French journal highlights significance of rare plant

A chance reading of a book recording the observations of a French mariner on an early voyage to New Zealand has highlighted rare, documented evidence of a plant brought to Aotearoa by Polynesian settlers.

Drawing of a paper mulberry tree specimen.
Broussonetia papyrifera, 1822, England, by John Curtis. Te Papa (2004-0027-1)expand/collapse

Joseph Raoul – a quartermaster/pilot on board the French naval vessel Recherche – recorded some ship-based trade that took place when the vessel was off Spirits Bay in March 1793, referring in passing to an unusual trade item:  

“Not having anything else they gave us their ornaments which consist of little plaits of paper mulberry passed through their ears,” he wrote.

“The reference to paper mulberry is only one of two known written records of the delicate tapa-like paper that was made by Māori from the bark of the Aute or Paper Mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera),” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager, Bill Edwards.

“The other is by Sir Joseph Banks who travelled with Cook on the Endeavour. Thanks to Raoul’s mention of paper mulberry, we now have two known written sources.”  

The book-based ‘discovery’ was made as a result of research into the French presence in the Bay of Islands leading on from this year being the 250th anniversary of the arrival of French mariner Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne in the Bay on May 4, 1772.  

The translation of Raoul’s observation features in the book Navigators and Naturalists by French-speaking New Zealand historian, naturalist and politician, Mike Lee.

“This interesting find reflects a bigger issue which is that most New Zealand historians don’t speak or read French, and so many of the recorded observations of French mariners and scientists who came to New Zealand, in some of the earliest encounters between Europeans and Māori, are not widely known,” says Bill.

“There has been under-representation of the French side in the telling of our history – and indeed the Māori perspective of the French. The anniversary of Marion du Fresne’s arrival in New Zealand provides us with a reminder of the need to balance the narrative of early European history in New Zealand.”

Joseph Raoul – after whom Raoul Island is named – was part of a French expedition headed by Antoine-Raymond-Joseph de Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, who together with Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec on the ship Esperance tried to find the two lost ships of the expedition of the explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse which disappeared in 1788. 

The Recherche and the Esperance skirted the northern part of New Zealand – not landing but staying long enough to carry out orders to take bearings of North Cape and to map the area, though the Recherche did communicate and trade with Māori who had paddled out to them on waka. The encounter enabled ship’s artist Peron to produce remarkable portraits of two local men.

There has been under-representation of the French side in the telling of our history
Paper mulberry tree leaves in the sun.
Paper mulberry. Photo: Emily & Chris McDowall

Māori traded fish from their waka with the French, which was paid for with lengths of coloured cloth, axes, knives, and nails. Once the fish had been purchased, the traders then exchanged bundles of worked flax and many other items they had on them including weapons, clubs, lances, fishhooks and fishing lines.

Some items of clothing and the paper mulberry ear ‘ornaments’ were the last items to be traded.  

“Because objects made from Aute would have been quite delicate and perishable, they don’t survive in the archaeological record – though they survive, in a sense, through these two written references,” says Bill.

Sir Joseph Banks’ record of paper mulberry and its use bears an uncanny resemblance to Raoul’s observations. On December 4, 1769, he wrote in his journal:  

“After this they shewd us a great rarity 6 plants of what they calld Aouta from whence they made cloth like the Otahite [Tahiti] cloth; the plant provd exactly the same, as the name is the same, as is usd in the Islands, Morus papyrifera Linn., the same plant as is usd by the Chinese to make paper. Whether the Climate does not well agree with it I do not know, but they seemd to value it very much and that it was very scarce among them I am inclined to believe, as we have not yet seen among them peices large enough for any use but sticking into the holes of their Ears.”

Māori made bark cloth for kites, clothing, adornment, and ceremony, though growing this tropical plant in New Zealand’s temperate climate was evidently difficult, requiring careful attention. It generally became extinct in the 1840s, probably because tapa cloth became superseded by readily available European fabrics.

The only remaining physical evidence of its presence in Māori society are a small number of tapa beaters – patu aute or pāoi – that have been found in swamps around the country, and the existence of the word ‘aute’ in the language.

“The beaters are clearly recognisable for the different patterns of grooves on each of their faces which were used in the different phases of working Aute,” says Bill.

“On every side of the beater the distance between the grooves changes, starting from about a centimetre between each carved line and gradually thinning to a few millimetres. The heavier the wood, and the finer the grooves, the softer the Aute.” 

The existence of a second written record of Aute as used as an ornament for the ears is an important addition – but also a reminder that there is a significant body of information about our early history which has not yet been widely tapped. 

“In some ways that’s the exciting thing. There is a lot yet for historians to find out,” he says.

- John O'Hare