After 237 Years, an Important Piece of Hawaiian Culture Is Returning Home. Here’s Why It’s Such a Big Deal.
BACK IN 1779, Kalaniōpu‘u and Captain Cook had a bit of a misunderstanding.
When Cook first arrived in Kealakekua Bay, he did so at the time of makahiki when ancient Hawaiians would honor Lono — a deity of agriculture and peace. With the billowing white sails of his wooden fleet a match to the white of his skin, Cook and his men were a sight unlike any ever seen before on the island. To honor the arrival of this fair-skinned foreigner (surely a deity incarnate) chief Kalaniōpu‘u of Hawaii Island bequeathed to Cook his symbols of rank: a red and yellow ‘ahu ula, or traditional feathered cloak, and a similarly feathered mahiole, or red and yellow helmet.
Made from the feathers of 20,000 birds that were caught and released in the forests, the cloak and helmet could only be worn by the highest ali‘i, or chiefs. Hand strung and tied together by the most gifted of ancient craftsmen, the pieces back then — as they are today — were considered completely priceless, and while all was calm while receiving the gifts, everything would soon change.
One of the native bird species, the mamo, has long since gone extinct, and the forests in which the birds once flew would soon disappear in the name of trade by future white men like Cook. Even the native Hawaiians themselves, whose population was hundreds of thousands before any western contact, would see their culture decimated by disease and repressed in the upcoming centuries. As for Captain Cook himself, after sailing away from Kealakekua in search of the Northwest Passage, repairs soon forced him to turn around and return to the sheltered bay, where signs of his mortal human existence caused his luster to fade. When Cook threatened to abduct Kalaniōpu‘u in response to problems on shore, it was a move that would ultimately leave Cook dead, face down and bleeding in the waves.
Though Captain Cook would never sail beyond Kealakekua Bay, the gifts he received from Kalaniōpu‘u would stay aboard the ship, and begin a voyage around the world that just this year has culminated in a powerful journey back home.