Monday, 26 November 2012

A Wooden Dish

Forster No. 65 is described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'A wooden dish or platter from which they eat'.  It was collected on Tonga by the Forsters either in October 1773, or in June 1774, during the two visits to the islands made by the Resolution and Adventure.  

1886.1.1553 Kava Bowl, Tonga
The bowl is shallow enough to have been a food bowl, but it was more likely to have held kava.  Kava was a drink made from the root of the kava plant, Piper methysticum.  It was prepared and consumed in various ways throughout the Pacific.  The root had to be broken down, either by chewing it, or by grating it on coral, and then it was mixed with water and strained.  Kava is an intoxicating, non-alcoholic drink, which causes relaxation and later sleepiness.  It is believed to help break down social barriers, settle interpersonal conflicts, and enhance social ties, and was an important part of Tongan social life at the time of Cook's visits.  Kava was associated with rank, title and power on Tonga, and the communal and ceremonial enjoyment of kava was very significant.  

Kava Drinkers of the Friendly Isles, John Webber
This sketch by John Webber, 'Kava Drinkers of the Friendly Isles', as explained by Adrienne Keppler in 'James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific' (Thames and Hudson, 2009) shows 'the interior of a large Tongan house with details of the bound rafter patterns, the kava mixer mixer seated across from Paulaho (the highest chief, or T'ui Tonga) with a large kava mixing bowl…and the men seated in a circle of a ritual kava ceremony.  During Cook's time the (kava) root was chewed (by young people with good teeth) and placed into the bowl before it was mixed with water and drunk by the assembled group during state rituals or by chiefs at various times of the day.  The deities gave kava to to people and it was appropriate for people to offer it to the deities and their chiefly descendants.'

George Forster wrote of a kava ceremony on Tonga in October 1773 in 'A Voyage Round the World':

Forster had already noted that they had found a chief, 'a middle-aged man, sitting on the ground at the trading place, and all the croud forming a circle about him...The priest, who led our captains to the places of worship, on the first day after our arrival, was seated in the same circle,and drank vast quantities of the intoxicating pepper-water, which was served in little square cups made of banana leaves curiously folded.  At his desire, we were politely presented with this dainty beverage, and in pure civility tasted of it.  It had a nauseous insipid taste, which was afterwards followed by a strong pungency, and its colour was somewhat milky.'

Monday, 19 November 2012

A Large Clothbeater

1886.1.1550 Barkcloth Beater

Forster 24 is 'A large clothbeater' from Tahiti.  Barkcloth beaters from Tahiti were usually made from ironwood or toa (Casuarina equisetifolia).  Kooijman reports in 'Tapa in Polynesia' (Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 234, Hawaii 1972) that in addition to the general Polynesian term ie for beaters, the word toa was also used.

In general, beaters were square in section, with the corners rounded off to form the shaft.  Each side of the beater was grooved, with the grooves increasing in fineness.  The beater was used to beat out the inner bark of whichever tree was being used to make the barkcloth - usually the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) but the breadfruit (Artocarpus sp.) and types of fig tree were also used.

'Native implements, Otaheite'from Hawkesworth, 1773, showing a barkcloth beater.

Barkcloth beating took place in a special shed, and each family had such a shed.  The strips of prepared inner bark, two or three layers thick and damp, having been soaked in water overnight, were laid on a wooden anvil (tutu or tutua).  The anvil could be up to 9 meters long, with a width of up to 25cm.  Beating started with the coarsest side of the beater.  As the bark became thinner and started to spread out, it was necessary to move progressively to the finer-grooved sides, ending with the finest.

Bark fibres caught in the finest side of the barkcloth beater (x10)

The best kind of barkcloth on Tahiti was called hobu, and was made by folding a piece of paper mulberry bark several times while beating.  It was kept wet by sprinkling it with water, and was a thinner and softer cloth than ordinary tapa.  Joseph Banks described the manufacture of this type of tapa, and said that the very finest kind was made by wearing the hobu until it became even more supple, then washing it and beating it again with the very finest beaters.  The tapa was also bleached in the sun, to give it a fine white colour. 

Barkcloth manufacture on Tahiti disappeared soon after Western contact, to be replaced with woven cloth.  Herman Melville wrote in 1847 that 'the echoes of the cloth-mallet have long since died away in the listless valleys of Tahiti.' (Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas Being a Sequel to the "Residence in the Marquesas Islands").

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Paste-Beater of Lava

1886.1.1164 Breadfruit pounder

This is Forster 28, 1886.1.1164, described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'the paste-beater of lava'.  Made of basalt, this heavy pounder, or penu, was used to grind cooked breadfruit into a paste.   Breadfruit is the large starchy fruit from a type of mulberry tree.  The starchy fruit, when baked, is said to taste like fresh bread or potato.

Breadfruit, attributed to Sydney Parkinson, from the National Library of Australia

Forster writes that 'we found the Tahitian method of dressing breadfruit and other victuals, with heated stones under ground, infinitely superior to our usual way of boiling them; in the former all the juices remained, and were concentrated by the heat; but in the latter, the fruit imbibed many watery particles, and lost a great deal of its fine flavour and mealiness.'

Cooked breadfruit could be ground to a paste with the penu, in a large wooden trough.  This produced popoi, a sweetish paste.  Sometimes other fruit, such as coconut, was added, to make poe, a 'custard'.

Because breadfruits ripened only at certain times of the year, a method was developed to store the fruit.  Joseph Banks described the process of making fermented breadfruit paste, mahi, in 'The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771'

'As I have mentioned sour paste, I will proceed to describe what it is.  Bread-fruit, by what I can find, remains in season during only nine or ten of their thirteen months, so that a reserve of food must be made…the fruit is gathered when just upon the pint of ripening, and laid in heaps, where it undergoes a fermentation, and becomes disagreeably sweet.  The core is then taken out, which is easily done…and the rest of the fruit thrown into a hole dug for the purpose, generally in their houses.  The sides and bottom of this hole are neatly lined with grass, the whole is covered with leaves, and heavy stones laid upon them.  Here it undergoes a second fermentation and becomes sourish, in which condition it will keep, as they tell me, many months.  Custom has, I suppose, made this agreeable to their palates, though we disliked it extremely; we seldom saw them make a meal without some of it in some shape or form.'