Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Width: 259.000 cm
Collected on the voyages of Captain James Cook
AOA HAW 133
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Possibly 18th century AD
Prestige and sacred protection
The most common colour scheme for Hawaiian ceremonial feather cloaks uses a red background with yellow geometrical motifs and lower border, as shown here. The red feathers are of the 'i'iwi bird (Vestiaria coccinea) and the yellow ones of the 'o'o (Moho nobilis). Such a large cloak would have belonged to a man of high rank. Yellow feathers were scarcer than red ones, so the most valuable garments were predominantly yellow. It has been estimated that the largest cloaks would be covered with nearly half a million small feathers. Cloaks were valued items, passed down the generations as heirlooms.
The Hawaiian specialist Adrienne Kaeppler has identified this cloak as one collected on Captain Cook's third voyage (1776-80), based on its style and on circumstantial evidence. It has the characteristic straight neckline and shaped lower edge, common to those associated with the period before European contact. Kaeppler believes that this cloak, and another in The British Museum's collection (HAW 134) were gifts from Hawaiian chiefs to Captain Charles Clerke, Cook's second-in-command. Kahekili, chief of Maui, presented this cloak to Clerke in 1778.
The cloak is typically composed of pieces of olona (Touchardia latifolia) fibre netting sewn together to form the desired shape. The manufacture of these prestigious feathered items was a highly skilled and time-consuming craft, restricted to men of high status, who observed religious practices as they worked. Each piece of netting was made separately, accompanied by the recitation of protective prayers. Such a cloak provided its important wearer with sacred protection when worn in dangerous situations.
A.L. Kaeppler, 'Hawaiian art and society: traditions and transformations' in Transformations of Polynesian (Auckland, The Polynesian Society, Memoir no. 45, 1985), pp. 105-31
W.T. Brigham, Hawaiian feather work (Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1899)
D.C. Starzecka, Hawaii: people and culture (London, The British Museum Press, 1975)