Thursday, 13 February 2014

'The Polynesian Bow' - Edward Tregear (1892)

Having uploaded a couple of short excerpts from Petrus Drabbe's Tanembar, I'm going to say a bit about an even earlier text that touches on bows and arrows in Southeast Asia - Edward Tregear's 1892 article on bows in Oceania in the Journal of the Polynesian Society.  Tregear, born in Southampton, England, but a long-time resident of Auckland, was an interesting chap, and very much the nineteenth century ethnologist; he believed that the Maori were 'Aryan', and publicised this view in several books and articles, fortunately not including his piece on bows and arrows.  He was also a founder of the Polynesian Society and its journal.
Tregear's article is only three pages long and touches on three topics: a) the lowly status of the bow in Polynesia and its absence from Polynesian battlefields; b) the total absence of the weapon in pre-colonial New Zealand; and c) the linguistic evidence pointing to a shared Malayo-Polynesian origin for the bow.

The article begins:
 PERHAPS one of the most puzzling problems known to anthropologists is to account for the apparent dislike shown by the fair Polynesians for the use of the bow and arrow. They found the mighty weapon of the archer in the hands of almost every Melanesian or Papuan inhabitant of the neighbouring islands; they had experience of its fatal powers, and yet, except in the case of the Tongans, the weapons appeared to be viewed with disfavour and neglect.
I doubt most anthropologists today see this as such a great problem, but Tregear was living in different times, and of course it's an interesting topic.  Tregear had fought against the Maori himself, and so perhaps it had some personal resonance.  Regardless, this is a small part of the problem I want to investigate in my research: why is it that there is such variable acceptance of the bow as a weapon (as opposed to the bow as a toy or sporting tool) in Austronesian-speaking societies?  And why was it (and is it) so much more important in Melanesia than it ever was in the rest of Austronesia?  I think the bow was probably introduced to New Guinea and island Melanesia by Malayo-Polynesian speakers, so obviously it's a bit odd that it should be so much more important in New Guinea than elsewhere.

The first source Tregear cites was written by William Mariner, a fifteen-year-old boy taken captive by a Tongan chief in 1806.  The crew of the Port-au-Prince, the Tonga-docked ship he was on, was massacred by local warriors, and Mariner was only saved by his apparently excellent posture and poise, much valued in Polynesia.  (The Port-au-Prince needed supplies, and the archipelago appeared on the ship's maps as the 'Friendly Isles', a result of Cook's earlier short visit.  It was later related that Cook and his men only escaped death because they left a day before the planned massacre, and came away with an overly positive view of Tongan hospitality.)  After four years in the archipelago, Mariner returned home and wrote a brief grammar and lexicon of Tongan and a longer, detailed account of his time there, one of the chief documents for the study of pre-Christian Tonga.  I'll be discussing Mariner's account of Tongan rat-hunting in another post.
William Mariner in Tonga.
Tregear then notes that the bow was used for sport or as a 'sacred plaything' in Hawai'i and Tahiti, and that the principal missile weapon of the Samoans and Marquesans was the sling.  This was also true among the Chamorro of pre-colonial Guam, whose language comes from a completely different branch of Austronesian, raising intriguing questions about the weapons - see here for some photos of Chamorro slings.  He describes two earlier articles dealing with the presence or absence of the bow in New Zealand, summarising the evidence against the pre-colonial presence of the bow.  The case seems conclusive.

However, Tregear
... received lately a letter from a friend in the north of the North Island of New Zealand who informed me that in digging a drain upon his property at Mangapai he came upon a bow in a perfect state of preservation. It was lying in a bed of sandy clay, the surface of which was apparently undisturbed and virgin. The finder proceeded (in the usual fashion which horrifies archæologists) to clean his treasure-trove; but, luckily, before he had finished his work of scraping and oiling the bow, a friend interfered, and the original soil adheres to a portion of the weapon.
I have deposited the bow in the Museum for safe keeping. It is 6 feet 4¾ inches in length; in shape resembling the bows of Fiji, the New Hebrides, and other Melanesian islands. It is almost certainly a war-bow, and it would try the strength of an athletic man to draw an arrow to the head upon so stiff an arc. It was unaccompanied by any relics whatever.
If, on further testing, the bow should be found to be of Melanesian pattern, but of New Zealand wood, it would strengthen the theory that a people of Melanesian origin once occupied this country.
I'll try to find some more information on this bow, if it is indeed a bow, but I'm not sure what good it will do.  The absence of any archaeological context makes it difficult to learn anything from it, although it is certainly rather long for a Polynesian bow.  There is no reason, anyway, to believe that any group of people occupied New Zealand before Polynesians arrived, so if it were a bow of New Zealand wood, it wouldn't show anything like what Tregear had in mind.

In any case, he then introduces a list of cognates for 'bow' in a number of Malayo-Polynesian languages, and this is what makes his article interesting.  Some of the words mean 'to shoot'; in fact, the modern reconstruction that unites Tregear's examples, proto-Austronesian *panaq, means 'to shoot' and 'bow'.  He uses the list to show that Maori probably once had a word for 'bow' that came to be used in other contexts (and he connects Malay panah to supposed 'Sanscrit' [sic] vana, 'arrow', which isn't believed to be a valid connection these days).  Here's the list:
  • Malay, panah, a bow.
  • Java, panah
  • Bouton [Buton], opana
  • Salayer [Selayar], panah
  • Cajeli [Kayeli], panah
  • Massaratty [Wallace says this is a village on Buru], panat
  • Ahtiago [Wallace, again, says that this is on Seram], banah
  • Baju [not sure], panah
  • Magindano [Maguindanao, actually in the Philippines], pana, an arrow.

  • Tagal [Tagalog], pana, a bow.
  • Bisaya [Visayan], pana

    Melanesian Islands.
  • Nengone, pehna, a bow.
  • Aneityum, fana
  • Rotuma, fan
  • Fiji, fana, to shoot with a bow.
  • vana, to shoot.
  • Eddystone Island, umbana, an arrow.
  • New Britain, panah, a bow.
  • Santa Cruz, nepna, an arrow.
  • Florida, vanahi, to shoot.

    Polynesian Proper.
  • Tahiti, fana, a bow; fa'a-fana, to guard property.
  • Tongan, fana, to shoot; the act of shooting.
  • Samoan, fana, to shoot; fanau, a bow; aufana, a bow; uāfana, a volley of arrows.
  • Hawaiian. pana, a bow; to shoot as an arrow; panapua, an archer.
  • Rarotongan, ana, a bow (dialect drops f and wh).
  • Marquesan, pana, a bow.
  • Futuna, fana, a bow; to hunt.

Tregear notes that Polynesian /f/ tends to occur as wh in Maori, as indeed it does in standard Maori orthography.  Unlike in modern English, wh isn't the same as /w/ (a voiced labial-velar approximant), but is these days pronounced as [f] or [ɸ].  The latter, a bilabial fricative, is usually considered to have been the pre-colonial pronunciation of the sound represented as wh (apparently this is disputed, however).  Tregear describes several terms derived from *whana, his reconstruction of the Maori word for 'bow':
The Maori word whana means “to recoil or spring back as a bow;” “a spring made of a bent stick, as a trap.” When we compare the compound words, tawhana, bent like a bow; kowhana, bent, bowed; korowhana, bent, bowed, &c., &c., there can be little doubt but that whana originally with the Maori meant what it did with all other Pacific-islanders—viz., “a bow,” and that they knew its use as a weapon.
 It's possible he's right, and that the earliest Maori settlers knew of the bow just as they almost certainly knew of outrigger canoes, but that they discarded them in the course of their several centuries in the islands.  Tregear doesn't go any way to solving the problem of why Polynesians found the bow suitable only for fun and games, but either way, his word list is still a useful jumping-off point and the argument is innovative, so this is one of those Victorian articles that still has some merit.
Maori canoes (waka).  Note: no outriggers, no double canoes.  Painting by Augustus Earle.
Finally, Tregear says:
The Maori word pewa, meaning “arched, bow-shaped,” and “the eyebrows” (with its compound, koropewa, a loop or bow”) also probably signified a weapon. Pewa has been preserved as “bow” by the Motu people of New Guinea (a Polynesian colony among Papuans), but may be a foreign word, since it has no universality in the Pacific as fana has.
I'm still looking into Papuan words for the bow, but it's useful to have this bit of evidence in mind, even if (as is possible) Tregear is misinterpreting it slightly. 

P.S. Tregear wasn't alone, by the way, in believing in Indian/'Aryan' influence in the Pacific beyond Indonesia; A. M. Hocart, whose works are still (very occasionally) read in anthropology departments, held similar views.  Such ideas are no longer considered at all reasonable given the enormous amount of evidence against them, but these guys lived a long time before most of the major advances in the human sciences (in genetics, archaeological interpretation, comparative ethnography, and most of the major developments in linguistics), so they're forgivable.


  1. The matter of the bow sounds to be a mystery, but perhaps the matter of the canoes is amenable to rational explanation. Are there any NZ scientific types who are also keen sailers who might propose a solution?

    For instance, are there different relative merits when comparing long transoceanic voyages, or even just island-hopping, versus lengthy coasting trips and fiord-exploring? Or does the common presence of lagoons in Polynesia, and their absence in NZ, matter? Are there reduced needs for navigational sophistication in NZ waters, and could that bias the choice of type of boat? Given what master mariners the Polynesians were, I'd assume that an entirely rational solution exists, and it's just a matter of finding it.

    1. I'm certain there's a reason for it, and that it was a conscious choice. I don't know enough about Maori material culture, though, so I've no idea why! It's one of those old questions, like why Tasmanian people didn't eat fish despite living on an island and why Polynesians gave up on pottery, that normally end up having a simple and rational solution.

    2. One explanation seems to be that Polynesian warfare(as compared to other austronesian langauges). was based on collecting mana(honor) and that bow fighting just wasn't very honorable you see that in african tribal wars. where honor evolved into conquest. you see and evolution of warfare.

      the polynesians also never needed to later on as guns were introduced to them when they embarked on conquest warfare rather than mana.

  2. I'm wondering if:

    Massaratty: Masarete in Kec. Waeapo, Buru - check here

    Ahtiago: Atiahu in Kec. Werinama, East Seram

    1. Ah, brilliant! Thanks a lot for that - very helpful indeed.


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