Apa’apai war club
18th or 19th century
Height: 41 ¾ in. (106 cm)
Ex collection Laurent Granier, Britanny, France
Ex private collection, France
The most common material for Polynesian war clubs was ironwood (toa in Tongan), a dense hard wood that could deliver powerful blows to the enemy without cracking and was unlikely to break at the shaft under the stress of fighting.
We know of a very limited number of such undecorated Tongan apa’apai clubs. One of the most famous examples is the one collected by Captain James Cook during his Second Voyage (before 1773). It is today in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London in the UK (inv. number AAA2829).
As stated by the Horniman Museum, this particular type on Tongan club was known as an apa‘apai. Its smoothly tapering four-sided shape mimicked in toa (Casuarina equisetifolia, ironwood) the shape of a coconut leaf’s central stem. These long and stout, but flexible, stems were traditionally cut down by men of the chiefly class for use as palalafa – a kind of soft truncheon used to dole out corporal punishment and maintain social order among commoners. In this sense, the form is symbolically chiefly and speaks of legitimate authority.
Our example is an especially large example. The deep, fine-aged patina shows subtle variations of hues at the surface. This plain Tongan club is possibly a very early example, dating back to the 18th or early 19th century.