Artifacts Owned by Explorer James Cook Returned to Hawaii


In 1779, Hawaiian chief Kalani'ōpu'u presented famed explorer Captain James Cook with a priceless feathered cloak and helmet. For more than a century, the artifacts have sat in New Zealand’s national collections. Now, reports that the elaborate garb has been returned to its native land after 237 years, and is now on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

The mahiole (feathered helmet) and 'ahu 'ula (feathered cloak) were intended to welcome Cook, the first known European explorer to make contact with the far-flung Pacific archipelago. According to Honolulu magazine, written accounts state that Kalani‘ōpu‘u met with Cook, and at the end of their exchange “got up & threw in a graceful manner over the Captns [sic] Shoulders the Cloak he himself wore, & put a feathered Cap upon his head, & a very handsomefly flap in his hand.”

Relations eventually soured between Cook and the Hawaiian people, and in 1779 a crowd of villagers killed the captain. The cloak and helmet survived the mayhem, and returned to England with Cook’s ship and crew. They were passed from person to person until they finally landed in the hands of their long-term owner, Lord St. Oswald. When Oswald died in 1912, he surprised the public by willing his entire collection to Dominion Museum of New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand.

Over the years, the feathered cloak (without the helmet) made two brief return trips to Hawaii—once on Mayday in 1960, and again in 1978 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in the islands. In 2013, officials from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Te Papa, and the Bishop Museum began talks of a 10-year loan to the Bishop Museum.

The collaboration was recently finalized, and last week the cloak and helmet were handed over to a Hawaiian delegation in an emotional ceremony. Held at Te Papa, the event featured Hawaiian and New Zealand Maori Indigenous rituals and celebrated the fact that the cloak and helmet will be reunited in Hawaii for the first time in centuries.

Last Sunday, the Bishop Museum held a public celebration to commemorate the artifacts’ return. Visitors can now see them on display in the exhibit “He Nae Ākea: Bound Together,” which reflects on Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s connections to his land, culture, and people, MauiNow reports.

“These priceless treasures have so much to tell us about our shared Pacific history. We are honored to be able to return them home, to reconnect them with their land and their people,” Arapata Hakiwai, Māori co-leader of Te Papa, said in a statement. “Woven into these taonga (treasures) is the story of our Pacific history, with all its beauty, challenges and complexity.

Learn more about the cultural significance of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s cloak and helmet in the video above, courtesy of New Zealand TV program Te Karere TVNZ

Header photo: Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain