Lord St Oswald and the ahuula and mahiole of Kalaniopuu, 1912.




A visitor strolling into the dingy recesses of the Colonial Museum at Wellington (says the “Press”) might have noticed some peculiar looking feather cloaks and other curios of a dinginess in keeping with their worm-eaten domicile, and apparently of no great worth. In reality, however, they are articles of almost priceless value, genuine members of the great English circumnavigator, Captain Cook. Not only so, but they are connected intimately with his voyages and discoveries in the South Pacific and with the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand in particular. They are the generous gift to New Zealand of Lord St. Oswald, whose forbears bought them at the sale of Bullock’s Museum on April 29, 1819. When Bullock died his famous collection was offered to the British Museum for £50,000, but refused, and it was subsequently disposed of at auction.

The main feature of Lord St. Oswald’s gift is the magnificent feather cloak and helmet presented to Captain Cook a short time before his death by the King of Owhyee. This robe is particularly described by Captain Cook in the account of his voyages. The cloak, which is in a remarkably fine state of preservation, is made mainly from countless small feathers of the Yellow Roo (Destia ral coxinia), a bird long since extinct. The feathers have, with inifinite patience, been woven one by one into a fibre base. The feather helmet is remarkable in that in shape it is almost a counterpart of the helmet in which our allegorical figure of Britannia is portrayed, with the crest of comb that was a characteristic of the Burgonet of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries particularly prominent, which can be traced back to the early Roman times. How the Hawaiians had got this idea of the mediæval helmet before the discovery of the islands by Captain Cook is somewhat of a mystery, unless it be that the Spanish had previously visited the islands. This seems highly probable. There is also an Hawaiian hat of the time of Captain Cook, a very rare exhibit. It is round, crowned, and broad-rimmed. One has seen many modern hats made on exactly the same lines; indeed, if one were to put a few larger feathers on it, and some modern trimming, it might almost pass muster on a racecourse or at a garden party of the present day.

There is one very striking cloak, made principally from the Powhee bird, broidered with smaller red and yellow feathers of other extinct birds. Another most extraordinary and grotesque exhibit is an Hawaiian feather idol, such as in old times were carried on long poles in the island processions. In its mouth is a set of dog’s teeth. There are no such cloaks as these procurable nowadays, and nearly all the known examples are in museums. The Honolulu people have the largest and the finest collection in the world, and Professor Bingham, of that place will no doubt be most envious when he hears of New Zealand’s rare good fortune. He is the authority on the subject, and has scoured the world for examples, but without ever getting the slightest clue as to the existence of these precious cloaks that have for so many years remained in safe keeping in a North of England house. The collection includes some things from Tahiti. There is a headdress of mother-of-pearl and the feathers of a tropical bird. Cook describes it as the dress of the chief mourner of Otaheite, but there is some doubt as to whether it is really a mourner’s dress. Another exhibit from the Tahitian group is a kind of military gorget, such as was worn by the warriors of Otaheite, and is made with fur and sharks’s teeth. Another very interesting thing is a fly-trap given to Captain Cook. The handle of this is made of an arm bone of a chief taken in battle, and is beautifully ringed with turtle shell and sperm whale ivory. A carved wooden hook next attracts the attention. It is wonderfully carved, and is made of a very hard wood. It was used in olden days for the purpose of suspending portions of human flesh from the roof of the house. Two bracelets made from boar tusks are most ingeniously put together. There is a waist-mat of pearl shell. The pearl shell has been cut into long thin narrow strips, and these have been threaded into each other to form a pliant and irridescent network. It was worn with a resplendent headdress made from one large pearl shell, set in a semi-circle of long white feathers. Amongst the island curios are two old beaters made from whalebone, such as were used by the islanders in beating out their “tappa” cloth. Nowadays wooden beaters are used, and these whalebone ones are very old, and consequently more valuable.

Coming to the New Zealand articles, the connoisseur at once seizes upon a magnificent Maori nose flute, with a figure in high relief exquisitely carved. I have never seen a finer one. There is also a double nose flute. Only one other double flute is known. It is in the British Museum, and there is a cast of it in the Dominion Museum. The collection includes two greenstone hei tikis, one of them being of irridescent stone. This was described in the catalogue of the sale of 1819 as a “superb idol of jadestone from New Zealand.” It was sold for a comparatively small sum with “an ornamental knife edged with sharks’ teeth. This is one of the knives that were used at tangis by the Maoris for excoriating the flesh of the relatives as a sign of grief. The carving on  this is very fine and quite of the old school. Some of the old red ochre used by the Maoris at that time, over 100 years ago, is still adhering to the carving. There is a sinker of agate-like stone, with its original flax string in two colours, still tied to it. A wooden “patu,” a fighting weapon , is almost an exact facsimile of the one figured in “Cook’s Voyages,” and no doubt it is the one used for the illustration. Ceremonial paddles, wonderfully carved, from High Island, in the Austral group, are included in the collection. These are very rare.

There are other interesting things in the collection. The collection is a unique and most valuable one, and the thanks of the people of New Zealand are due to Lord St. Oswald for his generosity in presenting it to them.

[This comes from a newspaper from Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, found on the National Library of Australia webside, TROVE.]

(Mercury, 5/13/1912, p. 3)


The Mercury, Volume XCVII, Number 13,143, Page 3. May 13, 1912.


1 thought on “Lord St Oswald and the ahuula and mahiole of Kalaniopuu, 1912.

  1. Pingback: Hawaiʻi Quick Links – Hōkūleʻa and Two Significant Museum Exhibitions | 上り口説 Nubui Kuduchi

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