Described a “priceless” by New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, the mahiole (feathered helmet) and ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak) were given to Cook in 1779 during the famous British explorer’s last voyage.
Such items were normally reserved for royalty — with the feathers of 20,000 birds needed for the cloak alone — a mark of Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u’s esteem for Cook.
Te Papa said they came to New Zealand via a circuitous route, passing through the hands of various British collectors before they were bequeathed to Wellington’s Dominion Museum in 1912.
Talks about returning them to Hawaii began in 2013, culminating in an agreement to give them to Honolulu’s Bishop Museum on a long-term loan of at least 10 years.
The handover took place at a ceremony at Te Papa featuring Hawaiian and New Zealand Maori indigenous rituals.
“I’m grateful to witness the return of these cultural heirlooms… it is a cause for celebration and it will be a source of inspiration, reflection and discussion,” Kamana’opono Crabbe from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said.
Cook was on a voyage seeking the fabled Northwest Passage and decided to spend the winter in Hawaii, according to an account on the State Library of New South Wales.
When his expedition first arrived in Kealakekua Bay it was greeted warmly and Kalani’opu’u gave Cook the royal garments.
But tensions soon arose and Cook was killed in a skirmish with the islanders on February 14, 1779.