Monday, 31 October 2016

The Adventures of a Curio Collector

     Every now and then one comes across people whose adventurous lives one can only envy. Thus, in my university days, when I imagined I had a future as a wildlife zoologist, I read George Schaller's account of his studies on mountain gorillas deep in the African jungle, even before Dian Fossey went in and did the same. Then I followed him as he studied lions in the Serengeti (I still have that book), tigers in India, snow leopards in the Himalayas, and pandas in China, among many others. The lucky devil! Again, to someone who spent the holidays of his bachelor days travelling the world, a major source of envy was Robert Ripley who, once his cartoon, Ripley's Believe It or Not! got started, never took a holiday, but travelled the world into far more exotic locations than a tourist like me could hope to enter, collecting items weirder and more wonderful than anything on the tourist trail.
    But recently, I came across yet another source of envy: Frank Burnett (1852 - 1930), whose 1,200 Pacific Island artifacts was donated to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and became the founding collection of the UCB Museum of Anthropology.  And I can't think of a better way to introduce him than to quote verbatim from this 1920 article by Francis J. Dickie.

     Some men's lives seemed marked for great adventure; to pioneer on land and sea seems their lot, and to wander among wild and curious people. Such a life was Frank Burnett's, the real life hero of this story, who stranger tales can tell of his experiences than you will find in many a book. He has done countless things that most boys dream some day to do, and, perhaps chief of all, made a wonderful collection. In his huge house on a hill overlooking the placid Pacific just beyond the city of Vancouver, Canada, he has gathered the greatest collection of things representative of other people of the past and present of the thousands of far-flung islands of the South Seas, ever by one man's single efforts brought together. He was born with a love of collecting; inherited it from his father, a bluff old Scottish sea captain sailing out of Peterhead, Scotland, that famous home of whalers fifty years ago [ie in 1870].
     At fourteen Frank Burnett went to sea [like my own great-grandfather, I might add]. Once all the sailors deserted to join a gold rush in Africa. Only the boy of fourteen, for this happened to be his first trip, stuck to the ship, and he, the cook, and the captain worked the vessel to a nearby port where a crew could be had. On his second trip he drifted in a leaking vessel for a month in the Bay of Biscay, spending most of the time at the pumps to keep the ship afloat, till he and the rest of the crew were nearly dead from exhaustion. At twenty years of age he became a purser on a Canadian river steamer on the Ottawa. He tried his hand for a few months later at business, and in ten years of wondrous striving, became a successful broker. Then at thirty, when most men are starting life, with sixteen strenuous years behind him, a great panic swept him to ruin.
     Penniless, but undaunted, the young broker came to the far west, then a lonely wilderness, without a railroad in it. From the Red River Settlement of Fort Garry, in Western Canada, now a great city called Winnipeg, he struck out into the west. He had brought a team of oxen and an Indian pony. The team drew a waggon with his few belongings, the oddest of which was a very huge, costly chair, part of his past magnificence, which he and his wife had clung to with the strange affection people often give to inanimate things. The pony drew a Red River cart, one of the oddest two-wheeled contrivances ever by man designed. It was made entirely of wood - hubs, wheels, axles - and squeaked to the four winds of heaven at every move. In this upon the great chair his wife sat enthroned with her two babies, both under three years old. Here and there a few settlers had started breaking land, and before them the last of the buffalo herds scattered. These men Frank Burnett joined.
    The life of a pioneer on the great prairies of Canada is filled with adventure and hardship. Fifteen years Frank Burnett worked, and all this time had been collecting various relics typical of the new land. Then the great emigration boom filled the land with settlers and gave him a little wealth, enough to make possible his devoting more time to his hobby of collecting. He had heard much of the South Seas, and in the year 1896 he made his first trip there, travelling on ordinary steamers. But this was too tame. The South Seas, with thousands of far-flung islands covering over five thousand miles of ocean bosom, were rich in little-known places, some of which were inhabited by dangerous savages who still took human heads and ate the bodies. Frank Burnett bought an eighty-ton schooner of his own, and in 1901 sailed away and for two years roamed, hobnobbing with strange tribes and gathering rare things representative of the peoples. He even carried off some of their idols. Angry Solomon Islanders chased him several times to his boat. Death came near him in the form of flying spears. But always he got his curios. To-day these, after twenty-five years of gathering, represent the greatest private collection of their kind in the world; and all are gathered by one man's work alone.
     The collection contains dozens of strange and rare idols; nearly a thousand spears and clubs from thirty different island; models of all the canoes used by the principle islands; some tools used only for cooking human flesh; feather money from a bird long extinct used on Santa Cruz; many human heads wonderfully adorned by the savages; fishing nets, all kinds of rare baskets, tapa cloth, and countless other things space does not permit here mentioning.

Reference: This article came from the Boy's Own Paper of June 1920, on the same page as the tombstone for a trout shown on my previous post.
    Of course, when the above article was written, he still had almost ten years of life ahead of him. According to this biography, he was granted an honorary doctorate in Law at the University of British Columbia in 1929, and the following year he died while proposing a toast to the city. Go also to James Johnstone's blog to see a lot of photographs of Burnett's collection, and his house.
    Both references cite four books on his adventures. Of these, Through Tropic Seas and Through Polynesia and Papua can be accessed on the Internet Archive. If you are reading this post some time after it was written, it is possible that the other two have been added to the list.

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