Talking Tapa

In the Macleay Museum collection, there is a piece of tapa cloth from Pitcairn Island. It is only small, cut into a roughly rectangular shape. This particular piece of tapa was made by beating down the bark of a paper mulberry tree until it became thin and pliable. Though humble in its appearance, tapa has the ability to talk. When it talks, it betrays the story that is most often told about Pitcairn Island: the story of the Bounty Mutiny, of men and individual power.
Instead, tapa tells us about the lives of Pitcairn women, who are often neglected in the prevailing narrative. They arrived alongside the English mutineers in 1789 from the islands of Tahiti, Huahine, and Tubai. In early settlement, while men were occupied in land disputes, it was the women who fostered the island community. These women possessed a different kind of power to their male counterparts. It was not pent up in individual prestige but instead, could be shared over geographical boundaries and across generations. The story of these women is inscribed in the tapa they produced.
When Pitcairn Island was re-discovered in 1808, the women gave their visitors tapa as a reminder of their stay. Guests were encouraged to divide the cloth and share it with family and friends. Fragments of tapa, found all over the world, tell us that the women were not isolated. Tapa enabled them to forge international bonds, like the friendship between Mauatau and Frances Heywood. Visitors who were touched by their gift, reciprocated with economic goods that were shared with the whole community.
Pitcairn tapa is a genealogical map. The founding mothers made different varieties of tapa. Some made their cloth in vibrant red and orange, like the kind in the Macleay collection. Others adorned their material with plant prints. The foremothers passed their particular methods of tapa-making onto their daughters who, in turn, learnt to make cloths of the same kind.
In the 20th Century, scientists became fascinated with Pitcairn Island. It was seen as secluded site for racial mixing. They wanted to see what characteristics Pitcairn islanders had inherited from their paternal ancestry. In contrast to the clear matrilineal lines, embedded in tapa, these scientists could not reach any conclusions on the impact of miscegenation on inheritance. They merely discovered that ‘Englishness’ was not transmitted in the way they imagined.
The story of the Pitcairn women is harder to tell because requires acute observation and a broad base of knowledge. It contests the written archive, dominated by the voices of literate, European men. In order to understand the story, our class needed to develop an understanding of textiles, Polynesian custom and history. We have grappled with philosophical issues, such as the shifting value of artifacts. Most importantly, we needed to ask what tapa means to contemporary Pitcairn Islanders. For people like Pauline Reynolds, the fibrous strands of tapa link her to her family’s past. She has revived the practice of tapa-making with her sisters, to demonstrate that the legacy of her foremothers outlives the archaic beliefs of colonists and scientists. We are indebted to Pauline because her insight has allowed us to see tapa with a fresh perspective. If you are willing to look in uncommon places, if you ask different questions, then tapa will talk and it will tell you something new.
See the Macleay tapa here:

Pitcairn and its Women

The Bounty destined to safely deliver breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the English West Indian Plantations ended up at the bottom of an inhabited island we now call Pitcairn Island. This led to the development of many famous movies such as Mutiny on the Bounty. It all started on 28 April 1789, with the rebellion of 25 crewmen led by Fletcher Christian, against Bligh, Captain of the Bounty, due to his inhuman treatments against them. They took hold of the ship, setting Bligh and his loyal crew afloat in a small boat landing on Timor. The Bounty landed on Tahiti with 16 of its crewmen deciding to stay while the other 8 mutineers followed Christian in their quest to find a safe haven, taking with them 12 Tahitian women, 6 Tahitian men and a child. In 1790, after months of searching the seas, they finally found the perfect island. Pitcairn Island was uninhabited; hard to find geographically and possess a tiny and dangerous landing location to minimise any encounter from the outside. They set The Bounty ablaze removing any traces of their presence. The ship wreckage can be seen under the waters of Pitcairn Island till this day.
Life on the island became tensed as conflict and violence started to brew between the mutineers, Tahitian men and women due to racism and the stealing of women. To survive, the women intervened by establishing for themselves the power to voice their opinion and make relevant choices that will best suit their self-interest. The women played their cards carefully in plotting the killings or being an informant for the mutineers. A Tahitian woman continually disobeyed the orders of Young, a mutineer, to bury the skulls of the dead, which was traditionally seen to hold the title deeds of the land. She readily made a choice to defy and express her belief openly to a European male and authoritative figure of the island so as to retain her own cultural traditions and position as the founding figures of Pitcairn Island.
Beyond the treacherous violence outside the female dominated huts, an activity brought over by the Tahitian women bonded them together and reminding them of their Polynesian culture and tradition. The knowledge of Tapa cloth making that the Tahitian women learnt as young girls were being transferred onto their children. Meralda Warren, the 7th generation descendant of The Bounty mutineers, who still practices tapa cloth making today is a good example that demonstrates tapa knowledge transference between the generations. More information:
Tapa making carried with it a form of socialising, forming relationships or even a place to hatch murderous plans without the men knowing. The gifting of tapa was used to establish and strengthen social relationships and by gifting cloth to visitors (after Pitcairn was discovered), it made the women visible to others but also to uphold their traditions. Thus, the tapa cloth became an active agent in connecting and presenting to the women a voice rarely heard and recorded by the outside world.

History of the Pitcairn Islands

The history of the Pitcairn Islands is a hidden tale waiting to be told. Its history tells of a great intertwining clash between Pacific and Colonial cultures. The famous movie ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ dramatizes the 1790 colonisation of the Pitcairn Islands by nine British mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, Ned Young, John Adams, Matthew Quintal and William McCoy, with nineteen kidnapped pacific islanders including one young female child. The Pitcairn Islands had been inhabited briefly prior to 1790 as a trading port but when the Bounty arrived there were no inhabitants and seemed to have ceased to be a working trading port.
The unique colony soon came upon many issues including division of the land, violence and disease. Various accounts detail that the land was divided up by only the mutineers resulting in the islander men being forced into the role of servants. This produced many tensions between the colonial and islander men. This combined with the low number of women resulted in violence and an attempted massacre in 1793. This attempted massacre resulted in the population of Pitcairn being made up of Young, Adams, Quintal and McCoy and ten islander women with their descendants. By 1800, the Pitcairn Islands were made up of one colonial (John Adams) and ten pacific islander women as well as many children.
Despite the women outnumbering the men on Pitcairn much of Pitcairn’s history is written from a male colonial perspective. Even the names of the women were very much unknown. For the first ten to twenty years the Pitcairn Islands had little to no contact with the outside world. When the Pitcairn Island colony finally came in contact with various European and American ships, the crew only interacted with the lone colonial remaining. Much of the writings praise the lone colonial and his deceased crew. Many of the writings also, both fiction and not, focused on Fletcher Christian’s forbidden love with an islander woman as well as the mutiny and overthrowing of the Bounty.
This massive silencing of the female voice is only recently being discussed. Their voices are now being heard through the various pieces of tapa cloth scattered across the globe. The tapa cloth was given by the women to various visiting ships and crew. Hidden within them was the secret of their history. The tapa cloth represents a combination of continuing traditional islander culture and an adaption to a new environment. This representation can also be said to reflect the society of the Pitcairn Islands. Its inhabitants and surviving culture is a hybrid of islander and colonial cultures with unique adaption to the environment of the Pitcairn Islands.


Imagine this. You’ve woken, as if from a dream, on an island. You’re one of twelve women of your race now facing a future on a strange place in the midst of a vast ocean. And it’s not that you are unfamiliar with the sea or island life, but with you are fifteen men, most of whom are a motley crew of white men you first met last year, and who have now brought you with them on their ship. But now that ship, so much bigger than the canoes with which you’re familiar, has been destroyed. The nervous realisation dawns on you that this is the beginning of a very new and different life far from the routines of your upbringing. Yet somehow, the Pareu you’re wearing brings back memories of days spent with your mother learning the skills of gathering the mulberry tree bark, preparing it and beating it into a piece of tapa cloth. You feel stronger and perceive a small glimmer of hope for the future.
This is precisely the situation faced by the Tahitian women who went with the Bounty mutineers in 1790 to found the remote settlement on Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It had been a calculated move by the leader of the British sailors, Fletcher Christian, to find somewhere they were unlikely to be discovered and brought to justice. Of course, to have any chance of creating a society he needed the women and the children they would bear.
Within ten years, 23 children would be born and all but one of the men would be dead – yet most of the women survived. Not that they were necessarily happy. There had been attempts at escape, and killings, as suspicion and jealousies arose. And yet survive they did. The women had formed a tight-knit community who had reared children and kept alive many of their customs. Due to their knowledge of the physical environment they were able to keep themselves fed and clothed. But why is it that we know so little about these women?
The men of the Bounty have been mythologised and made the stuff of both popular fiction and academic writings. Their story and names are relatively well known because they were accorded a voice through documentary records. And yet the women have been silent – until recently. It is only with the advent of a new approach to history where objects are seen for their role in making history real that their feminine agency has begun to gain credence amongst scholars.
The bark cloth (tapa) that these women made reveals much to those who know how to look. It had not just utilitarian or even ceremonial value: it was gifted and became a form of interaction with outsiders while also revealing their social origins. Methods of manufacture were adapted to local conditions and they innovated with dyes and patterns.
These Polynesian women were assertive custodians of their own culture. They not only provided the social glue for the fledgling society but took their destiny into their own hands. They deserve to be heard.

Welcome to The Pitcairn Project

Manava! Here you will find entries and soon other tools for exploring the history of tapa making on Pitcairn Islands. Tapa cloth is usually produced by women, and the story of tapa making by Tahitian women who accompanied the Bounty mutineers in recreating a human society on the islands beginning in 1790 is a critical one for understanding women’s history in the Pacific.
This project is being undertaken by Masters in Museum and Heritage Studies and History Honours students here at the University of Sydney. We welcome your thoughts and feedback!