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Tahitian Taumi - Warrior’s Breastplates

By: Ruth Jaffit, Category: Science, Date: 01 Dec 2017

Gorgets collected by Captain James Cook during his three voyages to the Pacific Islands.

Tahitian taumi - gorget H105

Tahitian taumi - gorget H105
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Tahitian breastplates (gorgets), known locally as taumi, were collected during the three voyages of Captain James Cook (1768-71, 1772-75, and 1776-80). They are made from coconut fibers, and decorated with mother of pearl, feathers, dog fur, and shark teeth. The feathers are thought to have originated from the now extinct Tahiti fruit pigeon (ducula arorae), known as rupe. The teeth were possibly taken from the Oceanic whitetip shark, found in the waters surrounding the Society Islands, or the Galapagos grey shark (Rose 1993, 98).

Unlike H000145, object H000105 contains two rows of imitation shark teeth, constructed out of mother of pearl. This is not uncommon, as taumi held at other institutions also contain these shell substitutes, such as object TAH 57 at the British Museum. The significance of this is not fully realized, but may be indicative of an inability to acquire real teeth at the time of their creation. It has been estimated the creation of a single taumi would require teeth from seven to fifteen sharks (ibid., 99).

The dog hair which fringes the taumi may have been obtained from the Tuamotu Islands. Johann Forster (1778, 455), a naturalist on Cook’s second voyage, wrote “the whole gorget is fringed with long white dogs hair, imported from the Low Isles to O-tahietee, and the Society Isles”.

Taumi were originally thought to protect the wearer’s neck and chest in battle. According to Forster, “this breast-plate is hung on the neck by a string, and defends the breast against the thrust of one of their lances, headed with spines of the sting-ray”. However, they are additionally considered to have served an ornamental function, which accentuated the importance of the wearer.

Taumi were acquired during all three of Cook’s voyages, with these object exchanges described in journals, and portrayed in a well-known sketch by John Webber, created during Cook’s third voyage. This illustration depicts a custom known as ati, which is described by Cook in a journal entry dating to September 8th, 1777:

They were dressing two girls in a prodigious quantity of fine cloth in a manner rather curious; the one end of each piece, of which there were a good many, was held up over the girls heads whilst the remainder was wrapped round them under the armpits, then the upper ends were let fall and hung down in foulds to the ground over the other and looked something like a circular hooped petticoat. After ward round the outside of all, were wrapped several pieces of different Coloured cloth, which considerably increased the Size so that the whole was not less than five or six yards in circuit and was as much as the poor girls could support. To each was hung two Taame’s. Thus equipped they were conducted on board the Ship… as a present from Otoos Father to me (Beaglehole 1967, 207-8).


The taumi in the Australian Museum’s collection previously belonged to James Cook’s wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Cook. Her cousin, who sailed on Cook’s first and second voyages, Rear Admiral Isaac Smith, resided with Mrs. Cook until his death in 1831. Many of Mrs. Cook’s possessions, including these taumi, were inherited by Smith’s great nephew John Mackrell (Kaeppler 1978, 281). They were then purchased by the NSW Government in 1887, and donated to the Australian Museum in 1894.

By Ruth Jaffit

References:

Beaglehole, J.C., 1967, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery: Volume III Part 1: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780, Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, London.

Forster, J., 1778, Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World on Physical Geography, Natural History, and Ethic Philosophy, G. Robinson, London.

Kaeppler, A.L., 1978, “Artificial Curiosities” An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N., Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu.

Rose, R.G., 1993, ‘Taumi Gorgets from the Society Islands’, in P.J.C. Dark & R.G. Rose (ed.), Artistic Heritage in a Changing Pacific, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, pp.91-105.