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September 05 2012

Captain Cook’s Nuu-chah-nulth Club Is Bound For BC


A featured article in Maclean’s reports that after 234 years abroad a sculptural club gifted to Captain James Cook by Nuu-chah-nulth Chief Maquinna in 1778 is back on public display in British Columbia. Donald Ellis Gallery has negotiated its transfer to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, with funding provided by the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Measuring 32cm in length, the yew club is believed to have been gifted to Captain James Cook on his Third Voyage to the Pacific by Nuu-chah-nulth Chief Maquinna in 1778. Sailing off the coast of what is now British Columbia to look for the Northwest Passage, Cook had moored his ship in a cove near the Nuu-chah-nulth village Yuquot, on Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound, before sailing forth to Hawaii. 

Like other works in James Cook’s possession, the club first went to his widow, Elizabeth, and then began a long journey through the hands of art dealers, collectors and scholars. First sold to Sir Ashton Lever, a London aristocrat who housed it in his Leverian Museum, the club was auctioned off in 1806 and acquired by another owner in England. It stayed in that family until the 1950s, when it was passed from a New York art dealer to a Washington family, and then back to New York. In late 2011, it was sold to Donald Ellis from the estate of American collector George Terasaki. 

The club was purchased by Michael Audain, a Vancouver-based philanthropist and prominent figure in Canada’s art scene who is known for taking an active interest in repatriating Northwest Coast First Nations art to British Columbia. 'I was aware of the fact that if he acquired it, he would gift it,’ the article quotes Ellis. Ellis and Audain have since negotiated the donation of the club to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, making it the only piece from Cook’s collection held by a Canadian museum.

The club is carved in the form of a naturalistic hand clutching a sphere, which might represent the sub, the moon, or even a human head. Yet the exact use and symbolic meaning of the imagery remains hidden. As the author notes, British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology ‘houses other, less expertly carved yew clubs with the same motif.’ Yet these are ‘larger and less delicate, suggesting that the club given to Cook served a ceremonial rather than a practical purpose.’

Seeing it ‘was overwhelming,’ Margarita James, the president of the Land of Maquinna culture society comments. ‘You could almost feel the power of the elders, the power of the chief’s family that gifted it.’

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