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Musical instruments from the South Seas, by Joshua Steele, 1775

18th century British naval journeys to the Pacific excited tremendous interest, particularly in the wake of the 'Endeavour' expedition led by Lieutenant James Cook in the years 1769-1771. The purpose of this voyage was scientific, to aid in the Royal Society’s observations of the Transit of Venus in Tahiti. However, accounts of these new worlds and the returning collections of natural history and ethnographic material was quite unlike anything else seen in London. Visiting Islanders, most famously Omai, became celebrated society figures. By 1780, the fledgling British Museum had a South Seas Room, dedicated to material collected by Cook and others on their voyages of discovery.

Among the many specimens and man-made objects gathered in the South Seas were musical instruments. In this sequence of manuscript letters, a selection of flutes and pipes from Tonga and Tahiti is described in an unusually scientific manner by the musical theorist Joshua Steele (c.1700-1796). Steele’s first artefact was collected, not by James Cook, but by Captain Tobias Furneaux (1735-1781) a relatively unknown figure in 18th century British exploration. It was Furneaux, as second lieutenant aboard HMS 'Dolphin' during Captain Samuel Wallis’s expedition to the South Pacific in 1766-1767, who would claim the island of Tahiti for the English Crown.

Furneaux joined Cook’s second expedition, commanding HMS 'Adventure' to Cook’s 'Resolution' and this must have been the source of the Tongan flute sketched into Steele’s letter. Additional Otaheite instruments were loaned to Steele by Sir Joseph Banks, soon to be the Royal Society’s President.