The British Empire of the late 18th century had a vital interest in the Caribbean but Captain Cook was directed to explore the far away Pacific Ocean.

James Cook (1728–1779) is a legendary figure in Australian and Pacific history. The collection of indigenous artefacts he and his companions assembled during three voyages of Pacific discovery is important for symbolic, if not purely scientific, reasons.

The significance of this collection is in large part defined by its chronology, purpose and association with the great navigator. Many artefacts are the earliest of its kind in public collections and in some cases reflect the initial encounters between indigenous people of the Pacific and European explorers. Hawaii is a prominent example with its cultural splendour, drama and the unfortunate death of the great explorer.

A family of Caribbean people - illustration by John Stedman.
A family of Caribbean people - illustration by John Stedman. Image: Public Domain
© Public Domain

The Cook Collection of over 250 objects held at the Australian Museum reflects predominantly his exploration of Polynesia, with two important and logical additions: Solomon Islands (25 artefacts) and North America (12). Some individual items from Papua New Guinea or Kiribati may not be a result of his direct contact with native people of these Islands.

Three artefacts from South America stand out as unusual. One is a pottery vessel from the Chimu or Moche culture of coastal Peru (c. 900-1200 AD); the other two are wooden clubs of Caribbean style. Cook’s only encounters with South America were a stopover in Rio de Janeiro and his passage around Cape Horn when, in January 1769, some trading with indigenous Fuegians was conducted and a few artefacts are now in the collections of the University of Cambridge in United Kingdom and the University of Göttingen in Germany.

It is probable that the Caribbean clubs (macana) were added to the collection from other sources when Cook’s voyages were over and when his collection passed from Joseph Banks, to Robert Brown, to John Calvert and eventually to the Government of New South Wales.

The typical macana club made of hard wood is strikingly distinct and specific to the Tiano (Arawak) peoples of the Caribbean. The club was subsequently adopted across central and northern parts of South America. Its fame could be explained by its ability to inflict deadly gashes. During colonial times when violence escalated through the region these clubs appear to be more frequently armed by inserting on one side stone blades or studs.

John G. Stedman, British soldier and author of the 18th century, called them ‘flared’ or ‘quadrilateral’ clubs, clearly linked with warfare and violence. The two such clubs in the Cook Collection are of conventional design made from heavy wood with a square, almost ‘sharp edged’ head, although they are missing the cord that was normally wrapped around the handle.


AD or the Common Era indicates the period of time between year one and the present in the Western Calendar.

Prepared by Vickie Tran and Stan Florek