In 1779 the ruling chief of Hawaii island greeted a visitor from a distant land named Capt. James Cook at Kealakekua Bay and offered him a lavish gift of his own feathered cloak and helmet.
Now, after 237 years away from Hawaii, the ahu ula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) of Chief Kalaniopuu will be returning to the islands for display at the Bishop Museum starting March 19.
The Honolulu museum teamed up with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to bring the artifacts to Hawaii for what is being described as a loan of at least 10 years, but they could end up here on a permanent basis.
“We’re thrilled and excited we can return these treasures back to Hawaii,” said Arapata Hakiwai, Maori co-leader of Te Papa Tongarewa, where they have been housed since 1912.
The cloak, made from the feathers of an estimated 20,000 birds, is said to be worth some $6 million.
“These items are truly priceless,” said Kamana‘opono Crabbe, CEO of OHA, which spent “several hundred thousand dollars” helping to negotiate for their return. “Whatever we spent, it was well worth it.”
Crabbe said the items not only represent a treasure to the Hawaiian people, but symbolize the beginning of the challenges that faced Native Hawaiians as Europeans and Americans started migrating to the islands.
After receiving the gifts from Kalaniopuu, Cook left the island but returned a month or so later to repair storm damage to his ship. The natives weren’t as accommodating this time, and a violent clash led to the English captain’s death.
The cape and helmet remained on the ship, however, and they wound up in England before passing through the hands of various museum owners and collectors.
They eventually came into the possession of Lord St. Oswald, who in 1912 gave his entire collection to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa.
In 2013 discussions began among Bishop Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa and OHA to bring the artifacts back to Hawaii.
Marques Marzan, Bishop Museum cultural resource specialist, said the cloak, helmet and all Hawaiian feather work were reserved exclusively for the use of royalty and required a great deal of labor and craftsmanship.
Olona cordage was used as a backing — a netting used as the foundation onto which bundles of feathers were attached and arranged in bold designs, Marzan said.
Marzan said each chief had one cloak, a garment that could take years to create. And the longer the cloak, he said, the more important the chief was.
Kalaniopuu gave up his cloak to Cook as a gift to an equal, a gift between chiefs, he said.
Blair Collis, president and CEO of Bishop Museum, said the museum is honored to be charged with the care of these cultural treasures.
”They have a unique history,” Collis said of the feathered artifacts. “They have a fascinating, tragic, significant story to tell.”
The exhibit will be called “He Nae Akea: Bound Together.”
Hawaiian Airlines will transport the feathered cape and helmet to Hawaii on a flight March 13, and a private ceremony will be held to receive the items March 17.
Crabbe, who has seen the ahu ula and mahiole in New Zealand on several occasions, predicted they would be popular here.
“They’re awesome,” he said. “The colors and hues of the feathers are amazing; the condition is pristine. The curatorship has been fantastic.”
Hakiwai, from Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand, said his museum can see the pieces having a permanent home in Hawaii. Te Papa has committed to returning Maori treasures to communities in New Zealand, and the museum’s board supports returning culturally important items to their homes.
“It’s something museums should be doing more of,” he said.
Coincidentally, the cloak and helmet will go on display at the Bishop Museum on the same day that a previously planned Hawaiian feather-work show was scheduled.
“Na Hulu Alii: Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” billed as the largest display of Hawaiian feather work in history, was planned to appear in Honolulu from March 19 to May 23 following a run at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
But the show — featuring feather-work pieces largely owned by the Bishop Museum but also from museums around the world — was canceled recently after the Honolulu museum determined it couldn’t do it justice, Collis said.
Last month Bishop Museum announced a five-year plan to streamline operations and make other changes in response to declining revenue.
“It was not the right time for the commitments, resources and planning for that show,” Collis said.
The museum is now aiming to mount that show around 2019 or 2020, he said.
Meanwhile the de Young Museum has extended its “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork” exhibit through April 10.