Artwork of the month

March 2022 Ethnology

Seven blunt wonders from Tonga and Fiji

Tonga, an idyllic archipelago recently bruised by the wrath of a submarine volcano, has witnessed a rich production of artefacts whose refined geometric decoration is used as an expression of lineage, a unique custom in the Pacific. The collections of the FGA comprise several ancient weapons from these islands, as well as from the neighbouring Fiji, which represent a wealth of information on the society which produced them. Similar weapons are at the core of the exhibition Power and Prestige: the Art of Clubs in Oceania, held at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice until 13th March 2022[1] and later at the Musée du quai Branly from the 8th June to the 25th September 2022. And as we shall see, if these wooden weapons can look stern, they have a lot to say…

Pakipaki war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Apa‘apai war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Kinikini war-club
© Courtesy Galerie Flak. Photographer: Danielle Voirin

Pakipaki war-club
Western Polynesia, Tonga Islands, XIXth C.
114.5 x 7.5 x 6 cm

English private collection
Collection W. Wallis, Salisbury
Galerie Yann Ferrandin, Paris
Acquired at the galerie Yann Ferrandin, Paris, 20 Sept. 2017

Apa‘apai war-club
Western Polynesia, Tonga Islands, XIXth C.
113 x 10 x 5 cm

Collection Wayne Heathcote, New York
Collection privée américaine
Acquired at Binoche et Giquello, Paris, 22 June 2017, lot no. 70

Kinikini war-club
Western Polynesia, Fiji islands, XIXth C.
105 x 35 x 3.5 cm

Private collection Kahala, Honolulu, Hawaii
Christie’s New York, 5 May 1994, lot no. 18
Bonham’s Los Angeles, 11 May 2016, lot no. 63
Galerie Flak, Paris
Acquired at the galerie Flak, Paris, 10 April 2018

Bowai war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Siriti war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Totokia war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

Bowai war-club
Western Polynesia, Fiji islands, XIXth C.
118 x 7 cm

French private collection
Galerie Schoffel de Fabry, Paris
Acquired at the galerie Schoffel de Fabry, Paris, 19 February 2018

Siriti war-club
Western Polynesia, Fiji islands, XIXth C.
109 x 24 x 4.5 cm

Collected in 1845 by Reverend J. Waterhouse
Collection Wayne Heathcote, New York
Collection Masco Corporation, Detroit
Sale Sotheby's, New York, 2002
US private collection
Acquired at Binoche et Giquello, Paris, 22 June 2017, lot no. 69

Totokia war-club
Western Polynesia, Fiji islands, XIXth C.
93 x 11.8 x 33 cm

Collected by Admiral Joseph Maurice Exelmans between 1837 and 1839
Transmitted by inheritance
Then Galerie Schoffel de Fabry, Paris
Acquired at the galerie Schoffel de Fabry, Paris, 29 January 2020


Uatongi war-club
© Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

Uatongi war-club
Western Polynesia, Fiji islands, Rotuma Group, XIXth C.
127.5 x 11.5 x 4 cm

Collection Matthias L. J. Lemaire, Amsterdam, 1960s
Collection Heinz Plester, Gladbeck
Sale Zemanek-Münster-Tribal Art Auktion n° 92, lot no. 9
Galerie Yann Ferrandin, Paris
Acquired at galerie Yann Ferrandin, à Paris, 7 February 2020

Divine kingship in the Friendly Islands

Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago called “The Friendly Islands” by James Cook, because its inhabitants are generally “friendly and hospitable to strangers”1, is also peculiar in that it is the only Pacific archipelago which was never colonized properly speaking (fig. 1). It is still ruled by a king, through an ancestral kingship of divine origin. Tonga thus kept a feudal system which is still present in all aspects of everyday life.

Fig. 1. © Skimel, CC BY-SA 4.0

According to the founding myth, their king (bearing the title Tu’i Tonga) is a direct descendant of the creator god, Tangaloa Eiki. This god chose to climb down a tall tree, the Toa or Australian pine tree (Casuarina equisetifolia), to reach the world of mankind and meet his mortal mistress. From their union was born ’Aho’eitu, a half-man, half-god being. When he reached adulthood, ’Aho’eitu left the Earth to pay a visit to his father in Heaven; on his return, he was escorted by heavenly beings who became his matapule or “ceremonial attendants”: a title which allowed their successors to touch the chiefs, who are considered as “taboo” or sacred, to cut their hair, to tattoo them and to prepare their corpse for their funeral2. With these benefits, they can be compared to priests. As to the many nobles and traditional chiefs, they are connected to the king – and hence to ’Aho’eitu – but this connection is not direct. According to the oral tradition, this divine kingship dates back to the 10th century AD3. The resulting society is very hierarchized, with a king on top, under whose authority are the nobles and, within different ranks, the many chiefs and the ceremonial attendants. The latter prevail over the common folk or tu’a, who are supposed to descend from a worm4.

Fig. 2. © Wellcome Collection

Hierarchy, etiquette, presentation

This very complex hierarchy is rather ubiquitous, and notably in the Tongan language, which comprises six differents ways of talking, for instance when talking to or about the king, the chiefs or the matapule, or when speaking with a socially equal person5. This hierarchy is thus expressed through interpersonal relations, but also notably in the diet, as some dishes were reserved for the king, and others for the chiefs6. The respect of etiquette in Tonga has been a necessity and a way of living, and the entire society relies on the right place given to each individual, according to his birth rank and his relatives.

This hierarchy is also visible through the paraphernalia which the king and the chiefs display during presentation rituals, which bear witness to their prestige, their high rank in society then and now, and the importance of lineage: tattoos, headgears (like the fanned feather headdress worn by king Fatafehi Paulaho, fig. 2), fly chasers, fans, baskets, fabrics and ceremonial weapons all mark the prominent status of their owner.

Fig. 3. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Fig. 4. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The voice of geometric patterns

But there is more: the weapons of the chiefs, wickerwork baskets (fig. 3 and 4), refined fabrics of tapa and even the tattoos (a traditional pattern is identified, fig. 5) all display a common decoration7: an intricate array of geometric patterns, where the triangle, zigzag and vertical or oblique lines prevail. In this infinity of lines, sometimes a small figurative element (man or animal) appears, hidden in the geometric maze.

Like a family tree, this decoration tells us with its own words, made of triangles and lines, the prestigious genealogy of the owner of the object, stories of families, lineages and unions8. This network of lines is affixed to the object so as to wrap it magically and capture the divine mana, the supernatural power which inhabits living beings (especially kings) as well as objects in the Pacific area9: precious fabrics of tapa, for instance, were notably used to wrap the figures of gods, and also for the investiture of chiefs10.

’Akau tau

The Tongan language designates weapons as ’Akau tau or ’Akau, which comprises a broad range of prestige weapons, which have been well researched by Andy Mills11: these objects are long, more or less elaborate blunt war-clubs made of a single piece of wood, sometimes inlaid with ivory. The most frequent ones are the Pakipaki, typical with their head shaped like a paddle. Next to them are the Apa’apai, the extremity of which is flat or slightly concave. Other types, such as the Bowai, a simple stick with whale ivory inlays, or the Kinikini, with their bell-shaped profile, are also present in Tonga. Most of these weapons are made from the hard wood of the Casuarina, which enabled the divine epiphany12, but some very rare exemplars are made of whale bone13.

When they were used, these heavy and efficient weapons – with their length, weight and in some cases additional spikes – could perform well as bearers of death. They are also sturdy, very different from those used in a sportive performance show witnessed by James Cook in 1777, during which the two champions, armed with clubs made of green branches of coconut tree, fought in a single combat. According to Cook, these duels would end when one fighter or the other admitted defeat, or when their weapons were broken14.

Weapons, chiefs and gods

Originally, these clubs were used in single combat during the wars between Tongan chiefs. Before Christianization, in Tonga as in Fiji, there were plenty of occasions to shed blood: among many other reasons for war, one can mention personal quarrels, the greed for territory or women, an insult, the violation of a taboo or the irrepressible desire of revenge15. The aim was to kill the opponent with several blows on his head: the higher the death toll of the weapon, the more mana it gathered. The club thus linked the chiefs with gods and ancestors16. In the same way as medieval swords17, the wooden war-club of Tonga was therefore an external sign of nobility which had to be carried at all times. The clubs kept in the FGA collection do not show any sign of break, repair or impact, which suggests that they only ever had a ceremonial function.

Christianization put a stop to these battles and the use of clubs. During the civil war from 1790 to 1820 in Tonga, wooden ’Akau were replaced by firearms18.

Tonga – Fiji – Samoa: same fights

The rich collections of the FGA comprise exemplars of these Kinikini and Bowai clubs, but in their Fijian version: since Tonga was at the core of a system of exchange and triangular links with its two neighbours, Samoa and Fiji, the Tongan club types are also found in Fiji, with similar decorations. Tongan carpenters, specialized in the fabrication of canoes, had settled in Fiji and Samoa, which is why carved objects of Tongan style can be found in these islands19. One can also imagine that some of these weapons belonged to Tongan warriors installed in Fiji, or to Fijians living in contact with Tongans20.


Carving one’s own weapon

If the weapons produced before the first contacts with Europeans were chiseled by means of shark teeth helved on a piece of wood, since the late 18th century onward, they were carved with metal nails, which were exchanged against other goods. The metal tool enables a finer and deeper incision. This feature enables to distinguish the “pre-contact” weapons from the “post-contact” ones. The majority of the weapons considered here, with their fine and deep carving, suggest a date in the late 18th century at the earliest.

But these objects were not necessarily made by expert craftsmen: eye witnesses tell us that warriors, or even chiefs, would spend time carving and chiseling their own weapons, so as to turn these objects into symbols of strength and prestige21. The weapon thus became a living being in its own right, and was often given a name expressing its courage and power, such as Mo‘ungalaulau (‘The Mountain of Lamentations’), or Tu‘i Tapavalu (‘The Eight-Sided Lord’), a custom which, again, is reminiscent of some mythical swords of the Middle Ages (Durendal or Excalibur, to name but a few)22.


Diplomatic gifts

These weapons were also offered to high-ranking Westerners. Many clubs of the Pakipaki type were given to James Cook and his senior officers, during his trips in 1773, 1774 and 1777 in the Friendly Islands23. Their chiseled decoration tells us that some of these ’Akau had been the property of kings and chiefs: the one kept at the Metropolitan Museum24, brought back by James Cook, is adorned with small figurative patterns such as plants, an octopus and a turtle, which belonged to the sacred animals whose flesh could only be consumed by the king, because they were considered as the receptacles of the gods25. The king, wearing his fanned feather headdress, is even depicted on it, as is the case on another ’Akau kept at the Field Museum of Chicago26. A century later, the tradition was still observed in Fiji: in 1875, the Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau sent one of his clubs to queen Victoria, as a token of obedience27.


We shall start with a Pakipaki (fig. 6). The exemplar of the FGA is characterized by its size, its diamond-shaped end imitating a paddle blade, and above all by its geometric decoration, mostly made of zigzags and triangles and distributed among four zones delineated by circular rings in slight relief (handle, upper handle, blade and point); a long central vein in relief underlines the whole length of the club, from the upper handle to the point. The eye gets lost in this profusion of tight lines. The regularity of this pattern gives life to the object, which was meant to underline the prestige of its owner.

Pakipaki war-club
Fig. 6. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Apa‘apai war-club
Fig. 7. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

Apa‘apai of a chief

As to the exceptional Apa‘apai club (fig. 7), it is remarkable for the seven ridges, with a double one on top, adorning its blunt head. It is embellished with fourteen parallelepipeds filled with oblique lines, checked patterns, diamonds, and rows of fishbones. All of these surfaces are different: their decoration is typically Tongan, but it is an exceptional decoration, as some of the small squares of the handle include small figures, a fish, probably a tuna and sea turtles (fig. 8 and 9). In Tonga, tuna, turtle and octopus were incarnations of gods28. The presence of the turtle, a sacred animal and a divine incarnation also found on the Apa‘apai of the Metropolitan Museum, suggests that this weapon probably belonged to a chief.

Apa ’Apai war-club, detail
Fig. 9. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Apa ’Apai war-club, detail
Fig. 8. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Kinikini war-club
Fig. 10. © Courtesy Galerie Flak. Photographer: Danielle Voirin

Weapons from Fiji: Kinikini, Bowai, Siriti, Totokia, Uatongi

Five other clubs from Fiji enable us to complete this overview of insignia regalia in Western Polynesia29. They were all made of a single piece of wood30. Three types can be distinguished: weapons common to Tonga and Fiji, like the Kinikini or the Bowai; weapons only found in Fiji but decorated by Tongans, like some Siriti clubs; finally, entirely Fijian weapons, like the Totokia club. Let us first consider the Kinikini club (fig. 10): originally an attribute of the chiefs and “ceremonial attendants” who originally fought in the first line of battle and therefore had to be sheltered against enemy arrows, this club is equipped with a broad and long tip, like a shield protecting the warrior’s head31. Even mature, the Casuarina tree could only produce a very small number of broad planks like this one, which suffice to show its uncommon character; it was probably transmitted hereditarily, along with the function of matapule32. The one in our collection, particularly broad, is entirely decorated with a fine network of geometric patterns of Tongan type, distributed in triangles around a straight vertical ridge crossing a more prominent crescent-shaped one.

The second Fijian weapon, also found in Tonga and Samoa, is the Bowai (fig. 11), a heavy pole club whose shape is reminiscent of a baseball bat. A very fine baseball bat, with a handle adorned with a strip of geometric patterns, on the pommel of which shines a twelve-pointed star made of whale ivory (fig. 12). It is also a royal weapon, as it is believed to have been the favourite weapon of king Seru Epenisa Cakobau. But these weapons also had an oracular purpose: during divinatory rituals, they were aligned vertically, in balance on their base; if they remained standing, the divine omen was favourable. If they fell, it was a bad sign33.

The elegant Siriti club (fig. 13) certainly dates back to the first half of the 19th century, as it was collected by Reverend Joseph Waterhouse in 1845. A Methodist minister and missionary in Fiji, he was one of the first to have described the local customs34. He converted king Seru Epenisa Cakobau to Christian faith. This is a ceremonial weapon, the blade of which looks like the corolla of a hibiscus flower bended by the wind, or like a Siriti, a kind of butterflyfish35. The blade is decorated with a carved pattern which always comprises a stylized human figure: according to an ancient label, the exemplar of the Musée du Quai Branly was originally adorned with feathers36. This kind of club, particularly heavy, could be used during ceremonies of investiture for the chiefs37.

Bowai war-club
Fig. 11. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Bowai war-club, detail
Fig. 12. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer : Thierry Ollivier
Siriti war-club
Fig. 13. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

Another, very interesting and strictly Fijian type of club is the Totokia (fig. 14): the one in the FGA collections was acquired by Admiral Joseph Maurice Exelmans during his expedition in the Pacific from 1837 to 1839. A club with a rather short handle, the end of which is curved like the neck of a large, curious and savage bird. This club is characterized by its head, which displays a kind of collar equipped with eight rows of spikes, from which protrudes a long pointed beak. A very heavy “battle hammer”, which was first meant to be carried by chiefs. The shape of the head is probably inspired by the pandanus fruit38. Once again, this weapon reflects the great worth of the warrior carrying it, as it only belonged to chiefs and warriors held in high esteem.

Totokia war-club
Fig. 14. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier
Fig. 15. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier

Finally, the last one is the most sober of all, a true masterpiece of simplicity. It comes from the Rotuma Group, an archipelago currently pertaining to Fiji. It is a Uatongi club (fig. 15), a long bludgeon shaped after the stem of a palm leaf; the slightly flaring blade is elegantly decorated with thin parallel horizontal lines. With its diamond-shaped section, the tip of the weapon is also typical for this heavy club.

Even now, these wonderful objects keep a good part of mystery. With their diversity, these weapons have something divine, which still delights us today.

Dr Isabelle Tassignon
Curator of the Ethnology collection
Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, March 2022

Translation Dr Pierre Meyrat

Notes and references

  1. RHYS, The Voyages, p. 165; see also p. 286-287.
  2. Cartmail, The Art of Tonga, p. 29, and p. 35-39.
  3. KAEPPLER, “Rank in Tonga”, pass. ; CARTMAIL, The Art of Tonga, p. 35-39.
  4. Kaeppler, “Rank in Tonga”, p. 180 ; CARTMAIL, The Art of Tonga, p. 27.
  5. Taumoefolau, Tongan ways, pass.
  6. BATAILLE-BENGUIGUI, “The Fish of Tonga”, p. 190 sq.
  7. KAEPPLER, The Pacific arts, p. 45-46; Weener, “Tongan Club iconography”, pass.; Brunt, Thomas, Océanie, p. 302.
  8. For these questions, see KAEPPLER, “Rank in Tonga”, p. 176 sq.
  9. Artwork of the month, May 2020:
  10. Kaeppler, in Kaeppler, Kaufmann, Newton, L’art océanien, p. 87.
  11. Mills, “’Akau tau”, pass.
  12. Mills, “’Akau tau”, p. 31.
  13. Los Angeles, LACMA, inv. /.
  14. RHYS, The Voyages, p. 264; Mills, “’Akau tau”, p. 10.
  15. For the accounts of the early Christianization: Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 4-7.
  16. Kaeppler, in Kaeppler, Kaufmann, Newton, L’art océanien, p. 86.
  17. For this question, see Aurell, Excalibur, p. 124-130.
  18. CARTMAIL, The Art of Tonga, p. 42.
  19. CARTMAIL, The Art of Tonga, p. 108-112.
  20. Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 46-57.
  21. Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 47; see also HOOPER, “‘Ceci n’est pas une arme’”, pass.
  22. Mills, “’Akau tau”, p. 14-15; Aurell, Excalibur, pass.
  23. Mills, “’Akau tau”, p. 7 sq.
  25. BATAILLE-BENGUIGUI, “The Fish of Tonga”, p. 185-190.
  26. Chicago, Field Museum; Herda et al., “What’s in a Name?”, p. 449, fig. 4.
  27. Hooper, Fiji, p. 248.
  28. Bataille-Benguigui, “The Fish of Tonga”, p. 192 sq.
  29. For the different kinds of combat weapons, see Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 56.
  30. Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 47.
  31. Clunie, Yalo i Viti, p. 186; Hooper, Fiji, p. 252-253, no. 232 and 233.
  32. Mills, “’Akau tau”, p. 31.
  33. For these matters, see Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 56.
  34. Waterhouse, Joseph, The King and People of Fiji, 1866; Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 46.
  35. Clunie, Fijian Weapons, p. 54; Hooper, Fiji, p. 258, no. 242.
  36. Paris, Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Inv. 72.53.454
  37. Clunie, Yalo-i-Viti, p. 152, no. 185; Hooper, Fiji, p. 256.
  38. Kjellgren, Oceania, p. 289-290.


Aurell, Martin, Excalibur, Durendal, Joyeuse. La force de l’épée, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2021.

Bataille-Benguigui, Marie-Claire, “The Fish of Tonga: Prey or Social Partners?”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 97, 1988, p. 185-198.

Brunt, Peter, Thomas, Nicholas (dir.), Océanie [catalogue of the exhibition Océanie, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 23 Sept. – 12 Dec. 2018; Paris, Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, 12 March – 7 July 2019], Bruxelles, Fonds Mercator, 2018.

Cartmail, Robert Keith, The Art of Tonga: Ko e ngaahi’aati’o Tonga, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

Clunie, Fergus, Fijian Weapons and Warfare, Suva, Fiji Museum, 1977.

Clunie, Fergus, Yalo I Viti: a Fiji Museum Catalogue, Suva, Fiji Museum, 1986; 2003.

Herda, Phyllis, Lythberg, Billie, Mills, Andy, Taumoefolau, Melenaite, “What’s in a Name? Reconstructing Nomenclature of Prestige and Persuasion in Late 18th-century Tongan Material Culture”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 126, 2017, p. 443-468.

Hooper, Steven, Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific, Norwich, University of East Anglia, 2017.

Hooper, Steven, “‘Ceci n’est pas une arme’. Réévaluer les armes d’Océanie”, Tribal Art, 102, 2021, p. 58-67.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., “Rank in Tonga”, Ethnology, 10, 1971, p. 174-193.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., The Pacific arts of Polynesia and Micronesia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., Kaufmann, Christian, Newton, Douglas, L’art océanien, Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, 1993.

Kjellgren, Eric, Ocenia: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, 2007.

Mills, Andy, “’Akau tau: Contextualising Tongan War-Clubs”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 118, 2009, p. 7-45.

Rhys, Ernest (éd.), The Voyages of Captain Cook, Londres, (digital edition Worldsworth Editions Limited, 1999-2013).

Taumoefolau, Melenaite, “Tongan ways of Talking”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 121, 2012, p. 323-372.

Weener, Frans-Karel, “Tongan club iconography: an attempt to unravel visual metaphors through myth”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 116, 2007, p. 451-461.

See also