Royal Hawaiian Feather Cloak Feared Lost in Brazil Museum Fire

Sep 5, 2018

The feather cloak or ahu ula was on display in the Sandwich Islands Collection at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. The ahu ula was donated to the museum by Emperor Dom Pedro who received it as a gift from King Kamehameha II.
Credit National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

Among the objects feared lost in the fire at Brazil’s National Museum are Egyptian mummies, dinosaur bones, and the oldest human skull found in the Americas. Officials estimate 90 percent of the museum’s 20 million artifacts burned in Sunday’s fire. This may have included a royal Hawaiian feather cloak that found its way to Rio centuries ago. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

The Hawaiian feather cloak or ʻahu ʻula housed in the National Museum of Brazil was a gift from King Kamehameha II, Liholiho to the country's emperor Dom Pedro in 1824. Noelle Kahanu of UH Mānoaʻs American Studies Department explains.

A portrait of King Kamehameha II Liholiho by John Hayter, 1824. Reproduced by J. J. Williams.
Credit Hawaii State Archives

“In November of 1823, Liholiho and his entourage leave for London and their purpose is to cement a relationship with King George IV,” says Kahanu, “And they take this 18-day detour. Itʻs not clear exactly why they take this detour but what is known is that theyʻre really warmly received.”

In an exchange of gifts, the Emperor gives Liholiho a diamond-encrusted sword with a gold sheath. His Queen, Kamāmalu receives a diamond ring. In return, Liholiho offers the emperor the cloak made with red ʻiʻiwi and yellow ʻōʻō feathers. Kamāmalu also offers a yellow feather necklace.

‘Ahu ʻula along with most kinds of Hawaiian feather work are things that were made particularly for different aliʻi, different chiefs,” says Maile, “Some people believe they signify different kinds of ranks which may be indicated by the colors that are used, the size of things like cloaks or lei. The different kinds of combinations of colors.”

An ahuula on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. The feather cloak was presented by Kamehameha III Kauikeaouli to Commodore Lawrence Kearny U.S.N. in 1843.
Credit Wally Gobetz / Flickr

Kapalikūokalani Maile is a cultural educator at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. The museum has an extensive collection of feathered capes, cloaks, helmets, necklaces and standards – only some of which are on display.

“The Bishop Museum has the largest collection of native Hawaiian featherwork that should be extent in the world,” says Maile, “There are other examples of featherwork that can be found in places like the British Museum in London, and other places in Europe. And of course, unfortunately, the one that was known to have been at the National Museum of Brazil.”

Fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, on September 2, 2018. Photo is licensed under CC by 4.0.
Credit Felipe Milanez

Royal feather objects can be found in a number of public and private museums around the world. As Hawaiʻi's visibility on the world stage began to grow in the early 1800s, these treasured aliʻi adornments played a government function in solidifying relationships with other world powers.

“So they were set out to land in other places, in other homes, in other museums, on other shores and they still exist for us today,” says Kahanu, “I mean that's the tragedy of what happend in Brazil...what was lost was the physical object but what is not lost is the intention of our aliʻi of Liholiho to establish a relationship with a monarch from Brazil in order to establish a relationship....and that intentionality can still exist today.”