Barkcloth in the Pacific

The Pacific galleries have been split into seven sections: Fiji, Hawaiian, Marquesas Islands and Cook Islands, Melanesia, Samoa and Uvea, Society Islands and Pitcairn, Tonga

Barkcloth was known from every island group in Polynesia and Melanesia, although its manufacture was confined to the high islands of volcanic origin. There is little barkcloth from Micronesia, due to the lack of soil to support appropriate trees on the low-lying coral reefs. There is archaeological evidence to indicate that barkclothmaking was being practised in southern China and mainland south-east Asia over 5,000 years ago. The main original sources of trees which supply bark suitable for making cloth and paper were in eastern Asia. Cuttings of these trees were carefully transported, together with many other plants, by the voyaging ancestors of the peoples of the Pacific to their new homelands. The initial populating of the Polynesian islands took thousands of years, from about 3,500 years ago to 800 years ago.

second skin polymap small

‘Tapa’ is the most common name now used for Polynesian barkcloth but was originally used in a very restricted sense in Samoa and Tonga to refer to the uncoloured edge of the barkcloth as it was being decorated. In Tahiti the cloth is called ‘ahu, in the Marquesas hiapo, in Hawaii kapa, in Tonga ngatu, in Fiji masi, in Samoa siapo. The earliest datable evidence of the manufacture of barkcloth in any of the island groups of the Pacific comes from the region of south-east Asia. Technical details of barkcloth manufacture link Toraja groups of the central Sulawesi region in Indonesia with Polynesia – the use of similar sized wood anvils having the same name tutua, as well as many other similarities in manufacture and decoration.

The occurrence of clothing, made of barkcloth in Indonesia and the Philippine Islands is sporadic but widespread. Dayak groups in Kalimantan made ceremonial sleeveless jackets (bajo) of barkcloth, often highly ornamented, although the jacket in the Exeter museum is much plainer (number 119).

How did these pieces of cloth get from the Pacific to Exeter?

The acquisition by Europeans of the pieces in this exhibition began with the period of European exploration of the Pacific in the later 18th century. The voyages of Captain Cook and others in the 1760s and 1770s, Lt. Bond with Captain Bligh on his second voyage in 1791-3, Lt. Peard with Captain Beechey on the Blossom in 1826, John Veitch the plant collector with Brenchley on the Curaçoa in 1865 all resulted in the collection of barkcloth, among many other items. Later collections were made by missionaries, such as John Marriott in Samoa sometime between 1878-1904. At this time colonial officers were receiving official gifts and making collections. The story is brought up to date with the items collected by Derek Cudmore in the 1970s, also while on diplomatic service in the south Pacific. Most recently of all Jenny and Glencairn Balfour- Paul purchased items in the Marquesas Islands in 2001. This latter is a rare example of a collection being made on behalf of this Museum, taking advantage of their presence in the region while on a cruise. All the others pieces now in this museum were acquired as souvenirs or gifts from islanders.

John Gould Veitch was collecting plants for his firm, Messrs Veitch & Sons of London. In 1865 he obtained a passage on the voyage of the HMS Curaçoa in the company of Julius Brenchley. The itinerary covered Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and the voyage lasted from June to October 1865. Although the principal purpose of Veitch’s presence on the ship was to collect plants for his nursery business he also took a keen interest in artefact collecting. The items collected by Veitch included material from Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz and Vanuatu. The only barkcloth piece is probably from the island of Viti Levu in the Fiji group (number 110). Although John Veitch was at that time living and working in London, and his artefacts were initially put on display with others from other Veitch plant collectors in their museum in the firm’s Chelsea nursery, all the items were eventually given to this museum in the family’s home town in 1880.

In Tonga Lady Sargood’s diplomat husband received an enormous piece of cloth with patriotic design on it in 1902. In a gesture consistent with the spirit in which it had been received, she later divided it into several pieces and donated them to different museums around this country (number 109).