World cultures

World cultures

Earings Bronze
Silver earings from Tibet Bronze from India

The museum has an important ethnographic collection, reflecting the worldwide travels and trading connections of local people, particularly during the era of sailing ships. Following Captain Cook’s explorations, Whitby merchant ships were commissioned to carry thousands of convicts to Australia. Typically, they then crossed the Pacific, calling at islands en route for fresh water and food, to pick up cargoes from China or India before sailing home. Much of the collection consists of items brought back by the captains of these ships, who vied with other to add ‘curiosities’ to the collection of the fledgling Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society.

Japanese Samurai Warrior in full armour probably
acquired in Canton since the Chinese had some illicit
trade with Japan, which was closed to foreigners till 1860

The result is a notably early collection of Oceanic material, largely collected and donated to the museum before 1840. The weapons and status objects obtained by the captains on their fleeting visits to the South Sea Islands are complemented by examples of more domestic items, such as fishhooks and bark cloth collected by the first missionaries. All show the ingenuity of the Polynesian peoples in fashioning the necessities of daily life on islands with no source of ores for metal objects, or clay for pottery, or animal fibres for clothing.

The New Zealand collection is particularly noteworthy, containing weapons, carvings and cloaks collected as early as 1831 (except for missionary outposts, the first British settlers arrived in 1840). There are also several superb and rare items presented to the second Marquess of Normanby when he was Governor of New Zealand in the 1870’s.

Maori House figure representing ancestor gods

Collections from other parts of the world also reflect the extraordinarily adventurous lives of Whitby people. John Beecroft was a merchant adventurer who was eventually appointed as the first Governor of Dahomey in West Africa. Before quinine, the West African coast was known as the White Man’s Grave because so many died from malaria. Yet Beecroft travelled extensively and received many gifts now in the museum, such as headmans’ robes and an Amazon warrior’s costume. The Cabboceers Stool (or ‘throne’) given to Beecroft by the King of Dahomey in 1851 is a rare item.

Caboceers Stool
Caboceer’s Stool from Dahomey

The Beecroft collection marks the start of British colonial expansion in Africa and is contrasted with collections from South Africa made by late Victorian missionaries and with West African handicrafts collected by a headmistress in the 1950-60’s, at the very end of the colonial era.

Beaded Calabash from the Cameroons

In most museums, the ethnography collections reflect the activities of connoisseurs who tried to amass, at second or third-hand, a comprehensive range of items from particular areas or peoples. In contrast, the Whitby collection is less systematic and more quirky, but retains its first-hand connection to the experiences of the local sea-captains, missionaries and colonial servants who saw, for themselves, ways of life far different to that of their home country. What they found interesting, unusual and worthy of bringing home tells us as much about them and the Whitby of their day, as it does of the lands they visited.

Totem Pole Totem Pole explanation
Totem pole from Nootka Sound