Captain Cook's Hawai'ian Feather Cloak 

'ahu 'ula ( feathered cloak) 1700s, Maker unknown, Hawaii. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. Te Papa
'ahu 'ula ( feathered cloak) 1700s, Maker unknown, Hawaii. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. Te Papa

Curriculum links

Learning area

Social Studies

Which strands will it fit with?

  • Place and Environment
  • Identity, Culture, and Organisation

Key Competencies

Relating to others: students will recognise the importance of the Hawaiian feather cloak ('ahu'ula) past and present to the Hawaiian people.

Thinking: students will identify and discuss issues related to the care and preservation of fragile collection items.

Levels of achievement

Levels 1-8

Year groups

Years 1-13

Which topics of study can it support?

  • Pacific society past and present
  • Technological advances
  • Innovation and inventions

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How long might this take?

Allow 10 minutes.

Where do I find it?

  • Level 4 behind Signs of a Nation (the Treaty exhibition).
  • If you get lost, just ask a Te Papa Host.

Why should I take my class to visit this?

  • The whole class can fit around this item.
  • It is a rare and beautiful collection item that is on display.

What is there to do there?

  • Observe the cloak and use it as a discussion point.
  • Discuss the uses of this cloak.
  • Discuss the care of collection items in museums.
  • Discuss the materials used and what they represent.

What should I know about this?

Who wore this cloak?

  • On 26 January 1779 at Kealakekua Bay, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, a high chief of Hawai’i, took off this cloak and placed it around the shoulders of Captain James Cook. Kalani‘ōpu‘u also placed a mahiole (helmet) on Cook’s head. Many other feather cloaks were placed at his feet. These gestures were a mark of enormous respect.
  • Less than three weeks later, Captain James Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay.
  • Cloaks and helmets such as these are were only worn by people of high rank. The people of Hawai’i recognised Cook as someone special, in fact it became apparent that they considered him to be a reincarnation of Lono, one of their principal gods.
  • Thirty Hawaiian cloaks and capes were brought back from Cook’s third voyage.
  • Cloaks and helmets were used to show rank and they were also used for protection - they were strong enough to ward off blows from weapons used in Hawai’i at that time.
  • The cloak was made from sections of fibre netting skilfully joined together to make a framework on which groups of feathers were fastened. When making these cloaks, people would recite genealogies of the families which had worn these cloaks, so that history would be woven into the garment.
  • The frame of the helmet was made from the aerial roots of the ‘ie’ie plant. A net of olonā fibres was then attached to the frame and, as with the cloak, feathers were attached to the net in bundles.
  • The yellow feathers are thought to have come from the ‘o’o and the mamo birds and the red feathers are thought to have come from the ‘i’iwi bird. It took feathers from some 20,000 birds to make this cloak.
  • The pattern represents the warrior-bird’s back, wings, and tail while the helmet represents the head of the warrior-bird.
  • After these garments were taken back to England, they were acquired by Sir Ashton Lever for his private museum. The garments were then sold to Thomas Atkinson in 1806. They were later acquired by William Bullock in London and sold again in 1819 to Charles Winn. In 1912, the grandson of Charles Winn, Lord St Oswald, presented his entire collection to New Zealand. The cloak and helmet have been in the national collection ever since.
  • These beautiful collection items are kept at a constant temperature of 20.8C and at humidity of 52 per cent to prevent any deterioration. They are also kept out of direct sunlight and in a glass case so they cannot be touched.

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Possible topics for discussion

  • How much time would it take to make a cloak like this? How long would it take to catch and pluck 20,000 small birds? How long would it take to weave the feathers onto the framework? (This cloak would have taken a very long time to make with a great deal a care.)
  • If you could make a cloak of great importance, what would you make it out of? Who would be allowed to wear such an important garment? If you had to present it to someone, who would that important person be and why?
  • Should the skills of making such a beautiful cloak be replaced with modern technology to save time? What can happen to customary knowledge over time?
  • Do you think that museums should return cloaks like these to Hawai’i?
  • Do you think that appropriate care is being taken with such a rare item? Should we be allowed to wear this cloak and helmet?

Further information

Related material

  • Visit the cloak case in the Mana Whenua exhibition on Level 4.

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