Captain Cook's Travels

Cloth collected from Captain Cook's voyages

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

This vellum bound book is both a remnant of a popular craze, and an early example of piracy! It is a collection of 'tapa' cloth, a type of barkcloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and first brought back to Europe by Captain Cook in the late 18th Century. At this time, there was great interest in everything to do with Captain Cook.

This volume contains brightly coloured tapa cloth from exotic, newly discovered places such as Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand, along with a tuft of feathers and a shell necklace. It has no date, nor name. However, it imitates the books of cloth put together by a more famous collector, Alexander Shaw. Around thirty of Shaw's volumes are known to have survived, containing cloth collected from Cook's third voyage (1776- 1780). His books were so popular on publication in 1781 that sometimes the cloth specimens were cut up and pasted up to create separate books. These are known as snippet books. Our specimen is one of these: it lacks the printed title page and introduction of Shaw's volume, and the cloth samples are smaller than the original. Yet the maker of this volume clearly valued it enough to give it an expensive vellum covering.

The word tapa is from Tahiti and the Cook Islands, where Captain Cook was the first European to collect it and introduce it to the rest of the world. Bark from the Paper Mulberry tree is the best kind to use for making tapa cloth because the bark is composed of very strong fibres. These fibres can also be used for making high-quality paper.

In Tonga, in the Pacific Islands tapa making is still a part of daily life. The barkcloth consists of two layers. The outer bark is scraped or split off from the inner bark. The outerbark is discarded, and the innerbark then dried in the sun before being soaked. The bark is then beaten on a wooden anvil using wooden mallets. In the beating the bark is made thinner and spread out to a width of about 25 cm. When the strips are thin enough, several strips are taken and beaten together into a large sheet. The tapa cloth can then be decorated by painting, rubbing, stamping, stencilling, smoking or dyeing.

Young person's response to this object:

Itís fascinating how different the cloths collected from the different areas Cook visited look. Tom Burke

Discussion Idea:

  • Where does piracy go these days and what is it about?

Activity Idea:

  • Make two lists of types of cloth you know the names of made from a) Natural Fibres and b) man made fibres

Document icon Learning article provided by: Captain Cook Memorial Museum | 
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