The Tamil bell

In 1836 a missionary in New Zealand learned of a strange artefact that had been in Māori possession for several generations: a bronze bell with an unfamiliar script. The script was Tamil, the bell came from Sri Lanka, and it was hundreds of years old.

The Tamil bell
John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Conspiracy theorists love so-called “out-of-place artefacts” – objects that are found far from their expected milieu. There’s also a long history of pseudo-historians attempting to rewrite the story of the arrival of humans in New Zealand, usually because of implicit racism. So I’m just going to begin this post by saying that this object is not evidence of a conspiracy, a secret history, or any of that claptrap. It is, however, a genuine mystery.

The missionary William Colenso was a significant figure amongst the early European visitors to Aotearoa / New Zealand. He printed the first Māori-language New Testament, sent many unique botanical samples back to the United Kingdom, and witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – considered the founding document of the country (we just celebrated Waitangi Day, which commemorates its creation, yesterday). In 1836, just outside of Whangārei, Colenso bartered with local residents for a strange artefact: a bronze bell.

This bell was a bundle of mysteries. The first European had stepped foot on the country just 67 years earlier, but this bell had been used as a cooking pot for generations – despite an absence of bronze-working anywhere on the island. And it was inscribed with a script completely unfamiliar to Colenso.

Later research identified the writing – Old Tamil, from the area today known as Sri Lanka – and dated the bell to some time between the 15th and 17th centuries CE. The inscription reads “the bell of the ship of Mohaideen Bakhsh.”

So, what does this mean? It’s possible that Tamil sailors got as far as New Zealand, but seeing as there’s no oral history record of such contact it’s more likely that the bell washed up from a shipwreck. The short answer: we don’t really know how it got to Whangārei. The Tamil bell is now held in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum.

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