King’s Museum exhibition ‘Fiji, Scotland and the Making of Empire’ has been open for just over a month. Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and co-curator of the exhibition, tells us more about the connections between the North East of Scotland and Fiji and how this has affected the museum’s collections and the exhibition.
In June 1875, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, son of the Earl of Aberdeen, arrived in Fiji as the first resident British Governor. With him came his relative Arthur J.L. Gordon of Ellon Castle as Private Secretary and William MacGregor, the son of a farmworker in Towie as Medical Officer.
First occupied around 1000 BC by Polynesian settlers moving from the west, Fiji was later settled by other people from the Melanesian islands to the west and from Tonga and Samoa to the east, which was first encountered by European voyagers in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the earliest European settlers was also from the North-East – David Cargill, an 1830 graduate of King’s College who arrived in Fiji in 1835 as one of the first two Methodist missionaries with his Aberdonian wife Margaret Smith. She was the first European woman to land in Fiji, but tragically, she died on the birth of their sixth child in 1840. Cargill and his fellow missionary William Cross translated the Gospel of St Mark into Fijian, in the process developing a spelling system for the language. Commenting that ‘the heathen Feejeeans are capable of teaching politeness to many British Christians’, Cargill does not seem to have been popular with his fellow Europeans, but the Methodism he preached became the main Christian denomination in Fiji.
Arthur J. L. Gordon and William MacGregor were also active collectors, ultimately leaving their collections to the University of Aberdeen, just as Sir Arthur gave much of his collection to the British Museum and the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where von Hügel was the first curator. Arthur J. L. Gordon was also a proficient artist, whose works depict traditional life and scenery at a time of rapid social change. Another North-East collector whose collections are now in Aberdeen was William Allardyce. He was in Fiji from 1879 to 1904, eventually serving as Acting Governor and helping to establish the Fiji Museum.
Most of the items on display in the latest exhibition in the University’s King’s Museum were acquired the objects by gift or purchase, collected as souvenirs or as examples of a culture the Europeans thought was under threat. Fiji had excellent hardwoods for canoes, bowls and weapons, as well as leaves for making baskets, mats and fans and the bark of the paper mulberry to make bark cloth. Sperm whale teeth were the most valuable material in Fijian culture, and many more became available in the early 19th century from European sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea slug) traders. The teeth were worked and used as presentation valuables, and were also used to make necklaces and breastplates and to inlay high-status objects. Breastplates were beautifully fitted together, sometimes around a pearl shell disc, by Samoan and Tongan canoe-building specialists working for Fijian chiefs. Some items were associated with divinity and embodied divinity, such as images or shell trumpets. Image making ceased with conversion to Christianity, but skills continue in the manufacture of bowls, mats and bark cloth which still circulate through inter-clan exchanges, while traditional Fijian culture remains vibrant today, retaining many distinctive aspects such as bark cloth making, wood carving, yaqona drinking and the exchange of valuables made of whale teeth.
The University’s Fijian collections are among the most important in the world, and have been the subject of two recent research projects. The Fijian Art Project is based at the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, and the University of Cambridge. Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it aims to promote public awareness and appreciation of Britain’s internationally significant collections of Fijian art. At the same time, the Pacific Collections Review, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, is studying the collections of National Museums Scotland, Glasgow Museums, Perth & Kinross Museums and the University of Aberdeen.
As well as showing some important objects for the first time in many years, the exhibition is therefore also revealing the results of the latest research that has highlighted these surprising connections between the 19th century histories of North-East of Scotland and Fiji, with influences that have extended throughout the British Empire and to the present day. The Fijian Art project will also see some of Aberdeen’s rarest Fijian items being exhibited in museums across Europe in the coming years. In the meantime, the exhibition Scotland, Fiji and the making of Empire is open free until 23rd May in King’s Museum in the Old Aberdeen Town House and Lunchtime Talks are provided by our student volunteers three times a week.