Kou wood bowl

From Hawaii, Polynesia
Possibly 18th century AD

For preparing and serving kava

The carver of this bowl would have first formed the outer contours before hollowing out the interior using a chisel or an adze. The bowl would then be soaked in the sea for a week to remove the bitter taste of the wood. It would then have been filled with food at intervals until it was thought that the bitterness had completely gone. Finally it was smoothed with pumice and polished with green bamboo leaves and candlenut oil. The eyes are of pearl shell and the teeth are of cut boar's tusks or bone.

This bowl is probably the one presented to Captain Charles Clerke, who commanded HMS Discovery on Cook's third voyage (1776-80). A chief of Kauai visited his ship on 23 January 1778 and Cook described in his journal the gift to Clerke '... of a large kava bowl, that was supported by two car[v]ed men...'.

Such a bowl would have been used for preparing and serving the infusion, kava, known by the Hawaiians as 'awa, an important beverage for high-ranking people. Kava continues to be used in several countries in the South Pacific. It is made from the root of a shrub, the pepper plant Piper methysticum and acts as a mild sedative, relaxing both the body and mind.

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More information


J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James, 4 vols. (Cambridge and London, The Hakluyt Society, 1955-74)

P.H. Buck, Arts and crafts of Hawaii (Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1957)

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

A.L. Kaeppler, 'Tracing the history of Hawaiian Cook voyage artefacts in the Museum of Mankind' in Captain Cook and the South P-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1979), pp. 167-99


Length: 49.800 cm
Height: 24.500 cm
Width: 30.000 cm

Museum number



From the voyages of Captain James Cook


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