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Hawaiian

Cape ('ahu'ula) 1824

Feather on bark cloth | 52.0 x 84.0 cm (whole object) | RCIN 69994

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  • Feather cape, semi-circular, with red, yellow and black bird feathers on a bark cloth backing; red ground with yellow edging, black and yellow triangles up each side of the front opening, yellow and black crescent moon at centre back. With a tie at the neck, whose distinctive rounded shape helps date the cape to the late eighteenth century or later.

    Feather cloaks and capes of this kind, called 'ahu'ula, were among the most important symbols of status in Hawaii. Full cloaks were worn only by the highest-ranking chiefs on ceremonial occasions or during battle. Smaller capes were worn by those of lesser standing. Thousands of feathers were required to make a single cloak and the scarcity of vibrant yellow feathers in particular made the garments even more precious. Yellow feathers came from the 'ö'ö (Moho nobilis) and mamo (Drepanis pacifica) birds, which are mostly black and shed only a few yellow feathers in the moulting season. Considerable manpower was required to catch the birds and remove their yellow feathers, after which they would be released back into the wild. Contrasting red feathers served as a further symbol of chiefly greatness, the colour red being closely associated with divinity throughout Polynesia. 

    Provenance

    Presented to George IV by King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) during their visit to England in 1824. Soon after their arrival, the royal couple contracted measles, to which they had no immunity, and they died while in London.

    Displayed by George IV in the Armoury at Carlton House. Later recorded in the Museum (now China Museum) at Windsor Castle in 1900: one of four 'tippets' exhibited with two feather cloaks (RCINs 69990 and 69991) 'made of network, on which are sewn feathers so as to form a finished smooth surface, in red, black and yellow colours'. In 1903, sent to the British Museum on long-term loan by King Edward VII.

  • Medium and techniques

    Feather on bark cloth

    Measurements

    52.0 x 84.0 cm (whole object)

  • Place of Production

    Hawaii [USA]