Recording date:


Treasures Curator Nat Williams explores the collection and documentation of tapa, or barkcloth, by Cook’s associates and other navigators.

A Treasures Gallery Access Program, supported by National Library Patrons. 

The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund.

Tapa Stories from the Pacific


*Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Nat Williams (N)

*Audience: (A)

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 29 October 2018


C:        Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Library, it’s lovely to see so many familiar and friendly faces here with us this evening. Welcome. My name’s Cathy Pilgrim, I am the Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Programs Division here at the Library. As we begin today I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.

We’re very grateful for our supporters for making this evening’s event possible. In particular we’d like to acknowledge the Australian Government for supporting the Treasures Curator through Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund. We also thank our wonderful National Library patrons who are supporters of the Treasures Gallery Access Programs of which tonight is one of those.

We’re delighted to be presenting In Cook’s Wake, Tapa Treasures from the Pacific as our current Treasures Gallery Collections in Focus exhibition. The exceptional items have been carefully selected from the Library’s own collections and some have rarely been seen since the voyages of Cook and his contemporaries.

In Cook’s Wake explores the encounters of Cook and other navigators with the people of the Pacific Islands through the Tapa or the bark cloth they were gifted or collected. Tonight the Library’s Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, will reveal some of the stories that he has artfully woven throughout this exhibition. Please join me in welcoming Nat.


N:        Thank you, Cathy. Well tonight I want to bring some stories from the Pacific to life for you. They span the period of European exploration in that vast ocean and feature Cook and his epic voyages and the subsequent incursion of Western civilisation and the missionaries. The stories amplify moments illustrated in the Cook exhibition, intersect with his personnel and those that voyaged with him and after him. Without doubt as the Cook and the Pacific exhibition demonstrates Cook’s legacy is freighted with contemporary anxiety over the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands and ways throughout the Pacific area.

Without his voyages however we here in Canberra would not have the remarkable collections we can now exhibit and use to explain the difficult histories they represent. So my talk will cover an overview of the European discovery of tapa cloth, discovery of tapa cloth prior to Cook’s voyages, a review of some of the material collected and illustrated in the wake of Cook’s voyages and the affecting story of the Hawaiian royal couple whose tragic demise in London in 1824 led to the acquisition of material illustrating their passage from one world to another.

I’ll be available in the Gallery afterwards for questions and more than happy to talk to you down there about other things in the exhibition. I can’t talk about everything tonight and in particular I’m not specifically going to talk about the big carpet cloth which is a great highlight of the Gallery and which my colleague and friend, Crispin Howarth, from the Nat – who’s just walked in and Erica Ryan who’s just walked in so Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Art at the National Gallery of Australia has written very eloquently about the big carpet cloth and I urge you to seek that out. I would like to acknowledge the support of both Crispin and Erica Ryan, our Manager of Australian Printed Collections here at the Library who both contributed significantly to the research and writing and have been great sounding boards for this project over the past couple of years. It’s been a great pleasure working with you both. It’s been a true and very effective collaboration between institutions and people.

I urge you all to get a copy of the exhibition catalogue if you haven’t got one, they’re in the Treasures Gallery and you can have one for a small or not so small if you choose donation so get one before they disappear.

In Cook’s Wake tapa treasures would be rather diluted but for the collections of Rex Nankivell. The amazing bounty accumulated by the collector over six decades in London whilst dreaming of his distant past on the beaches of Aotearoa, New Zealand fills this exhibition eloquently, poignantly and in the case of the tapa cloth masterpieces he collected also fills it elegantly. I want to publicly acknowledge Rex Nankivell, the extraordinary collector and storyteller who has been occupying my mind for some years now. Without his gifts this exhibition would simply not be possible.

I also acknowledge the [Perspicastian] 5:18 driven collecting of John Alexander Ferguson and Edward Augustus Petherick whose acquisitions also feature in In Cook’s Wake. To me these three men, two New Zealanders and an Englishman, are heroic figures whose collecting and building activities were both exemplary and visionary.

So to commence. Before the world knew cloth there was tapa or more properly bark cloth. Tapa was produced throughout the Pacific from the inner bark of trees grown and cultivated by its inhabitants. The main trees used for tapa production were the paper mulberry, the breadfruit and the wild fig. Over thousands of years bark cloth followed migration paths having originated in Asia where it was first produced and thence into the islands of the Pacific where its production flourished. By the late 18th century tapa was omnipresent through the Pacific in the islands encountered by James Cook and his fellow travellers. Its name was an early linguistic appropriation along with tattoo and taboo by Cook and his sailors.

Tapa was used for both clothing and household furnishings, it wrapped newborn babies and the deceased. It was lit as wicks in oil lamps. Sometimes scented it became a kind of sensuous second skin for the wearer. The repetitive thud of the tapa [bust] 6:50 being beaten into submission by legions of women filled the ears of Polynesian people for centuries. It was commented upon by Europeans visiting these communities. One visitor compared it to the familiar sound of grain being threshed in England’s fields.

Tapa was presented to important people on significant ceremonial occasions and it formed a key part of the rich performances staged by Polynesian people and witnessed by Cook and those that came before and after him. After Cook’s shocking death at Kealakekua Bay on Valentine’s Day 1779 his remains were, and I quote, decently wrapped in a large quantity of fine new cloth and they were delivered by the Hawaiians to his grieving men. Tapa cloth worked its way into all manner of exchanges throughout the Pacific.

The representation of tapa and its many uses as an outcome of these Pacific voyages is a strength of the Library’s pictorial collection and numerous works depicting exotic people wearing tapa cloth visualised after the original scenes were witnessed are included in this exhibition. These depictions give a sense of the profusion of imagery circulating to a public hungry for a - paradisiacal visons of a noble savage in their Pacific dreamscapes. Tamed and rendered safely into two dimensions the realities of this exploration was rarely imagined from the recipient’s position and the lack of awareness of language, cultural protocols and hierarchies often made for damaging engagements.

The English brought trinkets, death, venereal disease and their words and ultimately Christianity while the local people traded or gave up parts of their cultural largesse, tapa, objects, costume and their words. The production of tapa was however maintained in many islands even though European fabrics and clothing began to take hold and traditional uses of tapa diminished.

Depicted by Cook’s artist tapa was described by his men and collected widely by his sailors and those above them in the great cabin. Valued for its sacred and aesthetic qualities the variety and form and design attest to the creativity and the industry of the Pacific people over centuries. It is not surprising that large amounts of bark cloth were gifted, transacted or appropriated from the original owners then to make their long voyage to Britain and Europe. More often than not it was dissected as the human cargo of some later exhibitions would also be, to be circulated among collectors, museums, missionaries, friends and families. The aura of the Arcadian worlds of the Pacific could be experienced and the designs studied by the new owners. If there was money and some prestige to be made in trading and in publishing these tapa trophies then why not?

There is a strong focus in the exhibition on Hawaiian tapa cloth given its representation in the rare sample books produced in England by brothers, Alexander and Harry Shaw, after Cook’s Pacific voyages. Remarkable detective work undertaken by Erica Ryan into the production of these fascinating and highly collectible books has unearthed considerable new material giving these volumes a much clearer provenance and history and I really do urge you to read her fascinating and ground-breaking essay in the catalogue.

The Library is fortunate to own four copies of the Alexander Shaw books in the original and rebound formats. These exquisite books are the artefacts around which the exhibition has been imagined and constructed. The Library also holds this volume, a volume of cutdown bark samples in its Nankivell Collection. The Shaw success in printing and circulating their intriguing volumes in two issues produced in 1787 and 1807 led to the production of so-called snippet books which were created by collectors or dealers cutting fragments of tapa into smaller pieces thereby effectively creating a new version of the book that was a simulacrum of the original book but without the pirated essay contributed by Shaw’s editor.

The Library’s manuscript snippet book entitled Patterns of Cloth Made and Wore by the Natives of the South East Islands is visually rich and engaging. Its elegant handwritten listing of samples, their uses and place of production largely accords in slightly abbreviated form with Shaw’s sometimes spurious printed list and it has the same ordering of tapa specimens. However what is unusual about the Library’s manuscript version is that rather than stopping at 39 descriptions as in the printed list it goes on to list a total of 52 specific examples, for example the looping hand describes tapa from the Sandwich Islands used in boxing matches, a curious fact not mentioned in the published account.

So what is the context of this unusual and rather beautiful small book? Within the orbit of tapa cloth books there exist versions known as pre-Shaw books. These are manuscript versions which seem to lay out the text and give typographic directions for the final printed volumes. Is our manuscript copy in some way related to these interesting variance on the theme? Possibly. It’s interesting to consider the provenance to try to sort out this mystery.

The manuscript snippet book seems to have been acquired by Nankivell from the Reverend Park in 1965. Park was the Vicar for Martin in Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Cook’s birthplace. He had inherited Cook items from an associate of the Bolckow family but decided to part with them in his retirement as he wrote, there was no place in Martin where they could be kept in safety. You wouldn’t have thought there was such a burglary problem there but perhaps there was.

Perhaps the Library’s most remarkable artefact, James Cook’s Endeavour journal, MS1, was acquired in 1923 for £5,000 at the auction of Cook artefacts from the collection of Henry Bolckow MP, a prominent figure in Middlesbrough. It had come from Elizabeth Cook. It seems likely that the Nankivell snippet book came also from this source. Could it be then that this unique volume was some kind of precursor to the pre-Shaw books? It’s an interesting idea and possibly given maybe a little credence by the fact that 20% of the 70 snipped pieces included appear to show signs of being carefully stitched together as you can see here perhaps on the slide – I hope you can see it. Could this have been a private research project undertaken by somebody close to Cook then?

As can be seen here Cook’s widow, Elizabeth, was a keen sower and had access to both the ethnographic information required and samples collected. In time further research may reveal more about this beautiful little book. This is the details from the waistcoat downstairs in the exhibition – Cook exhibition.

Of course 150 years before Cook the Dutch voyagers, [Lemere] 14:23 and Schouten, had been the first Europeans to visit the Tongan islands. They observed and mentioned tapa being worn and recognised that it was fabricated from bark. [Lemere] recorded that the local people wore clothes of bark with which they covered their intimate parts. Schouten mentioned the funny colour of their protective clothes. However this engraved image accompanying Schouten’s account depicted naked Tongans on a double hull canoe.

In 1643 Abel Tasman visited the Tongan island of Middleburg and commented on the King’s tattooed men who presented him with food and gifts, a white flag and a cloth of bark from trees. Here the ritual of tapa, known locally as ngatu, was an important transaction but the imagery arising from the voyage depicting Tongans wearing plant fibre skirts rather than ngatu is to be seen on screen. It is possible that this is an allusion to either a folded mat, a finely woven mat or perhaps tapa cloth.

One hundred and 25 years later the Englishman, Captain Samuel Wallace, aboard HMS Dolphin blasted his way into Tahiti or King George III’s Island as he named it in June 1767. He stayed for a month in Matavai Bay. The arrival of the Dolphin was met with a huge number of Tahitians in many canoes who began by offering gifts in exchange for nails, beads etc while girls on board canoes were making – and it’s described – making all the lascivious motions and playing all the wanton tricks imaginable. This remarkable scene is described by Wallace in his journal along with the decimation wrought by his guns when the Tahitians began to sling stones at them.

This image on the left of the Tahitian Queen Obarea greeting Wallace and his men while holding a placatory branch of greenery, apparently acceding to his military might, is one in a long line of such images in which British power is asserted over recently discovered people whose lands were being appropriated. The image is a neat visual shorthand used to claim authority, to assert that peaceful negotiations were concluded and to garner public support.

It’s interesting I think to compare it to the Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Board which we’ve had in the Treasures Gallery and was produced 60 years later during the Black War in Tasmania.

The Obarea image was apparently derived from this earlier Wallace drawing in the State Library of New South Wales Collection showing the Queen clad in tapa and again holding a piece of greenery as she greets Wallace and his men. This drawing is presumably the earliest English image of tapa cloth being worn.

The exchange economy which developed during the Dolphin cruise stay whereby sexual favours of the young Tahitian women were traded for nails from the ship left the ship in danger of imploding and the practice had to be prohibited on pain of flogging. This set a pattern for future voyages as well. Inventively the local people however used the nails and metal implements gained by barter to facilitate the further embellishment of their tapa designs and carved objects.

In his poetical essay The Dolphin’s barber, Roger Richardson, eloquently describes encountering tapa cloth and its curious manufacture as you can read on the screen here and the piece that I’d note particularly is, it’s neither wove nor spun but made from wild and simple plants. Then he goes on, but no, it’s neither flax nor silk, cotton nor wool, though white as milk, and wrought with matchless pains, some coarse and fine and painted – so he’s really giving quite a nice description of this material which they’re quite interested in. They were interested in how it was worn, how it was not worn and the remarkable scale of the pieces quoted here as about 2 x 42m, that’s a sizeable piece of cloth as you can imagine, size of a swimming pool – narrow swimming pool.

In George Robertson’s account of the voyage he describes how tapa was given to a Lieutenant, six large bales of the country cloth from 6 to 8 yards in each bale were offered but refused as it was of very little use to us and certainly a great loss to them. This transaction which is finely worked through and they did take, it was conducted a little more than a week after arriving on the island and it suggests both that the local people quickly understood how to negotiate with the British and that there was honour in these negotiations.

Cook chose King George’s Island at Wallace’s suggestion as the location to observe the transit of Venus, the primary purpose of his Endeavour voyage. But only four months after Cook’s departure at Bougainville the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe also briefly visited Tahiti. He was unaware of the earlier visit by Wallace. In the nine days he spent at [Hitear] 20:06 Lagoon Bougainville was captivated as were his sailors by the splendour of the islands and the sensuosity of its people. In a land where bread literally grew on trees it was easy to wax lyrical about its charms. Bougainville named it Nouvelle-Cythère, the imagined birthplace of Aphrodite. As voyagers tend to do, he claimed it for France.

Tapa cloth was presented to Bougainville in some quantities. Sadly it appears that much of this material became dispersed during the French revolution. Bougainville’s post-voyage musing published on the role of man living in harmony with nature was quite influential.

Accompanying Bougainville was Philibert Commerson, botanist and naturalist to the King. Rather sneakily Commerson had taken his disguised lover, Jeanne Baret, with him as an assistant to collect natural history specimens and complete much of the legwork for him as [jong] 21:08 because he was infirm and not up to it. She was discovered in Tahiti but as her work was valued her presence was tolerated and I don’t think there was much else they could have done at that point but anyway. On returning to France uncelebrated but Baret was the first French woman and the first woman to ever circumnavigate the world.

In Commerson’s journals held in the Natural History Museum in Paris the naturalist carefully described and sketched the Tahitian scenes around him, pronouncing it a utopia. As seen here within the pages of his narrative are some rather naively documented images of tapa cloth and description of some of its uses. For the first time Europeans could view the ridged tapa cloth beater known in Tahitian as an i’e, labelling it as [baton perfear la toile] 22:00 or a baton for making the cloth. Commerson also drew an [obe u poncho daison] 22:07 or a [teputa] 22:08, a form of tapa poncho commonly worn by Tahitian men and you can see both of them on the screen.

Commerson is one of the first Europeans to record the prevalence and significance of tapa cloth in the Pacific. Many others were to follow. Between 1768 and his death in 1779 James Cook crossed and recrossed the vast Pacific Ocean. Over the space of 11 years he and his retinue sailed epic distances exploring but also exploiting, charming and being charmed by the Pacific Islanders they encountered.

At first Cook perceived it as an almost limitless ocean dotted with remote islands and native people or Indians but he came to understand that to the people living there the network of islands formed a sort of extended community. Cook’s question written into his final journal, how shall we account for this nation spreading itself so far over this vast ocean? Suggests a growing understanding of sorts. The sea was not simply an absence occupying the space between these islands but rather a set of navigable threads that wove them together.

The inclusion of the mnemonic Marshall Islands rebbelib stick chart graphically demonstrates the other forms of knowledge existing within the Pacific prior to colonisation. The Library’s lucky enough to have two. The exhibited chart on the left was used by the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe. It indicates islands marked by cowry shells and sailing conditions in both the eastern and western chains of the Marshall Islands. Unlike Cook these navigators and those they trained memorised their bamboo charts and sailed without them, intimately aware of the crests and the refractions of the ocean waves surrounding them.

Cook’s interactions with those he met were governed by naval orders which he resolutely and literally executed. He was to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of any people encountered. However Cook was also operating under the hints offered by Lord Moreton, President of the Royal Society to him, Joseph Banks and crew. In contrast with the naming and claiming expected by the navy Cook’s directions from Moreton were as they say today more nuanced. The navy asked Cook to cultivate a friendship and alliance with the locals through trinket-giving and he was also to encourage traffic with them. Traffic they did in surprising quantities.

Bark cloth from different interactions with people met in islands throughout the Pacific stimulated the serious interest – English interest in tapa and other artificial curiosities. Tapa, kapa, [ciapo] 25:09, hiapo, ngatu, [ua] 25:09, mahute and masi. The cadence and variety of these names for bark cloth echoes the diversity of the extraordinary designs of this Pacific staple and the uses to which it was put. Tapa created for a wide range of purposes, symbolic, prosaic, diplomatic. It was frequently mentioned by Cook and Parkinson or [toot] 25:31 and [patine] 25:31 as they were known to the locals. They were also frequently mentioned by their fellow voyagers.

Although preoccupied with matters of state Cook still manages to mention tapa cloth 60 times in his Endeavour journal. The 25-year-old Banks with more time on his hands mentions tapa about 130 times and the rituals of giving it and in the case of Tahiti the erotic charge of being presented with yards and yards of tapa by young women presenting and performing sensuous dances. Banks’ description of watching a young Tahitian woman wrapped in tapa gradually unrolling herself before him and then naked presenting the cloth to him is the stuff of fantasy. That’s what the description here but this is in Cook’s hand in the manuscript, MS1 downstairs.

Queen Obarea, Banks’ flame, described by Parkinson as a fat, bouncing good-looking dame who had a great quantity of cloth of all colours subsequently invited Banks to spend the night on her double canoe, an encounter in the course of which he loses his jacket and a pair of pistols. Obarea offers tapa cloth as a replacement and Banks notes in his journal, I made a motley appearance, my dress being half English and half Indian. This curious image of Banks, the educated, wealthy and youthful natural historian and substantial part-funder of The Endeavour voyage dressed in tapa is a potent one.

Pieces of tapa of all kinds, thick and waterproof but also light and like the finest muslin made their way home after Cook’s voyages, Banks’ temporary garments perhaps among them. Following Wallace’s lead Cook wisely enshrined in his rules for conduct in The Endeavour that no sort of iron or anything that is made of iron or any sort of cloth or any other useful or necessary articles are to be given in exchange for anything but provisions. He was making that quite clear.

The ill-fated Endeavour artist, Sydney Parkinson, depicts and describes the manufacture of tapa cloth in his engagingly written and posthumously produced journal. This thoughtful account controversially found its way into print simultaneously establishing the notions of tapa and tattooing in European minds but completely undoing the mind of his loving brother, Stanfield, the troubled publisher of the unsanctioned account. In this Parkinson image a native of Otaheite in the dress of his country, the bearded figure leaning on a staff, is accurately depicted wearing tapa. Wrapped around his head in the form of a turban and around his waist as a [murrow] 28:28 and covering his body as a form of cloak. The engraving conveys the style of address and the apparent practicality of wearing the much admired cloth.

On the opposite page of the book Parkinson describes the party who visited them aboard Endeavour. He says, some people of distinction, their clothes, carriage and behaviour evinced their superiority. I never beheld statelier men. The man illustrated here was one of them. In his second illustration a woman and a boy, natives of Otaheite, in the dress of that country, Parkinson depicts a local woman whom he described in his account as small compared with the men. The woman wears an [ahufara] 29:13, a soft tapa shawl-like piece of clothing around her shoulders and a [pareo] 29:17 wrapped around her waist. The young boy with his pet bird balanced on his finger wears a [murrow].

This image of a young boy playing his nose flute and wearing a fringed woven [taputa] 29:31 has since become a posthumous remembrance of young Ra'iatean, [Tiata] 29:35, Tupaia’s servant who perished with him after visiting Batavia on the homeward leg. The image created by Parkinson and later by William Hodges and John Webber from Cook’s second and third voyages respectively show Tahitians wearing tapa cloth unadorned and not carrying the designs and leaf prints seen later. I actually photographed these later Tahitian examples in the British Museum’s offsite store in London last year just as a [nousk] 30:04 counterpoint to what we’re looking at tonight.

The quality of tapa produced also varied in terms of its fineness and sheets of fine cloth were felted together and bleached for the noblest wearers, the [Arai] 30:21. The versatility evolved from the skilled craftsmanship of the makers who had refined their art and handed down the knowledge from generation to generation. The [taputa] poncho made by common people were more rudimentary, sometimes felted together from pieces of existing clothing, an example of sort of subsistence recycling if you will.

Parkinson wrote a lexicon of many Tahitian words which can be seen in part in the exhibition. He carefully records the name [auta] 31:01 or Morus papyrifera or paper mulberry as the plant responsible for the main source of tapa production and you can see it with the yellow line around it there. He also names various dyes and colours used in its production such as [tihinu] 31:15 and Etou, the leaves of which he notes are ingredients in their red dye or [matti] 31:23 for their cloth so –

The information recorded in the young Quaker’s posthumous account reveals a keen mind and a sharp eye for detail and adds considerably to the record of The Endeavour voyage. Parkinson not only described in prose what he witnessed but also sketched in pencil an image, a woman scraping bark to make cloth which is seen down the bottom here. The process is described in Banks’ journal where Tahitian women sit in running water and scrape the bark against a smooth wooden board with a shell until the outer bark is eroded and only the fine fibres of the inner bark remain.

In another drawing also seen here Parkinson records four women beating cloth. The process of beating the tapa into cloth is time-consuming and can require many people using as Banks records a hardwood [battoon] 32:21 grooved on each of its four faces with varying sides ridges used from largest to smallest turning it around in succession to create the patterned tapa cloth. Parkinson’s drawings are the first by any artist to accurately document the laborious process of assembling tapa from its constituent materials.

This apparently innocuous engraving of a view of Matavai Bay in Otaheite from One Tree Hill was originally drawn by Parkinson and featured a depiction of himself seated under the tree, an [eitoa] 32:57. The Tahitian vantage point was hammered with shells on Wallace’s earlier visit resulting in significant deaths and injuries. The printing grey by James [Barrellay] 33:10 carefully omits the figure of Parkinson but retains a crucial character, that of a sailor on the far left as you can see here who has traded a large swag of tapa, presumably for nails, and carries it off over his shoulder.

The seemingly unremarkable image simultaneously knits together two fateful voyages, erases an official artist from the historical record and celebrates the dominion of one British explorer by making visually concrete the exploration and documentation undertaken by Cook and his men all while one of his sailors carries off some loot.

William Hodges was the first classically trained artist to travel with Cook. Participating in the navigator’s second voyage undertaken to seek further proof that the fabled great south land did not exist Hodges’ exotic imagery worked up from sketches gave substance to the descriptions that would be later published. The Library’s engaging drawings, portrait of Tynai-Mai, Princess of Raiatea, [Odidi] 34:16 and Utu, King of Otaheite, all three from the Society Islands and completed in 1773 hint at the tapa cloth worn although only Utu is depicted wearing a fringe [taputa] bearing some patterning.

This drawing of an unnamed subject, a Tahitian wearing a cloak appears to document [hobooth] 34:44, the white fine form of tapa worn as a cloak solely by the powerful [Arai]. This now faded watercolour entitled Otaheite depicts another use for tapa. Here bark cloth is associated with the rituals surrounding Tahitian mortuary practices. In this landscape we can see a body wrapped in tapa lying on a tupapau, a funeral platform under a thatched roof. Hodges has stylised the scene and a muscular onlooker is added for both scale and poetry. Hodges has draped the tapa winding sheet below the platform so that it appears to catch the light, attempting to give it a sense of translucence, its whiteness clearly prized, especially in such an important ritual use. In some later instances described by Cook the tapa would be changed and the corpse undressed and then redressed by attendants.

A firsthand witness to British firepower was Mai, a young Raiatean man who was wounded in the invasion by Wallace. In 1773 on Huahine Mai asked Tobias Furneaux, the Captain of The Adventure which was visiting the island, if he might travel to England. Mai, or Omai as he became known, was middle rank mobility, a member of the Ra'iatea and a political refugee from his home which had been overrun by the people of Bora Bora. He sought guns and revenge. Furneaux agreed, against Cook’s reservations about Mai’s political intentions. The 22-year-old travelled lightly it seems, carrying only his tapa cloth, his fly-whisk and [eri] 36:23, a carved wooden headrest for sleeping.

Three days after his arrival Mai met King George III, King Tosh as he addressed him, and Queen Charlotte at Kew. Such was the impact made by the celebrity that images of him began to circulate very shortly after his arrival. A keen observer, socially adroit and a good mimic, over the next two years he charmed many of those he met in the British elite. Mai was generously supported by Joseph Banks and in return on one occasion he cooked his patron a meal in a dugout earth oven. Together they shot game, played cards and swam at Scarborough.

Eventually though Mai expressed a desire to return to Raiatea. Princely images of him elegantly swathed in tapa remain as a permanent reminder of his English experiences. In this now well-known engraving by Bartolozzi Mai stands before a self-possessed, tattooed, almost completely enveloped in tapa, both plain and patterned, only his feet, hands and head are visible. The image was taken from a drawing by Nathaniel Dance and printed in October 1774. The black and white image of Mai’s multilayered tapa clothing reveals not just how he wore it but also that he might have been feeling the cool English autumnal weather when the portrait must have been taken.

Mai also had his oil portrait taken wearing brilliant white and cream bark cloth and a white tapa turban but without his [eri] by the famous British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, a pioneer in producing images that supported the cult of celebrity. This portrait hung in the Royal Academy in 1776 and it would become Reynolds’ most famous and valuable work and he kept it throughout his whole life in his studio.

Of course Mai often wore the English attire tailored for him and Dance’s subsequently engraved image suggests both his and perhaps Banks’ desire to project to his London friends an image of power and prestige that went beyond Mai's middling station in Tahitian life. But this is not so much a classicised image of a noble savage wearing a form of toga, rather the tapa costume Mai wore for both Dance and Reynolds could well represent his aspiration to be seen as one of the powerful Raiatean [Arai] class. Presumably Mai took this engraved image back with him to suggest to his countrymen his importance in another realm. Mai returned to Raiatea but not to vanquish his oppressors as he’d hoped, instead he died from illness unrequited in his desire for revenge, aged only 29. His many possessions which he had received from British friends were appropriated and his tapa clothing was no doubt burnt as part of the required funerary processes. Mai's life was to continue however through these elegant images and a posthumous life on the stage.

Cook was charged with the responsibility of returning the Raiatean to his homelands and then secretly setting off in search of the fabled North West Passage. It was to be Cook’s final voyage but the two men’s lives would become entangled again, this time on stage in London’s West End 10 years later. Visiting Tahiti for the third time Cook and his men met with Chief Otu or Tu, they witnessed further dances or [hava] 39:52 and more troublingly a ritual of human sacrifice.

John Webber, the painter appointed to Cook’s last voyage left a considerable legacy of remarkable images and is represented in the exhibition with two engravings after his drawings and a major oil portrait. Webber’s A Young Woman of Otaheite Bringing A Present has become one of the best known images from all of Cook’s voyages. In it we can see ritual gift-giving intended to appease the relationship between visitors and the local people. It must have been light relief following the gruesome, protracted sacrificial events enacted only days earlier.

The young woman, an [ati] 40:36, one who offered such a tapa gift appears in what seems to be a rather theatrical view wearing both a dress, a large swathe of wrapped tapa cloth and two [taumi] 40:47, ceremonial but also protected feather [gorgettes] 40:49, gifts for Cook and Clerke. In his journal Cook commented that the tapa was held up over the girls’ heads while the remainder was wrapped around them under the armpits and then the upper ends were let fall and hung down in folds to the ground over the other and looked something like a circular hooped petticoat. Cook went on to write that the hole was not less than five or six yards in circuit and was as much as the poor girls could support.

The image then is not a theatrical [trobe] 41:23 but instead of a record of what must have been a rather remarkable and memorable moment. However there were actually two women and the presentations were – occurred on board the ship rather than on land. This image, Webber’s A Dance at Otaheite, engraved by Sherwin, was created as a composite view of Tahitian dancing. Nevertheless it seems an accurate depiction that clearly illustrates the complex ruched and fanned tapa costumes that the Tahitian dancers wore and also gives you a sense of the amount of tapa cloth that’s in the <inaudible> 41:58, it’s wrapping the instruments, everybody’s wearing it.

In December 1785 an educative pantomimic spectacle named for Omai and focused on Cook’s voyages and achievements opened to great success in London’s West End. Omai or A Trip Around the World promised much on its marketing materials and delivered possibly more. It featured a procession exactly representing the dresses, weapons and manners of the inhabitants of Otaheite, New Zealand, [Tanner] 42:31 etc, etc and the other countries visited by Captain Cook. The revolutionary ringleader of this ambitious farce was Philip de Loutherbourg who coordinated the team including Webber to entrance the London audience with special effects and stunning sets and costumes.

In the Library’s collection are 18 of the Loutherbourg’s water-coloured designs for some of these costumes. I’ve included two to suggest how the observations of Webber and others were recreated on stage and in print and how original tapa was augmented or ignored by de Loutherbourg so as to dazzle in the theatre footlights. While various [amilitude] 43:12 in design were stressed by the show’s marketers and assumed by the reviewers and audience the costumes and sets blended reality with illusion, both for effect and to create wonder. And it should be remembered the final scene of that spectacular was Cook being raised up to heaven in the apotheosis scene on stage.

Here we can see how Webber’s A Young Woman emerges by de Loutherbourg as the present woman of Otaheite. She’s now daubed with pretty pastel tones and wears a ribbon-trimmed bodice, arm and wristbands, her breast is modestly covered and she’s shown wearing ballet shoes. Webber’s earlier engraved image centred on a major tapa gift is now subverted into a balletic image of a hoop-skirted dancer appearing to wear bad fake tan. Similarly the tall bushy-haired figure depicted by Hodges in Utu, King of Otaheite, is seen appropriately robed but the tapa colouring seems rather imaginatively applied.

The imagery from Cook’s voyages was continually mashed up and then re-presented to consumers in popular magazines and journals and as we see here on stage for the edification of a willing audience but also to convey the expansionist messages of the British empire.

I won’t speak about the two Webber oils, one of which is in the gallery downstairs and one of which is in the Cook exhibition. They were much loved by the collector, Rex Nankivell, who bought them, giving one NK1, his first number in his catalogue but I’m happy to speak about them in the gallery afterwards if anyone’s interested.

To conclude tonight I want to briefly relay one of the most affecting stories in the exhibition. Significantly it is completely illustrated with visual material from Nankivell’s collection. The story also has a surprising link to tapa. I have written about this in some detail in the catalogue so give a very abridged version here to illustrate the passage of tapa between worlds and the hidden story as much of this portable material holds or can hold.

In 1822 in an effort to foster imperial ties Britain sent the gift of a schooner, The Prince Regent, carrying the missionary, William Ellis, to Hawaii’s Liholiho or King Kamehameha II. Liholiho had acceded the throne in 1819 after the death of his father and the young king decided to travel to England to meet George IV with Kamamalu, his half-sister and the favourite of his five wives to seek protectorate status for the Islands.

They were accompanied by High Chief Boki and High Chiefess Kuini Liliha and by a retinue of other chiefs and retainers. The royal party arrived in London on May 1824 and caused considerable interest in the press with numerous images appearing of them undertaking theatre visits. However the papers were sometimes openly derisive or patronising about their visit. The Times reported that King Kamehameha could have achieved his ambition just as well and learned more of British democratic institutions by staying at home. Very open-minded. Hence Brexit, I suppose.

While the King and Queen were in London oil portraits by John Hayter were taken which I just showed you before, sorry, those ones and then quickly rendered as prints for public consumption.

These two lithographs also by Hayter of the strikingly tall and commanding figure of Queen Kamamalu are on exhibition. The first of Tamahamalu – they couldn’t cope with their names so they just spelt them however they wanted to, pretty much – show her wearing the turban which was a hit apparently and much copied. The second portrait by Hayter is simpler and the lithograph states that her age was 22 years and that the original drawing was taken expressly at the wish of Her Majesty. Clearly Kamamalu desired a likeness no doubt to take home with her.

While in London they stayed in Osborne’s Hotel where they were swamped with oglers wanting to catch a glimpse of the copper-coloured royalty. All in all it was a giddy whirl of events and meetings. They attended a grand ball and later visited the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea, a school for orphans. It appears that during the visit the King and Queen may have contracted measles to which they had no immunity. They became ill and slowly deteriorated and died within six days of one another.

The talented and likeable Captain George Byron, cousin of the poet, was charged with the responsibility of returning the bodies of the King and Queen to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde. On board was surgeon, William Davis, and artist, Robert Dampier, and various naturalists including Andrew Bloxam, brother of the ship’s chaplain, Richard.

Nankivell collected numerous items seen in the exhibition connected with this poignant story including a superb collection of rare early Hawaiian tapa cloth. The folder holding the kapa carries an inscription acknowledging that the samples were collected by Dr Davis, the Blonde surgeon and given to a friend. Within the folder there are 38 samples in pristine condition spanning a good deal of the range of Hawaiian kapa cloth, the most diverse production in the Pacific.

From bright yellow turmeric dyed samples to delicately patterned diaphanous white samples through to many shades of brown to almost red and to black textured pieces. They are stunning. But how exactly did Davis acquire such a varied bounty? Reading artist, Robert Dampier’s account, I found the unlikely answer. It seems that Boki’s brother, High Chief [Karimoku] 49:43, also known as [Kalinomoku] 49:43 who’s pictured here and you saw earlier, was gravely ill, suffering from dropsy. Surgeon Davis was called upon to treat his bloating and tapped him, perforating his abdomen to drain off large amounts of fluid, bringing the Chief instant relief.

In gratitude for his lifesaving operation and other services Davis was given many handsome presents and our kapa samples must have been part of these ritual gifts. The Library is indeed fortunate to hold these fragile traces of an unlikely past encounter.

As an aside and a sort of footnote I want to show you these two exquisite Hawaiian feathered cloaks connected to Kamehameha II’s visit to England. The first is in the National Museum of Scotland, the second until very recently was in the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro which burnt down recently. It was a gift from Kamehameha to Don Pedro I, the Brazilian Emperor. The ship took a route via Brazil to London.

This demonstrates that whilst remarkable finds within collections can still occur we must never become complacent about funding and maintaining our key collecting institutions. The recent loss in Brazil is of global significance.

The thudding beat of tapa production across the Pacific might have dulled a little but it still rings out today. The legacy of Cook and those who followed him has irrevocably changed island life, not always for the worse but certainly there have been many low points over the past 250 years. In 2018 as we commemorate the 250th anniversary of the commencement of Cook’s first epic Pacific voyage the threats to the Pacific are much more global. Cook would no doubt notice the changes in the seas and places he once travelled. Tupaia and Mai would be shocked at the state of the ocean, the damage to their reefs and fish stocks. In a warming world subjected to rising tides and cyclonic winds it has become clear that the toll we have taken on the planet has the potential to overwhelm even the errors and problems of the colonial past. Thank you.


C:        Thank you very much, Nat, for your presentation this evening. Thank you for sharing with us how tapa is made, how tapa was worn, the cultural significance of tapa and also tapa as a first tool in diplomacy 250 years ago so thank you. We do have time for a few questions from the audience. We’ve got a microphone so if you have a question please put up your hand and we’ll hear from you and as Nat said earlier he will head down to the Gallery shortly so please join Nat in the Gallery for more conversation or to ask any further questions about the items that we have on display in the exhibition. But first an opportunity from you here tonight to ask any questions.

A:        Nat, I guess because you mentioned felting a couple of times and possible reuse of fabric that made me think about whether any of the records tell us whether the production of tapa was a household activity, a village activity or was kind of at production level in some way, whether it had been factorised. So is there much that tells us the circumstances in which it’s made other than the fact that of course it’s women making it?

N:        Well it’s interesting, and I can’t pretend to be an expert about tapa cloth production throughout the Pacific ‘cause it’s an enormous area but it’s sometimes – mostly made by women but not always, sometimes made by men. To produce a piece as I mentioned that was quoted as 2m x 42m long is almost incomprehensible and the idea that you could - these trees were usually only about – bit taller than me and grown and regrown and grown and regrown and they’re incredibly successful at doing it and they transplanted them place to place. So the idea that you're taking something at best might be about six-foot-long and then wet, felted tends to sort of ferment and then done, the felting process and beaten and beaten and beaten, it’s a communal activity and what happens is you have this enormous production.

So for example if there’s a special event, a special time of year, a coronation, a funeral they would often make huge pieces of tapa cloth and then – I think it’s ironic in a sense, while we kind of say aren’t those people naughty to have cut up the tapa cloth they collected in Cook’s time and put them into books and put them into albums etc but in fact people from the Pacific did exactly that. They cut up tapa into pieces ‘cause everyone could take home a piece of this and be connected to that event.

Yeah so it was a communal event mostly done by women but not always and I think the volume of material – when you think of heat and humidity and vermin, wear and tear, the stuff was going to wear out so either they were replenishing it by re-felting it or they were starting afresh and you just think they were continually – and hence the comment from the person who’s – you know the English person who says it was like the thud of the threshing in the fields because it was just happening night and day. Must have been a bit mindboggling, actually, bit sort of challenging in some ways living with the thud, thud, thud. But it also gave people an extraordinary range of creativity so the fact that they could make these patterned pieces, they could be huge, they could be small, they could be worn, they could be wrapping babies, it’s an extraordinary production.

There are some fantastic books in this Library on it and I commend you all to – when I’ve returned them – to have a look at them because we’ve got some really new books as well.

A:        You mentioned that tapa is one of the earliest cloths. How did you date that or how can you compare it with say linen from Egypt or something like this?

N:        Well I mean it goes back to China thousands of years ago so I mean we’re talking about something that’s happening around the world in different forms, as you say linen gets perfected and made in greater and greater – and then cotton comes along etc but thousands of years ago it was being produced in China and that sort of influx of people down through Melanesia and out into the Pacific thousands of years ago took that technique with them. So when you see a piece of sort of Japanese paper, that kind of textured paper, it’s essentially a form of tapa depending on what sort of trees they’re producing it from but the paper mulberry is quite popular there as well. So they were in the business of producing cloth, papyrus in Egypt but at the same time – not exactly the same time but people were making this stuff as they moved into the Pacific. For example there are Lapita age motifs on some things which carried through in tapa cloth and it’s possible that people don’t even know that the actual images that they’re using on these cloths go back thousands of years to the Lapita migration.

So it’s an interesting continuum and of course white people came into it and interrupted it and then augmented it and then offered different sorts of cloth and traded – I think in Susannah’s show – she’s here – in Susannah’s show one of the most interesting artefacts is almost prosaic to look at but it’s a little piece of red cloth about this big and it was a piece of cloth that Cook gave to the High Chiefess in Tonga in 1773, I think. It’s just a little piece of cloth and – because anything red in the Pacific was highly sought after like you see in wonderful cloaks. It was hard to obtain so these cloaks are made from small numbers of feathers from individual birds they then let go and bring back, pluck two more yellow feathers and so they’re a huge amount of work and very precious as a result but – so red cloth is something that was very important and you can see this starting at the very beginning but things like the people of the Pacifics were opportunistic in the sense they saw these people just invading and turning up. They had food, they had weapons, they had iron implements, they had all sorts of things and they had rats and a whole range of other things as well.

So there was a trade but they were also stealing things very carefully, cleverly, stealing things like Banksia’s shirt and his guns and then they get into this sort of interesting trade if you like so something like a piece of red cloth would be incredibly valuable to the person who had it and so that’s interesting, it’s kind of nice that that piece of cloth made its way back into the Library after 150 years or whatever it was but - not sure if that answers your question but I tried to. Anyone else?

A:        Nat, thank you for your talk. I just noticed something in an image you was showing it and I wondered whether you’d ever come across – it appears that they’ve got the mallet with the lines incised in it and – deep incised but they’re actually beating across an incised block like one of those very –

N:        Sorry, I didn’t go into it in great detail.

A:        When I was looking at the stuff in the show I was intrigued by how they could get such straight beating lines, you know? How those lines could be so beaten. If you were beating with something this way you would never be able to make it but it’s obviously -

N:        No. So as you can see here this is supposed to be [Karimoko’s] 00:42 wife, [Likalika] 00:42 who I don’t think was probably in the tapa production game, I think she was – probably had people to do it for her but – so this is the image of his home and I included it simply to show them wearing it, them beating it, that these amazing anvils that they had which were patterned and had <inaudible> 1:00 patterns on them, clubs, batons have different – so you can end up with a different pattern on the top of the body. We’ve also got this here that you shows you a piece drying in the sun.

A:        Are one of those anvils? <inaudible> 1:20?

N:        No, they are available. Crispin will tell us where they are, I’m sure.

Crispin:            Yeah, there’s a few of these <inaudible> 1:28 anvils around. If you look at these images you can see the lady’s got what looks like a rounded type of mallet which suggests to me – oh thank you – which suggests to me that the lady’s in the early stage of production but as Nat says this lady would probably not be doing the production herself but the anvil’s got those wonderful grooved lines upon it. Part of it when you look at the finer tapa cloths is really just pressing down and getting that imprint and it’s a painstaking process. There’s not much more I can add to it at the moment, though.

N:        I mean this <inaudible> 1:59 one very small image, I mean the actual print’s not very big. The print’s this big but it’s an amazing amount of information including a surfboard. I think this is a sort of a <inaudible> which is a sort of porridge that they make, fermenter, I think possibly but all that data in that slightly later period through French exploration, through [Arigo and Pellion] 2:23 but the fact that they’re showing these great wadges of cloth <inaudible> so you just have this sense that it was just ongoing, they were making it all the time, it was something that people took great care over but great pride in.

So when they were exchanging things with Cook and sailors, when it wasn’t the kind of exchange for a nail or some sort of gratification it was symbolically and highly charged, I mean they were kind of saying we acknowledge your power. And when Cook goes to Hawaii we all know about they seem to think he’s a god to begin with and then they kind of run out of patience with him when he comes back unfortunately but he was treated in this extraordinary way. So for him to be presented the kind of stuff that he ends up getting and then of course he dies so all that material then gets divvied up between people like King and others on the boats.

Yeah so it’s extraordinary but because it is fragile and not robust material you don’t expect it necessarily to last forever and we’re lucky to have what we have so that big carpet cloth that Nankivell bought which has got a provenance going back to Cook is an extraordinary – extraordinary. Although I don’t know if you noticed this, I put in <inaudible> 3:43 cigarette case. You can’t really see it but Harry’s got a fag hanging out of his fingers here and I'm thinking we get so caught up about how we handle our treasures and there’s Harry with a cigarette sort of smoking with the tapa cloth having just a quiet – Rex having just a quiet –

A:        Thank you, you just touched on a question I was going to ask and that’s the durability of tapa cloth. I suppose that was - which was worn would – could wear out or be destroyed when the individual died or something but the ceremonial pieces that were stored away and used for exchanges and things would they have been subject to infestations of beetles or something and rats, animals?

N:        Yeah, I mean I don’t – there’s a sort of sense in which there’s constant movement around this stuff, though, that people are wearing it, they’re producing it, they’re using it as room dividers, they’re sitting on it, they’re eating on it, they’re wrapping themselves up. Crispin makes a point in the essay, they’re talking about – there’s a sort of doona, a duvet-type arrangement where they kind of do multiple feltings and sort of have different layers of cloth so it was incredibly various production. The problem is that it couldn’t last that long and if you had a good downpour well then you got a problem.

In there I don’t know if you notice but when I put up the slide of Sydney Parkinson’s account he names a particular plant substance which was used to waterproof the cloth so they had a way of making things at least temporarily waterproof by putting this glaze on it which would then make it sort of stiffer. If you look down in the exhibition we’ve just done page turns about a week ago of the exhibition, there’s one piece in the books that sits up like the – page is like that and it’s sitting up like that and you can see it’s obviously a piece like that that’s very layered and stiffened to be used for more durable purposes than the light sort of muslin-like pieces.

A:        You mentioned when they were making huge tapa cloths but then <inaudible> 5:58 did each person that helped make the cloth then go away and pattern it themselves? Like each family do their own pattern or was the cloth patterned and then cut up? Did different families have different patterns?

N:        I think it would be very variable depending on where you were, what the ceremony was, what the circumstances exactly but no, I think they – if I can just show you something which is interesting and we’ve got two people in the audience who know about this but no-one else does at this point, I think. The – I put this in because we have two very lovely patrons and friends of the Library who came in to see the show and I took them ‘round recently and Neville who’s here said – sent me this photograph of this piece of tapa and it’s about 2 what, metres by a metre wide. It’s fantastic, it’s Fijian, it’s a great looking piece of masi as it would be called in Fiji. Basically - the Queen came to Fiji in 1953 and what did they do? They rolled out large, large sheets of patterned tapa for her to walk on so – as a kind of symbol of respect for the Queen and Neville lived – you don’t mind me saying this, do you, Neville, I hope? He lived in Fiji and this was sort of part of his family history, witnessing this and subsequently even putting together an album wrapped in tapa cloth which is beautiful which features all this extraordinary material and documents this moment in time when the Queen as the young regent in 1953 goes to Fiji.

So I mean I don’t know if you get a sense of it there but you can see how long that piece of tapa is and it’s going to keep going and going and going so it would be - I suppose some pieces would be more decorated than others, I suppose, it’s a bit hard to say, really. Certainly the Hawaiian tapa that you found, some of it, it’s extraordinary and the detailed sort of patterning of that is pretty remarkable. But that ru – that was almost the first tradition to sort of die out in a sense. I mean it’s kind of come back a bit but they were very ready adopters of Christianity and I think a lot of those things counted against production. So thank you.

C:        Thank you very much, Nat. So you’ll head down to the Gallery so if people would like to join us in the Gallery, please do, Nat will be there to answer any further questions that you might have. Nat has mentioned tonight a couple of times the publication that goes with this exhibition that includes essays written by Nat, written by Erica and by Crispin. It’s available in the Exhibition Gallery tonight. We would invite you to make a modest donation or perhaps even an outrageous donation if you’d like to read further about tapa cloth. So thank you very much for coming and joining us tonight and we hope to see you again soon at your National Library. Please thank Nat again.


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