shell hatchets and models of canoes, e.g., which were as badly made as the trade gear which we gave in exchange’ (Moseley 1892: 390). Recent attempts have initiated the reinterpretation of museum collections as the product of complex interactions between coloniser and colonised (e.g. Thomas 1991, 1994; Schildkrout and Keim 1998; Phillips and Steiner 1999; Gosden and Knowles 2001; O’Hanlon and Welsch 2000; Harrison 2006; Adams 2009), but these studies have shown that detecting the concrete effects of indigenous agency is surprisingly problematic.
Despite the wide recognition that indigenous agency existed, Thomas (2000: 274) has noted that ‘it is striking just how difficult it is to recover and characterise indigenous agency in any specificity, from the historical record’. One obvious problem is that the documentation associated with objects, whether museum registration entries or catalogue descriptions, rarely provides information about the motivations and choices of collectors and vendors, let alone those of the indigenous producers and traders of the objects. It is possible to trace the movement of objects through the colonies to a certain degree, for example, through diary entries of early missionaries, traders, explorers and the official British colonial records, but again this evidence usually only provides tentative clues about the active roles of indigenous participants.
Since conventional archival approaches to the analysis of collections are limited in the extent to which they will be able to disentangle and draw out the material signature of indigenous agency, additional conceptual frameworks and methodologies should be sought. One way of moving beyond the methodological impasse is to re-interpret ethnographic objects, whether as stored in museum collections or as presented in sale and auction catalogues, as the tangible, material manifestations of how indigenous producers negotiated their social relationships in colonial contexts. If historical records and ethnographic accounts have proved somewhat opaque in terms of unpicking the complex social relations and interactions mediated through the collection of objects, could analytical approaches adopted from archaeology provide a different perspective on the role of indigenous agency in these exchanges? It could be argued that previous attempts to uncover agency from the study of objects have been sidetracked from the more mundane characteristics of materiality by the rich texture and fine-grained nuances offered by documentary evidence and oral testimony.
To readdress this balance, we have returned to an object-centred, assemblage-based approach common to archaeological research. Assemblages in this type of analysis consist of artefacts where the relationships between them are regarded as the consequence of deliberate human action. We begin with the assumption that auction and sale catalogues can be treated as a form of ethnographic assemblage. In this sense they have been formed in a similar way to collections held in museums. Given this similarity, auction and sale catalogues provide an additional set of data with which to examine indigenous agency.
There is a close relationship between the objects offered for sale in the auction catalogues and the ethnographic collections of colonial period museums which acquired many objects from them. For example, handwritten notes in the margins of the British Museum’s copies of some Stevens catalogues indicate which objects were of interest to the Museum and what prices were paid for them. The British Museum purchased a number of items from the Goodwin collection advertised in Stevens Sale (No. 6930) on 23 June 1885 (Hassell, personal communication). In addition, the objects displayed in the catalogues, brought together by the activities of collectors and traders, contain objects organised and classified in a manner similar to formal museum collections. Objects tend to be grouped in the first instance by geography, for example as originating from Asia, British New Guinea or Oceania, then according to types, such as paddles, masks or axes and, occasionally, by event or collector, as, for example A Catalogue of the Well-Known Ethnographical Collection Formed by Mr Frank Hyams, During His Sojourn in the South Seas, which include the Fine Old Collection Originally Formed by Mr W. T. Sturt, of Suva, Fiji (Stevens 1907).
One of the potential difficulties in extracting the role of indigenous producers from ethnographic collections is the problem of moving between different scales of evidence; that is between individual events and resulting process. Object-centred analyses have tended to focus on artefact biographies, distinctive artefacts or specific artefact types; for example clubs (Thomas 1991), man-catchers (O’Hanlon 1999) and masks (Adams 2009). This, together with the particular and localised nature of much historical and ethnographic evidence has tended to strand object analysis at the level of the event. The archaeological approach offered by this study has focused on assemblages as well as specific classes of objects and therefore allows us to draw out some of the broad processes of cross-cultural interaction between indigenous artefact producers and the many collectors and traders who operated in European colonies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Ethnographic or tribal art did not become a major sale item until the late nineteenth century, although many of today’s famous auction houses had begun trading in the eighteenth century. Cheaper printing based on the invention of lithography in Germany (King 2006a: 14), the use of photography as a medium of visual representation and the development of a reliable international mail system were arguably all elements in the rapid transformation of the international market in ethnographic objects. The Australian Museum in Sydney, for example, received a catalogue from either Webster or Oldman every couple of months, with only a month or two between publication in Britain and accessioning by the Museum as evidenced by date stamps on the catalogue covers (Fig. 2.1).
The addition of ethnographic artefacts, including a wide range of much cheaper but still exotic items, considerably expanded the previous antiquities-dominated markets beyond relatively expensive elite objects: for example, arrows, clay pots and some body adornments. It is arguable that the cheap prices of only a few pence for many artefacts made them available for purchase by people other than the wealthy upper classes who had been the major consumers of antiquities. This broadening of the potential pool of consumers is most likely due to a number of factors including the expansion of the middle class in the colonies (e.g. administrators, clerks, plantation managers, trade store owners, missionaries and policemen), the beginnings of the international tourism industry and the public displays of ethnographica in the international exhibition halls of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, King (2006b: 57) suggests that the British artefact dealer W.D. Webster, participated in international exhibitions at Earls Court, to take advantage of the great public interest in ethnographic objects.
The number of auction catalogues and objects in catalogues included in the study
The final component of the sample is a series of auction catalogues from the collector W.O. Oldman, produced between 1901 and 1913, much in the style of W.D Webster. According to the useful history in Waterfield (2006), Oldman continued dealing in artefacts after 1913, but sent out artefact lists with photographs attached only to contacts made from the period of catalogue production. Oldman built up his own private collection of Polynesian artefacts as an insurance policy for his retirement in 1927 and created a private museum in his house in Clapham, London (Waterfield 2006). In 1948 his private collection was bought by the Government of New Zealand and then distributed amongst a number of regional museums.
Our study used the complete set of W.D. Webster catalogues held in the library of the Australian Museum together with a large number of early W.O. Oldman catalogues. We were able to complete the set of Oldman catalogues by consulting the facsimile edition (Oldman 1976). Our sample of Stevens catalogues is held in the Anthropology Library of the British Museum. Since this set was incomplete, we were unable to ascertain how representative it is, although we suspect it is biased towards those retained by curators because they advertise large collections of ethnographic material. Despite these limitations, the J.C. Stevens catalogues are especially important for extending the time range of our dataset beyond World War 1 and providing valuable information about broad scale changes in the artefact market.
Not surprisingly, western values and desires are well expressed in the catalogues, particularly in the high demand for weapons, antiquities and elaborate carvings, but, as we argue below, these same patterns also record a range of cross-cultural interactions that occurred during their initial acquisitions. Some catalogues record the impact of a particular historical event: for example, Webster’s catalogue no. 24 from 1900 in which the contents are labelled as, ‘Taken at Benin City February 1897 by the British Punitive Expedition under the Command of Admiral Rawson’ (cf. Fig. 2.2). In this example, the catalogues record the beginning of the market for West African bronzes, which was an important event for kicking off the Primitive arts movement.
‘Suitable for the decoration of halls and billiard rooms’ (Fig. 2.4) does appear to be an important element of the attractiveness of objects as reflected by the large numbers and high prices for many forms of weaponry and armour, including guns, swords and pieces of armour from Europe and Asia and the many clubs, spears and shields from all around the world. Certain raw materials such as dark wood and green stone (e.g. jade) were highly prized and priced accordingly. Items like shrunken heads, decorated skulls and a Tibetan apron made from human bones all have the desirable qualities of the rare curio and fetish object, which have been well documented as attractors for private collectors (Pearce 1995). Highly decorated, that is, attractive objects, especially where both the function of the object and the decoration are comprehensible to western collectors may indicate the pull of western tastes in the market. The fledgling western aesthetic for Asian, Oceanic and African objects as art forms can also be detected in the types and forms of artefacts for sale and the associated prices.
The range and types of artefacts for sale also reflect late nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes to other races and ethnicities. Many of the so-called primitive artefacts, such as stone axes, wooden clubs, shields and body ornaments and so on, together with the gruesome decorated human skulls would have re-enforced prevailing racial stereotypes and notions of the primitive and provided the material proof to confirm the theories of cultural evolution current at the time (Stocking 1968; Trigger 1989).
It is also worth considering briefly what the catalogues reflect in terms of gender roles and the organisation of public and private spaces in Victorian and Edwardian houses. The differences in prices between domestic objects and weaponry are most likely related to who had control of family income. There is a predominance of higher-priced objects deemed suitable for the decoration of masculine spaces such as halls, billiard rooms, smoking rooms, libraries and studies (Fig. 2.4). In contrast, the more domestic objects such as body ornaments, combs, cooking pots and baskets suitable for the decoration of drawing rooms, sewing rooms and other feminine spaces fetch much lower prices and are for sale in much lower numbers.
Negotiating the Marketplace
Although the structure and content of the auction catalogues certainly paint interesting pictures about contemporary society and ideology in Britain, the types of items for sale and their prices also reveal important aspects of social relations played out at distance in the colonies. For example, a comparative analysis of prices across the globe reveals variation in how local social interactions were formed in different settings. An analysis of assemblage composition in terms of what objects are represented and what objects are missing is another powerful way to monitor some of the choices made by local communities concerning when and how to interact with the myriad of westerners they encountered. The catalogues also offer ways to trace the beginnings and development of commercial production in terms of Graburn’s (1976: 5) ‘arts of acculturation’. These include objects aimed at the high-end ‘primitive art’ market as well as those for wider distribution as souvenirs. To illustrate these points, we present several case studies using the Webster, Oldman and Stevens catalogues. They highlight the productive ways that these fascinating historical documents can yield data about the previously silent indigenous makers and owners of the artefacts that ended up in museums or private collections. We begin by examining the broad social context of exchange and then turn to localised examples of indigenous agency.
The catalogues contain quite substantial amounts of hard data that can be gleaned from the text and the photos or drawings (e.g. Fig. 2.3). These include the source country or region for the item, its type (mask, axe, etc.), function (ceremony, body adornment, weapon, etc.), size, raw materials, nature and amount of decoration, and, very importantly, the asking price. For this study we characterised every catalogue in terms of the number of items represented for each continent and noted the highest and lowest priced item. Then we made a more detailed study of the individual entries from the region consisting of the modern day Papua New Guinea provinces of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro and Milne Bay. To keep our sample to a manageable size, however, we omitted cases that were stated as from the island groups in Milne Bay. These regions are mainly referred in the catalogues as British New Guinea or New Guinea, but we refer to them here by their other commonly used name, ‘Papua’.
The Global Market
Our study begins with an analysis of variability at the level of continents. A breakdown of the total objects into regions of origin shows most objects for sale came from Europe (34%) and Asia (28%) followed by Oceania (16%), Africa (14%) and many fewer from the Americas (7%). The relative number of items from Oceania is very high given the very small portion of the globe made up by the Pacific islands. Within this group, Melanesia is the most popular, representing 10% of total objects in the catalogues, but this is not surprising given that our time slice represents the early days of these colonies. In contrast, the smaller amount from Polynesia (3%) is both due to the size of the islands in comparison to other areas and the longer history of contact, beginning with the Cook voyages in the late eighteenth century. It is an interesting exercise to use the catalogue data to compare the processes of interaction that were taking place in Polynesia and Melanesia at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Summary of the ten most expensive artefacts within the group of objects that represent the maximum priced item per catalogue (price in British pounds and shillings)
Carved elephant tusk
Collection of Siamese instruments
Carved elephant tusk
Paddle or club
£52 10 s
Apron of human bones
£46 10 s
War canoe prow
£42 10 s
Gateway to a Maori pa
Summary of the ten least expensive objects within the group of minimum priced items per catalogue (d is British pence)
Arrow or gourd
Costa Rica and South Africa
South America and Africa
South American bottle or African rattle
Social factors account for this particularly striking comparison between Pacific neighbours, Polynesia and Melanesia. In the highly stratified societies of Polynesia, many interactions with foreigners were likely to have been brokered by high-ranking individuals, some of whom where just as interested in exotic objects as the British collectors (Newell 2006). The result was limited exchange, contexts leading to a small range of items that reached Europe for sale. The precious greenstone axes and elaborately carved wooden objects obtained from the elites were appropriate objects for creating and cementing social relations (e.g. Fig. 2.1). Social relations between low-status individuals must also have involved exchange, but with much less emphasis on durable objects and perhaps more on foodstuffs or services. Another possibility is that after over a 100 years of contact, the Polynesians, and especially the New Zealanders, had developed their artefact trade to focus on profits achieved from making and marketing elaborately carved status items.
In contrast, the combination of a sizeable quantity of artefacts for sale plus the highest percentage of minimum prices for objects per catalogue implies that the Melanesian traders who were supplying large numbers of cheap or low-prestige objects were accessing a quite different market demographic to that of their Polynesian counterparts. In the more egalitarian Melanesian societies, where the acquisition of status (partly derived through exchange with people outside the immediate clan group, including foreigners) was fiercely competitive, a much wider range of people participated in the production and exchange of goods with westerners. In their eagerness to establish social relations, they offered a very broad range of everyday objects for exchange. So, whereas the Polynesian social interaction sphere in which artefacts circulated was comprised of controlled interactions among elites and/or sale of high-priced objects, the Melanesian artefact trade more closely resembled a free market. Although in both contexts the nature of the goods offered for trade with westerners reflects indigenous agency, it was just the social contexts that differed.
The large quantity of artefacts from Papua offered for sale in the catalogues (Table 2.1) is the outcome of social transactions between the local community and the wide range of outsiders (traders, missionaries, explorers, government officials) whom they encountered. As we have seen, in comparison to Polynesia, the assemblage generated from these interactions implies informal, egalitarian transactions through bartering rather than formal gift giving. A more detailed analysis of individual entries in the catalogues helps enrich this picture of cross-cultural relations even further.
Although traders and missionaries had been permanently resident in the region for over 10 years, Britain formally annexed the southeastern part of New Guinea as a Protectorate in 1884, just a year before the first catalogue in our sample, and then repackaged it as a colony in 1888. Its rights over the area were transferred to the newly independent Australia, beginning in 1902 and formalised in 1906, when it was renamed the Territory of Papua (Legge 1972: 115). By far the majority of our data on individual objects from Papua and all our price information are derived from catalogues dated between 1895 and 1913, well after first contact and initial exploration by Europeans. This period, when most ethnographic objects were circulating in Britain, can be described as one of ‘settling in’ for the colonial and territorial governments. It was a time of considerable expansion for missionaries, traders and miners when the major concern of the colonisers was pacification to assist further exploration and exploitation of resources. The colony was not successful in economic terms, however, as illustrated by the imbalance between imports and exports in the official reports (Annual Report on British New Guinea 1886–1902; The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 1903–1936). Interestingly, in these documents, natural history specimens and ethnographic curiosities are listed among the colony’s exports, although their values were never as high as gold, copper, copra, sandalwood and beche-de-mêr. That goods specifically for trade with local Papuans, such as tobacco, cloth and beads, were regularly recorded as imports also emphasises the importance to the British and Australians of trade with the local community for acquiring necessary supplies of food as well as the highly desired natural resources for export.
Given that ethnographic items are listed as exports in the official records and our sample of catalogues encompasses the time of the massive expansion of ethnographic collections across the world, it is reasonable to question whether and in what ways Papuans capitalised on this expanding market. From case studies of the nearby Admiralty Islands (Torrence 2000), Wuvulu and New Ireland (Buschmann 2009) in Papua New Guinea, as well as Fiji (Thomas 1991), we know that some Melanesian communities did produce goods specifically for trade with foreigners. The lack of similar iconic items together with the abundance of the ordinary objects that dominate the catalogues suggests that Papuans had not developed their market in the same way, possibly because, located near the territorial capital and within the area where most outsiders resided and visited, they had frequent opportunities for bartering and therefore did not need to create special objects to attract commercial activity. Instead, it was the westerners who relied on trade with them to acquire necessary foodstuffs, resources, guides, house staff and local police.
In Papua, it seems that there were related driving forces behind the expansion in the artefact trade. There was a desire on the part of foreign traders to make a healthy profit from sales to collectors back home and this together with the rapid expansion of museums in both Europe and Australia led to the creation of the market for ethnographic objects. Nearly everyone in Papua, including the missionaries, was involved to some extent in the sale of ‘curiosities’. Not surprisingly, the artefact producers and hawkers were quick to seize opportunities to obtain desired trade goods through the exchange of their cultural heritage.
By far the most common items that reached the British auction houses from Papua were very ordinary objects used in daily life, rather than in special, spiritual or ceremonial occasions (Fig. 2.3). Weapons and tools for warfare, hunting and fishing (e.g. spears, clubs and axes) make up the largest proportion (35%), but those used as body accessories (26%) are almost as numerous. Admittedly, the category of body accessories represents a mixed bag of everyday and ritual profane items, but most are personal items worn daily (e.g. neck, arm, nose ornaments) and only 10% of these are specifically labelled as masks. Finally, artefacts used in domestic (12%) and leisure activities (10%), such as smoking tobacco and chewing betel nut, make up almost the remainder of the assemblage. Objects that can be classed as ‘art’ or ‘spiritual’ are very rare (7%). It is as if people were bartering just what they happened to have on hand or body when they encountered outsiders eager for trade. Although the majority of the items are associated with male activities, a significant amount of female body ornaments shows that women were active in the trading.
A good example of cross-cultural interaction involving western desires and indigenous agency is the trade in stone objects. Stone tools had long been collected by many British amateur naturalists, who were seeking evidence for the evolution of humans (Daniel 1975). These objects also satisfied the desire of a wider section of the community to possess something from a distant ‘primitive’ culture. Whether still in their wooden hafts or not, stone artefacts were offered for much higher than average prices in the catalogues (e.g. Fig. 2.3). The average price was 26 shillings (median 13 shillings 5 pence) compared to 17 shillings (median 12 shillings 6 pence) for the total Papuan sample. The exchange of stone objects provides an excellent case of how exchange works in cross-cultural situations since both seller and buyer must be satisfied with the outcome. The westerner obtained a valuable artefact and the Papuan received a substantial amount of cash for an object that was rapidly becoming obsolescent because it was much less effective than the new metal tools.
The catalogues also contain a number of items that were possibly designed by Papuans specifically to ‘dazzle’ or enchant (Gell 1998; Harrison 2006) potential buyers and therefore earn a profit through trade. The most infamous and well known are so-called man-catchers (Fig. 2.3). As analysed in detail by O’Hanlon (1999), man-catchers are flimsy objects whose capacity to restrain and kill a person is highly questionable. Their attraction to buyers was based on how well they fulfilled the British conceptions of ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’. Taking a man-catcher home proved beyond a doubt that the bearer had come into contact with people with a truly primitive culture. Even by the time of the first Webster catalogue, enough man-catchers had been made and successfully sold that they were well known and there was little need to illustrate them individually. Instead, the entries refer to a class of objects in the same way as there are entries for ‘spears’, ‘paddles’, ‘arrows’ and ‘clubs’ (e.g. Fig. 2.3), rather than providing individualised descriptions as is the case with the majority of objects. Man-catchers are most common in the early Webster catalogues where they were priced up to 17 shillings and 6 pence.
Another candidate for ‘dazzlers’ are what were generally described as ‘decapitating knives’. These are simple pieces of bamboo with a string wrapped around to form a handle. Again they were attractive to British consumers because of the link with cannibalism. Interestingly, decapitating knives are most common in the catalogues between 1903 and 1908, after the man-catchers appear to have gone out of fashion. These may have filled the same role as the man-catchers, but were a cheaper souvenir, although there are also two expensive versions in Oldman (1976) catalogues of 1903 and 1905 in which the decapitating knife is paired with a cane ‘head carrier’.
The absence of particular ‘special’ kinds of objects in the catalogues is as revealing as the dominance of utilitarian and domestic goods. The withholding of objects not only signals indigenous agency at work but also, more importantly, provides insights into how local communities viewed and interacted with westerners. One of the most striking findings of our study is that items used in traditional forms of exchange are extremely rare among the entries for Papua in our catalogue sample. Their absence is particularly notable because local exchange systems were very active and expanded greatly during the post-contact period of the 1880s through the 1920s due to pacification (Oram 1982: 23).
Within the catalogue entries, there are only five items specifically labelled as ‘local currency’. All of these are strings of shells commonly used for exchange in the Milne Bay area, which is given as the provenience for three of the entries. One was collected by Sir William MacGregor, the chief administrator of Papua (1888–1898) (Oldman 1976: Vol. 9, No. 129, item 46 (30840)). Given MacGregor’s high status, this item may have originally been a gift presented with the intention to create or cement social ties by incorporating him into the indigenous system of exchange and therefore setting up obligations between this important person and the giver. Interestingly, MacGregor took this item all the way back to England, where, perhaps, outside of its relevant social context, the string of seaweed and shell (on sale for only 6 shillings) held little long-term value for him.
Shell armbands were also central to systems of traditional exchange in many areas of Papua. In particular, one type called a toea was incorporated into a long-distance trading system extending between the Motu people in Central Province (near the provincial capital at Port Moresby) and their partners in the Gulf of Papua region (Oram 1982: 16–17). The bonds created through the exchange of shell armbands were likened to kinship ties and were often maintained between families over several generations. The giving of a shell armband, therefore, had important meanings, established obligations and maintained long-term social relationships. Clearly, the presence of only 19 Papuan entries (out of 2278) that mention shell armbands, armlets or bracelets shows that these were offered for exchange only very infrequently. Many of the entries are too general to distinguish whether these are actually indigenous trade items or just body ornaments. Only four specifically mention pairs of armlets or armlets with decorations that match the description of traditional valuables.
In addition to their relative scarcity, the high value given to the armbands by Papuans is reflected in the prices they were prepared to pay to acquire them. Barton (1902, BNGAR: 18–20) reports that the Motu would pay 2 pounds for an armshell. This is an extremely high price given the level of most local salaries and would place the item alongside those at the top end of the sale prices in England for objects from Papua (Fig. 2.8). In contrast, these items were clearly not valued by westerners, as illustrated by their prices in the catalogues of between 6 pence and 7 shillings 6 pence. Reverend Lawes, the first resident English missionary to the south coast of Papua, describes exchanges of armshells between locals in his diary, but he does not appear to have acquired these himself or to have used them in his numerous exchanges to obtain food (Lawes 1876–1884). This is significant because toea were used in exchange by Motu with their trading partners to acquire foodstuffs and the majority of Lawes’ exchanges were motivated by his need to acquire food. The near absence of toea in the catalogues suggests that westerners were deliberately excluded from traditional systems of exchange. In the few cases where someone presented a westerner with a gift, as reflected in the few currency strings and armbands listed in the catalogues, the importance of the social relation signified by the valuable was possibly either not recognised or deliberately ignored. Back in England the item was sold cheaply as a bauble.
Finding Agency in Auction Catalogues
Since the exchange of objects plays a critical role in the mediation and negotiation of cross-cultural interactions, British auction and sale catalogues have proved to be an innovative and fruitful source of information about variations in local social contexts across the Pacific region. Our preliminary case study of Papua in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrates that given an appropriate perspective and methodology, one can investigate indigenous agency from these unusual colonial documents.
Although the catalogues contain a range of useful data about the processes of trade and exchange between indigenous artefact producers and traders, they are not straightforward documents. For example, the lack of price data in the Stevens catalogues restricts sample sizes and time range for certain kinds of analysis. Within the Webster catalogues in particular, some object types such as arrows and spears were difficult to quantify as precisely as more individualised objects because they were often sold in lots of unspecified numbers. The primary limitation of these auction and sale catalogues, however, is that the assemblage composition data are not a direct and straightforward reflection of what was bought and sold in the colonies, particularly in the more recent periods. This property also applies to museum collections. In contrast, some material was passed around various collectors for some years before being listed for sale in these catalogues. As we read through the catalogue sets and became more familiar with both object types and descriptions, it became clear that some unsold objects were recycled over time, sometimes with slightly amended descriptions. These and other observations in themselves provide fascinating insights into British collecting, but that would be the subject of a different study. Despite the filter made up of British preferences, it is worth stressing that the mere existence of material in the catalogues depended on initial choices made by the indigenous owners.
It is clear from this study and from others that have used analytical frameworks common to archaeological research that an assemblage-based approach to museum collections and historical sources has the potential to draw out traces of indigenous agency that more conventional museological and historiographical approaches do not (e.g. Torrence 1993, 2000; Kononenko et al. 2010). While this kind of analysis cannot replicate the fine-grained, nuanced textures of highly situated ethnographic accounts and some historical texts, the broad-scale patterns and trends provide valuable insights into indigenous actions that cannot be accessed in any other way. Even though the object descriptions, classifications and prices in the catalogues come to us via the lens of the western dealer, it is also apparent that other cultural and social factors are at play and these reflect indigenous agency.
The catalogues create a vivid image of cross-cultural exchange in the British territory of Papua at the turn of the nineteenth century. The lack of ‘currency’, and especially the very important armshells still in use at the time of the catalogues, such as those within the hiri trading networks, demonstrates that at this time, indigenous people were neither including westerners within ceremonial trade nor trying to incorporate them into traditional social networks, except in rare cases as with Governor MacGregor. Presumably, the Papuans were not eager to get entangled in reciprocal obligations with the colonisers, a situation that differs considerably with the exchanges between high-status British and indigenous individuals in Polynesia. Instead, the catalogues represent exchange in the early colony as primarily consisting of two spheres: (1) as social relations within Papuan communities or (2) as mainly economic barter with westerners. Over time, the active role of Papuans had a marked impact on the kinds of goods that later formed the core of private collections and public institutions.
Our preliminary analysis of auction catalogues demonstrates the potential of the seemingly prosaic information contained in these unusual historical documents (see also Harrison Chapter 3). By taking an archaeological approach to data on assemblages and individual objects, we can examine trends in the ethnographic artefact market across both space and time. Even the routine elements of a catalogue such as the object descriptions, from the number of words used to the information they contain about the materials, and sizes and decorative elements of objects, provide important data about the relative values of artefact classes, information we hope to analyse in our ongoing study. The analysis and interpretations presented in this chapter show that it is possible to tease out elements of the active participation of indigenous artefact producers in the ethnographic object trade in a quintessential form of western consumerism, namely ‘collecting’.
Future studies designed to mine this rich data even further will help increase our understanding of the processes of negotiation and barter that underlie the formation of colonial societies in Papua and elsewhere. It is very clear from this study that different systems of value are operating between the sellers and buyers of objects. One of the important attributes of auction and sale catalogues that deserves further attention is the potential of the price data for teasing out how different systems of value were mediated in colonial societies. Another avenue for future research is the historical dimension of value, tracing how this has changed over time as objects have moved from the status of curios ‘suitable for the decoration of halls and billiard rooms’ to art pieces destined for gallery spaces.
Our research and participation at WAC6 was funded by the Australian Research Council, University of Sydney, and Australian Museum. We are very grateful to Leone Lemmer and her staff at the Australian Museum and the Anthropology Library, British Museum, for their support. Special thanks to Rebecca Fisher for historical research and our co-investigators Jude Philp and Erna Lilje for information, encouragement and critique.
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