Hawaiian feather helmet

From Hawaii, Polynesia, 18th century AD

This Hawaiian feather helmet was possibly collected on the third voyage of British Naval officer, Captain Cook.

In the Hawaiian islands, feathered cloaks, capes and helmets were worn by male chiefs to signify their status. These were worn during battle, and ceremonial occasions which often took place at heiau (temple areas). 

Helmets, known as mahiole, were constructed of the aerial roots of the ‘ie’ie vine, woven into a basketry frame. They were perfectly fitted to an individual, and protected the most sacred part of the body, the head. All of a chief’s garments were considered tapu, having a divine or sacred power, and would not be worn by anyone else.

The basketry frame was covered with knotted olonā fibre netting, to which small feathers of a uniform size were attached. Red feathers were gathered by specialist bird-catchers from the i’iwi bird, a honeycreeper, and the black and yellow feathers from honeyeaters. The honeyeaters had few yellow feathers, and garments made of these feathers were reserved for particularly high-ranking chiefs.

The shape of the crest echoes the crescent designs found on cloaks, and in men’s hairstyles and tattoo designs. The Hawaiian word for crescent, hoaka, means to ‘frighten away’, but also indicates brightness, splendour and glory. On the island of Hawaii, helmets with a high crest, such as the one you see here, were favoured. 

When the British ships Resolution and Discovery entered Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in January 1779, they were greeted by thousands of people in canoes. They had arrived during the Makahiki festival, dedicated to the god of peace and productivity, Lono. At this time, the ali’i nui (chiefs) were regarded as human manifestations of the god Lono, who returned annually to ensure ongoing fertility and prosperity.

Presentations of cloaks and helmets were made to Captain Cook, and a total of 16 helmets in collections around the world have been associated with his visit to Hawaii by Pacific scholar Adrienne Kaeppler (1978). 

A cloak and helmet in the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, have been identified as those which the Hawaiian high chief Kalani’ōpu’u presented to Cook, the helmet being placed on his head by the chief. It is thought that this British Museum example may have been bequeathed to natural historian Sir Joseph Banks by the captain of the Discovery, Charles Clerke, who died on the voyage.


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Object details

Height: 37 cm
Width: 15 cm
Depth: 30 cm



Africa, Oceania, Americas

    Collected on the voyages of Captain James Cook


    A.L. Kaeppler, Artificial Curiosities: being (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1978)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    G. Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (Princeton/London, 1994) 

    M.D. Sahlins, How "Natives" think, about Captain Cook, for example (Chicago, 1995) 

    R.A. Morrell, The Sacred Power of Huna: Spirituality and Shamanism in Hawai'i (Rochester VE, 2005) 

    T. Lummis, Pacific paradises : the discovery of Tahiti and Hawaii (Stroud : Sutton, 2005)*

    D.W. Forbes, Encounters with paradise: views of Hawaii and its people, 1778- 1941 (Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press; Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1992)

    R.G. Rose, Symbols of sovereignty: feather girdles of Tahiti and Hawai'i (Honolulu, Hawai'i : Dept. of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1978)