Uncovering the family history behind an axe

Uncovering the family history behind an axe

In the second instalment of blogs highlighting the South African Collection, Summer Scholar Courtney Powell introduces a fighting axe with a connection to one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s famous families.

An axe. It has a long wooden handle and a T-shaped blade
Fighting axe, maker and date unknown, South Africa. Gift of Wellington College, 1973. Te Papa (FE006440)

Our next object from the South African Collection is a fighting axe. It is 18cm in length, made of a curved iron blade mounted on a long, polished wood handle. We know the axe was produced by a blacksmith in South Africa, but due to limited documentation, cannot be attributed to a particular person or group of people. It was likely made during the early 20th century, but a specific date is not known.

The axe was classified as a war hatchet when donated to the museum and axes like it would have been traditionally used during battle. The style of axe is common across Southern Africa, similar weapons were used by tribes across modern-day Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The fighting axe stands out for its explicit identification as a tool of war, as other axes in Te Papa’s holdings do not specify their intended use. However, it is indeterminate if this particular axe was used during battle. In contemporary times, this type of axe is an implement used during Zulu dance performances.

Captain Seddon’s Collection

This piece was added to the museum’s collection in a donation made by Wellington College, one of 103 objects which formed the Captain Seddon Collection. These were objects collected by Captain Richard John Spotswood Seddon (1881–1918). He served in South Africa in 1899–1902 and he was 19 years old when he volunteered for the war. Seddon was the son of long-serving prime minister Richard John Seddon (1845–1906).

Captain Seddon’s collection included pieces from South Africa and Australia as well as Niue, Sāmoa, and the Cook Islands. It is likely the fighting axe was obtained during his time in South Africa during the war. He was later killed in action during World War One in 1918 at the age of 37.

From Wellington College to the National Museum

After his death, Seddon’s collection came into the care of his sister, Dame Elizabeth Gilmer née Seddon (1880–1960). Captain Seddon had attended Wellington College from 1896-97 and Dame Gilmer donated the collection to Wellington College’s museum in his memory in 1932.

The collection remained in their care on display until the original College Memorial Hall that housed the museum was demolished in 1968. Subsequently, the replacement hall which opened in 1973 was unable to house all of the school’s collections, hence Captain Seddon’s collection was donated to the National Museum, and these objects remain safe in Te Papa’s storage to this day.

How Captain Seddon’s collection came to be cared for demonstrates another way that Te Papa acquires items, as a passive party accepting donated material that is offered to it. This differs from more active acquisition such at the purchases at auction or from individuals explored in the post on the marimba.

Sounds of the South African Collection: a closer look at the marimba

Colonial encounters

The fighting axe is a significant piece of history for its linkage to one of New Zealand’s most well-known families and the connections of empire that intertwine our history with that of South Africa. Aotearoa New Zealand’s eager participation in the South African War saw 6,500 troops volunteer to fight. The country’s participation affirmed the connection New Zealanders, as an outpost of the British Empire, felt with the Empire and took men to a place most had never visited before.

The 1973 acquisition of Captain Seddon’s collection demonstrates the ripples of this contact and the legacy of these events on our present times. It highlights Te Papa’s history, when the objects were originally classified for Wellington College by the Dominion Museum director, W. R. B. Oliver, then were acquired by its later iteration, the National Museum by its director R. K. Dell.

The fighting axe has an important history that cannot be known in its entirety but speaks to the impacts of colonialism in both South Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand, cross-cultural connections, and relations of empire.

Further reading

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