Unknown makers, Hawaii. Tapa cloth collected on Cook’s final voyage, 1778. Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Pictures), National Library of Australia. On display, Treasures Gallery, National Library of Australia, Canberra, until February 3. On February 20, 1779, a bundle containing dismembered human remains was wrapped in a large quantity of the finest white Hawaiian tapa cloth and then in a black-feathered cloak. The Hawaiians then delivered this bundle of flesh and bones to a group of grieving men who the next day buried the remains at sea.
That large bundle contained the remains of Captain James Cook, who had been killed on the beach of Kealakekua Bay six days earlier.
This had been Cook’s third visit to Hawaii. During previous visits he and his men had been treated virtually as gods. But on Valentine’s Day 1779, things turned ugly after the Hawaiians stole a boat and Cook, in an attempt to retrieve it, planned to kidnap a Hawaiian king. On the beach, a skirmish broke out that escalated quickly, resulting in Cook’s death.
Although his death was a shock there is evidence the Hawaiians treated his body with a degree of dignity, because of the way his remains were wrapped. The use of the finest white tapa cloth was a sign of respect.
Tapa, or barkcloth or kapa, was produced throughout the Pacific from the inner bark of trees. It was extremely versatile and used for clothing, wrapping newborn babies and the deceased. It was presented to important people on significant ceremonial occasions. The finest white tapa was reserved for the Ali’i, the Hawaiian ruling class, and for decorating the sacred carvings of gods in the temples.
Cook and his sailors were extremely familiar with tapa cloth and they certainly collected it through trade or the exchange of gifts during their voyages to Hawaii.
One rare piece of tapa, believed to have been collected on Cook’s last ill-fated voyage, is currently on display for the first time in its entirety at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Measuring a remarkable 349 x 61.5cm, it has been described as a masterpiece and the Blue Poles of Oceanic art.
It is certainly a minor miracle that such a massive length of barkcloth from the 18th century could manage to find its way from Cook’s voyage to Canberra and still be in such good condition. The secret? One of Cook’s crew, Alexander Hood, acquired it and his family looked after it for multiple generations until 1952. It was then bought by the prodigious col- lector Rex Nan Kivell, who donated it to the National Library. On one corner of the cloth is a handwritten label: “Brought by Lieut. Hood when with Captain Cook.”
At the library, curator Nat Williams says Nan Kivell considered it one of his great treasures: “What is significant is it is the last item from the 30,000 items he donated to the National Library because he holds on to it from 1952 to 1977. He had it framed and on the wall of his mansion in Tangiers, where he lived at the end of his life. Seven months after his death it was received via Australia House in London.”
Williams says it is fabulous to have the piece on display for the first time in the 40 years since it was acquired from Nan Kivell: “It was from a sophisticated period of tapa making and Cook would have noticed that the Hawaiians were the most experimental and producing the most diverse and beautiful tapa. It has spiritual significance, it has prominence for its Cookrelated history, and it is a testament to the fineness of how the Hawaiian people could make tapa cloth. The way it’s painted, the way it’s beaten, the way it’s sewn together very fastidiously, it’s a really remarkable piece of art. It’s a great treasure courtesy of the Hood family looking after it and then Nan Kivell, so, I think we are very lucky to have it.”
Barkcloth, hau cordage, ink on paper, 349cm x 61.5cm