E1263 – barkcloth

Barkcloth, Cook Islands

This barkcloth sheet is officially listed in the museum register as

“9th Nov 1868. E1263. Cloak. Made of Paper Mulberry? South Sea Islands. Presented by Mrs Vaughan.”

This donor Vaughan is unknown. The address for her was 5 Belgrave Terrace, Torquay.

Length = 5300 x width = 178mm. Currently on display in the World Cultures gallery.

This cloth previously appeared in the 2004 Second Skin exhibition here at RAMM. It was at the time believed to have been attributed to Captain Cook, however, there is no evidence for that attribution. The exhibition catalogue (Pole and Doyal 2004: 57, 100-101) states the following – with Cook references removed

“Large rectangle of cloth with smooth white surface; central panel of black toothed triangles and millipede-like creatures with jaws at each end and five-fingered legs, border of brick-wall bands and zig-zag lines…

The nearest parallels to its decorative style are a small number of cloths, one formerly in the Hooper collection, another in Kew, a third in the British Museum (Koojiman, 1972: 59), and other examples in the Bishop Museum and Vienna (illustrated in Kaeppler, 1978b: 164). Each of these is frustratingly short on original documentation. The ex-Hooper piece is said to have come from Tongataboo before 1833 (Phelps, 1976: 163).

Other examples showing a similar style of decoration are associated with Cook Islands staff gods, including the well-known piece in the British Museum (Barrow, 1979: 85; Mayer, 1995: 523). This is from the London Missionary Society collection, and therefore associated with the destruction of the objects with traditional Rarotongan religious connections, initiated by Revd John Williams in the 1820s. The total length of the staff is 3960mm and the lower of the decorated cloth in which the central section is wrapped has precisely the same ‘brick wall’ designs as the Exeter piece. Compare also the man’s waistband in the Royal Museum of Scotland, also from Rarotonga (Idiens, 1990: 53). These similarities need to be investigate in relation to the other staff gods, such as those in Auckland (Neich & Pendergrast, 1997: 77), Denedin (Mayer, 1995: 522) and the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, with barkcloth wrappings exhibiting closely related design motifs.

…No Cook Island (Rarotonga or Mangaia) staff gods appear in collections before the ravages of Revered Williams in the early 1820s.”

A similar decorated Cook Islands barkcloth sheet was featured in the Pacific Encounters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2006. The interpretation given for that piece is interesting (Hooper 2006: 224)

“Few barkcloths survive with this distinctive design incorporating multi-legged creatures, and none has a clear provenance. A similar example in Exeter has been ascribed to one of Cook’s voyages (Kaepplar 1978: 160, 164; Pole and Doyal 2004: no.51), but that attribution is challenged by this cloth, which bears written inscriptions in the same dye as the designs and which must therefore be contemporary with them. Several of the words are in a Cook Island language (Aaron Masters, Marjorie Crocombe, personal communication), which supports Koojiman’s suggestions for their provenance (1972: 59). Cook Island languages only began to be written in the 1820s, which dates this cloth to that period at the earliest. The matter would appear to be resolved by the similarity of the border of this cloth to the black-and-white chequer border of the roll of the barkcloth on the large Rarotongan staff god (no.195).”

The Exeter cloth does not contain Cook Islands written inscriptions, and therefore one can only assume that the Exeter cloth pre-dates the 1820s. So which voyage does RAMM’s cloth belong to?

The cloak is also linked to the 1806 Leverian Sale as Lot 3147 “A specimen of Otaheite cloth” (45) as purchased by J. Vaughan, but who was this person? The connection to the successful hat-making Southwark-based Vaughan family does not exist.


Barrow, T. 1979. The Art of Tahiti. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hooper, S. 2006. Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760 – 1860. British Museum Press.

Idiens, D. 1990. Cook Islands Art. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications.

Kaeppler, A. 1978a. Cook Voyage Artefacts in Leningrad, Berne and Florence Museums. Honolulu: Bishop Museum

Kaeppler, A. 1978b. Artificial Curiosities. Honolulu: Bishop Museum.

Koojiman, S. 1972. Tapa in Polynesia. Honolulu: Bishop Museum.

Meyer, A.J.P. 1995. Oceanic Art. Cologne: Konemann.

Neich, R. & Pendergrast, M. 1997. Traditional Tapa textiles of the Pacific. London: Thames & Hudson.

Phelps, S. 1976. Art & Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas. London: Christies.

Pole, L.& Doyal, S. 2004. Second Skin: Everyday and Sacred Uses of Bark Worldwide. Exeter: Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

E1263 Cook Islands barkcloth detail