Austral Islands

Barkcloth in Austral Islands

Polynesia > Eastern Polynesia > Austral Islands

Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Austral Islands (© Pacific Peoples' Partnership; edited to add location overlay)
Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Austral Islands (© Pacific Peoples’ Partnership; edited to add location overlay)

Art Historical Description

A certain amount of mystery surrounds the ‘ahu barkcloth of the Austral Islands. Rhys Richards (2012) rightly rejects those pieces that were erroneously attributed to the Australs in the Hunterian collection during the 1970s (here corrected to the Society Islands). Richards states the problem clearly enough by accepting only ten fabric pieces in his own worldwide survey of museum collections. To make the art-historical situation even worse, three of these ten pieces are in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum and were solely attributed to the Austral Islands because they were donated by the LMS missionary William Ellis, who was stationed there for many years. However, at least one of these is from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and printed with the rakau takiri pa‘oa stamping-frame unique to that island, and probably a sample of a much larger artefact in the Hunterian collection that formerly belonged to Ellis’s colleague George Turner. The remaining pieces accepted by Richards are plain and stylistically undifferentiable from tapa also produced in the Society Islands at the same time; the crux of the art-historical problem is that we have almost no way to sift out the Australs tapa which undoubtedly sits in museums classified incorrectly as Tahitian.

Julie Adams (2016) has placed the matter on its most reliable footing so far by discussing a resin-glazed sample from Rurutu in the collections of MAA in Cambridge, which was collected on James Cook’s first voyage, and which she matches with a similar sample incorporated into a known Rurutu headdress. It seems to show a unique form of post-glazing sgraffito decoration. It is also notable that Joseph Banks’ sketch of Australs barkcloth (reproduced by Adams) bears little resemblance to that sample, or any of the other attributed pieces. One future avenue of productive research may well lie in the fact noted by Te Rangi Hiroa in 1957 that true grid beater marks occur (outside Hawai‘i) only on barkcloth beaters from Tubuai and Rapa Iti; provided Hawaiian material can be identified and excluded, therefore, it should be possible to significantly expand the corpus of identified Australs cloths in time.


  • Richards, R. (2012). The Austral Islands: history, art and art history. Wellington: Paremata Press
  • Adams, J. (2016). A small piece of glazed barkcloth from the Austral Islands. In: N. Thomas, J. Adams, B. Lythberg, M. Nuku and A. Salmond, eds. Artefacts of encounter: Cook’s voyages, colonial collecting and museum histories. Dunedin: University of Otago Press
  • Hiroa, T.R. (Buck, P.H.) (1957). Arts and crafts of Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press
  • Ellis, W. (1829). Polynesian researches: during a residence of nearly six years in the South Sea islands. 1st ed. 2 vols. London: Fisher & Jackson


Outline map of French Polynesia showing Society Islands, Austral Islands and Marquesas Islands (credit: The World Factbook 2020. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020)
Outline map of French Polynesia showing Society Islands, Austral Islands and Marquesas Islands

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

dry shell cortex stripping; long retting bast soak; fermentation; initial beating – wooden anvil and square beater; fusing composition; linear beater marking; crossed linear beater marking; true grid beater marking; immersion dyeing; hand painting

Characteristic Fabric Types


Entry created on 28 August 2020