Tuesday, 18 June 2013

'A fire in the ship'

On Monday 1st August 1774, the Resolution was off the coast of Erromango, one of the islands of Vanuatu.  In 'A Voyage Round the World' George Forster described a terrifying incident as they approached the island  - 'Towards ten o'clock, we were most dreadfully alarmed by a fire in the ship.  Confusion and horror appeared in all our faces, at the bare mention of it; and it was some time before proper measures were taken to stop its progress: for in these moments of danger few are able to collect their faculties and to act with cool deliberation.  The mind which unexpected and imminent danger cannot ruffle for a time, is one of the scarcest phænomena in human nature; no wonder then, that it was not to be met among the small number of persons to to whom the ship was entrusted.  To be on board of a ship on fire, is perhaps one of the most trying situations that can be imagined; a storm itself, on a dangerous coast, is less dreadful, as it does not so entirely preclude all hopes of escaping with life.  Providentially, the fire of this day was very trifling, and extinguished in a few moments.  Our fears suggested that it was in the sail-room; but we soon found, that a piece of Taheitee cloth, carelessly laid near the lamp in the steward's room had taken fire, and raised a quantity of smoke, which gave the alarm.'

Burn marks on 1886.1.1235 (Forster No. 15)

Detail of damage to 1886.1.1235

Several pieces of barkcloth in the Forster collection have burn marks on them, which had always puzzled us.  Could the fire on board the Resolution be the reason why?  Interestingly, during a visit last week from Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, a barkcloth thought possibly to be from Hawaii was identified as Tahitian, and it too has significant fire damage.   

Barkcloth 1886.1.1253.1 Showing more extensive fire damage

We are fairly sure that there are several 'lost' barkcloth pieces from the Forster collection in the Pitt Rivers museum, but since they have lost their labels, or maybe didn't ever have a unique Forster Number label (for example, Forster No. 48 in the Catalogue of Curiosities is described as 'Another parcel of Otaheitee cloth' and it is unlikely that each had a label) identification is difficult.  We can be fairly sure however that this newly discovered piece of barkcloth is part of the Forster collection - and maybe even the piece mentioned by Forster, 'carelessly laid near the lamp in the steward's room…'