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Leuvensesteenweg 13
3080 Tervuren - Belgium
Tel. (+32) 02 769 52 11
Fax (+32) 02 769 52 42


Treasure of the month


RMCA Collection Tervuren; foto J.-M. Vandyck, RMCA Tervuren ©

Origin: Austral Islands (French Polynesia)
first half 19th Century
Former collection:
Royal Museums of Art and History
111 cm
Inv. no.:


Several of the paddles in the RMCA Oceania collections come from the Austral Islands. This month’s featured piece originated in this Polynesian region, more precisely the island of Ra’ivavae, discovered by the Spanish explorer Thomas de Gayangos in 1775.

Recent research indicates that most of these richly-decorated paddles were made in around 1820-1840. It is thought that with the conversion of the islanders to Christianity, sculptors who previously crafted ritual artefacts began producing these objects for use as prestigious items for trade with other Polynesian populations or Europeans. A few written records, such as those of Georges Bennet of the London Missionary Society, also confirm that some of these paddles were part of the tribute offered to the chiefs of Ra’ivavae in the 1820s.

One might think that the introduction of metal tools from Europe would facilitate the mass production of these paddles, which are relatively common in private and museum collections,  but this would appear to be a hasty assumption. When the naturalist Samuel Stutchbury made a stop in Ra’ivavae in 1826, he noted that local artisans continued to use traditional tools with blades fashioned from shells, stone, or shark’s teeth. He himself had enormous trouble bartering or selling the metal tools he had obtained specially for his voyage to the Pacific, and returned to London with several hundred implements that remained unsold.

Several of these paddles from Ra’ivavae were collected or observed in Tahiti (Society Islands) in the 1820s and 1830s. Moreover, the only vernacular term by which paddles from the Austral Islands were known in Europe as from the 1890s was hoe, the Tahitian word for paddle or oar.

Despite the 600 kms separating Ra’ivavae from Tahiti, the two islands were connected by political ties. Pomare II, the king of Tahiti who died in 1821, had established a protectorate on Ra’ivavae and Tubuai.

This treasure of the month is presented in relation with the exhibition Oceania. Travels through the immensity (curated by Nicolas Cauwe) held at the RMAH from 26 October 2017 to 29 April 2018.
The RMCA has loaned around twenty pieces from its Oceania collection to the exhibition.


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