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Royal Hawaiian Feather Cloak Feared Lost in Brazil Museum Fire

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 Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has more.

The Hawaiian feather cloak or ?ahu ?ula 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 M?noa?s American Studies Department explains.

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

“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. It?s not clear exactly why they take this detour but what is known is that they?re really warmly received.”

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

‘Ahu ?ula along with most kinds of Hawaiian feather work are things that were made particularly for different ali?i, 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.”

Credit Wally Gobetz / Flickr
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.

Kapalik?okalani 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.”

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

Royal feather objects can be found in a number of public and private museums around the world. As Hawai?i's visibility on the world stage began to grow in the early 1800s, these treasured ali?i 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 ali?i of Liholiho to establish a relationship with a monarch from Brazil in order to establish a relationship....and that intentionality can still exist today.”

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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