Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place


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Work at the Kew Archives is Producing Some Fascinating Insights

5th July 2017

Recently I spent three very stimulating weeks working with our project Co-Investigator Mark Nesbitt and his colleagues at our primary UK partner institution, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. The UK’s national botanical garden, Kew not only contains the largest herbarium (reference collection of preserved plant materials) in the world, it continues to be one of the world’s leading centres of botanical research and teaching, and a mecca for those of us who love the history of scientific discovery. Kew’s economic botany collection is a museum collection of artefacts and samples made from the world’s plants that have been useful to humanity; everything from bamboo to birch bark, and rubber to raffia. Within this fascinating and wonderful collection of baskets, timbers, spices, medicines and so on, there is naturally a collection of tapa samples from many different parts of the Pacific.



These particular samples of cloth have the rare virtue of having generally been sent to London by trained botanical collectors, usually alongside other gifts of dried specimens, seeds, or living plants. We often know, therefore, which species of plant was used to manufacture each cloth – a vital piece of information for this project’s research objectives. During a rare heatwave which saw London’s temperatures soar to rival those of Polynesia, and which made the freshly watered flowerbeds exude a pungence that evoked my fond memories of the beautiful gardens of Tonga and Fiji, I sought refuge from the heat in Kew’s air conditioned archive.


Seemann homecoming letter


Leafing carefully through the 19th century journals and correspondence of botanists like the Scotsman William Grant Milne, and the German Berthold Carl Seemann – both of whom botanised on the 1850s voyage of HMS Herald to Fiji, Western Australia and other parts of the Pacific - I gained a sense of the physical extremes the two men went to in their plant collecting: walking vast distances every day, climbing mountains and trees, swimming through mangroves and fording rivers, exploring remote corners of the bush, to collect specimens from every ecological zone – and all against the ticking clock of Captain Denham’s expedition timetable. As Seemann's letter to William Jackson Hooker from Southampton shows, even after such hardships were overcome, many people suffered greatly on the long voyages out and back. We hope to use our study of fine archival resources like those of the Herald voyage botanists at Kew to learn more about precisely where, when, and under what conditions, these cloth samples were collected.


 


 

Other recent news items:

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