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Our Global Neighbours: Mask with Human Skulls

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 28 Feb 2014

Julie Lahn - an anthropologist – illuminates the significance and whereabouts of a mask from Aurid Island.

Mask from Aurid with Skulls 1836

Reproduction © Public Domain

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Rare publicity focussed on the Colonial Museum – just renamed the Australian Museum – in late 1836: ‘The figure which was brought up from Murray Island [actually Aurid] by the Government schooner Isabella, and which was hung round with the skulls of the murdered crew and passengers of the Charles Eaton, will be deposited there in a few days for general inspection’ – The Sydney Morning Herald (22 October)

The Sydney public was familiar with, and intrigued by, this story printed in the local papers. A narrative by William Brockett intended to further satisfy this interest. His small book of 1836 was published within a month or two of the return of the Isabella - a remarkable speed, even by modern standards.

Brockett’s story was nearly identical to the earlier newspaper’s report, but included numerous illustrations. The lithographs of Torres Strait islands, its people and artefacts, were made by artist William Henry Fernyhough from the original sketches by the Isabella’s officers.

Some 50 artefacts, including masks, body ornaments, weapons and tools, formed the second earliest collection of indigenous objects obtained by the Museum. The turtle-shell mask with the skulls was its centrepiece. However, the October viewing at the Museum was rightly moderated as ‘the skulls have been buried by order of the Governor.’

In the following decades a part of this collection was exchanged with the National Museum in Denmark. Another part was lost in the Garden Palace fire of 1882, while the remaining part was somehow ‘detached’ from the original records and virtually forgotten. Later it was assumed that the collection was lost entirely – probably consumed by the flames in the 1882 disaster.

Julie Lahn, an anthropologist from the Australian National University has recently identified the skull-mask with the turtle-shell mask kept in the National Museum in Denmark. Importantly, she also recognised its specific identity as Kulka in the pre-Christian spiritual tradition of Torres Strait culture.

Julie’s compelling article traces the history and identity of the Kulka mask against the background of complex interactions between Torres Strait Islanders and the colonists - often marked by mutual misunderstanding, but also curiosity, trade-interest and sometimes violence.

Acknowledgments:

Thank you Julie Lahn and the Routledge – a publisher of The Journal of Pacific History for the permissions to place the link to Julie’s article on this website.

References:

Julie Lahn ‘The 1836 Lewis Collection and the Torres Strait Turtle-Shell Mask of Kulka,’ The Journal of Pacific History 2013, 48:4, 386-408.

William E Brockett ‘Narrative of a voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits, in search of the survivors of the Charles Eaton; in his Majesty colonial schooner Isabella, C.M. Lewis, Commander.’ Published by Henry Bull, Sydney 1836.

A more substantial book, with an extended description of Torres Strait Island’s culture, by King appeared in the following year:

Phillip Parker King ‘A voyage to Torres Strait in search of the survivors of the ship Charles Eaton, which was wrecked upon the Barrier Reefs, in the month of August, 1834, in his Majesty’s Colonial Schooner Isabella, C.M. Lewis, Commander arranged from journal and log book of the Commander by authority of His Excellency Major-General Sir Richard Bourke K.C.B., Governor of New South Wales, etc., etc., etc.’ Published by E.H. Statham, Sydney 1837.