Title / object name
feather, cane (split aerial roots of 'ie'ie) and fibre (olona)Materials
plant fibre, feather
headgear, costume, helmets, ceremonial objects
Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912
This helmet is believed to be the helmet that was placed on Captain James Cook's head by the Hawaiian high chief, Kalani'opu'u on 26 January 1779. At the same time he was also presented with a feathered cloak. Less than three weeks later, Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i.
Construction of the helmet
The structure of the helmet comprises a basketry frame with a central crest running from the centre of the forehead to the nape of the neck. It is made from split aerial rootlets of `ie`ie (Freycinetia arborea). Covering the framework is a fine netting of olona (Touchardia) fibres to which tiny bundles of feathers are attached by the same technique as that used on feathered cloaks.
At the time Hawaiian featherwork was the most highly developed in all of Polynesia. Feather capes and helmets were symbols of the highest rank, reserved for the ali'i (chiefly) class. Most pre-nineteenth century Hawaiian settlements had bird catchers: men whose job it was to gather feathers and who were deemed so valuable they were absolved from performing other communal duties.
Capes, cloaks, and helmets were made from the tiny feathers of five or six indigenous bird species. It is estimated that the richest feather robes, which explorer James Cook likened to 'the thickest and richest velvet,' were made of half a million feathers. About 80,000 birds supplying 800,000 feathers were used for the making of a single full-length royal feather cape.