WELLINGTON – Indigenous Hawaiian garments gifted to Captain James Cook more than two centuries ago have been handed back to their traditional owners at a ceremony in Wellington.
Described as “priceless” by New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, the mahiole (feathered helmet) and ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak) were given to Cook in 1779 during the famous British explorer’s last voyage.
Such items were normally reserved for royalty – with the feathers of 20,000 birds needed for the cloak alone – a mark of Hawaiian chief Kalani‘opu‘u’s esteem for Captain Cook.
Te Papa said the artefacts came to New Zealand via a circuitous route, passing through the hands of various British collectors before they were bequeathed to Wellington’s Dominion Museum in 1912.
Talks about returning them to Hawai‘i began in 2013, culminating in an agreement to give them to Honolulu’s Bishop Museum on a long-term loan of at least 10 years.
The handover took place at a ceremony on Friday at Te Papa in Wellington featuring Hawaiian and New Zealand Maori traditional rituals.
“I’m grateful to witness the return of these cultural heirlooms. It is a cause for celebration and it will be a source of inspiration, reflection and discussion,” Kamana‘opono Crabbe from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said.
In 1778 Captain Cook became the first European to begin formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands while sailing in the northern Pacific on an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage – a potential sailing route across the bottom of the Arctic linking the Pacific to the Atlantic.
After his initial landfall in January, 1778, at Waimea harbour, on Kauai, Cook named the archipelago the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich – the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. It was one of Cook’s major Pacific land discoveries but the name did not stick.
Cook left Hawai‘i not expecting to return but when ice barred him from pursuing his quest for the Northwest Passage he decided to return to Hawai‘i to see out the winter before making another attempt north in the summer.
After sailing around the Hawaiian archipelago for some eight weeks, Cook made his second Hawaiian landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai‘i, the biggest of the Hawaiian islands.
When his expedition first appeared on the horizon it was believed that Captain James Cook was a favoured god, Lono, returning as legend foretold.
Cook’s arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian god of fertility.
Coincidentally the form of Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, or more particularly their mast formations, sails and rigging, resembled certain significant symbols that formed part of the season of worship and the legend dof Lono.
At first the Europeans were greeted warmly and Kalani’opu’u gave Captain Cook his royal garments to honour him as a great chief.
After a month’s stay, Cook attempted to resume his search for the Northwest Passage. Shortly after leaving Hawaii Island, however, the Resolution’s foremast broke, so the ships returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs.
During their earlier stay a crew member had died, casting suspicion amongst the Hawaiians that Cook and his men were not immortal gods afterall.
The return of the ships confused and concerned the Hawaiians and tensions rose.
A number of thefts angered Captain Cook, who had become ill and irritated from his long sea voyages, and quarrels broke out. It became deadly with an attempt by Cook to kidnap and ransom Chief Kalani‘opu‘u for the return of stolen property.
The king began to understand that Cook was not a god and the ensuing hostility led to the famous seafarer being killed, along with four marines, on February 14, 1779.
The two ships fled Hawai‘i to continue the fruitless search for a passage through the Arctic ice and eventually returned home to England.
Among Captain Cook’s possessions were the cloak and helmet he had been given by Kalani‘opu‘u – which only this week, 237 years on, have been finally returned from where they came.