Many of the items in the Economic Botany collection were obtained before there was a permanent administrative presence in New Guinea - by trading ships, or by explorers and naturalists. The oldest artefacts in the collection are Papua nutmegs which were on sale in London in 1847. At this time, British ships had been in the waters surrounding New Guinea for some time, and the outline of the island had largely been charted.
The nineteenth century was a time of fascination with science, with an emphasis on discovery and exploration. Rumours about New Guinea slowly trickled back to the Western world, attracting those in search of adventure. One rather eccentric character was Luigi D'Albertis, an Italian explorer and naturalist who made several visits to New Guinea in the 1870s.
‘…Marvellous and I may say fabulous, were the tales which met my eye. I found descriptions of the boa constrictor, the bird of paradise, and of a species of gigantic bird said to measure twenty-five feet between the tips of the wings…'
L.M. D'Albertis in ‘New Guinea: Volume II', 1880
For a long time, these European excursions into New Guinea were limited to the coastal and low lying areas and it was not until much later that the existence of dense populations in the Highlands, the mountainous interior of the island, became widely known. The general conclusion by early explorers was that the central spine of mountains was a tangled, virtually uninhabited wilderness. Most explorations in the nineteenth century were short journeys on foot, or travel by boat up the many rivers into the interior.
The H.M.S. Challenger Expedition
One of the largest groups of artefacts in the New Guinea collection originates from the H.M.S. Challenger expedition of 1872-76, which stopped in Humboldt Bay on the north coast in today's Irian Jaya. The Challenger expedition was the first to be organised and funded for a specific scientific purpose, and is widely acknowledged to mark the beginning of modern oceanography. With standardised sampling techniques, the scientific crew obtained a set of data from over 360 locations throughout the oceans of the globe. The scientific results of the expedition were published in 50 volumes, including two summary volumes which contained details of the journey and anthropological information.
Although the research focused on the ocean environment, the ship naturally spent a large portion of the time in ports around the world, and specimens were taken of terrestrial plants and animals. Items collected on the expedition ended up in a variety of locations, depending on where they were analysed. Many of the botanical specimens were examined at Kew, the Director of which was Joseph Hooker - a member of the Royal Society's Circumnavigation Committee which proposed the specific objectives for the expedition.
The largest group of artefacts from the Challenger were a set of drift seeds collected off the north coast of New Guinea by H.N. Moseley. These were identified at Kew, and are described in the botanical publications from the voyage. There had long been an interest amongst botanists in the distribution of plants by oceanic currents and tides, and Moseley had paid attention to drift seeds whenever he accounted them during the Challenger's voyage. Ethnographic items were also collected by trading with the inhabitants of Humboldt Bay, where the ship stopped overnight. Moseley describes the trade in his book ‘Notes by a Naturalist on the Challenger,'
‘As soon as the ship anchored again, the natives crowded round the ship, and barter recommenced most briskly…the natives passing up their weapons and ornaments stuck between the points of their four-pronged spears and receiving the price in the same manner.
The constant cry of the natives was “sigor sigor”…found to mean iron…Iron tub-hoop, broken into six or eight-inch lengths, was the commonest article of barter, but most prized were small trade hatchets, for which the natives parted with anything they had.'
Attempts were made to land in Humboldt Bay, but the inhabitants responded threateningly. Neither could the crew persuade any of them to board the Challenger, in order to establish more friendly relations. From this, they concluded that the inhabitants might have been mistreated since the Dutch ship ‘Etna' had spent a long visit there in 1858, as reports from this time were very different. The fact that natives were quick to point out the place where drinking water could be collected showed that they were relatively used to ships stopping there. The Challenger set sail in the evening of the 24th February, after only one night's stay in New Guinea.