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London's Treasures of the South Seas

Connie JohnsonWhen Jack and Charmian set sail on the Snark in 1907 for a trip around the world they had their hearts set on collecting souvenirs.

While in the South Seas they visited the Marquesas Islands and followed in the footsteps of where the famous author Herman Melville had written stories about the natives. In December, when exploring the Typee Valley, Charmian was determined to find the tapa cloth that Melville described one of his maiden wearing. Jack and Charmian received many invitations for dinner in the homes of the natives. One night Charmian noticed that there were sewing machines and rolls of red cloth in the room. She asked the mistress of the house if there was any of the old tapa cloth left on the island. The Hawaiian lady nodded her head and soon returned with a nine-foot roll of this white fabric that appeared to have been made out of breadfruit bark. Feeling that this was the cloth that Melville had described in his book the London's purchased the fabric.

As they continued to sail among the islands Charmian remained faithful to making entries in her log that later was created into a book titled, The Log of the Snark. Jack and crew anchored the Snark off Taiu Manua Group, American Samoa. On Thursday, April 30, 1908, after the Londons had gone ashore to explore the village, Charmian recorded in her log: "At last we have seen tapa cloth in the making. I had begun to look upon it as a lost art, until Jack and I, taking a walk, stumbled upon a fale' (house) where a pretty woman sat cross-legged before a tilted board, pounding and scraping the wet lengths of stripped white tutuga – a kind of mulberry – Broussonetia papyrifera, if you really want to know. After the pulpy substance thus made is pounded into "cloth" it is laid over a board carved in one of the patterns particular to siapos. A piece of rag is then dipped into native dye made from tree-bark, and well rubbed over the cloth. The colour remains on the high places pressed up by the carving, and the thing is done."

Before leaving the Island, Jack purchased a roll of this tapa cloth and stored it on the Snark before they sailed on to Pago Pago. This South Sea treasure found its way back to the Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen and it wasn't until 1911 when the Londons moved into their cottage would this roll of tapa cloth reappear. While Jack and Charmian entertained guests, Emma a friend who had come to see their new home spent time making the tapa screen cloth into curtains to be hung in the dinning room.

When the restoration of the dinning room is completed you will be able to see these curtains once again hanging amongst the many artifacts from the travels of Jack and Charmian London. Until then, the curtains are on display at the Jack London State Park in The House of Happy Walls Museum.

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