Yesterday we announced the repatriation of two significant Hawaiian waiwai (treasures) to Hawai‘i. Here we republish an updated version of a blog written by Sean Mallon in 2016, documenting the journey of the ʻahu ʻula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet).
1779: Gifted to Captain James Cook
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.
The chronology that follows recounts their time in New Zealand’s national museum.
1912: Gifted to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum
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 Māori 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.
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.’
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, Hawai‘i
The ‘ahu ‘ula is loaned to the Bishop Museum in Hawai‘i for a special display during Aloha Week. See Nupepa for the story.
1978: Artificial Curiosities, Hawai‘i
The ‘ahu ‘ula alone travels to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where it appears in the exhibition Artificial Curiosities: An Exhibition and Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N. from January – August 1978.
1984: National Museum re-display in 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, Hawai‘i, and hosted by Maui Pomare.
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 Hawai‘i composes and performs a chant for Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s ‘ahu ‘ula.
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.
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.
2013–2016: Planning for long-term loan
An increasing number of Hawaiian artists, activists, researchers, and school groups included Te Papa on their travel itineraries to New Zealand so they could visit Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s mahiole and cloak.
From 2013, Te Papa was visited by delegations from the Bishop Museum and The Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Conversations began about the possibility of a long-term loan of the ‘ahu ‘ula to Hawai‘i 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 was taken off display to be prepared for its journey to Hawai‘i.
In 2016, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole went on loan to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawai‘i.
On 9 July 2020, Te Papa announces that ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole are being permanently returned to Hawaiʻi. This historic repatriation is the result of a close partnership between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Te Papa, and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. It is also supported by the descendants of Lord St Oswald, who donated the items to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum in 1912.
Journeys and futures
The journeys of the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole from Hawai‘i and through the hands of private collections and institutions brings into relief their long disconnection from the people who created them. Their travels are part of a devastating history of colonisation and cultural loss in the Hawaiian Islands. However, these cultural treasures are now on a trajectory that gives them new purpose and relevance 250 years after they first left Hawai‘i.
Commentating on the significance of the cultural treasures’ return in 2016, Pacific Studies and Hawaiian scholar Dr Emalani Case wrote:
“For us, right now, these objects represent hope. They represent a past that lives and breathes in the present, a past that can and will continue to inspire. They represent our ali‘i, and their skill and resilience. … We can only imagine what they will come to mean in the future, what they will continue to teach us about ourselves, what they will continue to whisper and tell us when we are ready to listen, what they will continue to reveal about our pasts and our presents when we are prepared to follow.”
Source: Emalani Case in Mallon, Sean, R. T. Kanawa, Rachael Collinge, Nirmala Balram, Grace Hutton, Te Waari Carkeek, Arapata Hakiwai, C. Case, Kawikaka‘iulani Aipa, and Kamalani Kapeliela. “The ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole of Kalani ‘ōpu ‘u: A journey of chiefly adornments.” Tuhinga (2017): 4.
This blog was originally published on 18 Feb 2016 under the title “Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s gift to Cook: a sacred cloak and its history of display”.