By Leif Birger Holmstedt
The Department of Ethnography at the Danish National Museum has one of the largest and finest collections in the world of artifacts from Oceania, Melanesia and Micronesia with more than 9,000 objects of which the largest part was acquired between 1845 and 1959.
A large number of these objects were collected in connection with the two comprehensive Danish Galathea expeditions of which the first took place between 1845-1847, whilst the second was from 1950-1952. Even if these expeditions didn’t have Ethnographic as a particularly important item on the agenda, the 1,000 odd collected objects were a considerable bonus to the Department of Ethnography.
Another larger part was brought home by Axel Bojsen-Møller, the Danish globetrotter and ‘headhunter’, who collected about 3,300 objects during his five expeditions to New Guinea between 1934-1959.
Axel Bojsen-Møller was born on 30 August 1888 in Gødvad vicarage near Silkeborg. From early youth he was attracted to nature and consequently not interested in following the family tradition of studying theology. First he worked as a farmer, later on he became a graduate in agriculture, and in 1921 he bought a failing agricultural college, Vejlby Landbrugsskole, near Aarhus.
Axel Bojsen-Møller was a man of ideas – dynamic and innovative – and with the experience from studies in the USA in 1914-1915, he was certain to succeed: his agricultural college had to expand several times to accommodate the large number of students that applied for admission. However, in 1933 he had to sell the college due to growing problems in agriculture followed by a falling number of students.
After selling the college, Bojsen-Møller could now fulfill a dream he had had from boyhood since reading about the exploits of the legendary English explorers, Henry Stanley and captain James Cook.
After buying the Monsoon, a converted French fishing vessel, he planned to sail to New Guinea and lead an expedition into the unsafe and trackless jungle of the island where no white man had yet dared to go. He wanted to collect ethnographic objects from the primitive peoples of the island whose society had remained isolated for thousands of years, and who were still of the Stone Age.
When he returned from the expedition it was Axel Bojsen-Møller’s intention to sell the collected ethnographic artifacts to private collectors and ethnographic museums in order to establish a financial foundation for the expedition that could not expect any support from the Danish state.
While the ship underwent minor conversions, Bojsen-Møller contacted the curators of the Department of Ethnography at the Danish National Museum and the Danish Zoological Museum to inform them of his impending expedition that was certain to be of interest to them since the collection of ethnographic objects and zoological studies were the most important tasks for the expedition. The curators showed great enthusiasm for the project, looking forward to expanding their collections with a large number of specimens from New Guinea and the many other islands the expedition was to visit.
Nautical instruments, charts, oilskins and weapons – all were found at the stores of the Danish Navy and willingly lent to the expedition. Private firms sponsored other important items such as quinine, vitamins, beverages and canned food. The large Danish company ØK – the East Asiatic Company (EAC) – offered to transport the collected objects home to Denmark at no cost.
As the leader of the expedition, Axel Bojsen-Møller did not have any scientific background: his knowledge was solely based on a foundation of professional experience as the manager of the agricultural college and a profound interest in ethnography.
During the exhibition, Axel Bojsen-Møller was accompanied by an ethnographer and a zoologist, while the crew of the ship consisted of a captain, a first officer, a cook and two ordinary seamen as well as the author, Hakon Mielche.
The Monsoon Expedition – as it was called – left Denmark on 16 October 1933, and the route was down the English Channel to the Bay of Biscay and on to Tenerife. From there, they were to cross the Atlantic and continue through the Panama Canal into the Pacific where the first goal was the Galapagos Islands followed by the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. The expedition had received introduction letters to foreign governments and Danish consulates from the Danish Foreign Ministry.
In August 1934, when the Monsoon had reached the island Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands, they encountered a hurricane-like storm where the sea suddenly rose and mountains of water surged down on the ship that was pushed over the coral reef and was sunk. It is a true miracle that both the crew and the dog survived this violent wreck. During the following days, through hard labor, miraculously they were able to save the ethnographic artifacts they had on board and bring them to shore from the wrecked ship. Then the artifacts were dried and packed in large crates that were made from the bulkheads of the ship.
After being marooned for two months on Vanikoro, the castaways obtained passage to Tulagi on the Solomon Islands, and here they had to wait for another two weeks for a copra steamer that would take seven members of the expedition and the collected ethnographic artifacts, first to Kavieng on New Ireland and then on to Europe, however the first officer had got a berth on board a ship bound for Australia. Axel Bojsen-Møller continued to New Guinea to live out his boyhood dreams of leading an expedition into the unexplored interiors of the island.
In Kavieng on New Ireland, Bojsen-Møller met McGregor, a former hunter of birds of paradise, who told Bojsen-Møller that large parts of New Guinea were unknown to white people, and that it was possible to find lots of curios, as he called ethnographic objects such as masks, figures and weapons. He also told him that the natives made dugouts with stone axes, and carvings with sharp sea shells, animal teeth or knives made from bamboo. They also conserved the heads of both their deceased relatives and the enemies they had killed.
Bojsen-Møller had no doubt that a man with this knowledge about the interior of New Guinea and especially the Sepik area was an asset as a participant in his expedition. After explaining his plans for the expedition to McGregor, Bojsen-Møller agreed with McGregor to lead an expedition by canoe up the Sepik River with small detours by foot into the unknown and at times swampy and impassable areas.
Just a few days after the Australian administration in Madang had given the necessary permissions to commence the expedition they went on the journey into one of the most dangerous areas of New Guinea. Their equipment consisted of tents, mosquito nets, blankets, cooking utensils, medicine, quinine, rum and provisions such as canned food, flour, coffee and sugar as well as a number of weapons and ammunition that were allowed to be carried with them for protection.
They had also bought goods for trading with the natives: steel axes, knives, fish hooks, razor blades, mirrors, matches and tobacco. The administration in Madang had also permitted them to buy six conserved human heads provided that they give information about where they were bought. The idea was that they should buy them as cheaply as possible so that the natives were not encouraged or tempted in any way into ‘mass production’.
On 16 November, the expedition left Madang and civilization behind, via McGregor’s big motorboat which was also to carry forty native estate workers who had completed their three year work contract and now were free to go back home to their home villages along the banks of the Sepik River.
On the third day of sailing the sea along the North coast of New Guinea, the motorboat reached the entrance to the Sepik River at Broken Water Bay, and the journey up the river could begin.
The expedition had visited several pile-built villages and had traded with friendly natives when they reached Angriman, 200 miles up the Sepik River. Here they left the motorboat to continue in two large canoes with eight native paddlers into an area where the natives were still unaffected by missionaries and Western culture, and where the Australian administration had not yet established its authority.
Before the expedition left Angriman, Bojsen-Møller had acquired an approximately 2 m long bass drum and a very rare Yambogia dance outfit.
A few miles up the river, they continued the journey along narrow and overgrown tributaries until the canoes were stuck in the rushes and had to be left behind. The baggage was then distributed among the native paddlers who had to make their way through rushes and miry ground until they reached open grassland with firmer soil.
Kniambit was the first village the expedition visited by foot. They witnessed an initiation for the young men who over two days had to endure particularly violent and painful initiation rites before they could be admitted to male society and gain access to the men’s house and its secrets.
The men’s house in Kniambit is a dominant feature just like other similar houses in other villages in New Guinea, both in terms of size and magnificent ornamentation. It was here in the men’s house that the disputes were concluded and where political meetings were held.
The men’s house was also the place for cultic meetings to take place and where the ritual implements were kept – implements that are among the most imaginative ethnographic objects of art in the world, decorated with an abundance of elaborate ornamentation and painted with strong clear colors. Both masks and figures were found in a large number of a rich variety of types, each with their own symbolic religious importance.
The skulls of the ancestors were also kept in the men’s house. After they had been remodelled, painted and decorated with various materials, they were attached to a stand and placed in a central location. They were deemed to possess a strong spiritual power even after the owner’s death. This power contributed to the protection of the new owners of the skull.
After the initiation rites, the natives were very eager to trade. In exchange for axes, fish hooks, pocket mirrors, razor blades, tobacco and matches Bojsen-Møller left with 134 objects including 13 idols of wood representing the spirits of deceased relatives, 9 war clubs, a canoe covering and a male figure in wood with pegs.
The collection was so abundant that Bojsen-Møller had to hire ten men to carry the ethnographic objects, wrapped to protect them, through the swampy ground back to the canoes. For their help, they received a couple of matchboxes and some fish hooks and were left to return to Kniambit happily.
Subsequently, they visited many villages, and despite being in “the uncontrolled area”, their reception was friendly and without incident, and almost everywhere they went they quickly made good contacts with the natives who were very interested in trading.
In Kanduanum, however, for the first time, the expedition met natives presenting animosity and aggression. Inspired by Stanley’s approach in Congo, McGregor used dynamite to blow a giant tree to smithereens! The natives were still prone with terror when McGregor, after another blast of dynamite in a nearby lagoon by the river, offered fish to the whole village; fish that were stunned by the blast and which could be gathered in baskets with ease.
This use of force made the natives friendlier and more hospitable. They showed a profound interest in the presence of the expedition; gifts were abundant and the trading was highly successful.
They journeyed for two months through one of the wettest and most swampy areas in the world luckily avoiding the “poisonous darts of the natives”, only for Bojsen-Møller and McGregor to fall sick with malaria. The expedition, with carriers and canoe crew, had to drag and float the collected objects back through heavy mud to the main river and down to Angriman. From here they took the motorboat back to Madang.
The collected objects, about 700 of them, were brought back to Denmark by the EAC.
Axel Bojsen-Møller’s approach to the natives may seem mercenary – even callous – since he bought or bartered to get objects that might have been an important element in the religious rites of the natives or perhaps that were utensils necessary for everyday life. Seen from a European viewpoint the things he offered in exchange were less valuable. This was not, however, how the natives perceived it: they considered it progress to exchange their stone axes and bamboo knives for steel axes and knives – tools that would make it easier for them to make huts, canoes and weapons. To the natives, the objects they gave up were not “art” – a concept unknown to their culture. This denomination was not used about the objects until they were taken out of context and placed in ethnographic museums or in private collections all over the world.
In the National Museum in Copenhagen and at Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus* many of the objects that Axel Bojsen-Møller saved from certain destruction are exhibited – after the missionaries had arrived to New Guinea and had established missions there, they did not hesitate to start burning the religious artifacts of the natives.
Later expeditions were:
The Mount Hagen Expedition – in the highlands of Australian New Guinea, 1949
The Expedition to Dutch New Guinea, 1954
The Mount Blücher Expedition – in Australian New Guinea, 1955-1956
The Sepik Expedition, 1958-1959
*The department of anthropology at Moesgaard Museum has about 1,000 objects from Axel Bojsen-Møller’s expeditions.
Axel Bojsen-Møller, Globetrotter og Hovedjæger, Eget Forlag 1960
Hakon Mielche, Monsunens sidste Rejse, Steen Hasselbalchs Forlag 1935
Flensborg Avis, “Gennem Jordens vaadeste og mest sumpede Land”, 1949
Flensborg Avis, “Ny Guinea har Plads til Millioner”, 1949
European Society for Oceanists, Third Conference, Pacific Peoples in the Pacific Century, Copenhagen 1996
Nationalmuseet, Etnografiske kulturskatte set gennem fleres øjne
Louisiana Revy, “Oceanien, Kunst fra Melanesien”, 1991
Telephone conversations with Kirsten Bojsen-Møller, New-Zealand, 2009.