Tongan war clubs are weapons usually known by the term ‘akau, which means stave. Tongan clubs are one of the few instantly classic and easily identifiable artifacts from Polynesia. They were widely collected from the period of James Cook’s voyages in the 1770s onwards, and reflect the militaristic collecting interests of sailors and traders, as well as a vigorous demand for non-western weapons in the European curiosities markets.‘Akau, along with spears, were the principal weapons of war in Tonga up until the middle of the 19th century, despite the introduction of firearms from western sailors and traders from the late 18th century onwards.
Apart from warfare, ‘akau were also found within a broad range of other cultural contexts, from sport, to religion, performance and dance, as well as having the important chiefly status or mana possession of an ‘akau bestowed on the owner. ‘Akau can be found in numerous variations and types, and the decorative complexity and labor-intensive manufacture reflect the high value and status the clubs had within Tongan culture.
The Skinner May 2020 auction includes two examples that represent quite different uses. Both carved from ironwood, the paddle style ‘akau with the wide blade and crescent inlaid ‘eyes’ (lot 1056) was no doubt used for dance and possibly religious ceremonies. While the pole style povai club (lot 1057) was more of a weapon of war, the initial head strike at an opponent in combat would usually stun and fell them before more blows followed.
Despite this sometimes deadly purpose, Tongan clubs are certainly some of the most artistically creative and beautiful artifacts that originate from Polynesia.
Mills, Andy. ‘Akau Tau: Contextualising Tongan War-clubs. Journal of the Polynesian Society, The, Vol. 118, No. 1, Mar 2009: pgs 7-45.