Whale tooth necklace, 'Banjini', whale teeth / coconut fibre / cardboard, maker unknown, Fiji, before 1892
There are two groups of whales; the Mysticeti, who use mesh-like baleen to sift plankton and krill, and Odontoceti or toothed whales. Mysticeti, 'Right' whales, are found in colder waters while Odontoceti, 'Sperm' whales, are found in the warmer waters of the Pacific. The latter have an average of 25 teeth embedded in their lower jaw, which, when extracted were carved and used for ornament and ceremony by a number of Pacific cultures.
The best known are the necklaces and ornaments made from 'Sperm' whale teeth, many of which originally came from Tonga and the Ha'apai group of islands. These islands lay in the whale's migratory path and occasionally they were washed up onto the reef. The teeth, known as tabua, were extracted before being shaped and polished by Tongan canoe-builders using a sharp stone. After the arrival of Europeans Tongans began using chisels or flattened nails to perform the same tasks.
Tabua were fashioned in a number of ways. Teeth were sometimes simply smoothed and polished before being strung with twine; these were often very old and prized for the patina and smoothness which signified their age. Sometime pieces were joined together to form one large tooth or carved into figurative shapes. Whale teeth were also split, ground down and polished before being threaded onto a cord and this necklace is an example of this style often referred to as 'ula lei.
These fashioned sperm whale teeth were highly prized for their rarity as well as their craftsmanship and were exchanged between Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa. They were deemed so valuable that only great chiefs were allowed to posses them and their exchange held great ceremonial significance. European whalers and traders may have had made more teeth available but these necklaces remained high status symbols which were not readily exchanged. As a result early examples of these highly prized necklaces remain relatively uncommon in European collections. This necklace was purchased by the museum from Robert Hartley in 1892.
Mallon, S., Samoan Art and Artists; O Measina a Samoa, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, New Zealand, 2002
Cartmail, K., The Art of Tonga; Ko E Ngaahi 'Aati 'O Tonga, G and B Arts International Ltd., North Ryde, Sydney, Australia, 1997
Thomas, N., Entangled Objects;Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific, Harvard University Press, London, 1991
West, J., Credland, G., 'Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler', Hutton Press, Yorkshire, England, 1995
Geoff Barker, March, 2007