In the dawn hours of January 18, 1778, on his third expedition, British explorer Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution and Captain Charles Clerke of the HMS Discovery first sighted what Cook named the Sandwich Islands (that were later named the Hawaiian Islands.)
Cook continued to sail along the coast searching for a suitable anchorage. His two ships remained offshore, but a few Hawaiians were allowed to come on board on the morning of January 20, before Cook continued on in search of a safe harbor.
On the afternoon of January 20, 1778, Cook anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River on Kauai’s southwestern shore. After a couple of weeks, there, they headed to the west coast of North America.
After the West Coast, Alaska and Bering Strait exploration, on October 24, 1778 the two ships headed back to the islands; they sighted Maui on November 26, circled the Island of Hawaiʻi and eventually anchored at Kealakekua Bay on January 17, 1779.
At the time, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokai, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and (4) Kauai and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
Kalaniʻōpuʻu was on the island of Maui. Kalaniʻōpuʻu returned to Hawaiʻi and met with Cook on January 26, 1779, exchanging gifts, including an ʻahuʻula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (ceremonial feather helmet.) Cook also received pieces of kapa, feathers, hogs and vegetables.
In return, Cook gave Kalaniʻōpuʻu a linen shirt and a sword; later on, Cook gave other presents to Kalaniʻōpuʻu, among which one of the journals mentions “a complete Tool Chest.”
“For Native Hawaiians, the ʻahuʻula, mahiole, and all other featherwork were reserved exclusively for the use of their ali‘i (royalty), symbolizing their chiefly divinity, rank and power.”
“It embodied the life essence of a thriving abundant environment which are the telltale signs of leadership, as it takes a healthy forest ecosystem to produce enough bird feathers and cordage to make these regal pieces.” (OHA)
The construction of featherwork in ancient Hawai‘i required an incredible amount of labor and craftsmanship. The ‘ahu‘ula of Kalaniʻōpuʻu has 500,000 feathers (lashed one-by-one) from about 20,000 birds.
“Skilled trappers caught the birds by employing various techniques such as snaring their prey midair with nets, or using decoy birds to lure them onto branches coated with a sticky substance.”
“They often harvested only a few feathers from each bird before releasing them back into the wild so they could produce more feathers. Skilled workers belonging to the aliʻi class crafted the olonā cordage backing, a netting used as the foundation for the cloak, onto which the bundles of feathers were attached, creating bold designs.”
“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 under the care of the Lord St Oswald, who unexpectedly presented his entire collection in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa. The cloak and helmet have been in the national collection ever since.”
“In 2013, discussions began among the Bishop Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, and OHA to bring these treasures back to Hawai‘i, culminating in this significant homecoming.” (OHA)
In a partnership between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the ‘ahu‘ula and mahiole of Kalani‘ōpu‘u came back in March 2016 and are displayed at Bishop Museum on long-term loan.