War Clubs of Polynesia, the art of violence.

19th century photograph of Fijian weap0ns -12 clubs and three spears.

The Pacific is the tribal club centre of the world and there is a  good and practical reason for this. Hardwood trees were abundant in most of the Pacific, while iron was virtually non-existent before the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Of course clubs were not the only weapons used in Oceania. The full arsenal of offensive weapons included spears, bows and arrows, slings and bone daggers, but it was the club that received the most lavish decoration and flourished in a wider variety of forms than any other weapon.

This was particularly true of Polynesia where, with the minor exception of canoe shields used as barriers to protect the Fijian war canoe crews against enemy bowmen, shields were unknown. Since shields offer very effective protection against arrows, spears and sling stones, it is worth asking why this should be so. The answer seems to lie in the cultural values of Polynesians themselves.  Clubs are aggressive, one-on-one offensive weapons requiring skill, strength, speed and agility, and this fits both the Polynesian idea of waging war and their concept of individual worth.

Old postcard depicting a staged Fijian club duel shows how clubs were held and used.

In Polynesia, war was an activity fought between groups, but waged by individuals, each seeking to prove his personal prowess. As a result, the competition for fame and mana (personal charisma and power) within the Polynesian warrior class was intense. It was quite a common, for example, for Maori war leaders to fight one on one duels as proxies for their armies, and there were complex rules for these jousts.

In fact, the Polynesians had elevated club fighting to an art form, and young boys in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand spent hours mastering the arm, body and foot moves necessary to use various types of club effectively – skills their lives would depend on.

There were three basic types of Polynesian club. Long or staff clubs, (which could be anything from a young tree trunk with the roots cut short to the elaborately incised   Tongan  and Fijian pole and paddle clubs),  short stabbing clubs, like the Maori pate and pare, and throwing clubs like the Fijian ulla.

Fijian rootstock club. Note the contrast between the crude head and the finely engraved hand grip.

Fijian wielding a totokia skull piercer.

Of all the Polynesian people, the Fijians were the most prolific club makers. They had perfected the art of growing clubs by tying young branches at right angles to the trunk so that they could be harvested as L-shaped billets with a short, thick arm to form the head of a club. They also delighted in producing many different types, often with a specific function in mind. The totokia, for example,  had a long point at the end of the head which could be used to neatly pierce a hole in an opponent’s skull once he had been felled by the broad side.

Each Polynesian culture had its own favoured style  of warfare and produced the clubs required to execute it. The Fijians were experts at all types of club warfare, and are well known for  long clubs whose heads had sharp edges – real bone breakers – but they are perhaps best known for the short ulla or round headed throwing club. Each Fijian warrior would go into the fight with three or four tucked into his belt.

Head of a povai or "baseball bat club". Note the typically Tongan intricacy of the carving which covers the entire surface

  The Tongans, who were big men, favoured heavy paddle and pole clubs, such as the bovai, a baseball-shaped club, but longer and heavier and wielded them with force, but these weapons were usually decorated with the most intricate and delicate geometric engraving, often covering the whole surface of the club.

Samoans used the nifa otti with rapier-like speed.

The Tongans  were opposed by the smaller and lighter Samoans, who’s most famous club was the saw toothed nifa otti.  Samoans were said to  have fenced with this club with such speed and agility that they were able to catch and deflect the longer and heavier Tongan clubs with the hooked teeth, flick them away and then stab upward at the opponent’s unprotected body with the sharp tip.

Maori handclub carved in whalebone. Note the protective figure below the blade.

The Maori too were prolific club makers and created a wide array of long striking clubs and short stabbing clubs, with the most prestigious made out of jade, stone or whalebone. These were often plain, but always elegant.

Strangely enough, with the exception of the large u’u of the Marquesas, which is  a status staff rather than a weapon,  there are very few clubs from  other parts of Polynesia besides Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in European  museum collections – Captain James Cook, the first scientific collector to explore the South Seas, certainly  does not appear to have collected any in Hawaii or Tahiti. 



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