Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Material Culture - Tahitian Tapa Beater - British Museum

This series Polynesian Material Culture is about noa or non divine objects in Polynesian Culture



At one time the most common sound in Polynesia was the sound of tapa cloth beaters striking a heavy board or squared log as village women carried on the age old craft of making tapa cloth. Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) is native to Japan and Taiwan, and its initial dispersal into the Pacific is thought to be associated with the Austronesian People, who left Taiwan 6,000 years ago travelling down through South-East Asia and Melanesia then out to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa around three thousand years ago. Of the many plants they brought with them into the Pacific the paper mulberry was amongst the most important because although these were topical islands requiring little clothing, the paper mulberry supplied their needs where modesty required covering, and as a perfect material for decoration and display.

In the tropics the paper mulberry grown from a cutting can be harvested in eight months, the bark being removed in a long thin strip looking something like a bandage in size and shape. It is then soaked in water for three days and then beaten vigorously till it spread to about 600mm wide. This then is the raw material which can then be processed in numerous ways depending on what item for which it is intended. At its finest it can serve the function of underwear as soft, thin, delicate and as beautiful as modern lingerie, a sort of blend of cotton and silk, but filmy and gossamer thin. But in Tahiti it was felted in three layers to make a strong rain cape, but beautifully decorated with red bold geometric patterns on a yellow turmeric base. In Tonga these traditions are kept alive, with village women still making huge tapa cloths ten meters long for presentation at weddings.

At its heart the production of both these extremes of tapa making began with a squared log of wood and a tapa beater and I must add a woman or in the case of Polynesia; women. For this was the great social activity of Polynesian women. Old women, mothers and their children gathered around amid laughter and smutty Polynesian humour and grandmothers instructed children on the finer points of advanced tapa beating, where after felting the layers, the various different sizes of grooves on each face of the beater would be used to impress patterns into the tapa cloth. For a tapa beater is more that a slim squared rectangle of wood, but a tool of hand and eye, where the skill of the women made useful and beautiful fabrics that would later be made more beautiful still by stencilling and freehand painting.

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This is the romance of everyday objects, they are domestic and the scenes of their use are domestic. The Gods did not need to be placated for these activities, no sacrifices made. This in Polynesia is Noa ; normal, and because it employs woman it is non-sacred. However there were times when tapa and its use were very Tapu. In the binding of the sacred images of the Gods, tapa cloth was anything but noa, it decorated, pleased and confined the Gods, and I suspect because tapa was the product of woman this made it perfect for this role. The same could be said in the wrapping of the dead in funeral rites. The dead had entered another world, one dangerous to the living , so containing this potential for evil or malignancy was the tapa cloths role. The position and role of women in Polynesia is much misunderstood. Perhaps this is because it has come down to us filtered through constrained minds of missionary writers. They have overlaid their Victorian ideas of women as angels, over the real earthy fertility of Polynesian women. The European has always projected their own fantasy upon Polynesian women. But rather than the missionaries view, my strong feeling is the rough sailor's fantasy was probably closer to reality.

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There was in interesting example of this right at the very beginning of the contact between Polynesia and Europe that strangely enough centred upon tapa cloth. In Tahiti on the 12 th of May 1769 a double-hulled canoe pulled into the beach in front of the fortified encampment that Captain Cook had ordered to be built at Port Venus in preparation for the observation of the Transit of that planet across the face of the sun. A group of Tahitians disembarked from the canoe and formed into a line. One man stepped out from the group and presented Joseph Banks with a small bunch of parakeet feathers and two boughs, one of which was a young plantain. He repeated this action six times, with each gift, the gift-giver said a few words that Banks could not understand. Then a young girl stepped forth wrapped in many layers of tapa cloth turning as the tapa unwound itself and fell to the ground. This she continued to do till she was completely naked. This ceremony which is recorded by many sources French and English was often misunderstood as if she and her naked body were the gift presented, whereas it was the tapa cloth itself that was the gift. John Webber on Cooks third voyage illustrates this ceremony and interestingly he imparts the idea of the innocence of the girl rather than any sexual provocation on her part. Perhaps by this third voyage the intent of the Tahitians was better understood.

However, the role of the young girl in this presentation is still not clear after nearly two hundred and fifty years of discussion. First there is the element of extravagant gift giving in Polynesian Society, which is tied into the concept of Mana; an ancient concept which is Austronesian in origin. In Polynesia it is spiritual quality, a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Therefore to have mana is to have influence and authority, efficacy and I would add luck as mana can be gained and lost. Mana is enhanced by displays of conspicuous generosity which is totally in keeping with Webbers drawing showing the sheer amount of tapa cloth wrapping the young girls body. But none of this explains her role unless she is in some way part of the gift or her presence affects the gift and her nakedness underneath this gift also needs to be explained. If the reader is gaining the idea that our discussion of a simple wooden tapa beater has veered off into the deep waters of cultural complexity they have my sympathy, but this is the multifaceted nature of concepts in the Polynesian World.

My own thoughts are that we should ask ourselves who this girl was , the answer to which is probably a girl of the Ali'i, or ruling chiefly class, in other words an hereditary aristocrat believed to be descended directly from the gods and to embody the sacred power of mana on earth. So perhaps this wrapping of the tapa around her body transfers this mana to the object therefore enhancing the gift beyond a mere generous presentation of a valued commodity. There is also a question of how the Tahitians look upon these European visitors. An interesting insight into this question occurred in 1790 when James Morrison witnessed a ceremonial dance (heiva) performed before Captain Cook's portrait (which had been painted by Webber and presented to the Tahitians in 1777): On the 1st of February [1790] our attention was drawn from our Work by a Heiva; Every thing being ready Captain Cook's picture was brought (by an Old Man who has the Charge of it) and placed in front, and the Cloth with which it was covered being removed, every person present paid the Homage of striping off their Upper Garments, the Men bareing their bodys to the Waist, Poeno not excepted, and the Weomen uncovering their Shoulders. The Master of the Ceremonies then made the Oodoo (or usual offering) making a long speech to the Picture, acknowledging Captain Cook to be Chief of Maatavye and placing a Young Plantain tree with a suckling pig tyed to it before the Picture; After which they proceeded to perform their dance, which was done by two young weomen Neatly and elegantly dressd in fine Cloth, and two Men, the whole was conducted with much regularity and exactness, beating drums & playing flutes to which they kept true time for near four Hours.

On a signal being given the Weomen Slipd off their Dresses and retired, and the whole of the Cloth and Matting which was spread to perform on, was rolld up to the Picture and the old man took possession of it for the use of Captain Cook'.

So here we have a variation of the ceremony performed without the recipient being even present, but in this case the dancers referred to are probably members of the Arioi Society, members of a secret order who importantly could come from all classes. Surely, a four hour ceremony to an image of Cook suggests that in the minds of the Tahitians Cook enjoyed a semi-divine status. It should be remembered that it their first contact with Europeans, with the Dolphin commanded by Samuel Wallis they attempted to attack the ship and in response Wallis turned the ships considerable fire power on them including the ship's guns. In the devastation and massacre that followed two hundred Tahitians were reputedly killed. If this figure was correct the wounded must have at least doubled this figure to four hundred casualties. But more than that these were a stone age people with hand weapons capable of crushing skulls, but the ships great guns would have torn bodies in half and mutilated the wounded in ways that can only have shocked the Tahitians. If Polynesians felt the need to placate their Gods, surely this must have also been their attitude to these powerful strangers. In the presentation of tapa wrapped around the body of a high born girl, surely is mirrored elements of how Tahitians and other Polynesians treated their Gods, including the attempts to coerce and control their Gods through erotic and sexualised dances by attractive men and women.

Amongst the historic revisionist by writers of the last thirty years attempts have been made to guess at the view of Polynesians in the clash of cultures that was the Contact-Period. This view is one not much examined in the years previously, historians who have been overwhelmingly white being content to present a white man perspective, mainly because in the historic record the point of view of Polynesians is largely unrecorded. In her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, historian Anne Salmond attempts to present this missing point of view. She raises the subject of Captain Cook's chastity in the face of the temptations offered by Polynesian women. Cook's lack of interest in native woman has always been ascribed to his desire to uphold his position as Commander of the dangerous mission of which he had full responsibility. This is probably accurate, but from the Polynesian point of view this would be explainable only by considering Cook an 'old man,' no longer capable of performing the duties of a lover. But initially this would have caused some confusion amongst Tahitians seeking to placate a demi-God with gifts of tapa and young girls. The tapa was there to wrap and contain the God's power, the girl there to control and cancel out the tapu nature of the God's mana. So, perhaps if the Tahitians themselves were confused by these events, our inability to grasp clearly what was happening is something certainly understandable.

Having tested my readers patience on our long detour through Polynesian cultural practice, and finally bring us back to our humble 18th Century tapa beater. I hope the reader will understand that little about Polynesia and Polynesian material culture is simple, or deserving of simplistic treatment. My reader is on this site because they wish to expand their knowledge of Polynesia, or hope one day to visit the islands of Polynesia, or perhaps they wish to collect Polynesian Art or buy a Polynesian Art Work. But your enjoyment of any or all of these activities is dependent on your understanding and appreciation of Polynesia. Tourists who go to Polynesia and lie on a beach or visit the great collections of Polynesian Art where ever they are in the world, without understanding where they are or what they are looking at have my pity, because ignorance can only be regarded as pitiful. This is no different than someone visiting America without honouring America or Americans with the small amount of effort required to read something of their history. Or going to Germany without understanding the causes and effects of two World Wars on Germany is an insult to the German People and an insult to human intelligence. Hopefully I have shown that one 15 x 15 x 350 piece of roughly carved wood has the ability to open a worm hole into the Polynesian World and will wet the reader's appetite for more.

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Footnote; on James Morrison 1760 to 1807 British Naval Officer and Diarist. Boatswain's Mate on the HMS Bounty. As a young Midshipman he had been wounded in action against the American Continental Navy. He took no part in the mutiny on April 28, 1789, but was prevented from joining Commander William Bligh in being put off the ship; this led Bligh to believe he had sided with the mutineers. Back in Tahiti Morrison supervised the construction of a sloop, the Resolution, in the hope that he could sail with his fellow loyalists to the busy South Seas port of Batavia. The craft was amazingly well-built and only the lack of durable material for the sails thwarted his plan. Morrison was among the loyalists who reported for duty aboard the HMS Pandora in March 1791, and like them he was shocked to find himself placed under arrest. He was the only Bounty prisoner to protest over his treatment and was threatened with death by the Pandora's ferocious Captain, Edward Edwards. It was not until the 1792 Bounty court-martial that he learned that Bligh had charged him with mutiny. The judges found Morrison guilty and he was waiting to be hanged when his fortunes unexpectedly improved. While he was on the Bounty, Morrison kept a daily journal that flatly contradicted Bligh's whitewashed portrayal of himself and the events leading to the mutiny. Hoping to clear his name, posthumously at least, Morrison gathered this information into a book, adding his accounts of the Pandora voyage and sinking, Captain Edwards' brutality, and the inhuman treatment of the Bounty prisoners. The book was set to be published in February 1793, three months after Morrison's scheduled execution. In the meantime, a manuscript copy was circulated among the Admiralty, where it created quite a stir; its revelations, if made public, would have caused a scandal and stained the reputation of the Royal Navy for years. Many historians now believe that Morrison was granted a King's pardon, in October 1792, on the condition that his writings would not appear while anyone associated with the Bounty or the Pandora was still living---a classic "cover-up". The book was duly withdrawn, and Morrison returned to the Navy. He died at 46 when his ship, the HMS Blenheim, went down in a storm off the coast of Madagascar. Before his death Morrison gave the manuscript of his book to Bounty officer Peter Heywood; it was finally published in 1870 by Heywood's stepdaughter, Lady Diana Belcher, who incorporated Morrison's text into her volume "The Mutineers of the Bounty". It is the best firsthand account of that ill-fated ship, far more objective than Bligh's self-serving version, and a treasure trove for historians of the period.


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