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)
  1. TRANS-PACIFIC FLIGHT, The West Australian, 7th June 1928, 19.
  2. Airmen’s Trophies, The Sun, 7th June 1928, page 12

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