Topic: Chief mourner’s costume
If you were living in the Society Islands in the late 1700s, and you saw someone wearing this costume coming in your direction, you’d know that (a) someone important had died and (b) you’d better run away or hide smartly.
When a chief died, the bereaved family would arrange for a group of mourners to grieve publicly for the dead person. This costume is what the leading member of that group would be wearing. Other mourners in the group would be naked apart from a maro, a loincloth, and would daub themselves with soot, often with red and white decoration painted on top.
The group’s task was to go around the chief’s territory, acting crazy with grief, and terrorising everybody in the process. The mourners warned of their advance with special shell clappers. They carried weapons and could be expected to use them. Woe betide you if you crossed the group’s path and couldn’t or didn’t get away in time. You might get beaten up, even killed.
How many mourners a dead person had, how well kitted out they were, how long they could be employed in mourning all depended on the resources of the bereaved family. It was a costly business keeping mourners in service. They needed accommodating and feeding, as well as presents to compensate them for time spent on their duties.
A mourner’s costume such as this was enormously valuable it was made of costly materials (one pearl shell might cost the equivalent of a pig), and was very time-consuming to make.
The headdress is made up of eleven pieces of shell five of pearl shell, six of black shell bound together with sennit to make a mask to cover the mourner’s face. The feathers radiating from the edge are from the tails of tropic birds. Pearl shell has been painstakingly cut into tiny rectangles and then tied together with fine fibre to make the chest apron. Whole pearl shells formed a collar.
Only the headdress, the two pearl shells at the shoulders, and the apron of this costume are original. The other parts have been fabricated to show you how these pieces would have been worn.
We believe that this particular costume was one of at least ten brought back from Cook’s second voyage. Cook’s men acquired the costumes in exchange for red feathers they had brought from Tonga. This costume was among various items from the voyage purchased by Joseph Banks from the crew on their return. From him, it passed on to the collector Bullock, and was bought by Mr Winn at the same auction in 1819 at which he purchased the Hawaiian cloak and helmet. The items were then handed down in the Winn family until they were donated to the New Zealand government by Mr Winn’s grandson Lord St Oswald in 1912.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)