Carving of a Tongan goddess

Tongan goddess

Materials:  carved wood
Dimensions:  15 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Auckland War Memorial Museum gift shop
Place of manufacture: Auckland, New Zealand

In 1830 a Wesleyan missionary called John Williams arrived on Lifuka in the Tongan islands in the Pacific. But he was not the first English missionary to arrive there. Much work had already been done by members of the London Missionary Society, the aim of which was "to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations". He was welcomed by the resident Methodist missionary John Thomas and the local Tongan chief Taufa’ahau who was already an enthusiastic convert to Christianity. In his journal Williams described the following event that took place soon after his arrival:

‘We were conducted by Mr Thomas and the chief into the sacred residence of the gods, but strange to tell instead of being laid up as formerly with the utmost care [the gods] were all hanged up by the neck around the wall of the house out of contempt. ... They were all goddesses that we saw. One of those hanging by the neck was requested and immediately given to us.’

Williams took his wooden carving back to London where it was displayed, as a ‘trophy for Christ’, in the Missionary Society museum. He even provided a picture of the goddess, complete with its string noose, in his published journal.

Many years later, in 1919 a dealer in ‘tribal and ethnic arts’ called William Oldman bought from another dealer a Tongan goddess figure, with what he records in his inventory as ‘a length of twisted sinnet cord’ around its neck. It was the same carving, but in the intervening ninety years or so it had somehow left the possession of the missionaries and become a commodity in the burgeoning ‘tribal arts’ market in Britain. It remained in Oldman’s collection until his death in 1948 when it was auctioned. It was bought by the New Zealand government and shipped back to the southern Pacific where it was gifted to the Auckland Museum. It had lost its cord noose somewhere along the way, but now it was on public display as a rare and cherished Tongan relic. It is still there, and in the gift shop of the museum I found this beautifully carved replica for sale. 

The carved figure represents Hikule’o the goddess of Puluto, the Island of the Dead in the old pre-Christian religion of Tonga. The goddess has almost come full circle. She was once worshiped; then abandoned and hung up by the neck; then taken across the world and displayed as a trophy; then sold as a curio; then finally returned to the Pacific as a precious artefact of a lost culture.

My replica was carved around 2009, and probably by a Tongan craftsperson living in the Auckland area of New Zealand. This new carving is a respectful tribute to Hikule’o, and completes what feels like a lesson in 200 years of colonial and post-colonial history. Just like John Williams I have brought Hikule’o back to London, but this time for very different reasons.