Artifacts Owned by Explorer James Cook Returned to Hawaii

In 1779, Hawaiian chief Kalani'ōpu'u presented famed explorer Captain James Cook with a priceless feathered cloak and helmet. For more than a century, the artifacts have sat in New Zealand’s national collections. Now, reports that the elaborate garb has been returned to its native land after 237 years, and is now on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

The mahiole (feathered helmet) and 'ahu 'ula (feathered cloak) were intended to welcome Cook, the first known European explorer to make contact with the far-flung Pacific archipelago. According to Honolulu magazine, written accounts state that Kalani‘ōpu‘u met with Cook, and at the end of their exchange “got up & threw in a graceful manner over the Captns [sic] Shoulders the Cloak he himself wore, & put a feathered Cap upon his head, & a very handsomefly flap in his hand.”

Relations eventually soured between Cook and the Hawaiian people, and in 1779 a crowd of villagers killed the captain. The cloak and helmet survived the mayhem, and returned to England with Cook’s ship and crew. They were passed from person to person until they finally landed in the hands of their long-term owner, Lord St. Oswald. When Oswald died in 1912, he surprised the public by willing his entire collection to Dominion Museum of New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand.

Over the years, the feathered cloak (without the helmet) made two brief return trips to Hawaii—once on Mayday in 1960, and again in 1978 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in the islands. In 2013, officials from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Te Papa, and the Bishop Museum began talks of a 10-year loan to the Bishop Museum.

The collaboration was recently finalized, and last week the cloak and helmet were handed over to a Hawaiian delegation in an emotional ceremony. Held at Te Papa, the event featured Hawaiian and New Zealand Maori Indigenous rituals and celebrated the fact that the cloak and helmet will be reunited in Hawaii for the first time in centuries.

Last Sunday, the Bishop Museum held a public celebration to commemorate the artifacts’ return. Visitors can now see them on display in the exhibit “He Nae Ākea: Bound Together,” which reflects on Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s connections to his land, culture, and people, MauiNow reports.

“These priceless treasures have so much to tell us about our shared Pacific history. We are honored to be able to return them home, to reconnect them with their land and their people,” Arapata Hakiwai, Māori co-leader of Te Papa, said in a statement. “Woven into these taonga (treasures) is the story of our Pacific history, with all its beauty, challenges and complexity.

Learn more about the cultural significance of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s cloak and helmet in the video above, courtesy of New Zealand TV program Te Karere TVNZ

Header photo: Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain


By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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