“[I]t is surely of the first importance to know the various methods of making that which so much distinguishes the human from the brute creation.”
The title is a mouthful: “A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook to the southern hemisphere; with a particular account of the manner of the manufacturing the same in the various islands of the South Seas … and the verbal account of some of the most knowing of the navigators; with some anecdotes that happened to them among the natives.” But this rare book, published by Alexander Shaw in London in 1787, offers a fascinating glimpse into a Pacific world.
The volume contains 38 specimens of tapa cloth collected from 1776-1780 during Captain James Cook’s final voyages in the South Seas. Tapa cloth (or tapa) is a bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but also can be found in Niue, Cook Islands, Futuna, Solomon Islands, Java, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
The 38 specimens in this book are made from the bark of breadfruit trees, ficus, lace bark and the bark of the paper mulberry. Many of the Catalogue’s passages document the processes used to create these colourful cloths; common colours were red, brown and yellow. Reinhold Forster writes of how dye was made for the red cloth, called Eha-ais.
“The red dye requires a good deal of labour and care in preparing it. The fruit of a small fig, called Mattie Ficustenetoria, affords a drop or two of milky juice when it is broken off from the tree. This juice is carefully gathered, in a clean cup of cocoa-nut shell, and after having sufficiency of it, they soak it in leaves of the Slou, or Cordea, which imbibe the milky juice, and soon tinge it of the finest crimson imaginable.”1
While many of the 38 samples contain a single line describing them (“From Otaheite, used for bedding,” or “From Sandwich Island; finely manufactured”), others offer a more lengthy explanation of just how the cloth was acquired. For example, specimen 34—a vibrant piece with orange, yellow and black triangular patterns—was acquired when an Otaheite chief attempted to trade a young boy in exchange for an officer’s iron. While the officer knew he couldn’t keep the boy, he decided to do the trade to see if the youth would willingly stay with him. This caused a woman on the ship, who “appeared rather young for the mother,” to begin to “bewail the loss of the infant.” The officer then had a change of heart.
“… the lieutenant, with a true British spirit, took him by the hand and presented him to her, upon which, after putting her hands twice upon her head, she unbound the roll of cloth which was round her body, and from which this specimen was cut, and having spread it before him, seized the boy, and jumping into the sea both swam ashore.”2
The image on the front pastedown of a sun and cloud represent the markings of John Jaffray (31 Oct 1811 – 25 Jul 1869) bookbinder in Victorian London. Jaffray was a member of the committee of the London Working Men’s Association and a signatory to The People’s Charter 1836, (later the People’s Charter of 1838) calling for greater political rights for the working classes.
This copy of the Catalogue is referenced as No. 18 in the Census of Alexander Shaw’s Tapa Cloth Book 1787 undertaken by Donald Kerr, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ, August 2015.
The Catalogue is a jewel of the BC Archives’ Library and was purchased from Stevens Son & Stiles (London) by the Legislative Library in 1913 at a cost of $175 (£35). It complements the many other volumes in the collection that document the exploration of the Northwest coast.
Read more about the Catalogue on the 100 Objects of Interest site.