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For the First Time in 237 Years, A Hawaiian Chief’s Royal Treasures Return Home

You can see Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s priceless Ali‘i feathered cloak and helmet at the Bishop Museum.


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The Journey of Two Treasures

 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

HONOLULU Magazine and our sister publication HAWAI‘I Magazine traveled as guests of the delegation that brought the artifacts back. The per-person value of the trip was estimated at $2,000, with airfare sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, and hotel and car by OHA. The organizations neither asked for nor received any special treatment in telling the story.
photo: courtesy of hawaiian airlines


Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s Gift (1779)

Kalani‘ōpu‘u, high chief of Hawai‘i island, is wearing both items when he greets English explorer Capt. James Cook on the beach at Kealakekua Bay in January 1779 and presents them as a gift. Although Cook was killed in a later visit, his crew took the items back to England.


Leverian Museum in England (1806)

The ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole are acquired by Sir Ashton Lever and displayed at the Leverian Museum, then sold in an auction to Thomas Atkinson.


London Museum (1817)

They are displayed in the London Museum of William Bullock, until they are sold at auction in 1819 to Charles Winn.


Lord St. Oswald Collection NZ (1912)

After the items had been in the Winn family for nearly 100 years, Lord St. Oswald (Rowland Winn), leaves them along with his whole collection to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand (a Te Papa predecessor).  


Hawaiian Featherwork Exhibition (1936)

They are displayed publicly in New Zealand for the first time when the new Dominion Museum opens in 1936.


Bishop Museum Visits (1960, 1978)

The ‘ahu ‘ula returns on loan to Hawai‘i’s Bishop Museum for a special display during Aloha Week in 1960, and again in 1978 for an exhibition of artifacts from Cook’s voyages. 


New Zealand Museum Relaunch (1984)

Both items appear in a new exhibit at the National Museum (another Te Papa predecessor) in Wellington. 


Te Papa Tongarewa Opening (1998)

Both are displayed as part of the opening exhibitions of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Kamana‘opono Crabbe composes and performs a chant for Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s ‘ahu ‘ula.


Hawaiians Visit (1998–2016)

An increasing number of Hawaiian artists, activists, researchers and school groups add add New Zealand to their travel itineraries so they can visit Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s items. 


The Return (March, 2016)

For the first time in 237 years, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole return together to Hawai‘i. 


Source: Bishop Museum; Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Te Papa Tongarewa. 



Illustration: Kelsey Ige

Feathered Fine Points 

  • The cloak (‘ahu ‘ula) is estimated to include about half a million feathers from about 20,000 birds.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

  • The red feathers are from the ‘i‘iwi bird and yellow feathers from the mamo bird, as well as two ‘ō‘ō birds from Maui and Hawai‘i Island.


  • The cloak provided beauty, stature and some protection in battle because the netting and feathers could deflect blows, stones and other weapons.


  •  The helmet (mahiole) is made from split ‘ie‘ie roots twined together, then covered with olonā net, red ‘i‘iwi feathers and yellow ‘ō‘ō feathers. 


  • Bishop Museum has only five helmets in its collection, three of them feathered.


  • On the first day of public display at the Bishop Museum, about 4,000 people visited the museum (which was free to residents and military for the opening day). And while that’s not the most ever, officials said the numbers reflect remarkable interest in the items compared to other record days that featured large popular dinosaur-focused exhibitions.


  • Although some Hawaiian artifacts included pelts of dead birds, historians believe that many of the feathers were plucked from live birds caught in a net, then released.  

Source: Bishop Museum 


See the cloak and helmet as part of He Nae Ākea: Bound Together along with an interactive companion exhibit, Lele O Nā Manu: Hawaiian Forest Birds, 1525 Bernice St., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. bishopmuseum.org




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