Site: Brandon, Suffolk and Nuku’alofa, Tonga, south Pacific
What it represents: The 18th and 19th century expansion of European trade, culture and aggression around the world
The plinth stone: A gunflint for a common musket
Provenance: Made in a workshop in East Anglia and found on Salote Road, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, on January 16 1995
Material: Black flint
Maximum dimension: 35mm
Loaned by: M Pitts collection
In 1995 I found a gunflint on the dirt track on the way to the Post Office in Tonga, a quarter of the way between Australia and Chile in the south Pacific. These distinctive artefacts sparked the powder in flintlock guns. From its style and material, it seems likely that this flint had been made in Norfolk or Suffolk. If so, it had probably made the journey on board a Royal Navy or private ship some two centuries before.
One possibility would have been on the Port au Prince, whose fate was particularly well recorded in a book that is now a key text for Tonga’s history. The Port au Prince was a 96-crew French warship that had been captured by the British, and ended up in private hands. In 1805, on a round-the-world voyage of trading, piracy and whaling that began at Gravesend, Kent, she was wrecked in Tonga, and most of the crew killed. The teenage William Mariner survived, and was adopted by a local chief. A few years later, he escaped on another ship, and his story was published in London in 1817.
Amongst much else, we learn from this memoir that on board the Port au Prince were barrels of gunflints, as valuable to Pacific islanders as to European sailors. Mariner noted that a Hawaii chief had acquired 2,000 muskets from various American ships: without the flints, which could only be obtained from Europe, the guns were worthless.
Back in England, there is a pub in Brandon, Suffolk, called the Flint Knappers. It is not far from the neolithic flint mines at Grime’s Graves (Norfolk), and the Lingheath pits (Suffolk) that supplied flints on a grand scale for muskets, carbines and pistols in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Round the back, before it was bulldozed when the pub was modernised some years ago, there used to be the decayed but still standing remains of a gunflint workshop. Many of the craftsmen’s tools and equipment were inside, and a great mound of flint waste was outside.
This workshop, or at least one extremely similar to it, was recorded in the 1870s by Sydney Skertchly. He also illustrated and described in some detail the tools used, and the different types of gunflint. These ranged from “large swan” and “best horse pistol, double edged” to “fine pocket pistol” – 33 in all. The Tongan flint precisely fits his description of a “common musket”.
Gunflint making was a tough industry, in which the men, who worked indoors, often died young from inhaling the fine dust and developing silicosis (flint is almost pure silica) –though Skertchly blamed their illnesses mainly on “the consumption of drink”.
The earliest significant European voyagers in the Pacific, such as the English James Cook who made three expeditions (1768–79) could be respectful and admiring of indigenous people and culture. Later individuals and governments were typically interested in what they could take, regardless of the local costs. Alien diseases, theft, slavery, murder and inappropriate cultural introductions, particularly missionary Christianity, which could be severely enforced, took a vicious toll. Unusually, Tonga itself was never formally colonised by an European power.
AJ Forrest, 1983. Masters of Flint. Terence Dalton (Lavenham)
John Martin (3rd ed), 1827. An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean… Compiled & Arranged from the Extensive Communications of Mr William Mariner, Several Years Resident in those Islands. Constable (Edinburgh)/Hurst, Chance (London)
Mike Pitts, 2001. Long reach of the flintknappers. British Archaeology Apr 2001, 46
Sydney BJ Skertchly, 1879. On the Manufacture of Gun-Flints, the Methods of Excavating for Flint, the Age of Palaeolithic Man & the Connexion between Neolithic Art & the Gun-Flint Trade. HMSO (London)