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The Mystery of the Barkcloth Broadsheets

The Mystery of the Barkcloth Broadsheets

Tuesday, 1 August 2017
Sabine Weik-Barton

The Fiji Times, printed on barkcloth, 1908. Editions that date back to the early 1900s typically contained shipping news on the front page, with limited room for cable news of importance, and the rest of the paper contained a mixture of local and cable news, more shipping news and commercial advertisements.

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As part of our Pacific Collection Access Project, over 1500 unusual and interesting objects have passed over my work table in the past two years. Perhaps one of the most ordinary pieces of ephemera that has really piqued my curiosity are two issues of a Fijian newspaper.

Manufactured from bark-cloth (masi) and carefully fringed at the edges, these issues of the Fiji Times dating to 1908 and 1909 are a quirky insight into the exigencies of producing a newspaper in colonial times in the tropical Pacific. As soon as I set eyes on them, I decided  to investigate further, given that this is such an unusual and novel use of bark-cloth.

Well finished masi made excellent paper: it proved to be fine grained, even coloured and pleasant to handle.

There are about a dozen known examples of bark cloth newspapers worldwide, the earliest dating back to 1885, a copy of The Polynesian Gazette in a private collection and the newest to 1925, a Fiji Times in The Australian Museum, Sydney.  Auckland Museum’s two examples are copies of the Fiji Times from  July 4, 1908 and February 17, 1909. Three newspapers in Fiji produced editions on barkcloth, The Polynesian Gazette in Levuka, The Fiji Observer and the one mentioned above, in effect the same newspaper at different times of its history.

Barkcloth or tapa is created from the living inner bark of particular trees which is removed in single strips of about 5 to 10cms wide. After scraping off the outer bark layers the soft inner bark can then be beaten and pounded until the fibres are spread and felted together creating sheets of thin bark cloth. In this instance, the editions are printed on a single laminate white masi of a standard width which serendipitously required no trimming to fit into the press. The left and right sides are sometimes fringed by cutting into the sheet to a depth of c.20mm. The image of a clerk in the printing workshop snipping away with scissors to mimic traditional fringing on copies of that day’s paper makes for a whimsical picture.

Ink coming through from the other side was typical of newsprint as well. The manufacture of masi required quality control and here the lamination of the two layers is patchy, leaving lacunae and thinned areas across the paper.

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Why was barkcloth used on occasion?

There is no archival evidence to provide an answer to this and the story I was told is that these are commemorative or souvenir editions of the papers. We are all familiar with these special issues: opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, royal visits, Commonwealth games, fifty years of Air New Zealand, opening of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition 1940, etc. They are held on to for decades and eventually get offered to museums and libraries in excessive quantities.

But looking at the two masi newspapers in the Auckland Museum collection there is nothing of a celebratory element anywhere within their pages. A look at the dates of other barkcloth newpapers throws up no significant occasion associated with their publication. In the July 1908 Fiji Times the biggest international news is the suffragette demonstration in London, “Women’s Sunday”, which brought 250,000 to Hyde Park. Mrs Pember Reeves, formerly of New Zealand, was mentioned as one of the banner-bearers. In the 1909 edition the only thing of note was a large feature devoted to a speech given by the governor of Fiji.  Nothing here shed a light on to my story: had other newspaper firms in the tropical Pacific used barkcloth?

Looking at a neighbouring colony, German Samoa, I found  a barkcloth (siapo) copy of The Samoa Weekly Herald. This came out on Friday March 3, 1900, three days after the proclamation of Samoa as a German colony and following a two days’ public holiday to mark the event, reason enough perhaps to have a special souvenir edition. In fact the editor simply remarks, “We have to apologize to our readers for the delay in this issue of the paper, but the celebration of the Hoisting of the Flag is our reason.”

The second characteristic of a commemorative newspaper - keeping it as a souvenir - is also absent. There are no duplicates of the barkcloth newspapers in museum collections, all are one-offs so the paper would have been disposed of within a day or two of reading, suggesting that there was no occasion to remember. Not even copies of the Samoan one for March 3, 1900 have been located in German collections. Had that edition been a genuine commemorative one, copies surely would have been dispatched by the colonists to people at home.

It stands to reason barkcloth was used because there was no newsprint on hand. The paper came from Australia or New Zealand and a shipping delay would account for the situation: no paper, use the next best thing – barkcloth. Today, it is these which take our interest, far more than the ordinary newsprint examples the masi replaced on these occasions.

  • Post by: Sabine Weik

    Sabine Weik-Barton is a conservator with many years of experience in the conservation of objects from indigenous and world cultures. She has worked in Europe and New Zealand on a wide range of materials from every continent but her special interest and love has always been for the Pacific and Asian region.  She is currently the project conservator for the Pacific Collection Access Project.