In Cook’s Wake: Tapa Treasures from the Pacific. Nat Williams. 2018

In Cook’s Wake: Tapa Treasures from the Pacific. Nat Williams. 2018

Williams, Nat.  

In Cook’s Wake: Tapa Treasures from the Pacific.  

National Library of Australia. 


60 pages.


This book was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the National Library of Australia (NLA) from 23 August, 2018, to 3 February, 2019.  This publication is not a catalogue of the exhibits on display, it is more of a summation of everything that you ever might want to know about tapa, the barkcloth, which was and still is, produced throughout the Pacific Islands.


The publication contains three essays.  The first essay is “In Cook’s Wake” by Nat Williams, Treasures Curator at the NLA.  He describes the discovery of tapa by various explorers from the western world, and the samples taken home by them.  He then presents extracts from some of explorers’ journals describing how tapa was used on the different islands of the Pacific.  The essay is profusely illustrated, and includes drawings showing islanders in their local dress drawn by artists during all three of Cook’s voyages.


The reader quickly realises that tapa was produced in a wide range of qualities, to meet the differing needs of society.  The type of tapa selected by a young lady for a dress would differ from that worn by warriors, whereas a more hard-wearing cloth would be used as a floor covering for dancing upon. 


Having examined the different references to tapa in the accounts of Cook’s three voyages, Williams briefly considers the demise of tapa in the post-Cook period.  As European dress began to be adopted by islanders, so the demand for barkcloth began to decline.  Tapa production declined but never ceased, as it is still required today for a range of cultural purposes.


Whilst the NLA does not hold a large collection of tapa samples, they are all of the highest quality and most are accompanied by a comprehensive provenance.


The second essay is “Alexander Shaw’s remarkable enterprise” by Erica Ryan, who is responsible for Printed Australiana at the NLA.  For several years I have been following Ryan’s blog on the NLA website,1 reading her reports of her numerous successes in researching the biography of Alexander Shaw.  It was in 1787 that the London publisher Alexander Shaw first printed a remarkable book containing several dozen small specimens of tapa.  Many of the remaining copies have been identified, and a list produced.2  However, little is known about the man himself.  Researchers have looked for Shaw in vain, and found so little information that it was wondered if his name may have been a pseudonym.  In recent years, Ryan has found hitherto overlooked information, and mined a rich vein of data from resources in Scotland.  This article is a distillation of all of her knowledge about Shaw, his life and his book of tapa samples.  If you harbour any interest in tapa or Mr Shaw’s book, you should read this essay.


The third essay is “The Rex Nan Kivell Hawaiian Kapa Cloth” by Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Arts at the National Gallery of Australia.  He focuses on a very large piece of tapa allegedly brought back from the Pacific by Alexander Hood, the 14 year old seaman who sailed in Resolution on Cook’s Second Voyage.  The sample is labelled “Brought by Lieut. Hood when with Captain Cook”.  Other writing implies that it came from the Friendly Islands, i.e. Tonga.  Howarth corrects this misattribution by stating that the barkcloth “is a masterpiece of Oceanic Art from Hawaii”.


Howarth refers to the range of barkcloth made on Hawai`i, where it was known as kapa, not tapa.  He believes that the sudden diversity in kapa decoration that followed Cook’s visit was the result of a “creativity explosion”.  Unfortunately this period of creativity was quickly followed by the introduction of western clothing, and the production of kapa went into decline.


Howarth describes in detail the lengthy processes involved in making kapa, and the subsequent decoration of the barkcloth using natural pigments.  Included are three photographs of the large sample.  Unfortunately, the captions all erroneously state that the specimen was collected by Alexander Hood about 1779, when he was Master’s Mate in Resolution during Cook’s Third Voyage!


Cliff Thornton



2.Cook’s Log, page 11, vol. 37, no. 1 (2014).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 58, volume 41, number 4 (2018).

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