Pacific: Society Islands and Pitcairn

Tahiti/Society Islands

Tahitian barkcloth was made from three types of tree: fig (aoa or are) breadfruit (uru) or best of all paper mulberry (aute). Descriptions of manufacture and decoration from over 200years ago indicate that the highest quality cloth was made from the bark of paper mulberry and was white, or yellow or red. That made from breadfruit bark was yellower and coarser. Design motifs using fern leaves were introduced in the early 1790s; the Bond piece in this museum is the earliest recorded use of this device. Enormous amounts of cloth were made at this time: in Tahiti it was reported that groups of up to two or three hundred women would be working at once.

Barkcloth was worn by all social classes in Tahiti. Men wore a T-shaped breechclout; women wore a larger piece of cloth around the loins. At work in the fields or at home this was usually all that was worn. The nobility wore and displayed barkcloth in many forms and on all occasions. The poncho or tiputa a sleeveless tunic coming to the knees, with a headhole, was a high status item. Several layers were often worn, with further layers of cloth in the form of a cloak over the top, plus sash and turban (See print of Omai).

Although barkcloth has long since ceased to be manufactured on Tahiti, there were still items of decorative clothing utilising bark elements being made within the last 60 years.

Pitcairn Island

The plain piece of barkcloth from Pitcairn in the exhibition (number 49) was acquired by George Peard on the voyage of the Blossom, in late 1825 or early 1826. It is Tahitian in appearance, most likely the products of the Tahitian partners of the mutineers who arrived on the Bounty in 1790.