20 metres of Fijian barkcloth

Two weeks spent reviewing the collections in Aberdeen culminated with the unfolding of a 20 metre long piece of Fijian barkcloth, or masi in Fijian. This massive textile, made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, is one of a number that it was claimed was ‘the worlds largest’ when it was made. The masi was presented to the Governor of Fiji, Sir William Allardyce, at Government house in Suva in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII and his new position as Tui biti – the supreme native chief of Fiji. At that time Fiji was a British Crown colony. The masi was laid on the ground and Allardyce with his staff walked in a procession along the length of it as part of the celebration.

Unfolding a large masi like this requires a lot of space and the team in Aberdeen decided the best place would be the Mitchell Hall in Marischal College. It seemed fitting to use Marischal College as a venue for the big reveal as it was Edward VII who opened the building in 1906.

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi

The conservator at University of Aberdeen museums examining the folded 30ft Fijian masi


We quickly realised there was only enough space in the Mitchell Hall to partially unfold the masi in a way that would not damage it.
Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen

Partially unfolded masi from Fiji in the Mitchell Hall, University of Aberdeen


This still allowed us to get a good sense of the style and pattern. Interestingly, the style was distinctly Samoan with the large hand painted spots on a red-brown rubbed ground.
Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Pattern on the 30ft long masi from Fiji

Earlier in the day the team used the hall to unfold some of the smaller pieces of barkcloth from the Aberdeen University collection, two of which you can see below:

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Piece of barkcloth collected in 19th century British New Guinea

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

Late 19th century barkcloth from Fiji featuring rifle motif

– Eve

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4 thoughts on “20 metres of Fijian barkcloth

  1. Pingback: It’s bigger on the inside! | University of Aberdeen Museums

  2. Very nice to see this. Wish I could have seen the big cloth unfolded in Marischal College — I know exactly where you would have unfolded it. Just a couple of quick comments. The big piece of cloth that you show as having been presented to King Edward VII from Fiji, is actually not Samoan-like, but Tongan-like. It is absolutely plausible, however, that it was indeed made in Fiji, not Tonga. It is what Fijians call “gatu vakatoga,” or “Tongan-style barkcloth.” This is made particularly in the southern islands of Lau, the most easterly group in the Fiji archipelago—particularly Lakeba, Oneata, Moce, and Namuka. It is normally made in great lengths, so I would hesitate to embrace too fondly the idea that it is, or ever was, “the world’s largest.” One piece a missionary measured in the 19th century was just under 60 metres long, and when Queen Elizabeth II visited Tonga in 1953, the Tongans covered the entire roadway from the wharf where she disembarked, to the Tongan Royal Palace, with barkcloth so that her feet would never touch the ground.
    It is not actually strange that Fijians would present this Tongan-style cloth instead of a more “typically Fijian” stencilled cloth, because it is primarily red-brown, and red is the colour of the gods and chiefs, their earthly embodiments. Therefore it is particularly sacred in Fiji, and high chiefs favoured using this cloth at every opportunity. As Fiji’s highest “chief” of all, they paid the King of England great honour with this particular sort of cloth. I have expanded on this usage in my book “Staying Fijian”, and in the recent book “Made in Oceania” produced by the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum to accompany their current big tapa exhibition, I have a chapter in which I discusseed it and included photos of the printing of a piece exactly like this.
    The second comment is a minor one—on the small dark masi those are muskets, not rifles. There are relatively few remaining cloths featuring muskets like this (less than a hundred I am sure), and I believe they were probably all made in one place, from the rest of the figuration again one of the Lau islands, though it will probably never be possible to say with certainty just which one.

    • Thank you Dr Ewins for your informative and very welcome comments. Since posting this blog I have had the opportunity to view other Tongan barkcloth which pointed to the fact the large piece is not Samoan style as I originally stated so it is incredibly useful that you have clarified this point for readers and for me. Is it possible to find Fijian barkcloth in a Samoan style as well? I hope to pick up a copy of the ‘Made in Oceania’ book at the symposium in Cologne in January and look forward to reading your article to find out more about the usage of this particular style. We were aware before unfolding this piece that it was more accurately ‘Aberdeen’s largest’ piece of masi, as opposed to the ‘world’s largest’. In fact, it has reduced in size as the original gift to the museum recorded it as 30 metres long and we found it to be 10 metres shorter!
      The attribution of the musket design to the Lau islands is most interesting. Aberdeen University Museums have 2 pieces of masi featuring this motif. It is hoped they may be displayed in their upcoming Fiji exhibtion which opens in the new year. The exhibition team are keen to display the barkcloth alongside one of two United States Army flintlock muskets in the collection which were inlaid with whale ivory and white trade beads in Fiji and were acquired by Arthur Gordon after the ‘Little War’ in 1876. You may have seen the musketwhich has been published in the ‘Pacific Encounters’ publication by Steve Hooper.
      – Eve

      • Thanks for the quick reply Eve. I will respond, though I just hope my remarks aren’t too long and esoteric for most readers. Please forgive if so, and feel free not to read this. 🙂

        I have been to Aberdeen twice and have looked on the Fijian material in Marischal College, a very long time ago though, when Charles Hunt was curator. I don’t recall the individual pieces at this distance in time (about 30 years). However, this has revived my interest. My son is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and two kids, so we do visit from time to time. When I am next there I will hop on a train up to Aberdeen and come and have another look. (Incidentally, I have had a great deal of correspondence about Edinburgh’s Fiji collection with Chantal Knowles, and visit the Museum each time I come to Edinburgh.)

        If you are looking in depth at barkcloth, your library should really get a copy of my “Staying Fijian: Vatulele Island Barkcloth and Social Identity.” I believe it is the most comprehensive study of the social role of Fijian masi to date. You can buy it through Amazon.co.uk if you like, or I can airmail you a copy for the same price as you can get it from them—signed, in my case! 🙂 Also, you may be interested in the heavily annotated database I prepared and put on my website for the South Australian Museum,

        Re. the flintlocks pictured on some cloths, you would find of interest an article a friend and colleague of mine wrote years ago: Clunie, Fergus 1983. “The Fijian flintlock”. In Domodomo: Fiji Museum Quarterly 1(3): 102-22 . It is a most interesting article, but as a career fine-artist myself before moving across to Anthropology, I have to disagree with his assertion that the flintlocks on these pieces of masi are part of “the mainstream of Fijian art”. As I discuss at length in Staying Fijian, that mainstream was a totally abstract system, based largely on the triangle. In fact the fascinating thing about these muskets is not that they were “part of the mainstream” but that this and any other representative imagery was forced to fit INTO the formal conventions of that mainstream, again using the triangle, diamond and zig-zag as the principal elements (though straight lines and even some discs and curves do occur).

        As to the question whether there are any Fijian cloths based on Samoan cloth, the answer is no. However, there are strong affinities between the large striking motifs on the traditional barkcloth of Cakaudrove, NE Fiji, and those of Samoa. Samoan oral history insists that they learned to make siapo from the Fijians. I discount this, since their actual fabrication methods are different, and ALL Pacific islanders used barkcloth, which I have elsewhere discussed as having come out of Asia with the first emigrants ( AND ). But it may well be that at some stage Samoans adopted some of the striking motifs of Cakaudrove, the part of Fiji with which they had most traditional contact (a look at the map and prevailing winds will show why). I know of no evidence that there was any borrowing in the opposite direction.

        Oh, one other point I meant to mention, Edward VII’s title would not really have been Tui Viti (“Fiji’s King”, note NOT Biti, but Fijians pronounce V with the lips closed, which makes it difficult for Anglophone cloth ears to pick up). That title belonged to Cakobau, the High Chief who ceded Fiji to Britain. The Queen/King of Britain were sufficiently important to be called merely “Tui” without any qualifier—as on their motto, “Rerevaka na Kalou ka Doka na Tui”, “Fear God and Honour the King”. Though it is not inconceivable that in formal speeches Allardyce may have heard reference to the King as “Na Tui Ni Viti”, “The King Of (or rather, Over) Fiji”.

        Cheers
        Rod Ewins

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