Friday, 4 January 2013

'A piece of their brown cloth.'

This is another piece of barkcloth from Cook's second voyage - Forster No.49, listed in the section for the Friendly Isles (Tonga) as 'A piece of their brown cloth.'

1886.1.1239 Barkcloth, Tonga

Original Forster number label, together with labels added at the Ashmolean Museum before transfer to the Pitt Rivers in 1884.

Barkcloth, together with mats, are amongst the possessions most important to Tongans, who regard them as koloa, or wealth.  Adrienne Kaeppler write in her essay 'Tonga - Entry into Complex Hierarchies' in 'James Cook - Gifts and Treasures from the South Seas. The Cook/Forster Collection, Gottingen' Prestel-Verlag, Munich 1998, that 'koloa, made by women, are complimentary to ngaue, products derived from agricultural work and animal husbandry, and produced by men.  Koloa, products made by women, are prestigious, as are the women themselves.  In contrast, products made by men are considered 'work', and like the men are powerful.  The ngaue of men regenerates people physically, while the koloa of women regenerates them culturally.  Both are necessary to regenerate and reproduce society…the fabrication of koloa is not a craft, but a fine art which creates valuables, an important distinction in Tongan culture.'

The majority of barkcloth on Tonga is made from the paper mulberry.  At the time of Cook's voyages, the bark was stripped from the tree and briefly soaked to soften it.  The strips were placed on a wooden anvil and beaten out with a grooved beater, folding them and beating several thicknesses, then shaking the folds out and beating again, until the width of the strips had increased from 8-10cm to as much as 50cm.  Two of these sheets were felted together, to form a piece of tapa (on Tonga, this term referred only to undecorated barkcloth) called a feta'aki.  These were dried in the sun, and then stored in the houses of women.  Tapa was thus always available for making ngatu, large decorated sheets of barkcloth.

The ngatu collected by the Forsters in either October 1772 or June 1773 is a ngatu 'uli, or black ngatu.  Sheets of feta'aki were pasted together with arrowroot, and at the same time dye was rubbed into the surface of the barkcloth.  The fact that the sheets were pasted together means that there are no beater marks visible on the surface of the barkcloth, and the texture is different to backcloth from, for example, Tahiti. 

The pasting and dyeing process was carried out on a curved wooden board called a papa 'koka'anga, to which textured tablets or kupesi could be attached to give a pattern to the surface of the finished barkcloth.  The kupesi were usually made from palm leaf and sheath, carrying an embroidered relief design, or coconut fibre cords and leaf midribs were attached directly to the wooden base.  These design tablets could not withstand being beaten, hence the need to paste and rub the feta'aki strips together. Sometimes matting was stretched over the papa to form a design, and this is what seems to have been used on the central panel of the Pitt Rivers barkcloth. 

Pattern on the surface of the central panel

The border has a design of parallel lines, similar to patterns formed by using cords attached to the papa directly. 

Pattern on border panels
 (See Kooijman, 'Tapa in Polynesia', Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 234, Bishop Musuem Press, Honolulu, Hawaii 1972).  

A liquid brown dye was obtained from the bark of the koka tree (Bischofia javanica, Bishopwood) and this was rubbed into the surface of the ngatu using a pad of barkcloth.  The dye probably helped the layers to stick together, and gave the surface a glazed appearance.  The surface was blackened using a dye in powder form, fukai tutui, made from burnt candelnuts (Aleurites moluccana), which was sprinkled over the surface of the ngatu and rubbed in with a pad soaked in koka dye.  The black dye was difficult to make, requiring several days and nights of work, and was one reason for the high status of ngatu 'uli