Georgia Kerby - Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum
You may be surprised to find out that Whangarei Museum has a comparatively large Pacific collection. This collection includes stunning examples of weapons, necklaces, headrests, combs and musical instruments from islands around the Pacific as well as a few from Africa. Today’s item is a curious tribal craft, a ceremonial axe from New Caledonia.
The axe consists of a large flat disk of hard stone, possibly serpentine, lashed onto a stick via two bored holes through its lower edge. A fibre-covered round wooden base is lashed to the base of the short stick handle. In addition to the green colour of the stone, the axe is ornamented by a single small Cowrie shell lashed onto the shaft and four tufts of white fibre on the base held by matching green cord. This version is a simplified and more modern form of the traditional Nbouet or Gi Okono which would have featured a nephrite jade blade and a rattle made of coconut shell containing seeds and shells at the base.
Pacific Islanders used clubs and axes for inter-tribal fighting but also made them for ceremonial uses such as for sorcery and dance. This type was used in rain making ceremonies or oratory and was a high status item for Kanak tribe chiefs. Highly artistic items such as clubs, spears, shields, head rests and weaving have been popular items of trade and collection around the world since the early Sixteenth Century. Based on the provenance of this donation this axe is more likely to have been made in New Caledonia for the tourist market in the mid-Twentieth Century rather than being an antique. It is not so very old but has had an interesting journey to rest here at Whangarei Museum. Northlander Toi Maihi donated the axe to the Museum in 2006, thinking it was an appropriate home for it in memory of her late husband Berry Maihi.
Berry grew up in Whangarei and he and his siblings all passionate about sport. Berry grew up playing many different sports and when they moved to Auckland he joined the New Zealand Māori Lawn Tennis Association. He played in provincial tennis competitions and also played many other sports, like golf. Berry won the Mixed Doubles 1968 Whangarei Championships as well as the Men’s Singles in the 1964 Wairoa Championships. In appreciation of his attentions to all club members, especially in teaching new ones, Berry eventually became the President of the NZ Māori Lawn Tennis Association and also acted as the Treasurer in the late 1970s.
As part of this role, Toi and Berry were often visited by international sports people touring the country. One such visitor, the President of the Noumea Tennis Association, New Caledonia, stayed with the Maihis and presented Berry this Nbouet as a gift representing his home country.
Tennis was introduced to New Zealand in the late 1870s. It was soon picked up on the open green spaces of farms and marae. Despite the growing interest in tennis in Māori communities, widespread poverty following the effects of the earlier land wars made access to strict member’s-only tennis clubs and “tennis whites” uniforms restrictive. As a result, Māori began their own inter regional tournaments leading to the formation of the New Zealand Māori Lawn Tennis Association in 1926 during a Rotorua tournament, with a constitution partly written by Sir Apirana Ngata. From then on the Association contributed significantly to the history of New Zealand sport and is still active today.
The manufacture and artistry that has gone into making this New Caledonian axe is a history in its own right, here it serves as a memorable reminder of the power of sport to cross nations and boundaries. With thanks to Toi for sharing her memories with us.