Object Lesson – ‘Ahu ‘ula

What is it?

This glorious 18th-century Hawaiian cloak, measuring 175cm in length and c.223cm in width, is made of olona¯ fibre and black rooster feathers, with a border of yellow feathers from the now-extinct ‘o‘o (a honeyeater) and red ones from the ‘i‘wi (a honeycreeper) arranged into triangles. High-status feathered cloaks like this are known as ‘ahu ‘ula (‘red garments’) owing to their lavish use of vivid scarlet feathers, and would have been worn by members of the chiefly class. The ‘o‘o was a small, predominantly black bird, with only a few tufts of yellow under the wings and tail, so its yellow feathers were particularly highly prized.

image: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Where was it found, and when?

While on his third voyage, early in 1778, British explorer Captain Cook reached the Hawaiian archipelago. His ships were unable to secure a good anchorage, so after an initial visit the crew headed north, returning to the islands at the end of the year. When Cook landed on the island of Hawaii, he, conveniently, found the inhabitants celebrating a religious festival devoted to the god Lono in the season of peace. He and his men were presented with many prestigious gifts, including a number of feathered cloaks and stunning feathered helmets (mahiole). High chiefs (ali‘i) of other islands also offered them gifts, and it is thought that this black, yellow, and red ‘ahu ‘ula was given to Charles Clerke (Cook’s second-in-command) by Kaneoneo, chief of the island of Kaua‘i.

Why does it matter?

Feathers were greatly valued in Hawaii and were an important part of the religious experience, used in representations of deities. Similarities in the arts of Hawaii and Tahiti, including the use of feathers, bear witness to Hawaii’s earlier Polynesian links. Hawaii was probably settled by people from the Marquesas Islands, in what is now French Polynesia, between AD 300 and 800, and contact between the two regions continued until around AD 1200.

As well as an indicator of prestige, the cloak represents aspects of the early encounters between Hawaiians and Europeans. As Cook and his crew arrived during the festival devoted to Lono, some have speculated that the islanders took Cook to be the embodiment of the god, which afforded him the lavish gifts he received. Relations weren’t always this straightforward. Cook’s men spread venereal disease throughout the islands, and in February 1779 Cook was killed in fighting on Hawaii. Explanations about his death vary, but a few days after leaving the island he had been forced to return when the Resolution’s mast was damaged in a storm. For whatever reason, the men were not given a warm welcome and a dispute over thefts from their ships escalated.

Cook and his crew are the first recorded Europeans to reach Hawaii. Nearly two decades after their arrival, Kamehameha (nephew of Kalani‘¯opu‘u, the chief who gave Cook his ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole) unified the islands, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1795. The kingdom was influenced by the monarchies of Europe, and its coat of arms featured two figures wearing spectacular red and yellow ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole.

Website: http://www.britishmuseum.org

The cloak is on display as part of the British Museum’s exhibition Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific perspectives until 4 August.

TEXT: L Marchini.