From Headhunting to the Festival of Arts: War canoe from the Solomon Islands: E23373

In 1915 Harry Wickham, resident of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, presented an impressive 14 metres long - tomako - war canoe with nineteen original paddles to the Australian Museum. The gift was made through a raffle, to raise money for the Red Cross, helping the casualties of the Australian Armed Forces fighting in the First World War.

Harry Wickham, of Melanesian and European-Australian descent, was a member of a respected and influential family in the Western Province. He must have had a special passion for Solomon Islands war canoes and probably contributed to retaining the tradition of this astonishing watercraft in times when its future could have been in doubt. Since 1893 British colonial administration had resolved to end headhunting practices in Solomon Islands. It disrupted numerous headhunting raids and confiscated war canoes – the essential means of such hostile expeditions. Those raids were also challenged by Christianity, filtering into the islands at the turn of the century. The Methodist Mission was established in Roviana in 1902 and the last headhunting raid in this area, promptly disrupted by colonial authority, took place about this time. The confiscated canoe was in service at the Government Station in Gizo for several years and eventually sold to a German collector.

In 1909 Charles Morris Woodford - Resident Commissioner - reported that headhunting had become largely ‘a thing of the past’. Yet it must have been about this time that Harry Wickham thought about commissioning a war canoe. It was built, to its high traditional standard, probably in the early 1910s and took part in the canoe races organised for Christmas by the Mission in Roviana Lagoon before it was transported to Sydney in 1915.

The tomako was constructed from timber planks, lashed to a long timber keel and ribs. The planks were sealed with resin, making the hull waterproof. Its narrow stem and stern rose nearly three metres high and were splendidly decorated with numerous shells and carvings. Embedded in the dark body were shiny inlays cut from the pearl-shell. Tomako was not only a highly refined canoe, but possibly the most graceful indigenous watercraft of all times. Powered by about 20 warriors-rowers, it travelled with impressive speed and agility, capable of traversing over 100 km distance in a single run.

The early 19th century canoe races can be seen as an attempt to preserve the tomako building and usage tradition outside the headhunting context. It is good to know that, one way or another, it succeeded. For example in 1998 three war canoes from Roviana (and one from Marovo) added splendour to the Melanesian Festival of Arts at Honiara - capital of the Solomon Islands. This year it was even better, as a small flotilla of magnificent tomako canoes was present in the opening ceremony at the 11th Festival of the Pacific Arts, held again in the Solomon Islands. And there is another historical connection: Adrian Wickham, inheritor of Harry’s passion for war canoes and supporter of the Festival, called it ‘the Tomako culture renaissance’ as it was reported in the Solomon Star daily newspaper on 6 July 2012.

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