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Cook's Iron Adze

Iron Adze, carried by Cook on his first voyage
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One curious but little relatively known aspect of Cook’s first voyage of discovery was his carrying to Tahiti an iron or possibly steel copy of a Polynesian adze or axe. The adze had apparently been made under the direction of Philip Stephens, secretary at the Admiralty from 1763 to 1795.

We do not know when and how the original stone adze used to make this metal copy was procured. In his journal of the Endeavour voyage, Cook speaks of the adze as having been ‘made in immitation of one of their Stone Adzes or axes’. Possibly it was a copy of one that came into the hands of Samuel Wallis or one of his officers on the Dolphin voyage, during their time at Matavai Bay in June and July 1767. That said, the Dolphin did not arrive back in England until late May 1768. Cook left Plymouth in mid-August that same year, and this does seem a short period of time in which a replica might have been created. However, given the critical importance of Cook establishing peaceful relations at Tahiti in order to observe the Transit of Venus, it does not seem improbable that Stephens, quite likely acting on a suggestion from Wallis or one of his officers, ordered a replica adze be swiftly made so that it could be given to Purea, whom Wallis had assumed was the ‘Queen of Otaheite’.

Purea, however, was not a queen, but a high-ranking woman who through 1767-8 sought but failed to make her only son Teri’irere the pre-eminent chief on the islands of Tahiti and Mo’orea. In the process she attempted to further her son’s cause by establishing bonds of friendship with the Wallis and Endeavour voyagers.

Purea was married to Amo, also known as Tavahitua, the paramount chief of the Papara district on the southwest coast of Tahiti.

Amo and Purea audaciously sought to establish Teri’irere’s chiefly power by investing him with a new ancestral title that they claimed were sanctified by the war-god Oro. To this end they declared a rahui or spiritual prohibition of various everyday activities over the length and breadth of Tahiti and obliged the people of the Papara district to construct the biggest marae ever built on Tahiti in honor of Oro. This was the Marae Mahaiatea.

It has been suggested by scholars that Amo and Purea moved quickly to declare Teri’irere chief over all of Tahiti and Mo’orea because they feared that if good relations developed between the ruling families of northerly districts of the island and the Europeans then their ambitious plans for their son would be ruined. Whatever their motives, by declaring a rahui over all Tahiti and building Marae Mahaiatea, Amo and Purea provoked the anger of ruling dynasties in neighbouring districts. Worse, the rahui led Vehiatua i te Mata'i, the paramount chief of the Taiarapu Peninsula, to invade Papara in late 1768.

Amo, Purea, Teri'irere and their entourage fled into the mountains, escaping what Banks' journal records was bloody conflict. They never regained their former power, though Purea worked hard to restore Teri'irere’s prestige by courting the friendship of Cook and Joseph Banks.

While the replica adze that Cook carried to Tahiti may have been intended as a gift for Purea, it came to be given to Tutaha, a powerful member of the principal title-holding family of Te Porionu'u.

On arriving at Matavai Bay, Cook and Banks quickly came to see that Tutaha enjoyed far greater authority than Purea with other high-ranking Tahitians in the north west districts of Tahiti. Indeed, Cook initially assumed Tutaha was the ‘chief man of the island’ and that that winning his friendship was critical to their establishing good relations at Matavai Bay. (National Library of Australia, MS 1, p. 57).

Tutaha had come aboard the Endeavour on 1 May 1769, and as Cook wrote in his journal, was

…very desireous of seeing into every Chest and Drawer that was in the Cabbin. I satisfied his curiosity so far as to open most of those that belong'd to be [me], he saw several things that he took a fancy to and collected them together, but at last he cast his eye upon the Adze…the moment he lay his hands upon it he of his own accord put away everything he had got before and ask'd me if I would give him that which I very readily did and he went away without asking for any one thing more which I by experence [sic] knew -- was a sure sign that he was well pleased with what he had got — (MS 1, p. 59).
Tutaha badly wanted the adze. However, its value in his eyes may well have stemmed from more than it simply being a gift from the Europeans made of iron or steel.

We would do well to consider his wanting the implement in the light of various observations and reflections made by the journalists of the Dolphin and Endeavour voyages, together with evidence deriving from indigenous sources illustrative of religious and political culture in the Society Islands in the 1760s. These sources tell us that, contrary to popular belief, Tahitians had encountered iron as a result of earlier European voyaging in the Tuamoto atolls. More importantly, they suggest that iron had profound religious significance within pre-contact Tahitian society.

Cook and his party came from the sea. For Tahitians and other peoples of the Society Islands the sea was sacred to all, the realm of Tane, no te mau mea purotu, god of all things beautiful. Before leaving land, Tahitian voyagers would call upon Tane as patron deity of those who knew the sea to allow them to journey without committing hara, or spiritual transgression, and to return safely, bringing no sickness or misfortune to their community.

Setting out and returning across open sea required strict observance of special ceremonies, not only by mariners, but by those they left ashore, and by the community on whose shores they landed.

While there is little direct evidence from Tahitian sources, the behaviour of high ranking Tahitians as recorded by Banks and Cook appear to parallel those encountered by missionaries on the Tongan island of Futuna in the early nineteenth-century. On Futuna the contents of vessels from across the sea became the property of the islanders' gods. Goods were then distributed by the chiefs, to ensure the gods would continue to bestow life and health. Similarly, on their departure, visitors were given food and water to ensure their return home in spiritual and bodily health.

We would do well to remember that Tahitian traditions and their ceremonial expression were as dynamic and as subject to change by historical forces as those of Cook and his party.

By the time of Wallis and Cook's landings, the cult of the war god Oro had become well established on Tahiti. Originating on the island of Raiatea, the cult may have gained its earliest Tahitian converts during the reign of the paramount Raiatean chief, Tamatoa II, who ruled between 1650-1700. However, its rise on Tahiti appears to have been linked to the conquest of Raiatea and the island of Tahaa by the Hau Fa'naui, the most powerful tribal polity of the Island of Borabora. This invasion appears to have occurred some time early in the 1760s.

While Oro continued to be worshipped at the great Taputapuatea Marae at Opoa, the power of the district's sacred chief and priests were greatly reduced. According to tradition, the god's sacred image and red feather girdle were brought to Tahiti, and a centre of religious knowledge established shortly afterwards at Haapape by the Opoan chiefess Toa-te-manava.

The rise of the Oro cult on Tahiti appears to have become interwoven with dynastic ambition in the wake of the changes in political fortune and alliances after the triumph of the Hau Fa'naui. Strategic marriages took place between leading chiefly families on the Leeward and Windward islands. Dynasties now sought to legitimate their titles through consecrating familial alliances before Oro. Strong links were maintained between the spiritual centre at Haapape and Opoa on Raiatea.

One of the most important aspect of these changes in the religious and political history of Tahiti was the weight the followers of Ora gave prophecy. As William Ellis, the early nineteenth-century missionary and ethnographer, was to remark of the great Taputapuatea Marae at Opoa, it 'was the seat of their oracle and the abode of those priests whose predictions for many generations regulated the expectation of the nation.'

An important prophecy in circulation prior to the upheavals on Raiatea centred on the destruction of an ancient Tamanu tree growing within the precincts of the Taptapuatea Marae. One version of the prophecy spoke of the coming of a whirlwind that would leave only the bare and broken trunk of the tree standing. Another foretold the felling of the Tamanu by enemy warriors.

In both versions, the language of prophecy drew richly on traditional metaphors. Trees within the sacred ground of Marae were medium for spirits, that made known their will through rustling leaves. Within Tahitian song and poetry the tree was employed as a metaphor for a warrior of renown or a brave people. The cutting down of the tree signified the death of a warrior, or a chief and his followers.

These elements of the prophecy were interpreted as having been fulfilled by events on Raiatea. However, there was more to the prophecy: it also spoke of how the destruction of the tree would be accompanied by the appearance of glorious offspring of the god Te Tumu and Atea, his daughter-wife: strangers who would appear in a canoe without an outrigger. There are some indications that what was believed to be heralded was embodiment of Tane, god of all beautiful things.

The source of these prophetic utterances may well have had mundane origins in earlier indigenous encounters with European vessels. In 1722 three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen, the Dutch navigator, entered the Tuamoto atolls, and one of his vessels was wrecked on the windward side of the atoll of Takapoto. Five men from the ship deserted and may have repaired the vessel well enough to reach the island of Anna. Iron cannon left on Takapoto were still visible in the 1830s. Byron, who reached the Tuamoto atolls in June 1765, landed at Takaroa, where in a settlement he found the carved head of a Dutch long-boat's rudder, hammered iron and well worn tools. Byron was to record that the inhabitants seemed `prodigiously fond of iron.'

The news of these encounters appears to have soon reached Tahiti. In the light of iron being known and worked being known at Takaroa, it is tempting to speculate how this may relate to the presence of Tane, god of knowers such as sea-farers and expert canoe builders in subsequent Tahitian prophesying

One could explain Tutaha’s wanting Cook’s iron adze simply because it was a more robust and functional version of an implement highly prized by Tahitians. However, there is much within Tahitian traditions which is highly suggestive that Tutaha may have believed that by his possession of the iron adze Cook had a special affiliation with the god Tane, and that by giving him the adze, Cook would bestow on Tutuha the spiritual power and protection of the great ancestral god.

Related Entries for Cook's Iron Adze
People: Tutaha (Ha’amanemane; 'Hercules') (1708? - 1773) | Purea
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Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 12 May 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000423

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