A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook


Cloth specimens collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook.
A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook

For centuries a vital component of Pacific Island culture, tapa is a kind of cloth made by moistening bast (the fibrous skin between the sap and the bark of a tree) and beating it over a smooth log until it develops a soft, paper-like constituency. Paper mulberry, breadfruit, banyan and ficus are the trees most frequently used for the process.

The English navigator James Cook took note of tapa manufacture in various islands during the three voyages of Pacific exploration he commanded (1768-1771, 1772-1775 and 1776-1779). Several of his crew members collected specimens. By the 1780s there was sufficient English interest in South Seas cloth for Alexander Shaw to compile a 'catalogue' of samples. In his prefatory text Shaw says that a few of the samples formerly belonged to James King, Cook's fellow navigator, surveyor and astronomer aboard the Resolution on the third expedition and subsequently the captain of the companion ship, the Discovery, on the voyage home after Cook had been killed during an altercation in Hawaii. It is likely that Shaw's notes understate the extent of his indebtedness to King (or King's estate) as the principal source of specimens. King did not live to see the publication of the book; he died of tuberculosis in 1784.

Thirty copies of Shaw's catalogue are known to have survived. Each has a unique mixture of cloth and each is highly prized as a repository of information about Pacific fabrics prior to the influence of European textiles and metal tools. The Library's copy was one of the many behests to the city from the Auckland businessman, art collector and philanthropist James Tannock Mackelvie (1824-1885 ). It contains thirty-nine tapa specimens: twenty from Tahiti, fourteen from Hawaii, four from Tonga and one from Jamaica.

Related resources: Captain James Cook

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