Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s gift to Cook: a sacred cloak and its history of display

Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s gift to Cook: a sacred cloak and its history of display


In 1779, the chief of Hawai‘i Island, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, who traced his regal line to the great chief Līloa of Waipiʻo, greeted an English captain named James Cook after his ship made port in Kealakekua Bay. As a demonstration of his goodwill, Kalani‘ōpu‘u gifted the ‘ahu ʻula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) he was wearing to Captain Cook. After the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole left on Cook’s ship, both were taken to England and passed through the hands of various museum owners and collectors. They eventually came to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa. In a few weeks, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole will return together to Hawaii. The chronology that follows recounts their time in New Zealand’s national museum.

[Kalaniopu'u] bringing Presents to Cap.T Cook. Plate 61. From the book: Folio of Plates to Captain Cook's Voyages; 1784; Webber, John; printing paper; printing
[Kalani‘ōpu‘u] bringing Presents to Cap.T Cook. Plate 61. From the book: Folio of Plates to Captain Cook’s Voyages; 1784; Webber, John; printing paper; printing
Gifted to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum 1912

The ‘ahu’ula and mahiole came to the Dominion Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor) as part of the Lord St Oswald Collection. This collection of rare and beautiful artefacts includes treasures such as a Society Islands mourning costume, and a number of Maori taonga. Some of them have a direct connection with Cook’s voyages. These were treasures acquired by the collector William Bullock from various sources. He displayed them in his own museum in London.

MA_I.045455; MA_B.011561; Writing on parchment (Label from Hawaiian cloak presented to James Cook); 01.10.1968; Turner, John; 25 Jul 2006
MA_I.045455; MA_B.011561; Writing on parchment (Label from Hawaiian cloak presented to James Cook); 01.10.1968; Turner, John; 25 Jul 2006

In 1819, Bullock sold off his entire collection. The items now in Te Papa were bought by Charles Winn (1795 1874) for his private collection. In 1912, after they had been in the family nearly one hundred years, Charles Winn’s grandson, Lord St Oswald, gave them ‘to the Dominion of New Zealand’. The gift came as a complete surprise to the Museum’s director, Augustus Hamilton. He commented in a letter at the time, ‘Goodness knows what the reason was that prompted Lord St Oswald to send them out to New Zealand.’

ahu ula

1937 Hawaiian feather work exhibition

The Dominion Museum holds an exhibition of Hawaiian feather work featuring the items from the Lord St Oswald Collection.

1960 Bishop Museum, Hawaii

The ‘ahu’ula is loaned to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii for a special display during Aloha Week. See Nupepa for the story

1978 Artificial Curiosities, Hawaii

The ‘ahu’ula alone travels to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu where it appears in the exhibition “Artificial Curiosities: Being an Exhibition and Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N.” from January – August 1978.

artificial curiosities

1984 National Museum re-display: Pacific Hall

A new display of the ‘ahu’ula and mahiole is prepared for the Pacific Hall, in the National Museum, Buckle Street, Wellington. The ‘ahu ula undergoes major conservation treatment and is rehoused in a state of the art display case. The occasion is marked by a special event on 2 July 1984 opened by Kenneth F. Brown Member of the Board of Trustees, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii and hosted by Maui Pomare.

buckle street cloak display wide shot 1984

1998 Te Papa re-display

The ‘ahu’ula and mahiole are redisplayed as part of the opening exhibitions of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. As part of the opening ceremonies of Te Papa, Dr Kamanaopono Crabbe from Hawaii composes and performs a chant for Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s ‘ahu’ula.

Feathers of the Gods display

2004 Ka hale mua o Maui loa

Members of a Hawaiian men’s group Ka hale mua o Maui loa (including Dr Kamanaopono Crabbe) visit the ‘ahu’ula at Te Papa and conduct an ‘awa (kava) ritual before it. Two descendants of Kalani‘ōpu‘u, present apu (cups) used in the ‘awa ritual to Te Papa.

FE012712/1; Apu (coconut shell cup); 2004; Anthony, Delos Reyes; coconut; Hawaii
FE012712/1; Apu (coconut shell cup); 2004; Anthony, Delos Reyes; coconut; Hawaii

2009 Tales from Te Papa

The ‘ahu’ula and mahiole are filmed for Tales from Te Papa – a television documentary series. The treasures are presented and discussed on Te Papa’s behalf by Hawaiian scholar Herman Pi’ikea Clark who lives in New Zealand.

2009 – present

An increasing number of Hawaiian artists, activists, researchers and school groups include Te Papa on their travel itineraries to New Zealand so they can visit Kalaniopu’u’s mahiole and cloak. The ‘ahu ula display at Te Papa is described by local Hawaiian academic Emalani Case as a puʻuhonua, a place of refuge, sanctuary, or peace that she often shares with friends and relatives visiting her in New Zealand.

From 2013, Te Papa is visited by delegations from the Bishop Museum, The Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Conversations begin about the possibility of a long term loan of the ‘ahu’ula to Hawaii following on from the successful 2010 reunification of the three last great Ku images from museums in the United Kingdom and the United States. In late 2015, the ‘ahu’ula is taken off display to be prepared for its journey to Hawaii.

Deinstallion of cloak 2015
Staff and associates look upon the ‘ahu’ula in the conservation laboratory at Te Papa.




  1. The cloak was given to Capt Cook – who represented his family ? If anyone was deserving to have it returned then it should have been offered to his family and then returned as a gesture of reconciliation for his murder. What had Maori to do with it?

  2. I was so angry to see on tonight’s news that Te Papa has bought the Dufour wallpaper. Such a missed opportunity to show it with the fabulous cloak. I cannot believe how little this institution talks to each other. The purchase of the wallpaper must have been negotiated some time ago. I hope that in time, if the cloak ever returns, that it might be displayed in proximity to the wallpaper.

  3. This is the only exhibit in Te Papa which has regularly drawn me to stand and marvel. How sad that for at least ten years only the wealthiest of New Zealanders will be able to see it.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment Brian. Sad for NZers, but a wonderful opportunity for many Hawaiians to see such an important cultural treasure for the first time.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment and sharing this new information with us. I was excited to read your blogpost a few days ago when someone shared it on Facebook. I have since consulted the annual report for the year ending 31 March 1961. It says “The demand for ethnographical material on loan has become more pressing…One exceptional case in the period under review was the loan of a Hawaiian cloak for a special display at the Bishop Museum.” I am still working to confirm if the loan was Kalani’opu’u’s cloak, but it looks very likely.I will keep you posted. I have updated the timeline with your new information and a link, many thanks again…

    2. Thank you! History is exciting!! This is exciting!!!

  4. I thank the kanaka maoli of New Zealand—from the bottom of my heart knowing that my brothers and sisters here in Hawai’i Nei send much aloha nui loa back to our brothers and sisters in New Zealand…. Maha;o me kealoha la….Mahalo me kealoha la…..we both lead the world in Aloha…..

    1. Author

      Mahalo Tad, we appreciate your thoughts…

  5. Aloha, I heard of this good news of the long term loan of the ‘ahu’ula and mahiole of Kalani’ōpu’u coming home to Hawai’i even if for only a “visit”. I am a cape maker and in seeing all of the ancient ‘ahu’ula in person or via data, I think this ‘ahu’ula is the most spectacular of them all. I know that I will enjoy spending time with these two artifacts when they are at the Bishop Museum and I applaud the efforts put forth by OHA to make this happen. Aloha, Rick

    1. Author

      Aloha Rick, thank you for your comment and your perspective on the ‘ahu’ula as a cape maker. It is good to know that the loan of these items to the Bishop Museum will allow you to view them up close and in person.

  6. Hi David. Yes I agree it is a bit of a heart-stopping moment to bid farewell to these astonishing garments. But maybe you are being a little hard on Te Papa.
    Check out the link copied here from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to get an idea of the enormous impact this homecoming is going to have for Hawaiian people, especially indigenous Hawaiians. And the potential for peoples of both countries to look at each other and think about the connections between our cultures with fresh eyes.
    The loan appears to be for 10 years. I think I would say that in return we will get two things – a tantalising incentive to visit the Bishop Museum if at all possible (direct flights!) and see the cloak and helmet in a broader cultural context; and secondly, we have immediately made 1,000s of new friends amongst the peoples of Hawaii. Aloha and Aroha from Aotearoa to them.

    1. Author

      Thank you Kathryn for reading the post and taking time to comment. We too are excited about the impact this loan will have in the Hawaiian community.

    2. The Hawaiian community has great appreciation, aloha and respect for Te Papa and the return of these priceless treasures. Repatriation of cultural artifacts to indigenous peoples is the right thing to do. It builds community by drawing people closer , breaking down walls and finding common ground. Mahalo Nui Aotearoa!

    3. Author

      Mahalo Desiree…we appreciate your comments

  7. Further to my last comment, how long is long term loan? At what point was this debated, discussed with the stakeholders outside of the Te Papa and the Bishop Museum? It’s like returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece or the Mona Lisa to Italy, neither of which is likely to happen. Where is the public discussion of this? Shame on you Te Papa.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comments David. I can confirm as another commenter has pointed out, that the agreement is a ten year loan.

    2. The repatriation of indigenous artifacts to their homelands is pono (righteous) and an honorable endeavor which should be encouraged.

      No shame, Te Papa, no shame at all…

    3. Author

      Mahalo Burton…thank you for your comment

    4. I’m a Maori living in Hawaii, and when I heard of the return of the Taonga I was very excited. I had the same feeling with the return of Mokomokai to Aotearoa. A large majority of items in museums and collections around the world were acquired by means other than gifts.
      There are more Hawaiian taonga in collections outside of Hawaii than here in their homeland.
      What is it that makes people want ownership of items they have no real connection to?
      It is my hope that more museums and collectors will follow Te Papa’s lead and give back to the people their taonga for the future generations to experience.
      It would be great if it could be more than just a loan… but it’s a good start…

  8. I can’t believe that Te Papa has sent its most important Pacific artefact on long-term loan. I hope you’ve got something good in return!

  9. So very proud of our National Museum for making this a reality for our Hawaiian relations and fellow Pacific Islanders. Tis a wonderful thing to share the mana taonga philosophy with others and bring this taonga and its story full circle to where it all began. Aloha Mahalo.

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading the blog and commenting. Mana Taonga is an important underpinning of our work at Te Papa. An important way of making meaningful connections with communities.Mahalo nui

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