Tapa cloth and the forgotten women of the Bounty mutiny
A visitor to Kew sheds light on tapa cloth made 170 years ago by her Polynesian forebears.
One of the most colourful elements of Kew’s Economic Botany Collection is the tapa cloth. We care for at least 60 pieces from across the Pacific, made by pounding inner bark from the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and other trees.
These plain, off-white fragments from Pitcairn Island appear subdued by comparison. However, I’ve long been aware of their historical link to the Bounty mutiny, one of the best-known and most controversial episodes in British history. In 1789 Captain William Bligh left Tahiti with more than 1000 breadfruit plants, bound for the Caribbean as a new food source for the slave plantations. Three weeks later Fletcher Christian, George Stewart, Peter Heywood and other crew mutinied, setting Bligh and eighteen men adrift in the ship's launch. Today many descendants of the mutineers live on Pitcairn Island and Norfolk Island.
Many of the mutineers had Tahitian partners, often the daughters of Tahitian Chiefs. The Polynesian heritage of the Bounty descendants can be traced directly to these women, but has been little explored. Pauline Reynolds, a descendant of Fletcher Christian and resident of Norfolk Island, is tracing the material culture of the Bounty women in European museums on a Churchill Fellowship. She kindly spent a day at Kew sharing her insights into the collections. Pauline’s visit shows how reconnecting with source communities can deepen understanding of the human stories behind our specimens.
The largest piece, seen in the middle of the table, was of special significance to Pauline as it was made by Mauatua (wife of Christian Fletcher) her 5x great grandmother. She pointed out its extraordinarily thin and even texture, typical of the finest tapa cloth from very experienced makers. The piece seen on the left of the table was made by Peggy, daughter of George Stewart and is a little thicker; that on the right was made by Mauatua, and Teraura, wife of Ned Young. Pauline explained that the very plainness of these pieces is an indication of their quality: decoration would take away from appreciation of the work.
One odd feature of the tapa is that it has been cut into small pieces. In Polynesian cultures it would be very unusual to cut a large sheet into small pieces. Pauline immediately recognised that the donor’s name might be a clue. The tapa cloths were given to Kew in 1858 by Frances Heywood, who turns out to be the widow of Peter Heywood, a mutineer who was pardoned and went on to have a successful naval career.
“The women also manufacture tappa or native cloth, from the bark of the "Anti" or paper-mulberry, which is rolled up, and soaked in water, and then beaten out with wooden mallets, and spread forth to dry. The author has in his possession a piece of beautifully wrought white tappa, given him by Mrs. Heywood… it was made by the wife of Fletcher Christian [Mauatua], from the bark of the paper-mulberry-tree. The piece from which this portion was taken, was entrusted by her, when at a very advanced age, to Captain Jenkin Jones, when he visited the island, in her Majesty's ship Curacoa, in 1841; he having been desired to give it to Peter’s wife.”
I find it extraordinary - and moving - that the bonds of friendship between Mauatua and Frances Heywood, connected only by their love of two Bounty mutineers, should hold so strong over 50 years and 9000 miles.
Three years before her death in 1861, Frances Heywood evidently cut up and distributed pieces of the tapa cloths among her friends – and Kew. Perhaps more pieces are to be found elsewhere?
- Mark -