The Book of Tapa Samples Collected by Captain James Cook and Assembled by Alexander Shaw


Read the Lilly Library's copy of the Alexander Shaw Catalogue here!

Eighteenth-century European explorers sought new communities, resources, and adventure. On voyages, naturalists, artists, and seamen collected plants and objects to help them understand the natural world and the foreign cultures they encountered. Europeans at home partook in voyages through newspapers, travel writing, and by visiting collections of objects—first in aristocratic “curiosity” cabinets, later in museum collections. Collections, along with artists’ renderings, formed the public experience of foreign places.

Accounts from Captain Cook’s voyages tantalized Europeans. Voyage-collected objects were sold by dealers and at auction, ending up in museums around the world. One of the first public museums was Sir Ashton Lever’s Holophusicon, or Leverian Museum (1771). Featuring natural history and ethnographic collections, Lever bought ethnographic objects acquired on Cook’s voyages. Contemporary accounts described public awe upon viewing the collection.[1]

Stephanie Beck Cohen

[1] In the United States, the public “surged in” to Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, featuring natural history and art. Museums like the Holophusicon and the Philadelphia Museum introduced the public to the world’s cultural and scientific collections, and were both educational and entertainment; Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum An Eighteenth-Century English Institution of Science, Curiosity, and Art (Altenstadt: ZKF Publishers, 2011), 1–22; Charles Coleman Sellers, “Peale’s Museum,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series vol. 43, no. 1 (1953), 253–56.Sidney Hart and David C. Ward, “The Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal: Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, 1790–1820,” Journal of the Early Republic vol. 8, no. 4 (1988), 389–90.

Researching Alexander Shaw’s Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth: What We Know

A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook is a collection of barkcloth gathered on Captain Cook’s voyages and published in London in 1787 by Alexander Shaw. Each book—about 40 copies are known—is composed of two parts. The first is an eight-page printed section with anecdotes of Pacific travels and a catalogue. The second part contains samples, small portions of cut tapa pasted into the book. Tapa is arranged in a different order in each copy, and most editions have more than the thirty-nine samples listed in the catalogue.[1] Each copy inspires research questions about the specimens as a collection and as individual pieces of tapa.

Indiana University’s Lilly Library holds a copy of Shaw’s book that contains 53 samples of tapa on 46 book pages, each sample cut from a larger piece of cloth into different shapes and sizes. Some samples are large, taking up the whole page and allowing readers to see more of the pattern. Smaller samples, sometimes three to a page, show glimpses of eighteenth-century designs—color, line, contour, and shape.

Looking at the book specimens in conjunction with the catalogue helps researchers consider where tapa was collected, and even during which voyage. The patterns on each piece give clues to eighteenth-century artistic styles, designs, and techniques used to make tapa on different Pacific islands. Comparing samples from different books (for instance, Hawaiian kapa from IU, New South Wales, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford) may allow scholars to reconstruct the size and designs on the original pieces.

Stephanie Beck Cohen

[1] Ian Morrison,“The Cloth, the Catalogue, and the Collectors,” in Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand), vol. 27, nos.3 and 4 (2003), 48–50; Adrienne Kaeppler, visit notes, Indiana University, January 2013.

Text and Tapa: The Title Page

Title Page, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington

Who wrote this volume and who collected the small samples of barkcloth from around Polynesia? Who bought the cloth collection and cut the tapa into smaller samples? How were the book’s creators related to Captain Cook? These are some of the questions that plague scholars who study the books. The history of each book, including the one in Indiana University’s Lilly Library, could help scholars better understand the meaning behind the cloth samples—artworks themselves—and of the book.

The title and dedication pages of the volume hint at its creators. The title page states that the text draws from accounts of Mr. Anderson and Reinhold Forster, and the “verbal account of some of the most knowing of the Navigators.” Johann Reinhold Forster was one of Cook’s naturalists aboard the HMS Resolution during Captain Cook’s second voyage (1772–1775). “Mr. Anderson” was one of two Andersons on Cook’s voyages. Robert Anderson was a seaman during the first voyage aboard the Endeavour, and a gunner on the Resolution for the second and third voyages. William Anderson was a naturalist and surgeon’s mate on the second voyage and surgeon on the third voyage, dying at sea aboard the Resolution in 1778.[1]

The book was “arrainged [sic] and printed for Alexander Shaw,” about whom there is little information. According to scholar Maryanne Larkin, Shaw served in the British military in Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica, finally returning to England after 1783. Scholars attribute the text and catalogue to Shaw.[2]

Stephanie Beck Cohen

[1] Philip Edwards, ed. James Cook: The Journals (London: Penguin Books, 2003) 622.

[2] Maryanne Larkin, “Tales and Textiles from Cook's Pacific Voyages,” in Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand) vol. 28, no. 4 (2004), 27–33.

Text and Tapa: The Dedication Page

Dedication Page, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington

The dedication is curious. Addressed to “Sir,” it details the author’s desire to share bits of the “specimens” and manner of cloth manufacturing with “a few friends,” although he would share the accounts and cloth with the public if possible. But to whom is the dedication really addressed? It reads:

“…would to God it was as much in your power as it is in your heart to wipe the tear from every eye, but that is impossible; for while you was [sic] teaching Indian nations how to be happy, you was [sic] as much wanted at home, where it is our constant wish that Heaven may long preserve you the support of science, and idol of family and friends.”

This may be a posthumous address to James Cook. Some scholars believe the dedication and text were both written by Shaw, and suggest a number of dedicatees, including John Montresor and Warren Hastings. Archival letters indicate the Shaw also sent Montresor an early version of the book.[1] The dedication goes on:

“…but in such undertakings fresh provision must be found, honours were to be received, mysterious ceremonies observed amongst those, and such like multifarious engagements, where is the wonder that little more than one single page is consigned to describe forty specimens of cloth, nearly which number I have carefully collected, and here present with a description formed of information from some of the navigators, and my own observations, of the bark of trees of which the cloth is composed.”

My own observations suggest that the author also traveled abroad. Dedicating the volume to Cook makes sense, as his contributions to science and material culture studies of the Pacific are without question. The first two pages of the book present the audience with a number of questions to consider as they peruse the tapa samples contained therein.

Stephanie Beck Cohen

[1]Montresor was an engineer who spent nearly 30 years working in North America surveying, doing cartography and raising fortifications. Shaw may have worked with him in the 60th Regiment, later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Hastings was the Governor-General to India.

Text and Tapa: The Tapa

Specimen 2, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington Specimen 2, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, New South Wales, Australia Specimen 35, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University – Bloomington Barkcloth kapa, Hawaii, 18th century, processed bark bast, 80 x 45 cm, 1791_531_110, courtesy of the Bernisches Historisches Museum, Ethnographical collection, Slg. John Webber
Alexander Shaw Catalogue at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The original sources for Shaw’s tapa specimens are not clear. Dealer George Humphrey purchased Cook voyage items in 1781 from surgeon’s mate David Samwell. Specimens in the Shaw books also match larger pieces in several European museum collections.[1] The Lilly Library’s copy of A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth contains 53 tapa samples on 46 pages. The tapa was collected on different islands in Polynesia, mainly Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Each island group used different techniques and designs, which is how scholars today discern place of origin.

The samples in the book do not directly correspond to their identification in the catalogue entries. However, tapa samples in the Lilly Library book correspond to tapa samples in other copies of the Shaw book, as well as to larger pieces of tapa in museum collections around the world. For example, samples from Shaw books at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, U.K., and the State Library of New South Wales match sample two, Hawaiian kapa, in the Lilly Library volume. Comparing corresponding samples allows scholars to envision the tapa as complete, rather than isolated design bits.

Likewise, museum collections have tapa from which small samples have been cut. Tracing samples from the book at the Lilly to their original tapa may provide clues to the origin, use, and meaning of tapa in the Catalogue. Museum collections sometimes have more information on specific pieces that will help identify important collection and ownership information. (This is especially important for pieces of white tapa, because without elaboration from color and design, the only clue to the place of origin is whether the cloth is pasted or felted.)[2]

For example, sample 35 may have been cut from a Hawaiian piece in the Historisches Museum in Berne, Switzerland.[3] In the image at right, it appears that pieces were cut from the kapa. The sample from the Lilly’s book fits into the design. The Historisches Museum Berne attributes this kapa to John Webber’s collection. Webber was a landscape painter on the HMS Resolution during Cook’s third voyage.[4] The Lilly may be able to say that they have a slice of kapa collected by artist John Webber and through Webber’s accounts, learn more about its collection history and context. Future research on samples from Shaw’s book compared with Cook tapa in museum collections may yield more information about both the tapa and how the book was created and circulated.

Stephanie Beck Cohen

[1] Larkin cites tapa in the museum collections in Florence and Göttingen. In the Artificial Curiosities catalogue Adrienne Kaeppler also cites a number of pieces from the collection of artist John Webber (Cook’s third voyage) in the Historisches Museum, Berne: Maryanne Larkin, “Tales and Textiles from Cook's Pacific Voyages,” in Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand) 28:4 (2004), 27–28.

[2] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Lilly Library notes, January 2013.

[3] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ed. James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), 262.

[4] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ed. James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), 262; Philip Edwards, ed. James Cook: The Journals (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 635.

Ordering Inconsistencies

In spite of the small number of Shaw volumes in existence, they share some curious characteristics: the ordering of cloth specimens rarely matches their places in the index and oftentimes the specimens from one book may not exist in another. Two copies in the Dixson Library may contain identical cloth samples and are placed in the same order on each page; however, the evidence does not indicate the reasons behind the ordering inconsistencies between the specimens and the index nor eliminate any possibilities.[1]

A multitude of hypotheses for the misclassifications have been postulated, such as mistakes may have occurred during the binding/re-binding process, or the fact that each book—and by extension each sample of cloth—has endured a multitude of owners since they were collected in the eighteenth century. The inclusion of cloth from regions outside of Cook’s voyages, additional un-indexed specimens, and other materials such as feathers, sea shells, and human hair indicate that the ordering anomalies are not attributable to human error alone.

Justina Yee

[1] Maryann Larkin, “Tales and Textiles from Cook’s Pacific Voyages,” in Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand), v.28, no.4, 2004, 21.

Comparing Volumes: Tahitian Samples

Detail, Specimen 9, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington Detail, Specimen 9, <i>A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook</i>, with permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library (National Library of New Zealand) Index detail, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington National Museum of Australia Bark Cloth from the Society Islands

Tahitian barkcloth, ‘ahu, is usually white or dull yellow in color with fine lines that are easy to recognize. The lines are caused by the beating of the barkcloth with a four-sided wooden beater, or tupai, that is incised on each face with straight lines of varying widths.[1] A description from Captain James Cook’s journal also indicates that the lengths of inner bark were laid longitudinally and soaked overnight until much of the water evaporated and the fibers began to adhere to each other.[2] The beating facilitated the felting process, creating a soft piece of cloth. Large quantities of ‘ahu were brought back to Europe from Tahiti and other Society Islands, and they were frequently cut into smaller samples, making it difficult to identify from which larger cloths the Shaw specimens may have originated.[3] Adrienne Kaeppler theorizes that the framed selections she discussed in Artificial Curiosities, which are even smaller samples than what is oftentimes found in the Shaw volumes, were likely cut from specimens in the Shaw volumes.[4]

Comparing volumes may provide some clues to the origins of the specimens. For instance, sample 9 in the Lilly Library’s copy is accurately described as coming from Tahiti. However, out of 53 specimens in the Lilly volume, only 16 pieces are arranged in an order that corresponds correctly to the index, thus not allowing us to determine conclusively that the order is “correct” as much as it might be a coincidence. Specimen 9 in the volume at the National Library of New Zealand is also a Tahitian example based on visual examination of a high-resolution digital image. Like the Lilly volume’s specimen 9, it shows the characteristic light yellowish color and fine lines, although the tone of the Lilly sample appears more grayish white, while the New Zealand sample has a light golden yellow hue. Thus, the two specimens do not appear to come from the same piece of cloth, based on the differences in color. However, when comparing these small samples to larger pieces of ‘ahu in the National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) collection, one can hypothesize that some of the Shaw specimens may have come from these larger cloths. For example the New Zealand specimen 9 bears a resemblance to an NMA ‘ahu described as a “piece of thin bark cloth of a light brown with a cast of red, from the Society Isles.”[5]

Justina Yee

[1] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008), 14.

[2] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008), 14

[3] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Artificial Curiosities”: An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N. (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978), 130.

[4] Stated during Adrienne Kaeppler’s in-person examination of the Lilly volume at Indiana University Bloomington on January 22, 2013. For a discussion on the framed samples see p. 117 and fig. 201 in Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Artificial Curiosities:”An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N. (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978).

[5] This object’s inventory number is “Oz 615” and is further labeled as “Humphrey No. 11.” More information, including an image of the cloth can be accessed online at the National Museum Australia’s website:

Demystifying Samples & Continued Research

Specimen 34, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University - Bloomington Specimen 33, Alexander Shaw <i>Catalogue</i>, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University – Bloomington

Certainly the stories that accompany the Shaw volumes, in addition to the various artifacts, drawings, and anecdotes collected from Cook’s voyages have provided scholars with many questions surrounding the Shaw books. Specimen 34 in the Lilly volume is labeled Tahitian and is accompanied by a notation that the cloth came from a Tahitian woman who unbound the cloth wrapped around her body as a result of an incident with a young boy with whom she jumped into the sea, but not before leaving the cloth with the British lieutenant onboard the HMS Resolution, a ship used on Captain Cook’s second and third voyages. However, Adrienne Kaeppler identified this specimen as clearly a Hawaiian barkcloth sample.[1]

Close visual examination as well as an understanding of Cook’s voyages and inter-island trade in Polynesia are critical to demystifying the origins of these specimens. For example, Kaeppler’s examination of the Lilly’s specimen 33 (fig. 6) suggests that the cloth sample, despite having the tell-tale straight lines that ‘ahu possess, may actually be from the Cook Islands, a place that Cook did not visit on any of his voyages. Kaeppler indicates that Tahiti was a “central place” where items were oftentimes traded in from other countries and that a few objects from both the Cook and Austral Islands have been identified in Cook collections.[2] The close examination of these volumes has contributed to our understanding of the Shaw specimens, but continued research is necessary to more fully understand outstanding questions: from which pieces of larger cloth did the Shaw samples originate? What are the most likely reasons for the misplacement of the samples against the index? Which samples and/or larger cloths can we identify as being sourced from Cook’s voyages? Finally, what specifically does scholarship hope to gain from a clearer identification of Shaw’s cloth samples?

Justina Yee

[1] Adrienne Kaeppler’s in-person examination of the Lilly volume at Indiana University Bloomington on January 22, 2013.

[2] Adrienne Kaeppler’s in-person examination of the Lilly volume at Indiana University Bloomington on January 22, 2013. Of note, Kaeppler’s visit to the Lilly Library included a brief examination of drawings from Cook’s third voyage, also in the Lilly Library’s collection. She noted a particular image of an Austral Island drum (Jennifer Wagelie and Kaeppler agreed this is the only known drawing of an Austral Island drum) in a drawing of Tahiti as an indication of Tahitians using an important object that was traded from outside islands.