That tabua

It is not generally known that the Queensland Museum holds the most comprehensive and important collection of Charles Kingsford-Smith memorabilia, none of which have seen the light of day since returning to Australia on 9th June 1975 (coinciding with the anniversary of the first Pacific flight).

Credit for securing this extraordinary collection comprising more than a hundred objects belongs to former Librarian Edward (Ted) Wixted who initially encouraged the aviator’s widow (Mrs  AllanTully, and son, also Charles) to consider donating the collection to Queensland. As a consequence, the latter wrote to the state’s then Premier on 6th October 1974, expressing the view that ‘Charles and I agree they [CKS’s memorabilia] should be shared with the people of our homeland and properly displayed.’

Suva, 7th June 1928. Charles Kingsford Smith is seen here holding the tabua presented during a Qaloqalovi ceremony at the Grand Pacific Hotel, the previous evening. Along with the rest of his collection, this has remained in storage at the Queensland Museum since its return to Australia forty-five years ago (National Library of Australia, PIC/8392/112 LOC Album 1033/2).

In a follow-up letter to the Museum’s Director dated 14th March 1975, Charles (son) elaborated…’ You may not be aware that most of the documentation we have consists of several scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, and a large quantity of photographs. Unfortunately we don’t have any original correspondence or other such material of the nature that usually interests historians. The most important items of original documentation we do have are my father’s log books, covering approximately the years 1921-1932, and nautical charts he used with his courses plotted on them. We would consider giving these to the Museum as indefinite loan, if adequate copies could be made. The bulk of the collection of memorabilia we have consists of numerous awards, medals, trophies, etc.’

All but one of these items are of European manufacture and it is this exception which I find the most intriguing (because of its mysterious inscription). The crew of the Southern Cross had spent Wednesday, 6th June 1928 inspecting possible take-off sites for their final leg from Suva to Brisbane. That evening, a ball was held in their honor at the Grand Pacific Hotel…’A feature of the entertainment was the Fijian chiefs’ welcome. Rato Joni Mataitini, one of the leading chieftains, presented a whale’s tooth to Captain Smith. This is the greatest welcome ceremony that can be given by Fijians to high chiefs or officials.’1

‘Thick plainted fibre rope attached to tooth at both ends through steel eyelets ‘ 17 x 65 x 40 (cm). Photo: Queensland Museum.

An important cultural item in Fijian society, these polished sperm whale teeth were known locally as tabua. They were traditionally given as gifts for atonement or esteem (called sevusevu), and were important in negotiations between rival chiefs.  Originally they were very rare items, available only from beached whales and from trade from neighbouring Tonga (where the practice may have originated).

Sadly, the significance of this gesture was lost on at least one Australian newspaper which attempted, instead, to make light of the gift.2

Particularly intriguing in this instance is the inscription which has so far resisted all online attempts at translation. I put this problem to the Museum of Fiji some years ago which, much to my surprise, was also unable to offer a translation. Like so much in this remarkable collection, this object demands further research or, at the very least, as Lady Kingsford Smith stipulated in her original letter of offer, to be ‘shared with the people of our homeland and properly displayed.’

What does AVIMEKI (or AIMEKI) mean, in this context? (Queensland Museum H10899)

A Holden…of sorts

All collecting institutions endure the frustration of never having sufficient space for the display and storage of their – always – expanding collections.

This is particularly true for large public institutions, like the Queensland Museum, occupying premium CBD real estate. It’s partly for this reason that the provenance of a donation offer is now being subject to ever more scrutiny.

The GMH inspector's stamp which substantiated the likely source of this Lincoln wreckage.
The GMH inspector’s stamp which substantiated the likely source of this Lincoln wreckage.

Museum professionals are being challenged to show that this is at least demonstrable, if not substantial.

Queensland Museum curatorial staff were recently presented with one such challenge after having  been offered aircraft wreckage allegedly retrieved from the well-known Avro Lincoln (A73-64) crash site atop Mount Superbus in the state’s south-east. Although it remains a popular hiking destination, and one of Queensland’s best-known and most visited aircraft crash-sites (second only to the Lamington National Park’s Stinson VH-UHH), the Queensland Museum had nothing in its collections relating to this significant cultural site.

Similarly, there is nothing in its collections relating to the RAAF’s 10 Squadron – to which A73-64 belonged – despite that unit having been associated with Queensland in general, and Townsville in particular, for almost quarter of a century (equipped with GAF Lincolns for almost half that time (1949 – 1962).

Proving however that this twisted, unrecogniseable, and seemingly unmarked piece of aluminium had originated from atop Mount Superbus was initially problematic. While curatorial staff had no reason to doubt the veracity of the donor’s claim, they needed something more evidential on which to hang a provenance claim. The thicker-than-usual aluminium sheeting was certainly suggestive of a large multi-engine aircraft, and the external silver finish was also consistent with the livery known to have been used then by A73-64, and all other No.10 Squadron Lincolns.

Since the Second World War, all aircraft sub-assemblies have been impressed with part numbers and inspection stamps. The former can typically serve to identify the type of aircraft while the latter confirms the manufacturer. Although in this instance  we were able to locate a tiny (4 mm) inspector’s stamp it initially proved to be more of a hindrance, than a help. As one of sixty-eight Lincoln B30’s built by the Government Aircraft Factories in Melbourne we expected to find an inspector’s stamp bearing the signature abbreviation “GAF”. What we found instead though (see accompanying image) was an inspector’s stamp bearing the all too familiar abbreviation “GMH” (General Motors Holden).

An illustration from GMH’s 1946 booklet ‘War Record’ highlighting the company’s extensive manufacturing contribution to the locally made Lincoln (Photo credit: Mark Pilkington)

Since GMH had been producing aircraft during the Second World War it was possible that surplus sheet metal stocks were used by GAF when Lincoln production commenced in 1946. With further research however we were able to establish that Holden’s Woodville plant in South Australia had in fact been sub-contracted to produce GAF Lincoln wing and fuselage sub-components. Together with the other circumstantial indicators, this was enough to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that the wreckage being offered to the Museum was indeed from the wing of the Mount Superbus Lincoln.