Sharks Tooth Sword

A weapon unique to the Gilbert Islands

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

This is a weapon known as a 'Tebute'. Itís made from the seasoned wood of a coconut palm, with cutting edges made from sharks teeth! The teeth were attached to the wood with a fine cord, spun from the hairy coating of a coconut. Such weapons were unique to the Gilbert Islands of Micronesia, in the central Pacific. 

The islands, today known as the nation of Kiribati, may seem idyllic to us, but lack natural resources beyond fish and coconut palms. In previous centuries, long before contact with Europeans, population growth led to ritualised conflict over the islands, involving a warrior class similar to Japanese Samurai, who fought with these weapons, and wore thick suits of protective coconut fibre!

This sword was given to Whitby Museum in 1841 by a Captain Thomas Wellbank, on his return from a voyage transporting convicts to Australia (a common and harsh punishment at the time). Many Whitby ships made this long voyage in the early years of the 19th century, and would stop off along the way to take on supplies and trade.

Discussion Ideas:

  • What other things do you think could be made from fish and coconut palms?
  • We are told the only natural resources the Gilbert Islands have are fish and coconut palms, what other basic resources will the islanders have to import to survive today?
  • What would be the most important thing for you personally to have with you if you lived in a such a remote place?
  • Find out about Japanese Samurai - see if there are other similarities between these two cultures apart from their armour (these are links to other My Learning resources about Japanese Samurai)
  • Why were convicts transported to Australia? Here is a link to another My Learning resource that will help you research this question.

Young person's response to this object:

This looks very vicious, much scarier than any metal sword Iíve seen. How long would you be chasing sharks to make this?  Tom Burke

This is where the Gilbert islands now called the Kiribati are. Zoom out to see how very remote they are.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Whitby Museum | 
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