Captain Cook reached the Fiji islands in the 1770s and by 1874 Fiji had become a British colony.

This means the history books tell us of the European colonial values brought to the islands. However there were many valuable Fijian artifacts that were collected and ended up in England. Among these were the bark cloths or tapas.

Tapa is unique in its material composition. It is not a woven fabric, and its manufacture engages communal activity rather than technological aids. The raw material comes from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, or sometimes other sources, such as the breadfruit tree. The making of tapa involves hammering the strips of mulberry tree bark into shape over hard timber logs.

The origins of the manufacturing process are thought to be have been brought into the South Pacific by (Polynesian) communities who left China thousands of years ago bringing with them the techniques that are still in use today. The early colonial adventurers remarked on the sound of tapa being fashioned into long strips as one of the first sounds heard when approaching a village.

Traditionally, this activity is the work of women in the community who sit together, beating and flattening the matt of fibres into sheets of all sorts of sizes and strengths ready for whatever designs are to be applied by the particular village or community. The hammering is often accompanied by laughter and singing as the women sit around the logs in the shade of a tree, or designated shelter.

The designs are then added in various ways but are usually applied by stenciling or rubbing the motif onto the sheets across a rubbing board. The pigments are sourced locally, usually dark brown in colour, and are sometimes applied by a paintbrush crafted from a pandanus nut. The finished tapa was originally used as clothing for men (a sort of second skin), as bedding, or as partitioning in homes.

In day-to-day life there was a constant need for tapa cloth given that it was used for practical as well as for ceremonial purposes. When used for clothing, it would of course be subject to wear, and could be repaired if necessary by patching the bark cloth. When used for ceremonies, huge lengths with applied designs were made. Usually they represented the village or community in one way or another. After ceremonies were over, the tapa could be cut up and distributed as gifts.

These bark cloths were of significance to all Pacific Island cultures, but not as highly valued as other artifacts in European collections. There are still ways in which tradition and modernity combine to keep the tapa relevant to the Pacific islands regardless of whether the Islanders still live in the Islands or have migrated.

In Part Three, we ask the question: Has the tapa become a quaint cloth or does it still have a significant role to play in the culture of Pacific communities?


Dr Charles Zuber

Photo credit
Main image: Barkcloth (detail) Fiji, c. 1850 – 1859 bark cloth and pigment w. 1600 x l. 2134 mm, Trustees of the Fiji Museum
Photo credit 1: Tapa cloth detail. From the collection of Dr Charles Zuber.
Photo credit 2: Full length seated portrait of Ratu Cakobau c1876, holding a walking stick. He wears a gatu vakatoga (Tongan-style barkcloth), folded under his chest and girded by a white barkcloth waist sash. The chair is covered with a separate piece of stenciled Fijian barkcloth with a fringe, and a plaited voivoi (pandanus-leaf) mat is on the floor. A white sheet has been hung in the background to create a temporary studio. Photograph by Colonel Stewart, Royal Engineers, c. 1876 Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Posted by