Topic: Hawaiian feather cloak ('ahu 'ula) and helmet (mahiole)
This cloak and helmet are the ones worn by Kalani‘opu‘u, a high chief on the island of Hawai‘i, when he greeted Captain James Cook on the beach at Kealakekua Bay in January 1779. According to Lieutenant King in his journal, the chief ‘got up & threw in a graceful manner over the Captns Shoulders the Cloak he himself wore, & put a feathered Cap upon his head, & a very handsome fly flap in his hand.’ (1)
Garments like these were worn only by people of high rank. It was a mark of enormous respect to make such a gift, and to give it in such a way. When Cook’s expedition arrived at the island of Hawai‘i, it became quickly apparent that the Hawaiians considered Cook himself as someone out of the ordinary. It turned out that they took him to be an incarnation of Lono, one of their principal gods.
Expedition members were particularly fascinated by the Hawaiians’ feathered garments. They were a unique feature of Hawaiian culture. Some thirty cloaks and capes were brought back to England from the third voyage six of those were laid as presents at Cook’s feet at the same time as Kalani‘opu‘u adorned him. For the armchair travellers back home, they were some of the most exotic of the ‘curiosities’ collected en route.
Cloaks and helmets were beautiful in colour and design, intricately crafted, and of unusual materials. To add to their appeal, stories could be told of their effectiveness as armour in battle helmets strong enough to ward off blows to the head, cloaks that acted like flak jackets against sling stones and other weapons.
This cloak will never be worn again. The fibre netting that makes its basic structure is now very fragile. Three separate pieces of netting have been skilfully joined together to make the framework. Threads fasten the feathers in small bundles onto the netting. The featherwork starts from the bottom, so each new row conceals the quills of the feathers below.
The basic shape of the helmet has been made from the tough aerial roots of the ‘ie‘ie plant. A net of olona fibres has been laid over the framework, and feathers attached in bundles in the same way as for the cloaks.
Not only are these rare and beautiful things. They are also a direct connection for us to Cook and his fateful last voyage. How do we know? Their ‘pedigree’, as it happens, is well documented they came to our Museum as part of Lord St Oswald’s gift, along with other items such as the Society Islands chief mourner’s costume.
(1) Beaglehole, J C. editor, (1967). Journal of Lieutenant James King, in The
Journals of Captain James Cook. The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery,
1776-1780, Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, Part One p. 512.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)